Recent Work By Seth Pollins

You men eat your dinner
eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen

So goes the blues song, “Back Door Man,” written in 1961 by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf, and later immortalized by Jim Morrison and The Doors.

A “Back Door Man” is said to be a man who has an affair with a married woman while her husband’s away. In the song, the chicken line serves as a double entendre. Chicken-eating was rare in 1961. Per capita, consumption of pork doubled chicken consumption; not until 1985 did chicken consumption surpass pork consumption in the United States.

“I eat more chicken any man ever seen,” then, likely referred to the singer’s boast that married women cooked chicken for him and saved the less desirable pork and beans for their husbands.

I am not a “back door man”-at least not in any blues sense of the phrase. However, taken literally, that chicken line is my personal anthem: I really do eat more chicken any man ever seen.

In 2007, the typical American consumed about 87 pounds of chicken. My yearly chicken consumption equals about 525 pounds-a ½ chicken almost every single night.

Most nights, I eat a ½ roast chicken. I adore The French recipe, poulet en cocotte. I believe chicken should be brined. In Puerto Rico last winter, I ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket for seven consecutive evenings. I prefer dark meat. I tolerate people who prefer white meat, though I find this “preference” laughable. Chicken legs are finger-lickin’, robust, Whitmanesque. Dark meat, replete with B-vitamins, is more nutritious than white meat, too. I believe that chicken should be shared.  Sundays, I share a whole roast chicken with my wife. Weekends, I grill chicken legs for friends and family.

This was not always the case. Growing up, I was not necessarily a prolific chicken-eater. Then, at twenty, I became a vehement vegetarian. Firm in my belief that I was nourishing my body (and, obviously, supporting the welfare of the earth and its creatures), I ate whole grains, beans, tempeh, raw fruits and vegetables-but no chicken. Skinny to begin (6″ 150 pounds), I slimmed down to beanpole dimensions (140 pounds). I acquired what Gabriel García Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, calls “the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians.”

Some thought I was rigid. A Greek chorus of friends, family, everyone, really, except my supportive and loving vegetarian wife, said the same thing: Maybe you should eat some meat.

Perhaps they saw what I did not: vegetarianism was killing me. Throughout my early twenties, I suffered a variety of health problems. In my mid-twenties, my health issues evolved. At 26, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. One year later, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I checked into the hospital at 118 pounds, and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.

Remembering this time, I think of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine”:

Daydreaming comes easy to the ill:
slowed down to the speed of waiting rooms,
you learn to hang suspended in the wallpaper,
to drift among the magazines and plants,
feeling a strange love
for the time that might be killing you.

I do not think I was unique in my stubborn will to remain vegetarian. We hang onto to diets, to ways of eating, even when they no longer make sense, don’t we? Often, we become attached to habits that might be killing us. Time, food, cigarettes–why do we maintain this “strange love”?

It wasn’t until my honeymoon in Barcelona, when I was hit by a car, and later diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, that I began to reconsider my vehemence.

Post-diagnosis, I spent 3 days in the ER, another 3 days in the hospital. When I was released from the hospital, equipped with a regime of insulin and needles, I felt my life had been cut in two. I knew who I used to be, but I had no idea who I might become.

That night in Barcelona, I fell asleep next to my new wife for the first time in seven days. Married only a month, we had spent a week apart–me in my hospital bed; her, returning to the flat alone after visiting hours had ended. Catalans are known for their late meals. I awoke around two in the morning, to a crisply delicious, salty smell. I stepped to the window and was hit by a waft of potato chips. I stuck my head out the window into the clear air. Smelling again, I realized I was mistaken. I hadn’t been smelling potato chips. No, a lunatic Catalan family was grilling at two o’clock in the morning. The scent struck me-the scent of grilled chicken, a veritable blizzard of aromatic compounds. Something about that scent struck my soul-it came to me deliciously intoning its simple message: You can change. You will survive. Eat chicken.

Since that time, seven years ago, I have eaten approximately ½ chicken almost every single night of my life.

Diet is the most idiosyncratic trait a person owns. Married people often share religious and political beliefs-but rarely the same diet. I admit, my chicken-eating habit might seem obsessive-akin in many ways to my prior vegetarianism. There is a difference, though: as a vegetarian, in pursuit of a “pure” body, I had viewed certain ways of eating as wrong or evil. Even as I refined my diet to an impossible degree, my health suffered. Today my diet is even more refined-and yet, I thrive.

I’ve abandoned the absurd belief that any way of eating is inherently right or wrong. I do not trust dietary dictums. In terms of food, my experience has taught me that the spirit with which you approach food is as important as the food itself.

How do you eat? In penance? With joy?

Food choices are vitally important to a type-1 diabetic. I had to re-learn my relationship with food in order to live healthfully. Every time I put food into my mouth, I must calculate the effect it will have upon my body, and I must make adjustments to my insulin regime accordingly. I cannot just eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I am bound by diabetes to live my life within proscribed boundaries.

Within these boundaries, though, I’ve discovered joy: perhaps it is a form of compulsion, but I enjoy eating the exact same thing every night. I know exactly how my body will react to chicken. I love the bluesy feeling of mirth, the wild joy of sucking on a chicken bone. I do not mean to be flippant. When I eat chicken I try to remember that I’m engaging in a significant moment–a moment that must be cherished, for it has been afforded to me through a great sacrifice of resources: land, energy, life. I cannot deny, though: to me, chicken is momentous. Chicken symbolizes my return to life.

I’ve posted recipes for my ½ roast chicken and whole roast chicken on my food blog. Here is a recipe for grilled chicken.

Grilled Chicken with Pantry Spice Rub

Over-cooked chicken, like over-cooked steak, is an offensive abomination. A good way to precisely gauge the internal temperature of chicken is to use an instant-read thermometer. Optimal temperature varies between white and dark meat, typically the best chicken measures 160-165 degrees at the breast, and 165-170 degrees at the leg.

4 naturally raised whole chicken legs 
6 tablespoons kosher salt 
2 tablespoons brown sugar 
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 
1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Dissolve the salt and brown sugar in a gallon-size plastic bag. Add the chicken, press out the air, seal, and refrigerate for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the olive oil, garlic cloves, and spices.

Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse, dry with paper towels. Rub the pantry spice rub all over the chicken parts.

Light your grill.

If using a charcoal grill, make a two-level fire by stacking most of the coals on one side of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, cover, and allow the grill and rack to heat up for 5 or so minutes. Cook the chicken over the hot coals until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to high and heat the grill until very hot, about 10 minutes. Leave one burner on high and turn the other burners to low. Cook the chicken over the hotter part of the grill, uncovered, until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move  the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

My wife,

I would’ve liked to meet you at eighty. Our busy lives behind us, perhaps we could’ve watched all those movies we missed. I would’ve liked to see Hangover II. I would’ve liked to watch JAWS one last time. I miss you already. I know, we don’t believe in Heaven, but tell me, please, when we meet again, somewhere, even if we’re just two amoebas sailing over the waters of some new world-promise me you’ll notice me. Forgive, my wife, it was I who lost our wedding rings. We never did make that trip to Jeweler’s Row. It was I who never had the money. I had hoped to take care of you. I had hoped to buy you a ring. I had hoped to buy you an entire house. I had hoped we might sit in perfect stillness and wait for the good news. I had hoped to take you to Barcelona. We will never see Barcelona again. We will never share ice cream again. Forgive me, I let my illness make me crazy.

I would’ve liked to meet you at ninety, my wife. Our busy lives behind us, perhaps we could’ve experimented with drugs. I had hoped to discover the mystery of salvia. I had hoped to discover the mystery of your nightie, how, upon waking each morning, you’d slip out of your nightie, fold it into a perfect square, and hide it under your pillow. Don’t get me wrong, I had hoped to revel in that mystery for years. I had hoped, for decades to come, to reliably discover your nightie folded into a perfect square under your pillow. And yet, at eighty, I had hoped to ask, “Why, my wife? Why do you that?” You were so mysterious. You never squeezed out the sponge after washing the dishes. When confronted about this, you said, “I’m still washing the dishes.” And yet, I could see clearly: you were in bed, reading A Visit From the Goon Squad, and the sink was empty, and the sponge, absorbing its weight in soapy water, was sitting on the counter, just one more example of how you compelled my world, how you made everything remind me of you.

I had hoped, someday, to meet our children. I had hoped we’d have a daughter. Gloria or Isabella. Or, as you once said, “Francine!” Just kidding. You never said that. You never seriously suggested a name. I would’ve liked to hear what you’d come up with. I know you would’ve waited until the moment you met her. I always admired that about you. You always waited until you met someone to decide. Even then, you never made up your mind. In the wine store. At the movies. Standing in front of a case of ice cream-a glorious predicament! You never made up your mind. Don’t worry. Even if we’re just two rocks zooming around the universe-I promise, despite your indecisiveness, I’ll love you again.

I promise I’ll use the last of the ketchup before I open a new bottle. I promise, if we’re called upon to sit in perfect stillness and wait for the bad news, I will hold your hand.

I promise, the news won’t always be bad.

By the time we meet again, I predict a cure! Forgive me, I let my illness make me crazy.

Thank you, my wife, for saving my life. Thank you, my wife, for using the last of the ketchup. You were never meant for the dregs. And yet, for me, you took the dregs. Even if we’re the dregs at the bottom of some new world’s primordial puddle-promise me, my wife, promise me, you’ll tell me about the future. Skyscrapers! Plums! iPhones! Forgive me, I broke your iPhone. I broke your iPod.  I broke every single thing. I only wanted to see what was inside. I broke you, my nesting doll, and discovered another you.

I promise, someday, somewhere, I’ll make it up to you. Wedding rings. Mint chocolate chip. Three or four daughters: Gloria I, Gloria II, Gloria III, Gloria IV.

Oh, my wife, I miss you already, but I just know we’ll meet again. Even if we’re just two amoebas sailing over the waters of some new world-I promise, I’ll notice you.

For now, goodbye, but only for now.



When I recently received the good news that my uncle Deano, a poet, had undergone a successful heart transplant, I celebrated by re-reading some of his books. At the time, I hadn’t read any poetry for months; and, though I began writing, at sixteen, with the ambition of following my uncle, I hadn’t written a poem in six or seven years.

This experience-the joy (relief!) I felt for my uncle, coupled with my reading-initiated a new season for me.

Since then, I’ve devoured poems in the way, post-diagnosis, I’ve devoured medical information: with an obsessive, indiscriminate mania; as if in pursuit of some transformative antidote.

I began with Deano. Then I moved to his forbearers: Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara. John Ashbery. Stretching back, I read The French Surrealists. Rimbaud. Whitman. I punctuated my reading with my own preferences: Dilruba Ahmed, Ross White, Laura Van Prooyen, Matthew Olzmann, Alicia Jo Rabins, Gabrielle Calvocaressi, Iain Haley Pollock. C. Dale Young, Angela Narciso Torres, Dwayne Betts, Jenny Johnson, Rj Gibson.

Then, two weeks ago, after a lunatic evening out with some friends, I wrote a poem. Inspired, I wrote two poems.

“It’s on,” I said to my wife that day.

“What’s on?” she asked.

It was a good question. What was on?

Sweeping the Temple Steps

When I was twenty-one, my uncle wrote in a letter to me:

“Remember, Seth, you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”

I cannot imagine this-all this sweeping-and this is why I am not a poet. I sit and work for hours on my fiction, yet the thought of sitting to write a poem without the germ of a poem already in my head strikes me as ridiculous.

How do you do that?

In the same letter, my uncle wrote:

“There’s a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightning, so you want to make sure you’re holding a pen when it happens.”

So, for now, furiously inspired, I carry around a pen. This fury, I believe, is good for me, yet it’s a fickle fury.

Soon, I will lose my spark.

And yet, I wonder, in the absence of work ethic: is it possible to live in a manner that is favorable to writing poetry? If one were to at least attempt the project how might one actually go about sustaining inspiration?

Make Yourself as Shitty as You Can

“The idea,” Rimbaud writes, “is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.”

Is this how you do it?

Rimbaud wrote this line in 1871, at the age of sixteen, in the midst of a sequence of two brash letters that came to be known as the “The Seer Letters.” The first letter, to his teacher Georges Izambard, announced Rimbaud’s intentions to become a poet, and it included a poem, which begins with a choice line: “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.”

Izambard blasted the letter. It was vicious, detestable, he later said. Rimbaud seemed to want to fuck himself up, as much as possible-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Yes, Rimbaud was fucking himself up, but he was serving an inviolable master: Poetry.

“Right now, I’m making myself as shitty as I can,” he wrote. “Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer…The idea is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet.”

“The derangement of all the senses” is one of poetry’s most celebrated phrases. In the second “seer” letter, to Izambard’s friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud qualified the notion crucially with the adjective: “reasoned.”

Although Izambard and Demeny both dismissed his letters as utter inanity, practical jokes at best, utter filth at worst, Rimbaud, in proposing “a reasoned derangement of the senses,” was not joking at all. Rimbaud, it seems, meant to transform poetry into an act of living.

Within months he was carousing Paris, living on little else than absinthe, hashish, and the erotic adulation of Paul Verlaine, and conjuring his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. At sixteen he wrote, “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.” Two years later, he’d finished A Season in Hell.

From poop to poetry-the evolution of Rimbaud was furious. Two portraits taken around this time seem to prove this point.

In the first, Rimbaud, recently arrived in Paris, appears to be no more than a child, a puffy brat, poised for naughtiness-the type of child capable of writing a manifesto on poop.

In the second, Rimbaud has seemingly aged considerably; his face-chiseled, evocative, “angelic,” according to Jean Cocteau-is the face of a poet, a man.

What could’ve happened in the span of two short months to bring about this transformation?

Lunatic Evening with Friends

Among friends, I’m known as a somewhat fastidious person.

I eat the exact same dinner every night: chicken. With the chicken, I eat potatoes or sweet potatoes. I’ve done so, with unerring consistency, for six or seven years.

I rarely eat out. When I do, I thoroughly pre-inspect the menu. The place better have chicken. And, no matter what the menu says, I bring my own potatoes-boiled, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, smuggled in my wife’s purse.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I met some friends at Melograno in Philly: C and his girlfriend, H, as well as a new friend, M. My wife and I had met M a day before, at a poetry reading. The fact that we’d invited her to dinner struck C as somewhat impulsive.

We parked in a garage. $12.00 for the evening. It was one of those dangerous spring evenings when the intimations of summer are too much to bear, when, early in the evening, you worry that your fervor might lead you to forgo your smuggled potatoes in favor of the “roasted potatoes”, which M points out, have actually been fried; to the inevitable Malbec spill, H’s blouse swiftly more stain than not-stain; to the interlude in the garage, the attendant hiding behind the partition, M smoking on the street; to the embarrassing, glass-smashing incident at Ten Stone; to the suggestion that maybe you abandon C and H and go on to some other place; to the pointless walk up and down Walnut; to asking, “Can we go home”?; to M’s corn nuts and whiskey; to the delightful moment when M and your wife agree, “Yes, we can go home now”; to the goodbye on the street, M waving as she climbs into her car; to the parking garage, which is barricaded closed with your car in it; to the recognition that you’re stuck in Philly-stuck without your probiotics and Noni juice, your bed in Ambler, a forty-minute drive away; to running out to Sansom, hailing M’s car; to hopping in; to driving back to M’s place in Narberth, her pointing out Robin Black’s house on the right; to falling asleep in M’s son’s bed with your wife, the single the size of your childhood bed, the bed you first shared with your wife sixteen years ago, as M munches on a Klondike Bar outside the door; to waking up in an unfamiliar town, bereft of your routine, your insulin missing; to a long walk to Starbucks, but no food for you, because where’s your insulin?; to the discovery, back at M’s place, of a book case jammed with poetry; to picking up Skid, the one book by Deano that you’re not really familiar with because your first copy was stolen, your second copy left in that Starbucks in Encino; to reading “Whale Watch” and feeling, the exact coordinates of your soul struck, that perhaps you shouldn’t have borrowed $50,000 for that MFA in fiction, you could’ve probably made more money by now, and you just want to get home, back to your insulin, yet it was good to get away, you’re already writing your first poem in years.

“What happens when your head splits open/ and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?”

Poems, I’ve been reminded recently, are fucking awesome. I will not stop reading poems. I will probably stop writing poems. Still, my recent experience has me wondering: How do you become the type of person who writes poems? Sustaining inspiration aside, perhaps this is the question.

Is it wrong to assume that kick-ass poetry comes, not necessarily from the best writers, but from the most kick-ass humans?

One might live, of course, in any number of ways, just as one might write a poem in any number of ways. And anyone can, and should, I think, write poetry. But how does one acquire the ability to continue to write poems, after the inspiration vanishes?

Is it a practice of writing or living? A successful poet, of course, writes poetry, studiously, day after day. Yet, the source of poetry seems to issue from some seriously untidy place.

Is it wrong, to assume, as Rimbaud does, that a successful poet must also live in a certain reckless way?

On the one hand, millions of hopeful idiots like me have followed Rimbaud, misunderstanding him completely, fucking ourselves up into the night.

On the other hand, it has nothing to do with alcohol, but the poets I’ve met are usually drunk in some serious way.

Is it unreasonable to approach poetry, or life, with the expectation that it send you into the storm of your own being-that it transform you?

Transformation, obviously, can take many forms. Transformative two months in Paris. Transformative potatoes. Transformative poem. Transformative email. Transformative heart surgery.

Early on, Deano suffered a few setbacks. For months, we waited for news. He received his heart April 14, 2011. I read the news the next morning. 6:45 AM. I burst into joyous tears.

It’s on, I thought.

And then I asked myself: What we he will write now?

It was inevitable, right? It was our honeymoon. One of us had to get hit by a car. That I was the one, not Karen, does not surprise me at all. I only see this now, looking back. I’m crossing the street. I hardly look. I resemble my father, Ira, who was voted “Most Likely to Get Hit by a Car” in his high school yearbook. And my father, a tall, prominent man, has been hit by cars before, one time a school bus.

I was on my way to buy oranges. I was standing on the curb, day-dreaming (about eating an orange in bed, slice by slice, my new wife happily dozing next to me) when I sort of just stepped onto the street, and KABOOM!

“Oh no,” I screamed.

“Oh no,” as I was launched, unpleasantly, into the pavement.

“Oh no,” as my foot, which until then had enjoyed a comfortable relationship with a leather beach sandal, rolled under the wheel of a tiny red coupe.

Oh no, oh no, oh no: three times, in quick succession, each a bit more panicky than the last.

The tiny red coupe stopped. I was on the pavement, looking up, somewhat embarrassed.

I mean, what kind of guy screams, Oh no like that?

A small crowd assembled. Two women, both stunned and extremely pretty, leaped from the tiny red coupe, and pushed through the crowd.

Dios mio!” they gasped.

And the really pretty one, the driver I guess, sensed something unique about me-had she heard me scream, Oh no?-because she did not address me next in Catalan, or even Spanish (I mean we were in Barcelona and I’ve been told before, I look Spanish) but instead shrieked in English, “Are you alive?”

Which was very unsettling.

Maybe she meant, “Are you alright?”

My back hurt, and my foot and my head. But death? I couldn’t help but affirm what had seemed obvious until that point. I stood up.

“I’m alive,” I said.

The crowd dispersed. I caught the eye of a fit guy on a ten-speed bicycle; riding away, he looked disappointed. I was alone with the two women. I was alive. When my father was hit by the bus he called it The Uppercut. This was more Punch-Buggy.

“Where’s your foot?” the other one asked.

I noticed she really wasn’t pretty at all.

“Does this hurt?” the driver said, leaning down towards me, gently, touching my naked foot.

I wanted to say, “Yes, it hurts .”

I wanted to say this just to please her.

But then she said, “Let’s go to the hospital,” and I imagined my life soaring away into a foreign oblivion. It was only the second day of my honeymoon and I had not oriented myself to the city. Don’t ask me why, but here in Barcelona, the most cosmopolitan of Spanish cities, a city I had lived in in my early-twenties, I imagined a sort of military atmosphere, a large, foursquare room, uniformly uncomfortable beds, patients dying. We were staying at a friend’s flat on Sepulveda, but I didn’t know the street name at the time, and I definitely didn’t know the number. What if I had to stay at the foreign hospital? What about my new wife, who at that moment was sitting on a plaza nearby filming a flamenco street performance? She’d wonder where I was. She’d look for me. Maybe she’d find my beach sandal and freak. Maybe she’d find nothing and freak. Possibly, we’d meet up, days later.

“No,” I said.

I could’ve asked the far less pretty one to find Karen. I could’ve waited with the driver. We could’ve talked about ourselves. I could’ve voyaged to the hospital with three woman, two strangers and a wife, each one asking in her own way, “Does that hurt?” Really, though, I just wanted to see my wife.

And that’s what I said. “I want to see my wife.”

The ugly one lit a cigarette.

“Are you so sure?” she said.

“I’m sure,” I said.

Now here’s what bothers me. Next, instead of making my way to Karen, I limped across the street and staggered into the fruit market. I browsed the fruit bins, feeling immensely sorry for myself. I was, actually, dying, as I learned a few days later, and I guess I was already feeling a little spooky.  I thought of our wedding night, how I vomited in the bushes, and then we lounged, as newlyweds, in a broken hammock. I wanted to get better, but I also wanted to get worse, to keep Karen forever leaning over me, rubbing my shoulders, and whispering, “Is that better?”

I bought my oranges, re-crossed the street, and made my way back to the plaza I’d left maybe ten minutes earlier. My sleeves were shredded, my remaining sandal no longer fit right. I turned up some alley, passed a gelato shop, which smelled like coconut, limped down a narrow, secret street, under an arch leading onto a plaza, and there was Karen, the loveliest women I’d ever seen, peering through our digital camera, and I corrected my limp although it hurt.

What would I tell her?

Perhaps I’d tell her I bought the most spectacular oranges. I’d already tasted one and it was delicious. She saw me and smiled, her adorable Karen-smile, so giving, and I felt a pain in my heart. Perhaps I would tell her nothing. At last, when my thin shadow spread across the pavement where she was sitting, she looked up, frowned a bit, and said, “What took you so long?”

“I was hit by a car.”

“Shut up.”

I pointed to my one foot, deserted, trampled. She burst into tears.

“What happened?”

We sat, on the plaza, clutching each other. Karen was afraid to let me go and I was afraid to let her go. What other scary thing might happen?

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Karen asked.

Have you read Frank O’Hara’s poem about Lana Turner? “Lana Turner has collapsed!” My favorite lines in all of American poetry:

“I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed.”

What kind of person gets hit by a car on their honeymoon? Sitting there, I remember thinking: this whole incident seems to prove on some level that I am incompetent. I looked at my new wife, at the slender profile of her face, the tears marking her cheeks, her lovely pecas, which is Spanish for “freckles.”

I remember little of the days after I was hit by the tiny red coupe.

I remember the streets we walked from the metro to the beach. I remember reading lunch menus on the chalkboards. I remember a guy on the beach balancing doughnuts on a plank on his head. One evening, Karen dragged me from the metro station on her back to the flat on Sepulveda. I’m dying, I remember feeling.

My courage, or stupidity, still surprises me. I refused to give it much thought. I had already done enough to ruin our honeymoon.

One morning I looked in the mirror and noticed my ribs pulsating around my abdomen. I was thirsty, unimaginably thirsty, as if a vacuum were sucking the water out of my body. Whatever was happening was undeniable.

So I asked my new wife to call the doctor. One hour later, nearly dead, I was rushed to the ER, where I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. They hooked me up to a tube of insulin the size of a bomb. It was called “La bomba.” At night, after visiting hours had ended, Karen would go home to the flat on Sepulveda alone. I can see her now, standing on the balcony, surrounded by a prolific breed of plants, looking out to the building across the courtyard, looking up to the ridiculous sky.

I stayed in the hospital for six days.

The fact that all this happened during my honeymoon depressed me for months.

To get hit by a car on your honeymoon is not good. To enter the hospital, nearly dead, on your honeymoon, is worse. I had given a vow a month before, to have Karen as my wife, to live together in marriage, to love her, to comfort her, to honor her and keep her, in sickness and health, in sorrow and joy, and to be faithful to her, as long as we both shall live. With this vow comes an unspoken promise, one that a young guy might feel obliged to ignore: to stay alive. It’s important not to die. Beyond the grandiose gestures of wedding  vows, the most human thing a couple can do together is survive.

It’s rare, I imagine, to receive that sort of lesson on a honeymoon. But I did. We did.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Karen had asked that night on the plaza.

“Of course not,” I had said.

And so we went off to a little restaurant in El Raval. It was our honeymoon, after all. I remember devouring my monkfish paella. I remember looking at my wife, how she dissected a plate of prawns in a silence she broke only to ask for more wine. I remember the wine, the tang of cheap rioja, the two bottles we swilled out of sheer joy.

Hello, my name is Seth Pollins and I am a writer. I say this, today, not as a fist-pumping gesture. I say this in the spirit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I admit defeat. I’m addicted. I do not always feel this way, that my impulse to write is actually governed by uncontrollable compulsion, but today, an otherwise cheery, bright day in Ambler, I do.

I am a married man, childless, creeping towards my mid-thirties, and I’m currently working on my–I’m embarrassed to say this–sixth novel.  I’d like to think that the time I spend writing is productive–that I write not because I expect my work to take me somewhere, but because I believe that perseverance just might. But I have to admit, writing often feels like a compulsion to me; and my writing life does share a certain affinity with the life of an addict.

Right now, I divide my time between two types of work: work that makes money; and work (my writing) that makes no money. Although I do enjoy my moneymaking work, I often feel “unpleasant symptoms” when I am engaged in it. In reality, I’m suffering withdrawal from my writing.  At work, I tell myself: I am not doing what I want to be doing. I am not doing what I am meant to do. It depresses me, creates anxiety. I often have this urge: to just quit my job, to go home and write. That wouldn’t be very responsible, would it? And yet, I think about it all the time.

How many writers, successful and not, believe this is so: Writing is what your meant to do?

I think of the seemingly delusional contestant on “American Idol”, the contestant who struts into his tryout with absolute certainty: I am the next American Idol. Even before he sings it’s obvious: this guy will fail; this guy will torture (or delight, depending on your perversity) in some serious way. Then he opens his mouth and your fear/glee is confirmed: he is terrible. How could he not know? He’s twenty-eight! How could he have made it this far not knowing how bad he really is? He had tried for so many years, but it’s obvious: all along he had been failing. Day after day, year after year, he had been failing. I sometimes wonder if these contestants really have worked so hard. And yet, what if they have? It certainly throws the value of perseverance into question. Yet, without perseverance, what does he have?

Recently, I posted a letter from my uncle, a poet, on my blog. In the letter, written to me when I was twenty-one, my uncle tried to offer a realistic portrait of what it takes to be a successful writer:

“But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too…You’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good.”

If you aren’t any good, though, what’s the use of spending all that time “teaching yourself to write well”? Without talent, perseverance begins to look a lot like compulsion.


Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in a furious 18-month burst. He tells of the hardships of this time in the wonderful book The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez:

“You already know how much lunacy of this sort Mercedes [his wife] has had to put up with…She took charge of the situation. I’d bought a car a few months earlier so I pawned it and gave her the money. I reckoned that we could live on it for six months, but it took me a year and a half to write the book. When the money ran out she never said a word. I don’t know how she did it, but she got the butcher to give us credit for the meat, the baker for his bread, and the landlord to wait nine months for the rent.”

García Márquez had already published a few books, and yet he knew this was his make-or-break moment. “Either this book will be my break-though,” he said, “Or I’ll blow my brains out.”

Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to become one of the most famous novels of all time. But what if he had failed? He had two children at the time, a wife. How might we look at his compulsive behavior if it led not to worldwide fame, but suicide? Two children.  To abandon your responsibilities as a care-giver for eighteen months! Was García Márquez selfish? Do you have to be selfish to write a masterpiece?

Children. Since adolescence, I’ve associated the writing-life with the images borne towards me from my uncle’s life. My uncle introduced me to many of his poet friends–truly genuine, loving, funny people. One thing I noticed as a teen and young adult, without ever thinking too much about it, was that many of these poets did not have children. So it seemed to me, growing up, that a life of poetry might not be compatible with parenthood. Of course, this is an egregious generalization. And, of course, people have and do not have children for any number of reasons–reasons that need not be explained to anyone. But I often truly do wonder: is the writing life compatible with parenthood?

I’m speaking specifically of a writer at the beginning of their career: the unpublished, the hopeful, the compulsive–me.  Because, obviously, many successful writers have successfully raised children. No, I wonder, more specifically, of the writer I soon hope to be: the writer trying to break into the business who is also raising a child–or two, or three, or more.

For me, just now, this question of the writer-parenthood paradigm is important. My wife and I, we are trying to get pregnant. If we are blessed with a child, well, then, I will need to make more money. It’s not merely a question of my wife not being able to work. She will go back to work; she will continue to make money. That’s her preference. And, of course, I will spend time at home with my child, feasibly writing. No, it’s a question of the way I feel about my role. I want to provide for my wife and my child. I want to contribute meaningfully to our financial situation in a way that will enable us to move out of our apartment, buy a house, perhaps buy a second car–basically ease the burden that is now primarily on my wife, a successful lawyer. I am frantically searching for teaching jobs. I am frantically applying to writing fellowships. I am frantically trying to finish my third rewrite of my novel.

All of this strikes me as productive.

On most days, too, the time I spend writing strikes me as worthwhile and productive.

But at what point in the near future will the time I spend writing begin to compromise my ability to meet my responsibilities as a husband, a father? How long can I continue to spend my time writing (without making money) before the ballooning financial responsibilities of adulthood swallow more and more of my time–the time I had previously set aside for writing? It seems I’m confronting a make-or-break moment.

Obviously the people who become successful writers are the ones who do it. Perseverance, finally, is more important than talent. You can’t just write when inspiration puts your head in the furnace. And the more you write, the more you discover: inspiration comes later in the process. You have to work through the soot. You have to spend weeks looking into the twilight just to see the twinkle in the first star. Writers do this. Writers write, frantically.

And yet, when you make no money, this frantic activity seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?

I do not believe I have an addiction. But really, what is the difference between addiction and perseverance? What is the difference between Gabriel García Márquez writing furiously for 18 months, and, say the terrible “American Idol” contestant singing furiously for 18 months? Talent, obviously. Talent is important too. How do you know if you got any? At what point do you decide that you’ve tried hard enough–that you’re just not talented enough, that your wife, and your potential child, need you more than you need your writing?

I’ve found the best thing to do is to not think about these things. The best thing to do is to simply write. And that’s not hard for me: I’m addicted.