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Friday, June 1, 2012

Writing the Stuff that Falls through the Cracks (Puke, Dirty Dishes, Poop, etc.)

Every once in a while I read an interview that delights me cerebrally, aesthetically, and everywhere in between, plus also makes me slow down, scribble down memorable quotes, re-read the revelatory insights ... and also makes me laugh. Rachel Zucker, Matthew Rohrer, & Wayne Koestenbaum conduct just this sort of interview, which is ostensibly about the Domestic in Poetry, but also about, well, cocks behind the couch, forbidden subjects (dreams, the price of a haircut, fingernail clipping, though maybe not), and also about Coleridge's thoughts on the imagination (vs. fancy), and also about the Accounters: Ben Franklin, HD Thoreau, and Tennyson with his minuitae-crammed (pill-taking log) notebooks.

I loved this quote by Matt Rohrer, regarding why he started writing about the day-to-day, "boring" stuff:

It's the most debased form of talking about yourself. That made me more willing to do it actually, because everybody hates it. 

And I loved what Koestenbaum has to say about the non-poetic-ness of some poems (or the left-out stuff of some very famously transcendent poems:

So much stuff falls between the cracks of literature, stuff that has nothing to do with imagination or fancy. That stuff, the untransformed, factual, forbidden, raw material -- I want to side with the prurient details that stimulate my curiosity. 

He also talks about how some poets just can't put the unseemly (dirty laundry, dust bunnies, potty training) into their poems. Just Can't . This is because they feel that writing a poem is like putting on your Sunday best, pulling out your special bone China words and your crystalline clauses. I think I gave that notion the finger when I was in high school -- I just wasn't going to get very interested in the Romantics because I'd already had a taste of Ginsberg's junk mail list poem. I was ruined. Ginsberg was my gateway into more and more of the toe-jamb and the lint and the dandruff. I wasn't going to be serving up my poesy on fucking SPODE.

Which is probably why I have recently decided that I need to lay off the domestic. It wasn't exactly conscious. What happened was: my kids got older. They feed themselves! No more bibs! They don't take my keys and hide them in the pansies! They are, in fact, in school six hours every weekday. 

So, lucky me, I've been reading about Neanderthals, early Catholicism, Sicilian history, The Sistine Chapel, the Roman Empire, Kepler, and not writing much at all about spit-up or mashed peas. I don't want to share grocery lists or talk about the pretzel crumbs on the rug right now -- and it feels very liberating to not have to make those my subjects because I now have time to put stuff in my poems that I've read.

But here's the thing. After working all day on a poem in the voice of the Mona Lisa, I head down to my favorite pinball arcade, where they also serve Full Tilt ice cream, which is made right here in Seattle (in White Center, where Richard Hugo used to live when he worked at Boeing, long before he was in Missoula), and I have to pull out my notebook to take notes about the names of the ice cream, the game I'm playing (Simpsons!), and the lady who walks in asking where she can purchase vacuum cleaner bags. Okay, I'm not exactly in my HOME, but you get the picture -- the stuff of life. The mundane. The opposite of writing about the Sistine Chapel.

Rachel reminded me of why I likely keep being drawn back to writing about my kids, about the hard parts of being a parent. She says:
Nobody told me that being a woman, a wife, a mother, a human being, was going to feel like this, was going to involve so much drudgery, so much unremitting… so much “Do I have a high enough pain threshold for this?” It is intolerable to me to that I would write a kind of poetry which didn’t include who is taking care of the children right now, what’s happening to the body, why am I so fucking tired.

I think it's that same kind of intolerance for spit-shining a poem's content, for hauling out all the crookedly-hung pictures (our house is full of them; our kids' friends ask why they're crooked, and I tell them because we are busy writing, not making sure our house is tidy) before sitting down to write a poem. It just bugs me, as it bugs Rachel, that in movies with parents who have kids, there's no CARE GIVER in the movie. Where is the fucking babysitter or grandma or girl from down the street fixing meals and helping the kids brush their teeth while the mom is off helping to train Secretariat!??!

Sometimes it get to this point where I regret that I haven't  written about every single thing my kids have said, every fight they've had, every situation where I am ready to lose it, for instance when I hear one of them exclaim "I wish [insert name of sibling] was dead!" But also the awesome stuff like my son knowing all this Spanish and asking us last week if we could go to Mexico on our next vacation. As I am tucking them into bed, or as I reading aloud a book about a hamster named Humphrey, I am not actually hearing the words but instead making a promise to myself that when they are both finally asleep I am going to head straight to my desk and begin a poem about  the rabbit named Mystery who ended up on school property and was taken home for a sleepover with the principal.

But then I fall asleep, don't write that poem, and instead write the poem about parallax and the Venus transit. But then today I was thinking, after reading that one of Wayne's teachers told him he should stop writing about his dreams, I need to start mining my dreams again! Last night I dreamed Billy Collins called me -- he was accepted some of my poems for a prestigious magazine -- but if I wrote that poem I'd have to have Billy calling me to invite me to a helium convention or to go wake boarding with me ... cuz talk about forbidden subjects! Even more than writing about money, it's really, really gauche to share details about acceptance/rejection of poems. And that's funny because I bet it's on the minds of 90% of poets who are seriously trying to get their foot in the poetry door, and yet: completely taboo to share, which is another reason why you should read this interview, cuz they discuss the whole taboo thing really well.

And it also got me thinking about this list I was lucky enough to see a few years' ago when a Da Vinci exhibit came to the Seattle Art Museum. It was a handwritten grocery list. I wrote it all down, but the notebook is in storage. It was incredible. Of course it included red wine. In some ways I can appreciate that sepia-toned list almost as much as, well, not the Mona Lisa, but maybe some of his more auspicious drawings, like the one for a flying machine.

So here I am, drawn to the domestic, in a kind of battle with the domestic, but actually maybe more pendulum swinging with the Spode and the cat piss. Anyway, great interview -- thanks to The Believer for pubbing it.


Joannie said...

Great post--thank you for writing it.

And I've loved the way you're able to weave the stuff (puke & peas, or whatever) into your poems as a validation (yes, folks, this is real life) and at the same time part of something bigger (also life).

My kids are mostly although not quite grown and out of the house and I still feel consumed by the domestic (schedules!!! groceries and laundry!) and haven't figured out how to write about it or even nod to it yet. Thanks for the inspiration.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Joannie. The Laundry. Tell me about it. But it appears you're getting writing done between loads!