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?

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SETH POLLINS, a strong advocate of dinner, is a writer and who lives with his wife in Ambler, a small town outside Philadelphia. He currently works at Villanova University's Writing Center and Whole Foods Market as a lively lecturer, recipe developer, and all-around food optimist. He earned an MFA from Warren Wilson College and is currently finishing his novel, Bump. Seth writes for the food blog, FoodVibe. Fanatics can follow him on Twitter.

22 responses to “Drunk in Some Serious Way: On Hearts, Poets, and Poetry”

  1. jonathan evison says:

    . . . brilliant:

    “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.”

    . . . this is so true . . . this is why i drag my ass out of bed every morning at 5am–to sweep the temple steps . . .

    . . . when i read the encapsulation of this post: “Seth Pollins wonders: How does one become a poet?”, i said to myself: “well, for starters, cut your salary in half.”

    • Seth Pollins says:

      It’s funny, my experience as a young writer (based solely on my impressions of my uncle) was that you could make money writing poetry.

      I can’t imagine taking that workman approach. 5am? More power to you!

  2. Okay, Seth, you are now officially officially one of my favorite TNB writers. This is a fantastic rumination on poetic writing and living. Glad your uncle is doing so well. What a great mentor you have in him, judging from that letter.

    Off to write about poop now. It’s on!

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

    There are so many golden nuggets of amazinggreatbest in this piece I had to read a few times over to pick out my favorite line, but I think this articulates why I am not only so in love with poetry, but the poets I read themselves, and why I would be waytooeverscared to write poetry, even in a secret journal that I hid under my bed.

    Loved, loved, loved this piece. The Gods of Poetry must be supes happy with you right now, dude.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Holy crap, Books are my Boyfriends, thank you for your enthusiastic comment! Are you sure you don’t write poetry? Even in that secret journal under your bed? That sounds a bit like a confession.

  4. Great piece, Seth! I’m stuck on the chicken-only thing–fascinating!

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Hi Jessica Anya Blue. Thank you. I was a vegetarian for seven years before becoming, quite suddenly, a chicken fanatic. I literally did not eat one bite of chicken for seven years then, BOOM, it was seven years of chicken. This has something to do with a diagnosis of type-1 diabetes, but it also has to do with emotional issues that I don’t yet understand. Perhaps I should write about it. Anyway, thanks again.

  5. Bert says:

    Seth, many of these things I had already known about you. But your writing has gotten more and more entertaining along with your level of engagement with the subject matter. This was fun to read.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Thanks, Bert. Yes, I seem to write about the same themes: to know me is to know that I eat chicken. In fact, I just polished off a 1/2 chicken, dusted with paprika and thyme, and roasted skin-side down at the bottom of the oven. Of course, it was brined.

      No wine tonight. Just water.

      Cheers, buddy!

  6. Hello Seth and Family,

    I’m so glad to hear that Dean has received a heart, and he is doing well. I just read his new book of poems “Fall Higher” and felt moved by the healing of it all. It’s good to know that he is doing well. Maybe he will come back to Chicago for another reading? I’d like to get my book signed again. I also read “The Art of Recklessness” and loved all the wacky references in it, especially “The Wizard of Oz Movie.”

    Good luck with your writing. It’s strange. I don’t find inspiration that easily my self anymore. I just keep reading books thinking that I am pollinating my imagination with new thoughts. I did love David Lehman’s book “A Fine Romance,” which is about Jewish songwriters. I also read a book of essays called “Break, Blow, Burn;” sometimes what poets write about their favorite poems is just as inspiring as their own poetry.

    Feel free to read some of my poetry for free online at: Ruben.Openhill.com

    Thanks for keeping us informed.

    Peace, Love, Best Wishes,
    Ruben Santos Claveria

  7. Seth Pollins says:

    Thanks, Ruben. You seem to be a sincerely devoted fan of Deano’s. Thanks for that. I’m sure he’d like to hear that. For inspiration, I read biographies of writers. I’m reading Graham Robb’s Rimbaud biography now (where I got my Rimbaud info). But really, I do find a lot of inspiration in kick-ass evenings with friends. If you’re not an alcoholic, I think an evening of drunkeness can be quite liberating. If you do have alcohol problems, well then, probably not the best idea. Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend it all the time, because then you might never write, but every now and then–yeah, I think wine works. Of course, there are other ways to get drunk, and that’s what I’m trying to say here. Just reading poetry is doing it for me right now. The point, though, is that real poets are writers: the people who continue to sit down, day after day, like the first commenter above, Jonathan.

    Good luck, buddy.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    You take your own potato’s to restaurants??? This is the best thing ever.
    Really am enjoying your work, Seth. This was a lovely and thoughtful piece. Thank you.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Wow, Zara, thanks. Some people actually think my Madonnaesque potato habit is the worst thing ever. I only bring boiled potatoes, though, because they’re the only potatoes that are still good served as leftovers.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I’m celebrating Dean’s new heart with you, Seth. In the meantime, don’t stop writing poetry, okay? I’m not sure you can. Your prose is full of it.

  10. Khadija says:

    Yes, it sucks/is amazing to be a poet. If I had to get up at 5am I would shoot myself. I write consistently but not every day – almost every day – I’m still published and productive. I hope all that chicken is organic…best to your uncle!

  11. Very much liked the “We parked in a garage” para. And any disquisition on Rimbaud.

  12. milo martin says:

    hullo Seth
    yes this is a compelling piece, especially for a temple steps sweeping mofo like myself…
    this piece covers much ground, both idiosyncratic and grand, personal and universal, a nice telescoping from the micro to the macro and back again…
    i need to read your Uncle Deano’s work…he sounds like a wise man, which is a poet’s secondary job…and very poetic about his heart…he’s probably had it punctured a few times along this cruel path…Godspeed to him…
    lots of edifying stuff here about Rimbaud, one of the most hyper-poetic poets of all time, or at least one of the most celebrated…many poets live and love furiously, write and drink ferociously and then die in a thrashing curse, never to be remembered by anyone longer than a few years…the ones who are remembered swept those steps religiously year after year just the same but who had good PR and communicated in a rudimentary yet magically timeless way…
    thank you for this piece…inspiration is where one can find it and i found some here, thanks to you…
    Milo Martin
    vegetarian poet

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Hi Milo,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Rimbaud quit writing when he was 21. His early PR seems to have been atrocious. I think we read him now, though, precisely because what he wrote was literally magic. Have you read A Season in Hell? Whenever I read it, I feel like it wasn’t Rimbaud who wrote it, but me. That’s magic.

      Please do read Deano.

      I’m curious, why do you sign your comment “vegetarian poet?” I was a vegetarian for six or seven years. Now I eat much chicken.

  13. milo martin says:

    not that being a vegetarian is my main raison d’etre or my personnae as a poet, merely a reference to your mention of once being a vegetarian…

    i first realized something was clearly insidious about the meat issue when years ago coming back from witnessing the most sublime ocean sunset on LSD, a girl on the beach turned to me with a chicken wing, broke it open to expose veins and red bones, whereupon i looked to the bbq grill over her shoulder to see 20 small person’s arms bubbling on a grill…i freaked out and quickly returned to the oceanside to recover from my psychedelic shock…LSD helps to illuminate things, for the better and the worse…

    it’s been 19 years now…


  14. dionysus says:

    drink the koolade! in vino es veri tas

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