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Comes the Thaw

Writers with unpublished (or unpublishable) early work are legion.  I know this and can accept that it's a poor excuse to stop putting words on the page.  So it might seem odd to blame a bad experience with one teacher for quitting altogether, as I did in an earlier post.

In my experience, workshop can have some pretty low lows, but, like many writers I know, my ego was plenty healthy enough to mostly roll with it--there were highs, too, and it balanced out. 

If this person had said she didn't like the poems or thought they were badly written (immature, cliche, boring, name your literary condemnation), it would have been disappointing, sure.  Possibly even a little crushing, in the moment.  But, in the end, I think it would've been like any other critique, and I'd've gotten over it fine. 

Instead, she told me that when Robert Lowell was working on the The Dolphin, which was about the ending of his marriage, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to him to say that as pieces of poetry, they were wonderful, but they said things that would be far too hurtful to other people.  Publishing them would just be wrong.  

Turns out, this is a well-known enough story that you can find it on Lowell's Wikipedia entry.  But I had never heard it.  I knew who Lowell was, obviously, but his work hadn't made much of an impression of me....Bishop, however, Bishop I loved.  (I had had to choose two contemporary poets for a required comp and I wrote on the use of landscape and memory by Bishop and Hugo.) 

I believe she sincerely thought she was saving me from a making a huge mistake and I'm certain the people she was hoping to spare were my parents.  Which is ironic, since they had read the poems and approached the whole project with a depth of compassion this woman clearly could not have imagined.  (I had absolutely resisted sharing the thesis with them when it was first finished, but they were gently insistent, and I had given in when it became obvious that they weren't giving up.)

So they had read the poems and were, in fact, helping with the tuition so I could have this very opportunity, an additional chance to be with other writers a year after finishing my MFA.  I had signed up for the very first one-on-one appointment, which was earlier in the day than our workshop time--this conversation was actually our introductory meeting. 

She allowed how we'd have to go forward with having these poems be critiqued by my classmates—you submit a manuscript in advance, so everyone has time to read and respond, there was no other option.  But if workshop is a space for writers to help each other kick and cajole their work into publishable shape,  then it was important that I understand that, in good conscience, she couldn't behave as if she condoned publishing them at all.  There were too many contradictory claims, which meant some were outright lies, damaging, damning things that oughtn't be used merely to serve a clever conceit.

As it happens, I was no stranger to this idea: that very struggle—what could be said, reconciled, forgiven—was, to riff on an Alfred Goldbarth title, what the poems were actually about.   At least that was my intention.  I'm not sure the universe could have offered a clearer indication of how completely I must have failed to communicate that, however, than being told it was my responsibility as an artist to put my gifts to better use.

In her defense, she only had a piece of the manuscript, since the maximum number of pages per student was limited.   But I had tried to choose them carefully with that in mind.  Sitting there with her, I offered this explanation, attempted to give her an idea of how everything worked together, but she seemed to take this as only as an admission that I apparently had yet more untruths up my sleeve, to be relieved she needn't subject herself to more of them.

In the end, I don't think I quit writing due to her assessment of my poetry, so much as it was my own worry about my judgment.  'Cause it might have been small, but there was still a voice in the back of my head that remained pretty damned committed to fighting for these here poems...if that made me a crappy human being, well, so be it.   And that voice's existence scared me right to death. 

I didn't make a conscious decision to stop writing...after a while, I just noticed that it wasn't something I did anymore.  I got to missing it, eventually, but that took years, and by then, it seemed like more of a matter of can't than won't.

The final poem in the sequence was written years after the rest of the thesis—the only new poem I've managed since that morning.   For the first time in a long time, I'm kind of hopeful that it won't be my last.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 10th, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
Fresca (gugeo.blogspot) here:
That's a tough one. I've wrestled with how much to expose other people in writing. I think every writer does, at least every one who thinks about other people.
For that matter, I've wrestled with how much to expose myself in writing too.
And, most importantly, for what end?
Seems you had an important end--if nothing else, the end poem.
Jul. 12th, 2008 05:09 am (UTC)
I completely agree that all writers face this. I had spent a long time thinking about it and working out for myself what felt ethical, so much so that I ended up writing poems about that process itself--it seemed to me that this had in fact turned out to be one of central themes of the sequence.

That was what really threw me about her response--it was like she thought it had never occurred to me that there might be implications for other people.

Which, in turn, made me really worry about tone--in "Love Match" or "Possession", for example, I thought it was implicit that the reader was meant to consider the narrator's choices and the ways in which they could found wanting.

I knew what I had hoped to do, but now it seemed as if I'd been a lot less successful than I'd thought. It was like being reset to zero--I had do all the work of figuring out whether I thought it was really okay to say these things over again.

Jul. 13th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, yeah, I didn't mean to doubt that you had wrestled with that, but just to say I have too.
That woman's (teacher?) response reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
Hillary Clinton saying, about being attacked, "It's not about you. Whatever you think, it's never about you."
As you said in an e-mail, it seems that woman was talking out of her own stuff, not truly tuning in to yours.
Jul. 11th, 2008 01:52 am (UTC)
wow, that was balanced.
It's odd... I never made it to the particular workshop you described, but I had a sort of similar experience. After so much encouragement of my poetry, including a professor who encouraged me even after I left school, I let one huge jerk bring my poetry-ing to a halt. And I haven't written a single one since... fall of 1998? Wow, 10 years.


Your last paragraph makes me very happy, though. May the best things happen for you.
Jul. 12th, 2008 05:22 am (UTC)
"wow, that was balanced"

Well, it's been a long time...it seems even incandescent rage burns out after a while...

And (no pressure!) but perhaps it will add a bit of hope for your own poetry-ing if I tell you that, just a few months ago, I couldn't even envision having this conversation, and as it happens, this summer makes it 11!
Jul. 11th, 2008 01:53 am (UTC)
that last one was from Krista (www.slimcoincidence.com/blog)
Jul. 12th, 2008 05:29 am (UTC)
Re: um,
Yeah, I meant to include your name on that reply above, too...but I got sidetracked trying to figure out if I was logged in or just sending replies to myself like last time...this blogging thing is trickier than it looks.
Jul. 13th, 2008 03:30 am (UTC)
I hope this isn't you last poem, too.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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