Saturday, May 01, 2010

Revising at a Table Set for One

Self Portrait at the Korean Bell

Settling in to my hillside LA life, I've been working on my poetry manuscript this week, a joy in many ways. It was a challenging and tempestuous winter, during which I was thrown into questioning my own role and value in the world and during which I felt confronted (thornily, nettlesomely) by others' judgments of my life's work and obsessions. At the same time, I was operating at full bore as a writing teacher, reading and judging the works of 80 other writers -- 45 freshmen, 20 intro creative writers, 10 advanced poetry students, 5 graduate students/poets.

So, interestingly, even though the winter's tumults could have set me up for a period of deep doubts about myself -- and certainly I did descend, for a time, giving in to the perils of the frazzling darknesses of February and March -- on this glistening hillside, 2500 miles from Flint's turmoils, I'm experiencing in contrast a self-healing impulse to turn inward, back to my "material" -- the material of my life as a writer that has always sustained me. In a way it's not really a choice. It's just there -- like my blood type (A+, vainly pleasing to an old teacher's pet like me). It's a relief to return to my own work, to plunge into the trance that is revision. I believe what "they" say about writing being one of the activities that takes the brain into its most salutary brain waves. After a few hours of working, rewriting, rearranging and rethinking, my brain feels deeply massaged and gratified.

And I am grateful for that.

Some of the poems in my current manuscript go back, in a couple of cases, 25 years -- a realization that astonishes me -- and some of them were written as recently as three months ago. Yet putting them together, I see connections, and some fairly consistent tendencies in style and method. Some of this hits me anew -- some sort of understanding of "who I am" as a poet, something I'm able to see because of how long I've been at this, how many poems I've written and rewritten, what I chose to throw out, what I dug into old files to reclaim. I'm not comfortable with all that I see there, but doubt is a necessary condiment for this work.

I'm not sure I've found the "right readers" for this poetry collection, or for my body of work in general. I'm not sure I ever will. Recently, somebody I've never met emailed me that one of my old poems is one of her favorites, and that she's been using it as an example in her own creative writing classes for years. She wanted to know which collection of mine it appears in, and I had to tell her it appears in no collection, because no collection of mine, other than my three self-generated chapbooks, has ever made it into the mainstream.

But that doesn't change what's happening to me, in my brain and recouping spirit, as I work and rework the words of a lifetime. Some gifts are like that -- self-generating, self-healing and always there, inviting tender and scrupulous attention. In a way, it's a table for one, set up with nice cloth napkins and a candle. A dinner for one. I could be there awhile.

Another Self Portrait at the Korean Bell

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