In my last post I described my new Paul Thek-inspired writing process, and how when I began my failed poem I was just becoming absorbed in my new writing process. Scrawling in a big hand had somehow made my hand a better follower of my imagination. Or, scrawling in a big childlike (or maniacal) hand was somehow better suited to the new mode of thought into which I was emerging. I didn’t care that my notebooks looked feral because I was so happy to have made a breakthrough after being stuck in old patterns of thinking for so long. Finding a new method to write opened up my experience of the world and closed the gap between poetry and experience. To me, that equated with happiness.
Now I’d like to tell you how I constructed my failed poem. After my initial space-out-in-my-notebook with “For Kate I Wait” on repeat, the poem came together in several distinct stages. As I’ll outline in this post, I first transcribed my notebook, then wrote a new beginning, then added a new grammar to the poem. This occurred in three drafts, before the poem was published. After it was published I continued to revise it before I decided (for reasons which I’ll write about in the next two installments) that the poem was hopeless.
A few minutes before I started the first draft, I wrote the word “Welcome” in my notebook. Then I scrawled the word CONCISE over it, repeating it in a sort of horizontal column over and over. Over all that, I wrote two lines: “I merely need this bed to make” and “I nearly need this room to fade.” Both of these lines are things I heard in “For Kate I Wait.” I don’t know if that’s actually what Ariel Pink is singing, but the aural blurriness of the song is something I love about it (kind of a Cocteau Twins effect, or like the creepy backwards-talk in Twin Peaks or some Nirvana).
In the few days after I wrote the first draft, I wrote several more poems like it—long scrawled things with little punctuation, focused on names. I liked them all. Then I transcribed the failed poem, calling it “Welcome,” and made some very minor edits. Here’s one of my favorite parts, toward the end:
Lou Reed once told me I need
to join this century it’s true
Lou Reed! what an ass
hole full of mother Sinead
O’Connor Nothing Compares
2U Jimmie Scott Nothing C
ompares 2U David Lynch
Dandelion Dreary Mark Zu
ckerberg Mark Ruffalo M
ark Owens David Abel I’m
never gonna dance again M
aryrose Larkin Gale Lindsay
I will continue to wait to
see any faces I’ve known
Rimbaud I’ll exhaust myself
I sent “Welcome” to a small New York poetry magazine, but just a few days later I revoked it, stating: “I’m sorry to be annoying, but I have to rescind my recent submission. The martians told me the poem’s not actually done and I don’t think I’ll have it finished before tomorrow’s [August 1, 2012] deadline.” In the few days between my submission and revoking, I wrote a new opening for the poem. Doing so made me see that the poem wasn’t ready for the world—in Spicerian terms, I had more dictation to take. The new opening went:
I want to be blank so I can begin
in the flat and even rhythm
of a car alarm alarming
no one in particular
about nothing in particular
with such cruel, placid insistence
just below my apartment
this summer evening, it’s almost
11:30 and the voices
from the park have mostly quieted
except for a few teenagers
playfully taunting each other
in another language
and the irregular thumping
of a basketball and the boys
who play in the dark, I can
never see them, I can never
see the dark they see and the dark
they see through as they sweat through
their t-shirts and chirp
I don’t know where I am
as I write this, I think again of my friends
and the people I don’t know
It’s certainly the best part of the poem. Now, I see it more as its own little piece—a New York School throwback, something a real New York poet would call “Poem,” or “Maria Hernandez Park,” or “Nike Flashback,” or “Come Smash My Fucking Face,” or whatever. But at the time this seemed like the beginning of something larger, so I cut off the last part (“my friends and the people I don’t know”) and I sutured the rest to “Welcome” and changed the name to “As I Write This.”
This may have been my first bad editing choice—trying to stitch together what were essentially two different poems. I really wanted “As I Write This” to be a Big Poem and (typical male that I am) I equated length with depth. I hadn’t yet heard Steve Abbott’s wise aphorism: “When one impatiently reaches out, confusion inevitably results.” I was too impatient to make the Big Poem—and I didn’t yet know that my impatience was going to bring me a lot of confusion.
In the months that followed I thought a lot about the phrase I cut out of the opening: “my friends and the people I don’t know.” I thought about how Gertrude Stein said she wrote for herself and strangers. I thought about how by including the names of friends and strangers in my poems—tagging them—I was actively constructing my audience and including them in the process of construction. I thought about how that was the real substance of this new poetry I was writing. I wondered why more poets weren’t doing this, because (as we poets know) no one listens to poetry except for poets. Why don’t we just cut the magic show—we all know each other’s tricks. Let’s just talk to, or sing with, or scream at, or puke on each other.
It was a beautiful idea. It still is a beautiful idea.
When I used the word “substance” above it reminded me of another painting I made when I was 18 in Astoria. It was a palimpsest in black and white, a word painting which deconstructed the word “substance” in a phallic column. The top, most legible layer read something like:
There was a big yellow splotch between that last “s” and “none,” the only color on the canvas. I made a companion painting of a female nude, reclining, with a red splotch over her vagina. I wrote over it, “transient is this world.” Someone I kind of had a crush on saw it one day and said, “That painting’s so true.” I then suggested she buy the painting for $40. She didn’t want it. I think I ended up giving this one, and the “substance” one, away.*
Isn’t it funny to see how no one ever changes? How we’re all obsessed with the minute movements of our own little parameters? I can’t help noting a big parallel between my recent poems and the two paintings I just described. As a teenager I sought—intuitively, through painting—to articulate some kind of libidinal unity. In the poems I’ve written recently I think I’ve attempted this same unity via the inclusion of names, via the projection of an audience. It’s a libidinal processing of names, a linguistic equivalent of the “substance” painting’s yellow spurt and the red dripping vagina of its companion. I mean, even the page in my notebook I described to you—the beginning of what would become “As I Write This”—is visually similar to the “substance” painting.
A couple weeks after I started “As I Write This” I wrote a poem called, funnily enough, “Maria Hernandez Park,” which I haven’t published. I was walking through the park at dusk and I saw the spirits of all the wage laborers leave their bodies as they were returning home from work, beat. Mine left my body too—our spirits were all hanging above us in purplish light, the whole park lit up by a dim exhaustion. I went home and tried to write about this, but I ended up writing about my brother Jeremy, who I hadn’t seen or talked to in several years. I wrote the poem, then two days later Jeremy died. There’s a part toward the end of his poem that goes:
Lewis Warsh says
it’s a Romantic notion to think
words still have meanings,
words like “we” or “and” or “I,”
and I never stop thinking about my friends
and my brothers and mother and other people
I don’t know, I write their names in poems
and they pile up around my room, this way
I am never far from any of them
It stated what I was trying to enact in “As I Write This.” While I continued to work on “As I Write This” I fully believed in my new conception of an audience libidinally connected via the name—and that our names have meaning. But I was willfully ignoring that almost no one likes to be puked on or screamed at, that most people are too embarrassed to sing with others, and that most poets are terrible conversationalists because most poets are bad listeners. For a short happy time I didn’t want to believe Spicer’s dictum of resignation—that no one listens to poetry—and I continued to revise “As I Write This” while writing a bunch of other similar stuff, which I’m currently editing as a manuscript called The New York School. (While the first poem of the process failed, I thankfully don’t think the others have.)
In the next draft of “As I Write This” I took out some names—co-workers from past and present jobs, people who I didn’t feel I needed “close” to me in the space of the poem, who were not part of its audience. I also made the decision to add a lot of conjunctions to the poem. For instance:
Trina Josh Jamie Matt
Cori Paul John Craun
Trina and Josh and Jamie and Matt
and Cori and Paul and John Craun
I think it was a bad decision. It made a 120+ line poem—one long stanza with irregular punctuation—sonically flaccid. The repetition of all those “ands” also eroded the meaning of the word, and the names around them. Another decision I made was to leave in several blips of negativity, lines like “Jason is a fucking loser” or “I don’t care about you James Tate,” or the parts where I call Lou Reed an asshole or Ron Silliman boring and fat. These were all little passing thoughts from a first draft, the kind of things most poets (myself included, up to that point) would likely edit out or at least alter in some way to either soften the negativity or veil the identity of the person being hated on. Or, they’d just decide these things aren’t important—a decision I failed to make because, following the lesson I gleaned from the gentle older painter I told you about in the last post, I wasn’t interested in being nice. I was convinced I had stumbled into a new ideal: that poetry can take things like negativity and animosity in the service of honesty. What I wasn’t anticipating—in my utter naivety—was the backlash I’d receive. Processing the responses to “As I Write This” (and, even more so, to my poem “The New York School”) gave me a new understanding of Spicer’s lament: “Honestly, honesty you are a pain.”
Now that I’ve talked a bit about the background and the initial construction and revision of the poem in my first two posts, I’ll address some of the reactions I got in the next two. Since I started writing “Total Fail” I’ve been keeping a notebook of all the possible reasons why the poem failed. I’ll share some of this, my little confirmational jeremiad, with you. Speaking of you: if you’re here with me now, thank you.
– JOSEPH BRADSHAW
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.
*“Transient is this world, substance it has none” was something I read in some undoubtedly outdated translation of a likely-dubious Buddhist text. I was reading a lot of Buddhist stuff then—whatever books I could get at Barnes and Noble on my trips into the malls in the Portland suburbs. (After I read several of them I told my best friend at the time, Dennis, that I was enlightened and that I didn’t need his friendship anymore.) Now, when I google transient is this world substance it has none the first ten results are: 1) the Wikipedia page for Insomnia, 2) the Wiki page for “Chemical element,” 3) a lexicon of alcohol and drug terms published by the World Health Organization, 4) background info and statistics for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 5) a page called “Schizophrenia” at patient.co.uk, 6) a Harvard page called “Six Universal Substances or Entities,” 7) “Six Universal Substances (Dravyas)” at sacred-texts.com, 8) something called “A Buddhist View of Addiction,” 9) the full text of the Declaration of Independence and 10) “IB Biology/Option D” at Wikibooks.
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