Notes from underground OR why I stopped writing poems

Let’s set the stage: the year is 2013.  I am 18 years old, fresh out of undergrad and feeling excited, albeit uncontrollably anxious, to be “independent” and in college. Like many of my friends, I had joined the poetry group at Swarthmore. Unbeknownst to me, the poetry group was mainly frequented by competitive slam and spoken word poets – and this was a kind of writing that I had never experienced. In high school, I had read the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath TS Eliot and have wanted to be an esoteric “page” poet like them, weaving into my confessional works a kind of opacity which would protect me from the otherwise inscrutable vulnerability of my work. I had enjoyed my work so much, and have published on some blogs and in my high school literary magazine, even, that I had decided to join the group, although I knew I would not really be understood. Now, I don’t want to make it out like I was the best poet in the world. In fact, I thought I was quite bad and have much room to improve. But nevertheless, I like what I as writing, I liked how strange and discomfiting my work was. But I found that people would blankly stare at me when I would share my work. Not knowing what to make of this, I turned inwards and grew afraid that I was being misunderstood. I slowly stopped going to the club meetings, fearing further misunderstanding.

2016

It is November 2013. I am signed up to compete for the CUPSI audition slam to qualify to represent Swarthmore at the upcoming competition. Going in, I know I won’t make the team. My poem, which I have since lost, is too weird, too opaque, and not nearly performative enough. Nevertheless, I am excited, strangely, to share myself with the world. The words in this poem are my inner thoughts, severed from the neat grammatical and social conventions which make them (and me) palpable or tangible; here’s my beating heart on the page for all to see. I have been practicing my poem, but I do not plan to read it rom my memory. However, I learn that it’s strongly advised that we do, and so I forego my sheet, getting on stage to perform. This was a mistake. After about a stanza or two, I freeze. I cannot remember the words, and people begin to squirm with empathy embarrassment as I stand on the stage in Olde Club, attempting to remember the words to a poem I had written and rehearsed ad infinitum. And I never succeed in remembering the poem, only managing to grasp the next line or two, but nothing much after that. Ever after I’m informed that I can read from the paper which is sitting in my chair, a gesture of grace and pity, I know all is lost. I get off the stage, feeling absolutely dead inside, and proceed to have a string of anxiety attacks as I sit motionless in the audience, listening to other people perform and the crowd cheer from another dimension.

I tell you this story because these two events, as insignificant and small as they were in my life, so much so that I have trouble remember whether this happened in November 2013 or February 2014, continue to shape my relationship towards poetry in the present. I am currently in the process of reading for a qualifying exam in modern French poetry, and it’s the first time I’m really having to sit with poetry in six years, since these fateful events. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve never really learned how to read poetry, which meant my capacity to write poetry was, in a way, doomed from the start. I’ve also learned, conversely, that there is no one way to “read” poetry. Perhaps it’s because I am so used to reading prose in general and novels in particular that my capacity to read is shaped around the acquisition of key morphological features, like plot, moral, context, etc. that makes reading poetry feel sort of… pointless. I mean, what can be deduced from a poem like Apollinaire’s “Zone” other than what he’s doing with urban aesthetics, how he’s in conversation with other Parisian poets of his moment, how he’s rewriting epic, etc. And all of these questions are outside the poem, and this is a kind of reading I’m not used to do it. Perhaps it’s because my introduction to poetry was one of being always “inside” the poem. Or maybe it’s because, like I always joke, I’m a failed poet; my poetry is just closeted prose. I really don’t know. But as I read these dead white French guys and find myself thinking as my eyes scan these lines, gleaning close to nothing, I’ve been rethinking my relationship to poetry and my craft.

2014

If you have been following this blog since there very beginning then you’ve probably noticed that I stopped blogging as frequently when I entered grad school. I can deduce a number of possible reasons for this, the most obvious being: grad school is a lot of work. The thing is, it’s not as much as you’d think. I find I have a lot of idle time when I just lie around and sleep or watch YouTube videos. Time I could spend writing blog posts or working on manuscripts or getting poems published. But I don’t ever have the mental energy to dedicate towards that kind of stuff, mainly because when I start writing a manuscript, I can’t really focus on anything else. It is an enrapturing experience to sit down and write a person into being, even if that person is just a hairy facsimile of one’s self. It’s a circuitous process of navel-gazing and introspection, something I do perhaps too often – but I’m always striving to figure out what makes me tick. One could call this what it is: an unhealthy kind of auto-vivisection. But I kind of feel like all novelists, all writers, really, do this.

I have come up with excuses to make sense of my unwillingness to write. One was “I should spend this time reading as much as possible,” although I find that, after a long day of reading for class, I have zero interest in reading for “leisure,” whatever that is. I’ve also come up with the excuse that it’s good to just live life a little bit, although I’m always “living life.” The final excuse is that I’m “working on my manuscripts,” although I only do this in short bursts wrought with frustration and vertiginous haste. I’ve learned to stop doing this, because I fear that in the process of hurriedly finalizing things, it’s having a sort of Frenhoffer effect where I’m making a work entirely unrecognizable in my unstoppable perfectionism.

So let’s get into it, really: where my did my creativity go?

2015

I won’t lie to you and say that depression has not had some effect on my creative drive. I find that I cannot manage to fit what few ideas I have into the right words. I do have some ideas that I’ve been sketching out for years, but I doubt they’ll ever materialize. The only project I have which is salvageable is an autobiographical novel which still is too autobiographical to be published yet; I need to go in and anonymize things more, lest certain individuals complain about their characterization or my retelling of events in our lives. Regarding this blog, I’m experiencing a kind of self-doubt towards my writing which I can only associate with the general imposter syndrome I’m experiencing in graduate school. Although I am outspoken in class and willing to defend my ideas when I receive pushback, I’ve been experiencing a kind of aporia with my writing over the past two years. I do not feel as confident in my writing ability as I used to, and I’m not sure where this is coming from. When I write for this blog, I feel a moment of hesitation before I publish, as if I am anticipating a kind of clapback or firestorm which I never receive; people are generally very kind and supportive towards my writing in ways I’ll never be able to completely anticipate. Yet, the feeling persists, as if I’m writing some sort of salacious and polarizing opinions column for a major newspaper. I attribute this to the different intellectual landscapes I’m in, where my ability to string together a pretty sentence no longer cuts it. But to the rest of the world, a pretty sentence is often the only thing that matters. And it’s not like I’m not saying anything, either…

Let’s go back to poetry: I started writing poems again my senior year of college. I don’t know why or how I got back into it. Perhaps I had gotten bored with prose and the ways the lines seem to fill the page, and wanted to experiment with enjambment. Again, my poems are just prose with a fake mustache. But I started writing poems again in order to express little vignettes of human experience, to conjure up irrealis lives I could and would live, had I been born in other bodies, to other parents and into other families. And it was nice, and I do not know why I stopped. I found that these poems were not so cumbersome as the poems I used to write, and loaded with texture. I envy my ability to have written like this, although I admit that my ability to write in such lush ways is connected to my capacity to feel and endure great pain. For this reason, I am a tad grateful, somewhere in my mind, for my inability to write like this anymore, for I know I am in greener pastures. But given the fact that my dream is to write all kinds of things, not just journal articles and academic press books which only graduate students will read, I do want to rebuild my relationship to writing. I do not want to perform a kind of alchemy anymore. I have to find new sources of power.

2016

I’ve already discussed how I don’t feel qualified or comfortable calling myself a novelist or a creative writer. It’s due to a combination of protectiveness (of myself and of my work) and lack of confidence (I don’t get the sort of reaction I’m anticipating, although I can never name what that anticipation is… so therefore I always feel somewhat empty towards people’s reception of my work). Nevertheless, I’ve been speaking it into existence more frequently. I told a friend the other day that my goal is to be in conversation with the Glissants and Morrisons and Baldwins of the world, to transcend genre and field and convention. I feel silly and presumptuous to say this, even if it’s how I feel. I cannot continue to cut myself so short, especially because I am working towards this goal in the only ways I can. And just because someone did not get my poem when I was 17 years old doesn’t mean that the poem wasn’t good (or that the person was uncultured). I do not have an MFA, and therefore don’t get to use my title to justify my status as a writer – but my goal is to use my PhD to influence and advance the work I write, to use my research background to inform my perspective of the world. And I’m working towards it, even if my motion seems at times too slow.

2018

Part of being creative means being brave. I’ve been knocked around so much during the past years that I’ve grown too fearful of the creative person I’ve always been. Nevertheless, I still find myself creating, even if I am doing so underground. A friend told me after I completely botched my performance that my poem was one of the best ones he heard all night. At the moment, I dismissed the comment as something someone says to someone who has lost and perhaps deserves to have lost. In hindsight, I only vaguely feel like he was telling the truth – but it still stuck with me. I am my biggest and harshest critic, but I still manage to write and produce in this overcrowded cellar of a mind. And what I’m making isn’t always good, but it is.

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