blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Self-Portrait as a List from “My Favorite Mistakes”

     It isn’t that poetry changes us; it prepares us.
          —Muriel Rukeyser

I begin with scribbles: an empty square; a poorly sketched cloud in the margin of a notebook; a spiral with a single leaf attached to its center point; the hem of a stranger’s dress; the prominent color in the room (brown, brown, brown); a list of facts I learned earlier in the day; voices; a starred reminder to watch a documentary about anything; a story about the voices; a story about the story the voices are telling; emotions, then more emotions; the names of people I love, and the things I could never say to them out loud.

After this, I wait. Sometimes for minutes, other times, days. I flip through pages and pages of lists and I wait for a sound—something guttural—like the genus of a bottom-dwelling fish, the aching growl of the land as a train shudders past, some sound that says, this is worth writing. I use this sound as scaffolding for the poem. Typically this starts as the central theme or image, but is often revised into subtlety or (more often) oblivion. Initially I don’t concern myself with what the poem is about, but instead focus on the movement of the words, their shape and weight, how unrelated images and experiences transition from abstract moments into auditory textures. I scour the news or recollect conversations for things that feel disparate, but somehow relative. I have a ridiculous supply of Moleskine notebooks filled with whatever information I come across, and I flip through them all for inspiration. Before I can start the poem I have to have something on the page, so various unused lines or facts are typed up and left to stew for a while.

Because I’m also a visual artist, the need to constantly create is often overpowering. When I don’t know what to write, I draw or paint, and vice versa. This process affords me a different avenue by which to process experiences. After staring for a while at the conglomerate of text on my computer, I typically switch over to visual art in an attempt to analyze other aspects of the things I’ve written. My drawings are simple constructs formed from a complex network of repetitions, and the act of drawing the same characters over and over is meditational for me. This is not forced—in fact I typically constrain myself to the basic shape (circles or squares) and continue from there—and the worlds and characters in my art expand or contract, smile or frown at random, given room to grow from their genesis, and this leads to new discoveries in my writing. A single stroke of color, an unexpected drip of ink, or a shift in perspective is enough to spark an idea of order that can only be expressed in words. Then I go back to writing.

On many days I feel like a child discovering speech—I’m not always sure what I want to say, only that it must be communicated—and I try on different media until I find the one that’s right for my message. Once I have a triggering subject, I set up a series of guidelines to work by for the poem. I give myself a number of lines or a form that must be met (the form often inspired by whatever I’m reading at the time), or an opening and closing image that must be connected. From there, I type up a draft of whatever comes out in one sitting. This draft is printed and placed in a folder with other poem drafts, and throughout the following weeks I read the poems aloud and make edits in blue ink, moving stanzas, noting potential directions and titles. The poems I work on are chosen at random—whichever draft speaks to me at the time—and once I’ve covered the paper in options, I go back to the saved file and type some more. The new file is printed, labeled the appropriate draft number, and then stapled or paper clipped to the previous version and the process is repeated. Since my mind wanders, I end up covering the margins in more sketches and symbols and patterns. Thumbnails of landscapes or populations of creatures inspire titles or more lines to be written later. Somewhere down the line the initial constraint is dropped and the poem expanded or cut back appropriately. Often, pieces of the form remain in the final draft, and what initiated the poem becomes either the middle or end. The repetition of going from digital to analog provides a certain freedom to experiment, which has recently become vital to my work.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop ran by Tony Hoagland. Of the many gems he handed out, one particular statement punched me in the throat and has been taunting me ever since. He said, “Don’t be too in love with beauty; be in love with ugliness, too.” Though it sounds simple, as an artist this is a rather difficult thing to do since we’re encouraged and taught to construct with our ear: the poem must be musical, must be aesthetically pleasing on the page, and the subject (even if it is death or loss) must somehow transcend its label and exist as a diamond mined from mud. We’re taught that this is the only successful poem. This also applies to the topics we choose to write about. Though there are many great poets who approach the ugliness of life, it’s neither an easy nor attractive subject. Similar statements are true of visual art. So I go back and scrape away everything until I’m left with something beaten, scratched, tarnished, but still valuable. This does not mean that I abandon narrative, formal structure, or linearity, but rather that I strip the poem down to what I hope is the most honest and pure form that reflects the subject at hand. If it’s a sonnet, I drop the last end rhyme, for example. If it’s a prose poem, I put a sonnet in the middle. Sometimes lines are taken from the page and worked directly into my paintings, and they continue to speak to one another.

I aim to be as truthful as possible to the intention of the work, and if I’m not uncomfortable or somehow changed by what’s produced, then I haven’t done my job. Both in visual art and writing I aim to stop people in their tracks, not out of shock value, but out of a desire to investigate and get lost in the details—to confront the things about humanity and culture that we often hide behind or ignore. With our current culture of instant gratification and multitasking, I’m fascinated by science and history and I think they both occupy an overlapping space between Hoagland’s beauty and ugliness in every art form I use. We discover that there is more to discover. We fight for our beliefs, and then we die. Our bodies are beautiful, until they aren’t. So I start with a fantasy, but end with the truth—the intention being that my poems and the process behind them mimic the complexity of the human experience. My process involves asking why? and what if . . . ? and knowing that the search itself might be the only answer. Imperfect, flawed, fractured, but beautifully so, through art we are undone and resurrected.  end