My complicated relationship with poetry

I may edit this later. For now, I am posting it as is, even though I have written about some these things before. In the words of Robert Fripp, it is ‘better to be present with a bad note than absent from a good note.’

Over the last two years or so, I have been writing more and more poetry. Initially, it provided an outlet for a lot of the feelings I was experiencing around my divorce. Then, with NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and The Daily Poet, it also became a creative exercise.

Somewhere along the way, it turned into a daily practice. At present, even if I fail to accomplish any of the other tasks I have set out for myself on a particular day—e.g., going to the grocery store, vacuuming, folding the laundry that’s been sitting in the basket for the last couple of weeks—I will write at least one or two poems.

On top of that, I have recently started going to open mics, mostly at the Couth Buzzard, in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. Also, I have actually been reading other people’s poetry.

But it wasn’t always like this. I went for years and years and years not only not liking poetry, but actively avoiding it, even though would write poems of my own from time to time.

Some explanation is necessary; perhaps I should go back.

•  •  •  •  •

When I was a kid, I liked poetry. When I was four years old, I received a copy of Hailstones and Halibut Bones for Xmas. I was intrigued by its ruminations on color, accompanied by what my memory recalls as soft-focus illustrations. When we looked at poetry in elementary school, I was partial to Emily Dickinson and the more humorous poems of e. e. cummings.

But it turned out to be song lyrics that really got my attention. Though the impact of the music that lyrics are set to cannot be underestimated, for me, song lyrics made an emotional connection that ‘regular’ poetry never did.

As a result, songwriters were my favorite poets, among them Jim Croce, Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s main lyricist), John Lennon, Jules Shear, Elvis Costello, and David Byrne. As my musical tastes broadened, the list (as such) expanded to include the likes of Lou Reed (though I’ve never really been much into his music), Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, Green Gartside (Scritti Politti), Katie Jane Garside (Queen Adreena, Ruby Throat), and especially David Sylvian.

But I digress…

Inspired by the printed lyrics from my favorite albums, I wrote lots and lots of poems. I’d write in what would later become known as day planners. I’d write on onion-skin paper. I’d type poems on the old IBM Selectric that my mom used to use at my dad’s office.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of showing some of them to my mom. She suggested we make a little book that we could give to people as Xmas presents. The thought of other people seeing my poems immediately brought my inner critic into play: convinced that they were not fit for public consumption, I threw the lot of them in the garbage. (To this day, my mom brings up this episode on a semi-regular basis.)

In high school, when I was in my first serious relationship, poetry played a huge part. More nights than I can count were spent in my room, reading poems over the phone to my girlfriend. Many of those poems, of course, were written for or about her. When the relationship soured and we broke up, I tossed the two notebooks’ worth of poems. It was actually quite cathartic, in that I was literally no longer hanging on to all that stuff.

Unfortunately (he said again), I had convinced myself that I was a great writer; this coincided with the unexpected attention I was getting from a few of the girls at school. I wrote a poem for the high school yearbook, of which I was one of the editors. We had chosen records as our theme that year (how original!), so I used the vinyl record (CDs were still a couple of years away) as a metaphor for the passage of our high school years. At the time, I thought it was clever; now, I can’t read it without cringing, because all I see is ego.

Somehow, I got past that, and found a minimalist style—short poems, with one to three words per line—that worked well for me. My first year of college, I managed to get one or two of these published in the school paper’s quarterly literary supplement.

The second time I submitted, however, I received a rejection notice. The editor who wrote it must have had a chip on his shoulder or something; he said something along the lines of, “anybody can read [name of book here] and think they can write like Richard Brautigan.” I had no idea who he was talking about; I’d never heard of him, let alone read any of his work.

It didn’t occur to me to conclude that somebody had just compared my work to that of Richard Brautigan. No, I saw it as an accusation of copying somebody else, of not being original. Of not being any good.

That was the last time I submitted my poetry. In fact, I stopped writing for the next several years.

In the meantime, I eventually settled upon Japanese language and literature as my major. The professor who taught the literature classes hated poetry, so we rarely studied any of it as part of the curriculum.

That hatred of poetry rubbed off on me, so not only was I not writing any poetry, neither was I reading any poetry. Poetry, as far as I was concerned, was something to be avoided at any cost.

Well, sort of.

•  •  •  •  •

In 1987, I began keeping a journal. I used to think it was a waste of time, a silly thing to do—but I had all sorts of time on my hands now that I was no longer in school, and the job search was not going well. (I am good at a lot of things, but job hunting has never been one of them.) Add the influence of the whole ‘impermanence of everything’ theme often found in Japanese art and literature, and it suddenly became important for me to record things. My 24-year-old unemployed college graduate self found it profound that the things I wrote in my journals would often be the only things to remain of the days on which they were written.

Prompted by the decline of the relationship I was in at the time, it wasn’t long before I began writing short poems as part of my journal entries. Not very often, but once in a while.

I continued writing the occasional poem in my journals even after I had moved to Tokyo and was working full time as a translator and editor.

In 1988, I bought my first book of poetry, David Sylvian’s Trophies. Technically, it was a collection of his song lyrics, but the presentation was more ‘serious’ than that of a mere songbook—and the book also included lyrics to songs that had either not been recorded or not been released.

Later that year, I finally followed through on a long-held dream by buying a synthesizer and starting to create my own music. Occasionally, a piece I had recorded would inspire me to write something. On one occasion, I attempted to start a piece with a melody based on a poem I had already written.

For the most part, however, poetry remained a separate pursuit.

It also remained something I would do only sporadically. I might write several poems within a short space of time; more often, I would go several months between poems, writing only when a phrase stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave until I had tried to make something of it.

Over the next couple of decades or so, as I moved back to the U.S., recovered from my burnout (breakdown) at the hands of the Japanese corporate machine (and my own inability to communicate my needs), went back to school, went back to work, got married, and so on, my pursuit of writing poetry remained sporadic at best.

More than that, my diligence in writing in my journal became sporadic at best. If something were bothering me, and I had time on my hands, I could write and write and write. Otherwise, I could go months between journal entries.

•  •  •  •  •

Everything changed in 2012. My marriage, which had already been on shaky ground for at least a couple of years, finally collapsed altogether (albeit in anti-climactic fashion). I wrote an oddly prophetic poem the day before we decided to call it quits:

I see all
now
Yet I remain
blinded to
its import

My perception
strains
against my
belief
imperfect

We’ve slept
through
the last two years
of
our lives

No effort
expended
Our insecurities
draw curtains
around hope

For what we
believed
turned out
to be true
in our minds

Much to
our
chagrin

In January 2013, I was finally able to move out of the house, enabling us to get it ready for sale. In my new, temporary lodgings, I gradually began to explore poetry again.

When NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) came along in April, I decided to give it a shot, and began writing every day. I quickly found that I was able to express my feelings about the divorce more easily through poems than I was when simply writing in my journal.

Although fulfilling the poem-a-day requirement of NaPoWriMo was not difficult, when the month ended, I stopped writing poems every day. I was writing more often than before, but still not on a regular basis. Nor was I going out of my to post what I had written, even when I chose to participate in NaBloWriMo (National Blog Writing Month) that November.

But then the panic attacks I had begun experiencing when I was living in Tokyo unexpectedly returned, and I withdrew from just about everything.

It was in February 2014 that, feeling restless, I went back to my journals, looked through them for all the poems I had written over the years, and typed them into a Word document. I had the vague notion that I might do something with them.

When April came around, I once again participated in NaPoWriMo, writing and posting a poem every day. This time, however, I took it more seriously. When the day’s prompt was unappealing, I would look to other sites for prompts that I found interesting—unlike the previous year, when I would just ignore it and write whatever I wanted.

By this time, I was now thinking in terms of publishing a collection of my poems; I started going through the poems I had typed and printed, sorting and re-sorting to figure out which ones I felt were worthy of making it into print. This went on for several weeks.

The last week of April clarified a lot of things for me. The end of a close friendship came the day before the first anniversary of my divorce. I felt freed from a burden I hadn’t completely realized I was carrying.

As a result, I chose to focus that first collection, which became Separation Anxiety, on poems dealing with separation, loss, and the accompanying emotions. I had it ready to go four weeks later. In very short order, I had my second collection, Journalism, completed as well.

•  •  •  •  •

More importantly, I didn’t stop writing poems when NaPoWriMo ended. I kept going. I wasn’t necessarily writing every day, but neither was I going weeks between poems.

Then, for the first time in a long time, I began looking for poetry to read. That turned out to be more difficult than I’d expected, because it seems I am very picky, and a lot of poets use some techniques in their presentation that really bug me. (For example, any poem that starts a stanza with the very last word of the previous stanza is an immediate turn-off.) It also seems that some of the poetry I liked when I was a kid in elementary school does nothing for me now.

I persevered, though, and discovered the poetry of spoken-word poet Talicha J. I found Kelli Russell Agodon through The Daily Poet, her collection of prompts written with Martha Silano, and later purchased a copy of Hourglass Museum from her after a reading. My friend Lola Peters published a collection of her poetry, Taboos. I remembered that Leonard Cohen is a published poet, and picked up a couple of his books. I found a well-read, water-stained copy of Lou Reed’s Between Thought and Expression at a used bookstore. I took advantage of a sale on the Wave Books web site to get a hardcover copy of Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life. I am now following several poets on WordPress and Tumblr.

•  •  •  •  •

This brings us to the present. In 2015, I have started doing two things:

First, although I hesitate to call it a New Year’s resolution (because I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore), I am writing and posting at least one poem every day—even if I don’t particularly like anything I have written that day.

Second—and more importantly—I have begun attending open-mic readings. I got off to a slow start, missing a couple I had intended to explore because I was too tired, or I didn’t want to put up with heavy traffic getting there—but I did go to the one I was invited to attend, have been to three readings at the venue I ended up going to that night the traffic was too heavy for me to make it to my first choice that first night, and yesterday made it to a monthly reading that I had missed for the last ten months because I kept forgetting it was coming up.

I am not sure where all this will lead. It seems to be a path I feel compelled to take, though, so I’m going to follow it for a while, see where it goes…

(15 February 2015)