Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?’”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

5 responses to “Wall, whatcha got?”

  1. So glad I can finally watch the reading! I was wretchedly sick that night, and I know it will cheer me up now! Good luck getting those poems together – this is a year for taking risks with poetry, if not with anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lesley,
    I totally identified with what you were saying about concentration, although I’m starting to realise (and this has taken me years) that when I set myself a ‘simple goal’, it’s quite often a challenging one. If it really was simple, it probably wouldn’t take so long. I think we tend to label things as easy when really they’re very demanding. I suppose this is all about language and the naming of things. If we were to say, for example, today I am going to commit myself to a huge and infinitely complex task (which editing poems is), we would feel better if we hadn’t finished it be the end of the afternoon. I don’t want to suggest this is gendered, but I have wondered if women are more guilty of this than men … Just a thought.
    Keep posting – I love to read your blog.
    Julie X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you’re right on all counts, I think. Math problems have solutions, but whenever I think I’ve “solved” a poem I go back a month later and think, “no, that’s not how I’d do it now.” And the artist’s justifiable uncertainty can combine with a gendered lack of confidence in a toxic way. Thank you, Julie!


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