I wonder if I’m totally deluded in thinking of poetry as intensely intimate, emotionally and intellectually heightened conversation. As a reader I experience deep, demented, introvert’s friendship with Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, and other poets whose work I’ve spent many, many hours with. Whenever I’ve loved the literary personality projected by a living writer and then met that author, I’ve felt an instant and slightly eerie camaraderie. But that’s crazy, right? Those people don’t know me. As a poet, I love to hear from readers who like my poems, feel a connection to me through them, but I could imagine that phenomenon being creepy, too. Poetry can come from some deep interior place but it’s never cleanly autobiographical or even quite trustworthy. It’s art.
But then a real conversation happens, in verse, and I think yes, poetry IS communication, at least partly. Even when the formal parameters are strict, poetic talk has a radically open up-all-night cosmic associativeness. My collaborations in loose sapphics with Scott Nicolay felt like that–an exercise in friendship, a game of one-upmanship, but also a wild, sprawling gab across geographical and other kinds of distance. Scott and I were friends in college but he moved a couple of thousand miles away, to New Mexico. We’re both parents and teachers who write obsessively in our few spare hours, so we have few blocks of time for visits or phone calls. How else but in poems can we sit under the stars together and just talk?
Last week a former student sent me an email chain from 2009. Adam used to ask for appointments via haiku. He graduated, went to teach in Japan, and randomly 5-7-5’ed me again months later. I responded in a sort of renga about May at Washington and Lee that began:
flipflops and skimpy floral
I’ve never seen so many
well-coiffed hungover children
I’d forgotten it, like I’ve forgotten 99% of the emails I’ve ever sent, because talk is meant to be ephemeral. Something precipitates out of the reaction and settles in you—friendship as sediment, where is this metaphor going?—but I mean that the details of talk evaporate while its effects survive. It’s vital to my happiness that books of poetry exist, that the art has permanence, but I’m also delighted to zing it around in play, focused on the exchange, not the outcome.
Which doesn’t mean that poetic conversation is particularly light. Last summer I blogged about a bad situation in my workplace here; it inspired me to buy an office mini fridge so I could hide as needed from a difficult colleague. (I just checked to see if mini fridge was one word, two, or hyphenated–inconclusive–but I found the Urban Dictionary definition—oh my.) I told Ellen Mayock, another colleague and a friend, about this strategy; she had done the same thing in response to a similar situation. She’s a Hispanist and only lately began publishing creative writing, but she wrote a poem in response, excerpted below:
I didn’t inherit the white, cold box that kept a college boy’s beers cold for four years;
I went after it. I knew it needed a new owner, and I knew I needed a hole in which to hide.
I drove far out into the county to buy a used, four-year old mini-fridge for fifteen dollars.
I brought it to my office, plugged it in,
and knew that I could hide out in that white, cold box for months,
years, if necessary.
She goes on to describe the appliance as a “bright little coffin.” I was so moved when Ellen read this recently at a lecture, “Gender Schrapnel in the Workplace”—it was a public validation I didn’t expect but suddenly realized I needed badly—I promptly wrote the following and sent it to her in an email. Ellen’s poem can stand alone so it’s worth saving for a magazine; mine feels like an occasional piece that can’t really be divorced from context, a gambit as much as a poem. So here it is, contextualized and blogged, and now you and I, reader, whoever you are, are in a secret silent radically open cosmically associative up-all-night poetic conversation.
My mini fridge doesn’t have the sordid history of your
mini fridge, being purchased new from the politically abhorrent
big-box store, while yours is retired like some albino greyhound
from the rigors of cooling college-guy beers in the county
for years. Mine does currently house (in addition to one jug
of goddess dressing, some shriveled carrots, and a boxed-up
duck leg) three Pilsner Urquells from the six I lugged in
for a five o’clock workshop with my internship students, both
twenty-two, I swear. I’d forgotten an opener but senior men
tend to have them on keychains, so that was OK, until they left
and I stayed here in the office eyrie I rarely venture from, alone
and thirsty. In some sense, I guess, all mini fridges are sisters,
coffins for sealed beverages and other tightly-capped deeply chilled
things, women, thin-skinned plaintiffs, whatever noun floats your
leftovers. Your “Gender Shrapnel” performance—I won’t
call it a lecture because that’s a boring form, in my generally disregarded
opinion, and your presence was too warm, occasionally flaring blue-
hot like when you minced across the stage in imaginary heels—
was a sort of open-air bonfire, controlled but wild too.
I need to get outside more. I am more frightened of that stupid
man downstairs than I ought to be. Thank you for owning
that stage and holding up a mirror to my symbolically small
meekly-humming sleeping dog of a self-defense appliance.
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I imbibe words and consume past minds. As a result, I often awake next to strange sentences and forgotten meanings.
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