Monday, September 10, 2007

Poetically Speaking: Having, Losing, Rediscovering a Voice

I've been thinking a lot lately about my poetry. I've been writing for many years--since elementary school, and for years, I was able to talk about my writing, and shared it with others, with or without confidence. I knew what I wrote and why I wrote it. I had a sense of identity with regards to my poetry. And, I loved to engage with others in conversation about poetry, in general, and, of course, about my own writing.

For several years, I lost that voice. I fell into a void where writing was still fun and useful for me, but I no longer felt like I knew what it was I was writing. I no longer could speak about it, and I struggled to find my voice. The audience I was writing for was a lot smaller--five or six. I say that, but then I think about what Gertrude Stein said about her own writing-- "I write for myself and others." For several years, I wasn't writing for myself. I was writing for others, and a very specific group of others, and I struggled knowing anymore who I was (am) poetically. Now that I'm writing without restrictions imposed by this small group of others, I'm finding that I'm coming into my own again poetically, and I'm excited about my process. The process started when big changes began about a year ago, but the changes have been much more drastic in the past month or so, as I realize that the biggest audience for my work is myself. I'm taking more personal responsibility for my work, and I'm excited about where this process is going to lead me.

I came to Atlanta in search of a group of people who shared my enthusiasm for poetry and wanted to meet regularly to discuss it, so I was excited to find such a group, and I grew and learned while participating in that group. Now that I've moved on and am searching for new poetic paths, I realize that in some ways, the group I formerly belonged to was inhibiting for me, because I changed my entire perspective on poetry without even realizing I was completely abandoning my own desires and needs with regards to my writing. It was a time of exploration, of playing with language in ways that I had always been afraid to in the past. I had permission to let down all boundaries and see what came out. As I reflect back on the experience, I realize that I always had boundaries up, although they started falling a bit over the past year, and are crumbling rapidly now. The boundaries were different during that time but still ever-present. I became more concerned about "what other people think" of my work, so I was false about who I am as a poet. I remember feeling like a fraud at times.

I'm extremely thankful that I've been introduced to experimental/avant garde/language/etc. poetry, because it's something I'd never had much exposure to before moving to Atlanta. I had taught Frank O'Hara and Wallace Stevens and e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams to my students, but I never looked at how these poets broke with convention in ways that I always wanted to but could never quite do with Robert Frost as my main influence (and, I still have a soft place for his poetry). As an English teacher and lover of languages, I wanted more for my poetry, so I'm thankful to have been exposed to Gertrude Stein, whose "lifting belly" is still one of my all-time favorites and some really great contemporary writers, who I will talk about in later posts, I'm sure. I'm thankful to have been introduced to the Four Horsemen, who use sound in their poetry, sound that reminds me of childhood and the ways that my brother and I used to communicate with each other. Before experiencing that, I never imagined that I could make that a part of my poetry! I'm excited to have found that!

Right now, I'm in a melding process. I'm recapturing the poet I had started being in elementary school and whose journey was truncated for the tutelage in a more 'postmodern' idea of what poetry can be. A part of me feels I spent too long in that space, but I was afraid to leave, because I didn't think I could find a place to fit in. Overall, though, it's difficult to find a place to fit in when I'm not being true to myself--personally or poetically. I didn't engage in those weekly meetings in ways that I would have liked, because I was so overwhelmed by how different that world was from my own experience with writing. I was excited, intimidated, and lost in the whole experience. Now, I'm trying to take what I learned there and figure out how it fits with what I was already doing before moving to Atlanta, because I know it does. I believe that I had a natural inclination toward a writing that incorporates sound and languages other than English, particularly all that rich sound and language that my brother and I found in childhood. Honestly, I was afraid to bring that all out, even with the group I was with, who would have been accepting of that influence. But, maybe I wanted it to be my own, and if I'd let it out sooner (than now), it would have felt less authentic, less mine, more like something someone else could take or share credit for. At the heart of it, too, I know I wanted to bring it out under the "perfect" set of circumstances--not prematurely. It seems to me that now that I'm getting "a little of my own back" (to sort of quote Eliza Doolittle) that it's time to find a place for all that.

The last poetry performance I participated in was in July, and I received some feedback about the work I did and how surprising some of the sound stuff was. I found myself resentful of the person giving the feedback, because, although this person knew me for four years, he didn't know I was capable of what I did in July--although I've been capable of it all along. I look back on that night now and realize that he couldn't have known, because before this past year, I had never exposed that side of me to this group of people. And, just as I started finding that voice in me and started working on melding what I learned for four-plus years with what I've had inside me all along, I decided to move on, so I'm still not exposing this part of myself to this group of people.

All this somehow leads me to _resipiscent_, the chap manuscript I just completed. The poems for this collection began in January and February of this year and carried on, with a few months of dryness as I worked on other projects, till last week. I'm excited, as I look at the poems in this work, to see how much growth I experienced, personally and poetically, in just a few months' time. Others may not recognize the changes in the poems the way that I see them, but to me, it's wildly apparent, and that's a big part of my enthusiasm for having this chap finished. When I read through the manuscript as I organized it for printing, I found that the process I've been going through with rediscovering my poetic voice is evident on those pages, and since the poems weren't written in the order that they appear in the chapbook, the progress and process isn't apparent as one poem is read and then another. Overall, the collection is just like _panmixia_ and still honors the zebra (in a sort of indirect nod to The Magnetic Fields), but there are subtleties that make _resipiscent_ a little more exciting for me.

The past several years have been big ones for change for me--again personally and poetically. In some ways, I feel that my poetry is the best way for me to measure and examine how I made my way through that change. Thank goodness I'm not afraid that someone will move my cheese, and I'm willing to chase it!

Thanks for reading.

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