May 16, 2012
Not for me.
Okay. What do you want to talk about?
Well, today I was struck by all the ways we try to control our world. How we like to test, to standardize, to codify and quantify and know. That seems like such a human thing to want to do—to impose order. Or to pretend that we have uncovered some part of the blueprint for the universe—or some integral part of ourselves—and now we think we REALLY know something.
And it seems to me that I used to use poems that way. I wrote as an antidote for the messy, chaotic, unpredictable world. I think I really believed that I could write my way into an understanding. I wrote a whole essay about it for An Elevated View: Colorado Writers on Writing, (Seven Oaks Publishing, 2011). At some point in the last few years, that changed. Now the poems that most interest me are ones that promote unlearning—tearing down the scaffolding we’ve put in place. Poems that lean into the mystery instead of trying to contain it or name it or convey some kind of Truth.
Well, I notice your house is pretty ordered.
Certain things I can control. Clutter is one. Plus, I have a couple of deadlines today—a poetry workshop description for a group of teachers, an article about a knitting circle for Telluride Magazine, an essay defending my versions of modern haiku, and then there’s this self interview. So before I sat down to the computer, I cleaned the house. Tonight, even the fridge. I think my habit of cleaning as procrastination has something to do with being able to see myself start and finish a project. Plus the whole time I scrub or vacuum, I’m thinking about what it is I want to write. Just don’t look in the kids’ closet, okay?
You write a lot about your kids.
I’m lucky. I spend a lot of time with them.
Your most recent book is a collection of conversations with Rumi, in which he comes to visit you—in the kitchen, the garden, the beach or the Walmart parking lot. What was the inspiration for this book?
A couple years ago I gave a poetry reading in Santa Barbara with the phenomenal (and very real) Barry Spacks. He read a poem in which Rumi was in a room full of cheerleaders. Really? I thought. How marvelous! I was enthralled with the notion that a 13th century Sufi mystic could show up anywhere. And he began to. In my son’s kindergarten class. The library carrels. While canning tomatoes …
But Rumi wasn’t really showing up, was he? You weren’t channeling, right?
No. It was literary and imaginary. I have been reading Rumi extensively for about five years, and I have taught classes on Rumi—and other mystics, too—around the state of Colorado. Now that I think of it, when I started to read Rumi is probably when I started to embrace not knowing. I think that’s when the walls started to come down, and when I started to think that perhaps the walls coming down was a wondrous thing, not a calamity.
Anyway, having read a lot of Rumi and having memorized quite a few of his poems in translation, many of his words have made a home in the back pocket of my mind (oh, how I love memorizing poems for this reason!). And so it was that he “appeared” to me. Some of the poems in the book have “conversations” with translations by Daniel Ladinsky and Coleman Barks. They were both gracious enough to give me permission to use their work in the collection. And some of the conversations are purely imagined—I just heard what Rumi might have said.
In some way, the Rumi character in these poems is the part of myself that is much bigger than myself—a conscience. But that sounds too moral. Let’s say it’s an awareness not married to judgment. An unbiased noticer. That wise part of ourselves that we usually shut out in the interest of preserving our egos.
So who else do you have conversations with?
I like to think of writing poetry as “joining the big conversation”—a conversation that extends across continents and cultures, across centuries and conditioning. In some way, all writers are addressing this question: “What does it mean to be alive?” And look at all these myriad answers! So in my mind, when I write, I am conversing with everyone who writes. And everyone who reads.
Specifically, I suppose, I converse, informally, with my favorite writers, who include A.E. Stallings, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louise Gluck, Jane Hirshfield, A.R. Ammons, and Ellen Bass. And so many more. But those are all people I have never met, or at least have never become friends with. In a very real way, I have poetic conversations all the time with poets I know and love: Art Goodtimes, Wendy Videlock, Danny Rosen, Jack Mueller, Ellen Metrick, Julie Cummings, Rachel Kellem, Barry Spacks, Jim Tipton, Jude Janett, Danny Ladinsky, Tony Alcantara, Cam Scott, Barbara Ford … I feel as if I might get myself into trouble here by naming a few and not all of them. There are more, many more.
Many more. It’s an incredible poetry community here extending out from Colorado’s Western Slope—a warm, supportive, encouraging, vulnerable, inspiring, heart-breaking group of poets. Am I gushing?
I wish I could gush louder, faster, richer, deeper, sweeter and more. So much about what I love about poetry has to do with community.
And yet here you are alone in your house, writing poems and writing about poems at 3:34 a.m.
Right. Ultimately, it’s a solitary endeavor, isn’t it. I once heard A.R. Ammons say to people who were considering becoming poets, “Why sit alone in a room, picking away at your own liver? But if you must write, I say to you, write.” There is something in me that must write. I’ve written since fourth grade. Why? For fun. For clarity. For an illusory knowing. For connection. For praise (ugh, I said it). For the pure pleasure/agony of writing and trying to say what I mean. For sound’s sake. For what? Oh I don’t know. Because I would be really, really lost without it and it feels like an anchor, like a kite.
My favorite answer EVER to the question why do you write came from Colorado poet Aaron A. Abeyta, who said, “I know it sounds romantic, but every poem I write I write to save someone’s life.” Yes! Yes. And sometimes that life is my own.
For seven years I’ve written a poem a day. It’s a practice, for sure, that I take on knowing I will never “get it right.”
And hey, I am so not alone. My kids are sleeping in the other room.
What question do you wish I would ask?
Ha. This is so funny, the self-interview. It’s so interesting all the places we didn’t go. But since you ask …
The other night in Durango, I gave a reading with Dave Mason, Pamela Ushuck (I am glad to finally know this is pronounced YOU-SHEWK) and William Pitt Root, and a woman in the audience asked me why I sing during readings. I was caught off guard, and mumbled something about it being fun and using it as a way to pull reluctant listeners into a poem.
The rest of the readers concurred later that singing in a reading was decidedly non-academic and was in fact much maligned by critics. I had never really thought about it. Bringing singing to poetry is more impulse than anything else. But here part of what I wish I had said:
Poetry is one way we express what it means to be alive. Singing is another. As is dance, painting, sculpture, theater, skiing powder snow, playing in the park with our children, canning apricot jam, making love outside … There are so many ways to explore this humanness. And it’s so darn sweet when we marry these so-called disciplines and engage with life as richly as possible. Why shouldn’t we sing with poems? Why shouldn’t we also dance? We like to draw these arbitrary boundaries. “This,” we say is poetry. And “these” poets belong to “this” group. And “this” is the style that this poet writes in. Ugh. All the shoulds. All the labels. All the wanting to make the world fit into the right box. I guess we’re back at the beginning, huh. Only it’s much, much later.