During the winter break, I suffered a break with my sanity. Granted, this deviation in straight, level-headed thinking resembled little the psychotic episodes I’ve endured in struggles with manic-depressive disorder. Rattling highs and bone-crushing lows did not plague me. Instead, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to describe moments, feelings, memories in compact and shortish ways. I was, for lack of a better way of saying, in the thrall of poems.
Between Christmas and the start of the spring semester, a period of less than a month, I went on a binge. I can’t remember what started it. Perhaps, it was the upcoming book party/release of my latest book of poems, When the Titans Speak and Other Dreams. The event was set for January 20, but due to a Chiefs win and threat of weather, I pushed the party back a week.
Perhaps, I was just in the right mood for poems. Having the house to myself most of the break, I sat down to my work every day. Listening to NPR and casting around for ideas, I would hear a word or phrase. These caught in the mechanism like stray nuts and bolts wandering around an engine’s crankcase. Every now and then, one would get caught, bringing the machine to a halt. To get it going again, I had to take apart the apparatus and put it back together again.
At first, I did this once or twice a day. It felt good to write a poem. Old feelings of accomplishment came back to me. I was proud of what I’d done. I could consider my day a success with a good poem or two on the plate.
Then, the compulsion just grew. I found myself cranking out five or six poems at a time. Every day I sat down to write, more would come, one right after the other. I didn’t take a break between them. I just wrote.
At first, they were ideas, the scaffolding that would become finished poems as I worked through them later. I didn’t expect that they were much good, coming apace as they did. But I thought I would let them go, get them down, and see what material could become good poems later on.
By the time school started, I had written 88 poems. They couldn’t be all good, I thought, and many of them would be trash. After the semester settled in, I started going back over what I had. They weren’t half bad. Many of them needed a lot of work. Making a poem, I imagine, is a lot like forging a useful piece of steel out of raw metal. The process of heating, pounding, quenching, and heating again turns the metal into a horseshoe or knife. Then comes the polishing.
I have been working on these poems for the last two months. I haven’t yet found any stinkers, which surprises me. I thought all that typing would make some pieces that weren’t worth saving. They were good to write, the process cathartic and useful for the working of the creative mind. But to find 88 decent pieces to work with, well, I had no idea.
I soon began to think in terms of a new collection, something I could have accomplished by the end of the year. I have to make sure the writing it tight. A poem takes as much strength and work as any piece of prose. They must be precise, as extra words ruin what could be a good poem. The tolerances are very tight. The difference between a good poem and one that just works is the difference between a new BMW and the 1976 Pinto Station Wagon I used to own. Both are cars. Both get from point A to point B. Both have heat and air conditioning. One is a thing of beauty, the other just more of the same. A BMW is a hell of a lot more reliable and pleasurable to drive. When writing poems, it’s my job to create the absolute best. I sure in the hell don’t want my Pinto wagon back.
When looking at these poems, I also suffer a crisis of confidence. Some days, I open them up and find strong voice, clear metaphors, and strong images. Other times, like today, I create in my mind all the reasons why this or that won’t work. In either case, I’ve yet to find myself satisfied with what I’ve created. This means they need more attention, more time, more craft. I have to keep the forge hot and the bellows working. There will come a time when they will become ready for the public eye.
I have already taken a few out for a test drive. At my book party, I read some at the book release. I read a couple of others at really pleasant reading at Swordfish Tom’s in February. Both crowds seemed to take to my creations.
Besides these little forays out in the light, some of these poems have only been seen by a prison inmate. Gifts, as it were, to my friend behind bars. He’s mentioned how he liked a couple of them, but it’s hard to get a complete critique from someone it takes two weeks to complete a back-and-forth with. Plus, it’s not like he has poetry criticism on his mind. He has more immediate concerns, one of which is how to get a new pair of tennis shoes.
I confess, too, I still feel self-conscious about these poems. Last year, I submitted my essays for publication to dozens of literary magazines. Of these submissions, I had 13 pieces accepted. So far this year (and with a lot less work), three magazines—two top-flight publications—have accepted my pieces for their pages. I have the confidence in my prose to put them out for scrutiny. I’ll keep doing it. I have a lot of good work that still needs to see the light of day.
But when it comes to poems, these poems, I don’t feel as if they are ready. I don’t think I’m ready for the kinds of rejection these poems will bring me.
On the other hand, I’ve read what some of the magazines have to offer when it comes to poems. Frankly, I think to myself, I can do better than that. My poems should be in those pages.
I just have to gain the confidence. The only way I know how to do that is to make sure I’ve done good work. I’ll know it when I have good, polished material ready for the daylight.
Give me a couple of months and about a hundred more rewrites. I’ll get there.
Meanwhile, here’s one poem that works. I hope you like it.
A Great, Beautiful Wall
China was destroyed.
Rome was destroyed.
All those little towns and great cities
in Europe, Attica, the East
saw their demise.
Their walls did little to help them.
In the end, rot set in,
people lost hope,
set against one another
until they joined all empires,
great societies and civilizations
afloat in history’s flotsam.
No wall can hold back time.
This is the most important lesson
we can read in the remnants of walls past.
Better to accept the changes, hug our children,
welcome those who have traveled so far.