“The only book worth writing is the one we are afraid to write.”
– Helene Cixous
What I’m about to say has nothing to do with the above photograph. The photograph is beautiful. The horse has turned its back on us. That’s all we need to know.
The play I saw a few weeks ago by David Mamet is not about horse races. It’s about race in the way most Americans prefer to think about it: black & white people. (Or black vs. white people, for that matter.) How someone can write a play about race in America in 2010 and continue to act like our population consists entirely of black and white people is beyond me. But that’s not what this post is about.
The play starring James Spader, David Alan Grier, and Kerry Washington is about a law firm that agrees to defend a wealthy white man who’s accused of raping a young black woman. Taboos and chaos ensue. The play certainly was entertaining, even thought-provoking in its examination of white guilt. By the end, I felt it had more to do with guilt and shame than one might expect. I liked that. James Spader and David Alan Grier gave brilliant performances. Kerry Washington is really pretty.
And even though I absolutely enjoyed the play (Mamet’s dialogue is poetry), I walked out of the theatre wondering if the play was relevant. I still hadn’t made up my mind until a few days ago when someone posted the following comment on this blog:
How can any fool call this black supremacist kow towing anything but…Yes its propaganda of racism…to kick white ass, kiss black ass, cringe before black racist thugs, swoon before the black criminal who stole the white house?
All you scum who lick up black spittle will soon know what kick ass really is.
So many of us despise, you lying little despots and hypocvritical two-faced extensions of all you claim to be against, hate you even more!
Now the insane racist, black racists, are in charge of the insANE asylum. Each of you deserve the ass kicking you will receive.
Me? I’ll kick YOUR black supremacist commie ass , ideologically and publicly.
Your days of tyranny are numbered .
Bring it on snake!
I’m not quite sure what sparked this person’s outrage aside from the fact that I’m a black person who often talks about poets of color. (Oddly enough, he doesn’t seem bothered by my being gay. I guess racism & homophobia don’t always go hand in hand.) What matters is that this person’s comment has reminded me why I write, why plays like “Race” still serve a purpose, and why I need to continue doing what I do.
And for that, I am grateful. Whoever you are out there, thanks for the pep talk.
I’m going to write now.
On February 8 at 6:00 pm I will be reading with Mark Doty, Alex Dimitrov, and Angelo Nikolopolous at the Cornelia Street Cafe. It will be a celebration of the Wilde Boys Queer Poetry Salon and it promises to be quite fierce if I do say so myself.
This semester I’m taking a poetry workshop with Cynthia Cruz. We had our first class meeting on Wednesday & she’s already shared some great advice about poetry and the writing process. One idea worth passing on is Cynthia’s description of poems as “these mean, tiny machines.” I love that description because (1) it’s just cool and (2) it reinforces the idea that every line, every break, every image, every word in a poem needs to work and work well in order for the poem to “run” smoothly.
I’ve noticed that I often have lines in my poem that are just… there. I wrote them and since they “felt right” I kept them. I want to think about those kinds of lines and give them a clear purpose in the poem. And if I can’t find a purpose for them, one of two things needs to happen: (1) Revise the poem so that the mysterious line actually becomes the heart of the poem. (2) Cut the line from the poem entirely & save the line for later.
Hopefully, doing so will allow me to use another one of Cynthia’s catch phrases to describe my poems: “gorgeous ticking time bombs.”
If you want to read more about Cynthia’s work & writing process, check out this interview.
It’s not news that many of us come to writing from other art forms–painting, music, dance, acting. How might we use what we know from that field in our writing? Is there a way to think about the line in relationship to a singer’s phrasing? Or, how might a song’s harmonic shifts give us structural permission? Language, in all its elusiveness, seems to insist on a figurative lens.
Then there’s the obvious, of course–read more, read better, resist that urge to dismiss the unfamiliar too quickly.
Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy and Famous Builder. He’s taught at Rutgers University – Newark, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, Antioch-Los Angeles, Bread Loaf, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he serves on the Writing Committee.
“A friend who just finished writing a(n excellent) book in a short period of time says you have to ignore your brain when it tells you it’s done for the day. You may think you can’t keep going, but if you push on, what comes out will be even better. The next day, do the same. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Also, no socializing. Apart from whatever job pays the bills, do nothing but sleep, eat, procrastinate, and write.” (via Maud Newton)
I guess I’ve been thinking about demons a lot lately. Having a big mouth is one kind of demon. Today, I decided that arrogance is another.
There are many species of arrogance, but the one I talking about has to do with how I perceive my own work. Or rather, how I perceive my works-in-progress. Immediately after I’ve written the first satisfying draft of a poem, it’s impossible for me to envision the poem any other way. The poem looks perfect and so I walk away, humming. Or I pat myself on the back and start writing another poem. As far as I’m concerned, in these instances I’m dealing with a demon.
This demon likes to convince me that there’s no more work to be done with the poem. This demon prevents me from putting in the work necessary to make good lines into classic lines & strong images into masterpieces. This demon keeps me from revising my drafts.
So, this is what I’m starting to learn: Revising a poem is like sculpting a body out of a giant block of marble. If I want to stick with that giant block and leave it as is, fine. If , however, I want to sculpt that marble into a piece of art so beautiful people will mistake it for the love of their lives, then I better keep working.