Friday, March 23, 2012

Discomfort Zone

Private Collection

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.

Silent Reproach

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?

 Sharp Reflections

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.

 My Truth

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.  


  1. Your words so beautifully express the edge that you're on ... and there's something about this series of photos that has an extra intensity, too. I'm especially drawn to "Sharp Reflections," so full of both beauty and ambiguity

    1. JMG - thanks so much for understanding the edge I tried to express in both text and image. This was a post primarily about the writing side of my creative life, but when I went looking for recent photos to accompany the words, it was amazing to me how a few select images jumped out as the perfect complement, especially Sharp Reflections, which has everything I love about a good poem, as you said - full of both beauty and ambiguity. So many different forms of expression, and so much in common in the end!

      Have a great weekend!

  2. Wow, G. What an intensely rich post....I do hope this journey is fruitful and rewarding in ways you can't yet imagine! P.

    1. Well, right after I posted this, I set myself to working through his collection book by book and hope to continue over the weekend. I saw the poet himself last night to hand back these first reviewed volumes and he told me the one thing I really didn't need to hear "don"t worry - take your time!" The poor man may never see the rest of his work back!

      Yesterday was a writing day it seems. As you will find out personally in a few days...hint, hint...

  3. Thank you for the insights into poetry and writing and assessing and the things that you will be/are looking for...I really liked the 4 categories you thought of putting the works in; and the lovely way you captured what each was about. I too, think the imagery here is perfection! Best wishes on the journey; may it bear fruit for you both!

    1. Thanks so much F - I do think that this will be a mutually rewarding experience for me and my poet friend. I'm sure you've found the same whenever you've helped another artist in your own medium - there is so much to be learned in the process of guiding another!

  4. TT/G - interesting how journeys sometimes choose us to take us on a path that gives us the opportunity to test assumptions about ourselves and our work.; and as you say not always comfortable journeys or revelations. Hope the task is not too burdensome; and that it offers you new directions. Go well. B

    1. You've put it exactly right, B - personal assumptions do need to be tested, how else to know whether they are myth or truth? You'd never go out to sea in a vessel you "assumed" was watertight, would you? Talk about an uncomfortable journey!

      All the best to you.

  5. Dear Gabriella, not only did you gave me a better insight into poetry but also a very clear and honest look upon your emotions dealing with editing someone's work.
    If only more people would approach such a delicate job with this care....
    And as you say it is being out of our comfort zone, we get the chance to grow and get onto another level. I love your last sentence, only experience can have made this clear to you.

    Thanks for a very interesting piece of writing, xx

  6. I finf these pics intense too, and very intimate too... lot of works good in care... love this

  7. wow Gabriella!
    this task is very disturbing! too laborious, but very noble.
    an apprenticeship, a finger in a wound {intimal] a Herculean job!
    and I'm sure you will accomplish with all competence!

    this post, as proof your courage :)
    good luck my friend!

    a huge hug

  8. ahh.. great sequence of photos!
    beautiful and dramatic - I loved it!!

  9. Many thanks Renilde, Laura and Denise! So far this is proving to be just as demanding -- and rewarding! -- a task as I thought. Wishing all you lovely ladies an equally lovely weekend!

  10. This task is both heaven and hell. But i know for sure you will deal with it with heart, compassion and expertise. Your words are always poetry to me, they touch my heart and thoughts. And like Renilde also said, this post gives me more insight into poetry, why some are so good and some don't touch you at all.
    Your photographs are again breathtaking. Especially Sharp reflections and even more My truth.
    I hope you have a nice weekend my friend.
    Hugs and kisses!

  11. Thank you so much M for the vote of confidence! This year has been very challenging so far, in more ways than one, but now that the winter months are finally behind me I think it will be nothing but good things for the rest of the year! Have a great week, my friend.

  12. A real challenge for you as a poet to look into another poets soul.
    The "Private collection" of another colleague and friend.
    But, I am sure, that in the end the editing, coming from you, is coming out
    Hugs from Athens!!!

  13. Thank you Monika! This poet has a soul definitely worth looking into! Fortunately he is also a very patient man and doesn't seem to mind that it is taking me so long to accomplish this task! Hugs to you too.

  14. What a fantastic, insightful post. I long ago learned that I will gleefully leap past my own boundaries and do things that make me uncomfortable, and so I had to figure out a way to start fighting for those boundaries. It seems like you're enjoying this task and the uncomfortableness (growth?)that accompanies it, so I can't say that's a bad thing. But I will say - that if it ever feels like more of a burden -you can always hand them back unsorted and unedited and say, with complete love and authenticity, that you were not able to do what you thought you could do. There's no shame in re-drawing our boundaries if the alternative if violating them ourselves. :)

    1. Hey, Tracy, thanks, glad you liked. I seem to be going for quality versus quantity lately with posting, which is why I've been silent for two weeks since writing this! I'm a leaper too, at least to begin with, and especially when non one can benefit or suffer but myself! Then it sinks in that maybe I've taken on too much, or might not be able to live up to someone else's expectations and the doubts creep in. But all of that process is part of living, right? And way better than playing it safe and not testing any boundaries at all, ever. I can tell you that the mere fact this poet handed over his work for review was a huge step for him, as was my accepting it, and even if our collaboration does not produce immediate or great results we are already both better artists and humans beings because of it. Have a great weekend!