Two, maybe three weeks ago, a new friend had the courage, one might say foolhardiness, to entrust to me a whole knapsack full of years of his poetry handwritten on everything from bound journals to loose sheets to cocktail napkins. In one of those moments of overreaching, of which I am always more capable than actually grasping the task ahead, I promised this worthy poet that I would review his work, organize it, and even make edits where I thought necessary.
It won’t surprise any longtime readers of this space that here I am, two, maybe three weeks later having done nothing more than sort this most private of collections into a tidy stack on my desk where it has been confronting me daily with reproachful looks, and that if this were not enough of a manifestation of my malingering ways, I am now bringing procrastination of this project to a whole new level by spending time writing about continuing to ignore it rather than just doing it. So, obviously the problem here isn’t lack of time or energy. What then could it be?
My taking on of this project gave me some misgivings at first, and when something gives me misgivings, I take it as a sign that here is an opportunity to go beyond my comfort zone, which is good for an artist, right? Well, it turns out that going outside your comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable. But not in that invigorating challenging way – it just plain feels weird – and not a good weird. I thought this would be a wonderful way to make use of some of my unused expertise to help someone while also helping myself, because that unused expertise, by which I mean the writing of poetry, seemed long overdue for some using. Now it turns out there may be a good reason why this thing, which used to be the center of my life, has been so neatly pushed aside, but continues to reproach me, much like a neatly stacked but stubbornly neglected collection of someone else’s words.
A Long Time Ago
Because that is how poetry feels to me now: poetry is something someone else does. I have great sympathy and appreciation for this activity; I can even offer advice, but most of the experiences I am drawing on happened a long time ago. I may take poetic photographs, and lord knows I will never stop pouring out words in one form or another, but the majority of my poems happened in another millennium. Becoming deeply engaged in someone else’s poems makes me feel like one of those poor deluded souls who dress twenty pounds thinner or younger than they really are. I am much more comfortable in my new wardrobe, appropriate to this particular creative stage of my life.
Life of its Own
But being a good editor of poems of necessity requires a temporary wearing of someone else’s creative clothing. It isn’t good enough to spot and correct the misspellings and grammatical errors. It isn’t good enough to point out where the rhythm falls off, where anyone but the writer himself would stumble over lapses in music and sense. To do justice to a poem under review, a good editor owes it to the poem to go one step further. Most writers are pretty good, too good sometimes, at getting the spelling, grammar, music and sense right. But a really great poem has a life of its own, a personal passion of its own, so convincing and compelling you can forgive superficial inconsistencies, if you are not too busy falling in love to even notice them.
Out of Sorts
When I do make my move and make good on my promise to my friend the poet, my plan is to somehow sort his work into four categories of poems: ones that have perfect insides and just need a little polishing up on the surface, ones that have perfectly adequate outsides but feel false or empty inside, ones that may or may not have all kinds of flaws, but for what they are somehow come across as finished, entire unto themselves, untouchable, and those that are in such an embryonic state, I can’t really do anything until I have more to work with. Once I’ve completed this sorting process, the latter two categories I will hand back over to my friend as a kind of peace offering, just so he knows I am not planning on keeping his work so long I have to leave town in shame.
Held Back by Fear
It’s the first two categories that trouble me. Just as with human interaction, it isn’t impossible, but neither is it easy to tell the difference between a poem that is lying to you, and one that is just not speaking its truth clearly enough. Both leave you with a sense of misgiving, a desire to extend benefit of the doubt, but held back by fear that it may not be worth the trouble. Which is worse – falling for something that sounds too good to be true because it isn’t, or walking away too soon from something that makes a bad first impression but may be worthwhile after all? Which brings us back to being outside the comfort zone.
On its Way to the Light
The only way to tell if a poem makes you uncomfortable because it is using words to cover its emptiness, or has something true and beautiful inside to express if it could only find the right words, is to become the poet writing it. You have to go back to how it felt to be who, what and where they were when they first turned that moment into poetry and figure out what went wrong. You have to get inside that mind, that moment, and challenge its truth. Most of the time there is something beautiful in the deep darkness that was simply mishandled on its way to the light. Sometimes you have to be honest with the poet and let them know that however valid their experience may have been, somewhere along the way the desire to write a poem about it took over, and the poem that resulted ended up not being true to its own inspiration. And the only way to fix something like that is to challenge the poet to go back to that inspiration and basically try again. That’s one of those suggestions just as much fun to deliver as it is to receive. You don’t tell a proud parent their kid is no good.
The night my friend gave me his work I took a quick first look and immediately felt as if I had been hit by a shovel. I had not fully realized the emotional magnitude of his writing, and thus the task ahead. In the days that followed I missed him with the kind of intense yet vast melancholy I usually feel for places I’ve visited briefly and loved deeply, but knew I would never live in. I postponed beginning my work the way you play cat and mouse with a novel you know will change your life but once you start reading it you will get closer to the point of finishing it, and thus closer to never again being that person who had yet to touch the first page. And that’s how I’ve been ever since – hesitant and confident, eager and afraid. I write to get at the truth of things, my truth, my things, with which I can be as careful or carefree as I choose. Now I have a roundtrip ticket out of my comfort zone and into someone else’s truth, someone else’s things. I don't want to go, but I wouldn't miss this trip for the world.