On the heart’s footholds and poetry goals

Albany Poets presents Dan Wilcox

It’ll be no surprise to you that as a poet, I despair.

DUH. (Yes, I know: I’m going to have to be more specific.)

Right now, one source of despair is how the drive toward STEM learning is pushing out the arts in schools at every level. I’m going to leave the heavy lifting on this short-sighted policy to an opinion piece in The New York Times (Arnold Weinstein’s “Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life“). It argues for the humanities in education, and here’s an excerpt:

We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve, but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?

This humanistic model is sloppy. It has no bottom line. It is not geared for maximum productivity. It will not increase your arsenal of facts or data. But it rivals with rockets when it comes to flight and the visions it enables. And it will help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard, it adds depth and resonance to what I regard as the shadowy, impalpable world of numbers and data: empirical notations that have no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values; notations that offer the heart no foothold.

Weinstein is absolutely correct: the humanities provide depth and resonance to numbers and data. It’s frightening to imagine a world where the entire workforce and all the governments are full of people who can code but have zero connection with “other cultures, other values, other selves” and zero experience traveling the “interiority.” I’ve often wished I had an inclination toward advocacy; I’d take up this banner and dozens of others. Instead, I just seem to get pissy. It does no one any good.

***

I’d also been getting pissy about lack of productivity my writing life.

And it wasn’t doing me any good.

I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t getting out to any poetry events. I wasn’t revising my manuscript. Can’t you see me walking down the street, head bowed, kicking rocks and trash ahead of me, happy only when they stayed on the path so I could kick them again?

I also had a bad attitude about my life. I was tired. The world was drab. I didn’t have enough (or any) time to do the things I wanted to do. I wasn’t good enough at anything: mothering, romancing, eating healthy, running, etc. Can’t you see me walking down the street giving the stink eye to everyone who was having a good time without me?

Then I began to wonder if it could be the season — winter. Ick. — or even depression. And then I questioned which came first: bad attitude or the writing hiatus?

***

I was always a butt-in-chair kind of writer. I didn’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. I sat down and did the work if not every day, then most days. That changed after my separation/divorce. The lovely and talented jillypoet and I have talked about it at length. There has been lots of wine. And whining. Yes, our schedules have blown up as single moms, but that’s not the only thing that’s taken away from the writing. We haven’t been able to sort it out. So we wine. And whine. Kick rocks. Give stink eye.

But at some point, we remember that writing itself can be a joy.

DUH.

***

So which came first: bad attitude or writing hiatus? Jill and I had been focusing on fixing our attitudes, but maybe we’d been looking at the wrong half of the equation. And so now we are working at the writing (again) as much as possible. It’s not as much as it was before, but it’s a start. We check in via email to see how the other is doing with The Writing of The Poems. We also exchanged mini-poetry books on Valentine’s Day (privately shared Word docs: half filled with brand new drafts of our own and half with other people’s poems that had moved us) and attended a poetry reading for the first time in a long, long time (photo above).

We split a bottle of wine while we were there.

***

I’m not myself if I’m not doing the creative work. When I find a phrase, an image or line that shows me something new, I believe in transformation — of the moment, of the object, of the self. And when I put them together into a finished poem, the whole world starts to make sense. Without this kind of magic, I despair. I get pissy. I’m useless to myself and those I love.

Writing offers my heart footholds. DUH.

I’m just kicking rocks without it.

***

And so it makes progress toward the goals a kind of barometer. Here’s this month’s run-down:

  • Manuscript / On track with removing poems. On track with writing new poems (AND I think I have even stumbled upon a new poem that could become The Title Poem; wish me luck!). Still a little bit behind with revisions (wanted to be done entirely by 3/1), but gained ground, and I’m really pleased with the work that I’m doing.
  • New drafts / I wanted to write at least 3 poems and 3 blog posts: Done and done.
  • Submissions / I wanted to send poems to 2 journals: Done.
  • Community / I attended a reading (Albany Poets presents Dan Wilcox; photo above), wrote a review of Sarah Freligh’s Sad Math and continued to nurture the new poetry prompt site.
  • One writing task each day / This month, I did a writing-related task 7 out of 29 days. It’s not every day, but it’s roughly 3 out of every 4 days. I’m terrible at “the maths,” but it seems that tops last month’s 50% success rate. Progress!
  • Track progress / Yes. FYI, I’ve been doing this with the Spark Planner, which is fabulous. It’s the first calendar/to-do list thingy that I’ve ever had a daily relationship with. My typical M.O. was to get excited and make a list… and then never reference the list again and get nothing done. In contrast, I consult my Spark Planner all the time. All. The. Time.
  • Flexibility & fun / Yes. (I mentioned that there was wine at the poetry reading, right?)

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