I’ve written a lot of poems that don’t work. I’ve written others that inexcusably suck and others that make me cringe when I see them online now, years after they’re published. But recently I one-upped myself and published a poem that totally failed.
It started like this: late one night, toward the end of July 2012, I was sitting in bed with a new notebook, Ariel Pink’s “For Kate I Wait” on repeat. Spacing out through the layered voices of the song (which has 207 plays in my laptop’s iTunes, 199 on my iPod), I listened to the ways these voices intermixed with the voices coming in from Maria Hernandez Park across the street. Feeling myself loosen, or maybe it was a trance, I started listing all the names of people who were present in my life in some way, at least in that specific moment: I thought of close friends, of not-so-close friends, of other poets, celebrities, family members, enemies—though I never, at least not until after publishing the poem, thought of myself as having any enemies.
I had no specific intent with the poem. I just wanted to follow my mind’s temporal movement, an intuitive gathering of presences.
At this point I had already written “Of Being Numerous”. Not THE “Of Being Numerous”, of course—George Oppen’s most famous and ambitious poem, his central ethical and aesthetic statement, a poem that captured some New York essence of the late 1960s. My “Of Being Numerous” came at the end of a decade-long obsession with Oppen. It also came at a weird moment in my life—I was going through a messy breakup and I was sick with mono, living alone for the first time in 6 years. People became more important to me than ever. Friends, poets, artists, strangers, people whose lives impacted me in some way—these were my Numerous, and I included them in “Of Being Numerous” via their names. The poem is fixated on the presence of proper names, and the brand names that populated my environment. Thom Donovan called it a poem with hashtags. I liked that description. Viz. this excerpt:
Christopher Smart lament with me
in piles across my room
our days Brandon Shimoda
Kellog’s Froot Loops
Kellog’s Apple Jacks
Kellog’s Corn Flakes
Kellog’s I don’t want to be depressed
Herman Ebbinghaus only wrote about death
Baudelaire only wrote about Brenda Iijima
Nerval Thom Donovan
Cori Copp has an iPhone
Daniel Johnston stay alive
David Abel Bruce Boone Osip Mandelstam
there’s only one bird below each name
Ben Kopel Nick Deboer
A.R. Ammons Coca-Cola
Nestle Pure Life Apple
James Castle is another room
somewhere deep inside this absence of birds
Jeremy Smania Maryrose Larkin
Joseph Beuys I hear everything
As you’ll see below, my new poem wasn’t breaking brand new ground, semantically at least. When I first read it to Jamie he said it was like “Of Being Numerous” through a laser beam—where “Of Being Numerous” meandered, the new poem focused forward. It was essentially a list with a few diversions—hashtags without much poem. One thing was new about my poem, though: the manner in which I wrote the first draft. Using only the recto pages in the notebook, I wrote in a huge scrawled hand, filling the entire page with letters, no punctuation. If a word didn’t fit into a horizontal line across the page, I started a new line mid-word. It was a simple physical rule, arrived at intuitively, and it freed something in me. Here’s a transcription of the opening lines:
Trina Josh Jamie Matt
Cori Paul John Craun John C
olleti Ariel Pink Jordan Matt
Henriksen Rachel Rachel
I don’t remember your last n
ame Shannon Chris Rainey
Chris Kraus Chris Farley
I feel like shouting Ngoc
Judah Jeff Geoff Chana Nick
Marissa Stacy Szymaszek
Thom Dottie Christian I am th
inking about you in Berlin
Uljana nice smile German
smile Jose I miss you
Robert Wilson Dmitry Noah
Jason is a fucking loser
A couple years before I wrote the new poem I spent a day looking through Paul Thek’s notebooks with Thom. It was transformative. Thek has become well known recently via reconstructions of some of his installation work of the 1970s and exhibitions of his newspaper paintings of the 1980s—bodies of work that often conjure the words “ephemerality” and “failure” due to his obsessive insistence that the works erode over time. But my favorite body of work of Thek’s is his notebooks, which were the product of a private practice, not intended for exhibition.
I loved seeing how Thek wrote in such a varied hand in those notebooks, scrawling over the page with different colored inks, copying out biblical passages, making lists of friends and enemies, lists of potential sources of money. Like me, he favored cheap marble-cover composition books. The notebooks Thom and I looked through weren’t quite as flashy as the ones exhibited in his recent retrospectives—the ones with intricately burnt pages, or with the belabored watercolors. The notebooks we looked through were mostly from the late 1970s, when Thek had returned to New York after living high and successful in Europe for almost a decade. Back in New York, Thek found most of his friends had turned cold, and the art world wasn’t showing much interest in him. Hence his preoccupation with listing friends, rating them, and listing potential funding sources—it was salvational for Thek.
Which is exactly how I felt about my new poem (as with all my recent poems that make heavy use of proper names). Somehow, listing all those names was going to save me. And not only was I writing my moment’s affinities, I was also in my huge sloppy handwriting writing my own Paul Thek anew, and I had been waiting for this moment since I first looked at Thek’s notebooks, or even longer. Shortly after looking through Thek’s notebooks I remember writing a note to myself about how I had been denying my own impulses by trying to write my neat little lyrics about Platonic birds and screen memories and George Oppen and whatever else. I had been denying my impulses by writing in such a neat little hand—I needed to write wider, wilder.*
You see, when I was 18 I thought I’d be an artist. I’d walk all over the town of Astoria, Oregon and pick up garbage, which I’d then paint. For a while, after I found a can of high gloss Pepto-Bismol pink house paint, I’d bundle up whatever trash I found and paint it pink. My masterpiece during my Pink Period was a sculpture made of broken shopping carts and toilets, hued Pepto-Bismol (I had nowhere to store it so I took it to my mom’s garage in nearby Warrenton and she threw it away). Around this time I met a gentle older painter and I tried to give him one of my Pepto-Bismol paintings. He told me the work will be valuable someday, and that I should hang onto it. I was flattered, though later I recognized he just didn’t want my pink garbage and I was not thinking like a true artist as he was: I was trying too hard to be nice.**
So when the moment had come that night in July, listening to “For Kate I Wait”, I felt ready. I was not interested in being nice, or in any sort of predetermined ethic. I was just following my mind’s movement and I wrote till I exhausted myself. The following days I continued the process and filled the notebook in a week. In fact, between July 2012 and September 2013 I filled up 22 notebooks.*** (Most years I fill 3 or 4.) So this felt like the beginning of an outpouring, a fruition of something a long time coming. That’s why I’m bothering to write about this at all: it’s troubling to feel like the first act of a new, more liberated process is a failed act.
In the next installments I’ll talk about the revision process, the response to the poem, and it’s afterlife. Thank you for reading!
Joseph Bradshaw is a poet, educator, and archivist. He is the author of several chapbooks, as well as the full-length In the Common Dream of George Oppen (Shearsman Books). He curates a readings series at Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn called Leslie Flint Presents, and is at work on a book about the afterlife of the New York School.
*An easy way to make space around you on a crowded subway is to pull out a notebook and start writing in a huge scrawl.
** During my next period—let’s call it the Sharpie Period—I took a trip to Tucson, Arizona and collected all the full-page advertisements from stray newspapers I found downtown. Then I covered every surface in the room where I stayed with the newspapers, upon which I had written messages like SEE WHAT YOU GET and THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS.
***One morning, a couple months into my happy productive period, one of my students saw me flip through my notebook at the beginning of a modernist literature class I was teaching. I noticed she was stifling her laughter and I asked her what was funny. She said, “Um, your notebook is full of crazy man handwriting.” Sort of embarrassed, I splayed open the notebook and showed the whole class and said, “It’s OK to write like this in your notebook. A notebook’s a space for you to be crazy.” The students all looked at me nervously.
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