"I mean that I don't quite trust your motives for writing poetry."
"Motives?" Certainly, it was a worthy question. How many other things could all of them be doing at that moment, other than arguing and moaning and dissecting and growing more passionate about an activity that mattered to virtually no one and would likely never earn them a living? ... What did his motives matter to her? Was not the power of the poems themselves all that mattered?
"Why do you want to write poetry?" he asked. "Why does anyone?"
"Why do we want to fall in love? Why do we want to pray?"
--A scene from Lan Samantha Chang's gorgeous book All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (required reading for any poets who have ever been in or around an MFA program, or for anyone vaguely interested in the dilemmas of artistic purpose), in which a distinguished professor is speaking with one of her graduate students.
I spent five years writing and revising After the Ark, which will be released next week by NYQ Books. During that time, I've graduated from two universities, been engaged and un-engaged, lost one good dog and taken on another. I've lived in a tent in West Virginia, a boarding school in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains, and in a basement studio in Seattle. I've moved away from the people I love most and discovered a new home, with new wonderful people. Throughout, these poems haven't been far from the front of my mind (this may explain the 'un-engaged' part). Any day now, I expect a box on the porch. The arrival of this box signals that these poems are finished (right?), or at least abandoned. But, what exactly have I done? Five years moving commas and cutting loose language, reworking images and hoping that through this unending and slightly-rational alchemy I'll have made something worth reading aloud. And at some point I have to ask why. Why did I write it? Why do I care that anyone reads it?
I rarely go to church. Growing up, as the son of two ministers, I attended multiple services just about every week, but much more time was spent not in ceremony, but waiting for my parents to finish whatever it was they were doing in their offices (I never understood why ministers needed offices, though I suppose it's the same reason poets need offices). There were hours when I would wander my parents' churches (my father's Sage Chapel at Cornell University and my mother's United Ministry in Aurora, NY). I knew these places intimately, the choir loft in Aurora and the Tomb of Presidents in Sage, how one candle could bring a flash to the gold-trimmed ceiling mosaics, how the wooden beams looked like something you'd see on the Ark. I'd fallen asleep in the pews, hidden with a puppy in the cloister, and memorized damn-near every piece of stained glass. It was a different place for every hour of the day--the quiet and light never the same, but always present.
I wish I knew why I've kept writing poems. I don't. I do know this: whenever I write a poem, I wonder how it would sound if delivered from one of my parents' pulpits. There needn't be beeswax candles or widows slumped praying in the front pews, but there has to be that feeling of reverence, of being at once elsewhere and at home. I am addicted to the space a poem creates. Poems are sanctuary and mystery, like an empty church to a child, a place in which attentiveness and clarity mix with memory and belief. Poetry, like church, is an act of community, a sharing of blessings and burdens, and maybe that's why I want so badly for people to read the book. Maybe it's vanity. I hope it's not. I worry that this is a tired and overly-grandiose analogy, but it's too late in the year for anxiety (New Year's Resolution: Stop comparing Poetry to Church. Stop using these two words in a context in which they should be capitalized.).
There was a plaque in the back of my father's church, a dedication to E.B. White, member of the Sage Chapel Choir and author of Charlotte's Web. The plaque quotes the end of White's book: "Life in the barn was very good--night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of the swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, and the glory of everything."
How lucky we are to be here, how lucky to worry and wonder over words. Thanks for stopping by, for indulging this ramble, and for caring, if only peripherally, about language and the way it moves us. Happy new year, everyone.