Like a thief in the night, I appear happy in poems.
Most artists will relate to this I believe or see something familiar. I throw myself into things immensely and intensely. It is my personality, my calling to be this way. In part it is because I fear regret, the idea of reaching the end of my rope with something undone. I have never minded the thought of lack of material success, but to hold back on commitment: that is failure.
And certainly the poetry, with 30 or so self-published books, designed exactly as I wanted them to be, bear out this tendency. I began publishing in earnest in 2008 on Lulu.com. I was publishing occasionally in magazines, but I was not connecting really, and did not feel I had any kind of place in poetry. I had written 8 manuscripts or so, and the weight of that unpublished work was such that I found myself thinking I could not write another word until they were published. But how can I publish them?
Behold: the Internet.
I stopped sending out to presses and magazines because I did not care about what they offered. I did not care what the poetry world was, and how it viewed my work. I decided to publish my own work in a way that was faithful to that work. In a design that was consistent and supportive of the poems. In books that were whole, complete, and sense-making. I wold be able to write to a book, to a purpose, and move on. I would develop as an artist and as a person without the fear that publishers or critics would hold me back.
I decided that the poems would find their way into the world to the extent that the world wanted or needed them. In truth, I cared less about my work for being mine than for great poetry per se. If my poems were significant they would find their audience. In truth, they would find their audience in any event.
I would produce these books and they would be for sale through Lulu.com. I broadcast the books on Facebook, to friends, and on the Concrete Formalist Poetry group page, and in this blog. Oh, I formed the term concrete formalism to describe what I did and wrote about that.
I invited others to my group page and they saw my work. I occasionally - well, 2 or 3 times - read my work in public here in Portland, Oregon. I gave my wife, Endi Bogue Hartigan, a copy of every book as it published. I shared the books with friends, as gifts. I shared them with my son.
I stopped reading poetry but I wrote volumes. I wrote as I lived, dedicatedly and passionately. The covers always featured a drawing I had made, and some of the books included drawings inside them. I did all this up to a point a year or so ago and then I stopped.
I stopped because I was conscious only of silence. I felt that any book I produced from that point would simply fall to silence as one further instance of a project that had, in realistic terms, made its point. I am not a fan of bullying behavior, and putting out book after book in the manner I had been doing so seemed suddenly a stubborn preoccupation. Over-insistent and boorish.
So I stopped. I stopped writing. I stopped thinking about writing. In a sense I exposed myself, my process, to the light of day or better yet to the light of my conscience. I upended the turtle of self, and I left it there to die. I put a stop to expectations, to the internal narrative arc where I could have come back after this Lenten retreat and picked up again where I left off. I cut off my poetry at the knees, and I had no regrets doing so.
Since then, I have to say, my life has improved on every front. Family, at work, at church, exercise-wise, and intellectually. he poetry life was a siloing one. I felt I had this pursuit, a vocation, which was quite simply at odds with everything else, which I had to defend against incursions of time and energy. In the end I was asking myself, why am I doing this? What's the point? I have published 30 books and nothing has come of it. Do I really need to do another? If I were to die, I thought, I would do so knowing that I had done all I could, written the best poetry I was capable of writing, and was true to my decision to produce and publish in a way that I had to.
So, I waited. And, after several months, occasionally I would wonder what coming back to poetry-writing would look like if I ever did it. I really had no idea, other than not wanting it to be as it was, but that's not to say I had rejected any one specific tenet. I simply had no interest in revisiting the scene where I very good decision had been made.
My ego, in short, was out of the picture, and that was the last thread, the pure point of release, when I not only did not care about what I did in poetry, but about what I had done. I viewed all those years, hours and hours or writing, of consternation and wrenching existence, as an absolute boon. Writing has provided me with my education (grants at PENN); it had brought me together with my wife, Endi (at Iowa) and therefore my family, including Jackson. Writing had given me a rewarding career as a trademark paralegal. Therefore, it had given me the house I sit in and the clothes on my back.Thinking about it now, I can see that writing allowed me to follow through on the intensity-tendency I referred to above as nothing else had, so that I could see what it was about up to the very end and, ultimately, that exercise matured me, it helped me develop a self-knowledge, a conscience, that would lead me to the Church. It made me the kind of husband, father, and friend I would otherwise have been incapable of being.
Add to that the 30 books, almost as an afterthought.
With all that, do I really need to write another poem? With all that, why exactly have I bothered to doubt myself? I have doubted myself as a means of at least exposing myself, my ego. Now I feel inclined to believe that I could write and will write if the need to do so is made apparent to me. If a project or idea or any sort of prompting force makes itself known then, yes, I would write again. But I do not have it in my mind to do anything now, to do anything "differently," or to regret anything of what I have done.
I am glad for art. I am grateful for art. I am open to art, and I am about as free of a personal agenda as anyone I have ever known. That surely means something in itself, which may be, quite simply, that I am somehow content through and through. And what a nice surprise that is.