A Rectangle is Always a Photo But a Camera is Not Always a Poem

The camera conjures as much as it contains, photography being an always-pointing medium. In this way, cameras and words are actually quite similar.

I’m only two sentences in and I’ve already messed up, conflating tool with outcome. A camera makes photos but they remain two separate things, machine and picture. Words, on the other hand, make more words, vehicle and product all wrapped up in the same gesture. Words are not pens, pieces of paper, typewriters, laptops. How to compare words to cameras with any hope for sense by the end of this? You don’t even really need any of those objects to make a poem. I can make a poem in my head and you simply have to trust me that it’s there. In this way, poems are like relationships: easily built of things you may never have access to.

Poems do not rely on tools, machines. “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” said William Carlos Williams, in the 40s. I am only one person in a long history of people conflating tool with outcome for the sake of the writing. Just give me a rock and a stone and I’ll show you a poem. A rock and a heart and a thinking mind, full of memory. A rock and a hard place. Poems are everywhere! I can make one out of anything—this shampoo bottle, this sleeping cat—and so, too, with the photograph. I could photograph anything I might possibly hope to contain. And there it exists: contained! Frame, sprocket hole, negative. Or else I put it in the poem, let it seed.

Playground

Do poems have sprocket holes? What’s the relationship between film negative and white space? And what of duplication, cropping, or auto enhance?

With words in my hands, I make more words. They self-reproduce—parthenogenesis, if you want to be technical about it. On the heels of these other words I produce more and newer ones, turning one thought into many, contradicting my meaning as if the act itself is how I pump oxygen directly into my brain. My body functions through contradiction, through conjuring and containment. I take a picture of myself and then I age beyond it. “Every picture is of you when you were younger” (Mitch Hedberg). I conjure my self in the poem. I contain my thoughts in words and the white space in between. I look at my negatives and translate them, miraculously, into positives.

The linear progression of time is an inherent factor. But on the page, I sometimes feel the true feeling of being young forever, that I am writing directly into the future from a body that remains, as if language were a vehicle that could opt out of time directly, could simply just go in another direction. Words can always go in another direction!

Drive Thru Open.jpg

Once, I had a film camera with a built-in fisheye lens. This camera took all manner of pictures: the sun peeking out from behind a fire hydrant, double exposures of street signs and random fences, poorly lit indoor shots of my cats. I would soon expand to include other film cameras, cross-processing, self-development, scanning at home, exploring things like texture and expired film. But the Fisheye was where it started, taking precious selfies before the word was a category, blurry shots of someone’s leg, a car driving by a little too slowly for a slow shutter. Always get closer to the object, or whatever they say. So I, the subject, would try, regardless of circumstance.

I used my Fisheye camera to make photos, sometimes with a lot of intention, sometimes without. I would line up the lens directly in front of a brick wall, click the shutter, flip a manual switch and take another photo, creating the illusion that flowers could grow not just before the wall but inside its top layer. With this camera I became a surgeon. Aren’t all artists trying to infiltrate our organs, working from the inside out, disrupting the safety of forms?

Then again, form gives you something to bounce off of, containers sometimes providing a method for setting aside dedicated space in which to invent. In a truly free, formless space, it would be very difficult to get close to anything. You would just float, pained and unsure of yourself, unsure of where you’re going or why.

With that Fisheye camera I became a doctor. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed with my power to create that I did not even think twice—click, click—just walked around my town, my neighborhood, my place of employment—click, click—as if I couldn’t be bothered with details, lighting, angles, outcomes. I was in love with the process. I was in love as if I’d made a baby. Every word that came out of her mouth, every new shaking of her chubby little baby arms, every diaper change was enough to blow my heart wide open: this didn’t exist, and now it does. I built albums and albums of photos, including the bad ones, made scrapbooks, the occasional larger print. It was the act of making that I couldn’t get enough of, the dynamic relationship between tool and product, this little machine nestled in my hearthands. Creation transforming into nourishment. In parental terms it was a total disaster, me wanting and needing my babe so much more than it could ever need me. But when your baby is art, it’s okay to not be careful.

Kids portrait (Fisheye).jpg

The surgeries grew more and more laborious, and I soon switched tools. I took less photos and I wrote and wrote and wrote instead, filling up my time with my language, forcing the two to meet in the middle. Aren’t all poets folding language into time, creating the sense that you’ve aged, that you’ve transported, that you’ve grown shorter or taller in the space of a few lines, a space in which it is difficult to take change for granted? Poems, too, can shift organs, can induce electric shock, can resuscitate the sick, unwell, starving body that reads them.

For a long time, I made my poems in the same vigorous way that I made my photos. Have I stopped? Have I grown satiated, tired, burned out? Have I found new ways to perpetuate abandonment? Conjured and then contained so much of me that I no longer recognize myself beyond the page, no longer have anything to write about, no life to translate into words and empty spaces. Am I living all the white space already, the occasional Oh and metaphor shaping my small life, getting smaller? And what about my own organs? Do I need medical help?

Like teeth (2008)

Fisheye

Fisheye - Portland

It is hard, in case you haven’t noticed, for me to think about my relationship to tools and making without also thinking about my relationship to myself. I’m talking about an attention that is pre-selfcare industry, just a girl and her body, not getting along. Wishing each other were different, trying so hard to synchronize tool with result. Trying to conjure the most photogenic parts. To contain, to write past, all the overdeveloped stuff.

Fisheye double (2008).jpg

The space between taking a photo and developing the film, seeing the result—there is this period of time in which you are forced to not know. You are allowed to not know. What relief! Like the space right after the interview, the submission, the attempt: that momentary feeling of having nothing to do because you’ve already done it. A contentedness born despite, or is it precisely through, unknowing.

I will tell you a secret: this is the same content found in writing. No matter how the words grow and double on the page before you, the poet learns to be comfortable with the act of seeing words and still not knowing. Writing is itself a gesture of reaching, whether in panic or to pass the time, to make sense of things but never so much that you bypass all waiting, all development. There is always more, and you have to continue writing regardless. You have to get used to not knowing ahead of time, as they say, even when “ahead of time” really just means you’re in the muck of writing writing writing, when ahead is entirely in the middle and the only way out is through.

It does not always come out correctly from the start. You don’t always get the shot on the first click. You wouldn’t blame the camera—so, too, you must bring a spirit of generosity to language, acknowledging the downside of such expansiveness, its ability to contain nonsense without shame.

I could just as easily be suspicious of words instead of pouring all this time into defending them. Often enough I’ve held a light up to their shiny scared faces, wondering where they’ve really been; wanting desperately, as if I could solve the heartache of the world, to just get to the bottom of their intentions.

I began taking less photos not through some active decision or profound refusal. I just became less interested in that kind of building. Through words, one directly discovers, in a way that simultaneously suggests invention. Was it there or did I make it? I began to search for some greater form of equity through the bypassing of visual consumption. I had become exhausted by visual consumption, having grown so accustomed to certain public discourses, to common descriptions of my own female trajectories, visual-based value, misogyny seeping out of all the cracks and corners, in fact I still sometimes struggle to recognize myself at all. This is an image of me when I was younger, except I’m still there now, waving at the camera, hoping my eyes aren’t closed when I swore I had them open. This is me on the page, happily confusing my body with something else. Say it enough and the thing becomes true, or at least becomes history.

Like MM.jpg

In the kitchen the other night, I peeled and roasted beet after beet, in the mess of it and without a proper vegetable peeler, only to come away slightly deflated when I saw the purple-red wash off my hands instantly and entirely. I wanted to come away stained. I’d already started imaging how money would look being passed from my hands, though first I’d have to get some. This is what I’m talking about: I am exhausted! By looking and by paying for things. Some days I just want to write a poem, the body within it, gendered or not, seen but mostly through metaphor. Metaphor is a lovely way to give your eyes a much-needed rest. Metaphor is like a hammock. It represents so much more than what it is, just string and netting and some available trees. Some days I want to close my eyes and write until my hands hurt. Some days I want to push the lens directly onto the paper, trace its perfect roundness with a pen, spend the afternoon looking at the world one page at a time while the trees hold me up. It is the thinnest of filters, poetry. It is a good method for getting close.

Playing

Shortcake

Boots 3

In Defense of Infiltration

It’s been on my mind much longer than it has lived in my mouth as an articulated idea. Usually, it takes the visceral shape of, How do I get what I’m here for? or How can my all-the-time needs be fulfilled while on-the-clock? Or, most simply, How do I make this my thing? From waiting tables to performing cheap university labor to working at small disorganized non-profits, I cannot deny the years-long existence of this tendency in me, practically from the moment I entered the workforce, to infiltrate. I’ve done it for selfish purposes (finishing a task early and sneakily writing a poem). I’ve done it in socially agreed upon capacities (no customers = no better time to get some reading done). And I’ve done it toward political, by which I mean personal, ends (if I’ve already got these teens making collage postcards, I might as well leave our Senators’ mailing addresses in an encouraging location, might as well teach them about the wage gap).

Infiltration implies resistance, that one cannot accomplish one’s needs or desires through a purely transparent or accepted method. Or else it implies a disconnect between what two different people determine as valuable. I would be hard pressed to try and convince my boss that if I can just get these last few lines written down, these last few pages read, I would be in a much better capacity to take that family’s order.

Perhaps this makes me a bad employee. Perhaps I merely have yet to find a job that will let me feel truly fulfilled, holistically present, one that won’t demand that I compartmentalize these diverse capacities so presumably at odds within me. Poet. Care worker. Has-to-pay-rent-monthly person. Add to this the fact that I swing wildly between manic motivation and a sluggishness that any grown woman should be ashamed of, and it’s no surprise that my obligations and my intentions can sometimes feel slippery and interchangeable. But the fact is that I’ve found myself, repeatedly, in situations where I’ve felt driven to infiltrate, either to accomplish what I see as most beneficial and responsible or, less glamorously, to try and remain a somewhat sane person, one whose time could be used in a manner reflective of the value of such finite resources.

This situation is nothing new or rare, my insights entirely standard ones. But this is the context that shaped my reception of “In Defense of Imagination,” a conversation recently published in Guernica between Ada Limón and Matthew Zapruder, on the occasion of the latter’s newest book of prose. It’s a sweet interaction, one that veers from poetry’s distilled powers to Dickinson’s feminist trailblazing to descriptions of classroom teaching that give Dead Poets Society a run for its money, and I found it both useful and inspiring, these two accomplished writers paying such genuine attention to all the different ways a word can hold things like acceptance, or grief. Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry, sounds like a thoughtful, well-researched and self-reflexive read, and the excerpts popping up online prove this. Every time I write that title down, I have to backspace and delete the question mark that I automatically insert at the end, and this seems important: though Zapruder seems wholly invested in the way that questions can shape and deepen one’s love of a thing, his aim with this book is also to give readers some justification, some support, an expansive explanation: not why poetry? but here’s why poetry.

I like Limón’s distinctions between useful and necessary, and I like the way Zapruder says “neat” to show admiration. And I’m most certainly always happier to read this type of exchange, an optimistic and sweeping battle cry on behalf of the generic Poetry world, than to read the clever and pointless attacks and insults—poetry is dead!—that seem to pop up with embarrassing regularity.

I can always manage to quickly forget about those harsh, self-serving criticisms, usually after a brief period of rowdy commiseration and beer drinking. And yet it’s the optimistic defenses—Limón and Zapruder’s conversation, the love letters, the impassioned and straight up happy appraisals of the poet’s life and purpose—that sometimes keep me up at night, leave me feeling as if I’m doing something wrong, as if I must have misunderstood some key component of success somewhere along the way. As if maybe my own version of public rallying would not revolve around a wholly committed defense of Poetry and Poetics. Feelings are feelings, but where in the world does this one come from? Me, a poet, wanting to infiltrate my own love of a thing with suspicion and privacy, with the cold truth of its actual limitations and perhaps even a healthy dose of believing that, at the end of the day, poemdoing is utterly not the same thing as any other form of doing. An awareness that I stubbornly insist on voicing even when contexts are made clear: poetry is simply a space for a certain kind of thinking—“anarchic,” even, as Zapruder describes it at one point—and nobody here is trying to claim that it prevents oppression, or that it campaigns, or that it legislates.

It is an awareness of purpose—the actual vulnerable heart of these kinds of discussions, I suspect—that felt uncomfortably poked as I read through Limón and Zapruder’s conversation. Almost immediately, Limón points out the invigoration that can be felt at belonging to an occupation so regularly misunderstood or deemed pointless and therefore requiring defense; after all, she cites, nobody questions lawyers and their practice of law, or waiters and the validity or usefulness or reasoning behind why they do what they do.

I am also a poet, though I would not call it my vocation, not in the sense that it’s connected to how I pay my bills, and neither does it provide me with even a small source of bonus income. I have been paid a couple of times for things I have written that were not commissioned, things truly born of the soul or whatever else in me, the purpose of writing them having been a deeply and entirely personal one (which, to be clear, does not automatically apply to the content itself). How many people are truly making a living from their poems, not in the poetic sense but the IRL one: making enough money from appearances and publications and other writerly accoutrements that I don’t even have access to imagining, that they’re able to confuse their job with their passion? How many people can strictly give one answer to the infamous question, “so, what do you do?”

To compare the poet defending her work to the lawyer, the waitress, the librarian, or the barista is to suggest that the poet’s skills might be quantifiable to begin with, that one can simply decide to become a poet in a socially recognizable way and then proceed forward in the manner of their choosing: open a poem shop, or start publishing in exchange for immediate money, perhaps even become a celebrity poet in public. I’m moved and engaged by Limón and Zapruder’s discussion of what poetry is for, in a philosophical and, well, a poetic sense, but I’m made sad by the misleading comparison of jobs. I cannot support myself through my love of reading and writing poetry, not even through my skill (arguable as it may be). And though I live a sheltered life in a small town, one that affords/restricts me to my own situated perspective, I insist on claiming with full confidence that not many people are making rent through their poems. To imply anything otherwise seems ungrounded, or silly, or oblivious.

Perhaps when the job of the poet is discussed with so few footnotes, what is really being talked about is teaching. I get it: you love poetry, you obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing, and then you pursue professorship and Academia all the way. But now I’d like to make another confident claim: poetry is not, no matter what they tell you, the purview of higher education alone. It is a bastard child, or maybe an adopted one? Perhaps it’s just righteously immature. The point is that while I do understand the poet who aims to teach, whose goal is to pursue their Poethood as one stemming from or revolving around the classroom, I lament the lack of imagination that suggests there’s no other way to do it. It is, I suppose, a grief born of fact: there isn’t really any other clear way to be a poet, not professionally. You can write and publish and read and submit, enter contests and attend AWPs, network, do the obligatory social dances of recognition and branding, and maybe one day you will publish a book, maybe even a few. But you will probably, even then, still have a day job.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this comment from Zapruder, occurring about a third of the way into the conversation:

Some people have seen [prior remarks about the definition of poetry] as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could ‘afford’ to think in such a way…I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right.”

I love this: the acknowledgment, the advocacy, the sincerity. I’d just like to call a spade a spade, a poem a poem. Necessary and useless. Placing “Poet” amongst other occupations is like positioning this baby doll as my offspring. We’re all just playing around! That’s why we’re good at poems. We shouldn’t stop writing them, but maybe we should think twice about calling it our job?

*

What we call things matters (see: whatever Trump recently said on Twitter), as they direct our sense-making. Some people look around and say, biology, psychology, accident. Others, magic, meant-to-be, or perfection. Most of us, all of us, fly back and forth between such poles, our reason and our desire and our imagination all sharing the same bed regardless of their different or competing sleep schedules. And some people choose, in the face of harsh realities and limited abilities, in the face of explanation and fact, to leave a little space open in them for optimism and hope, for the birth of a spirit animal, for the way providence sheds a slightly different light on the object before you than does coincidence. It is, undoubtedly, the poet’s choice: you infiltrate reality with meaning. You write the poem regardless.

Here are some things I do want: more generosity stemming from deep within myself, more confidence in how and when and for whom I define my boundaries, more play, more money, more stability, more responsibility in tandem with the constantly growing amounts of more complicity; to write more poems, to read more poems, to vary when and where and for whom I write those poems; to sneak more creativity into boring jobs, to sneak more political engagement into daily activities, to sneak more vegetables into my boyfriend’s food, to sneak more gratitude and acceptance into my engagements with difference, with poets unlike me, with people who do different jobs than me or even the same jobs but to different ends. To sneak some vulnerability into every single engagement between myself and the page. To sneak the poem into the essay and vice versa.

Poetry is its own form of infiltration: it breaks into language and steals meaning, steals utility, lays bare a wealth of behind-the-scenes linguistic functioning and inserts all manner of happenstance and coincidence and prank where none existed before. Could it ever truly be an occupation when it revolves around infiltrating the means of production themselves? It is always about getting away with something, and often some form of robbery. Though most people choose a better getaway vehicle than words.

Pure infiltration. What other medium, what other linguistic shape or form of communication could allow its own angst to intrude upon its defenses, could allow or even encourage the subordinate to both betray her responsibilities and question the enterprise itself? Perhaps the real job of the poet is to write regardless of circumstance, to pretend for once in this capitalist-centric world that money might be what it actually is: beside the point. As Dickinson might say, the prose in which we are all shut up.

 

Note: an updated version of this essay can be found in ASAP/J.

On composure

Sometimes, I think about this haunting sentence, from “On Erasure,” by Mary Ruefle:

…life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don’t know or haven’t experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased “whole” becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased.

Ruefle says that our lives are erasures because we cannot bear them in their entirety. I wonder about the conflicted life of the poet: simultaneously erasing and writing, erasing and writing, considering things she sometimes can’t bear to feel or remember; writing as an attempt to document, and then writing as an attempt purge.

Documenting and purging: there is a schism between the inner and outer world: between my private self and the one I make visible. And even this visible self is ruptured: I find myself intellectually, artistically, even ethically drawn toward & excited by the loss of composure—by the idea of refusing to accommodate the world’s demand of public poise—but I remain practically, viscerally scared of such a revelation. As a result, my motivation as a writer has been to creatively transpose the body into language, to alter my understanding of it via the expansion of words and, in doing so, (re)create my relationship to the body. In other words, to think and theorize my way through and around vulnerability, to walk closer toward it in words and then hope my body will follow. But what does it mean to take risks in writing that aren’t being taken in life? Where do I draw lines of responsibility and interest, of theory and practice, of personhood and poethood?

Before I came to articulate this motivation—before I’d even begun to recognize its preverbal form—I went to grad school. There are probably a lot of complicated reasons why I’ve erased almost all my memories from the composition theory course I took my first semester, but of the few that remain, I think of one almost weekly: I have no context leading up to this instance, nor any memory of what followed the moment when a professor said, with a slow deliberateness that almost revealed his southern drawl, “compose yourself.” Not to any one student in particular so much as to the room, calling attention to what the command is truly saying, compose yourself!, to make yourself readable and sensible and, as Butler might say, culturally intelligible. To be, especially if you are a woman, composed, as in emotionally contained. He didn’t say it directly to me but he might as well have, and that’s the first trick of language: to unlock a sense of self that previously wasn’t there. Suddenly, I heard the danger underlying those two superficially harmless words. And it is the loss of this composure, by which I mostly mean the appearance of composure—the revelation of the messy and complicated and uncontainable female self—which underlies the greatest form of risk I can imagine taking.

Hence the rupture: between word and body. I feel embarrassed and melodramatic making such statements, ones so clearly born of a privileged life, where risk has made few appearances. But what if this is the consequence of having confused my writing life with my real lived experiences one too many times? What does it even mean to associate risk with things like school, and poetry, and a kind of danger that is mostly visual, that is even theoretical, that hinges on the in/visibility of one’s most crafted and edited self? What do I mean when I say, “risk?” I tried mapping it out:

  • potential for public failure and/or mistakes
    • being seen as out of one’s “league” or “wheelhouse”
    • being seen as trying too hard or as overly ambitious
  • potential for confusion—either looking confused or confusing others
  • “that’s not something I would do”
  • potential for embarrassment and/or over-sharing
    • to make oneself too accessible
    • to make the invisible visible
      • to lose control
    • to inject emotion where it isn’t wanted
      • to lose composure
  • potential for discomfort
  • potential for confrontation

There is no space for my body in this list, and yet it all wraps tightly, every single possibility, around my skin. Perhaps I say body and I’m really just addressing the signified thing: not the organism standing in front of you, but the whole and its parts envisioned in the clear space of one’s reading mind. I can spill the word “body” all over the poem, include it in every single title, without having invest(igat)ed a single bone, a single strand of hair. And while some of the things listed above have to do with gender or trying new things, all of them revolve around constructed notions of self and success: how I present my personhood to the outside world, how I make visible to you the things that will validate my life as a good one. Composed in the ways I mean to be, and unintelligible so long as I am in control of the mess—so long as it is relegated mostly to the page.

In other words, there are things we bear in our selves and there are things we bear in our writing, and these are sometimes very different things and why, what does that mean?

I don’t even know if this essay is true. Or the difference between body and word: what I think I am afraid of; what I claim to be doing, in one medium or another. If the divide is not really just a blanket.

A true thing: Last summer, I finished reading Maggie’s Nelson’s The Argonauts during the late hours of the night while sitting in a crowded terminal in O’Hare. I was waiting for my repeatedly delayed flight home after visiting my best friend in Lafayette, Indiana. The trip coincided with her 30th birthday; we drank Polish vodka and rode horses with little instruction. Why do I tell you this? Because I cannot unstitch the context of my life from my writing and questioning and thinking. Perhaps writing is the only space in which I have no ability to compartmentalize, where I can consider anything so long as it is all at once, all in the same room. Where I can un-compose and re-compose myself as language demands: where I might become suddenly brave enough to enact the things I’m driven toward. Or, to choose to write about myself as if my boundaries are clear: here is what I do, here is what I write.

I tell myself I am writing to get closer to the body, but aren’t I just keeping it at bay?

Once, when I was a young girl in middle school, I wanted to be Gwen Stefani, and sometimes I remember the sense of it so acutely: how desire can feel urgent and enthralling and inspiring and quite unrealistic; how it can keep you, in secret inner ways, reaching forward toward a self comprised of all the things. Who needs “poetry” or “theory” or “memoir,” categories of definitive composure, when you can do them all at once? Who needs a cohesive sense of style when you can wear a skirt on top of your jeans!

Does the self begin on the page, in word, and grow larger from there? Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken the longest route possible to achieve a short thing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve started a life backwards, relegating my achievements, my ideas, my best selves to language. As if I need to know the right words first before anything happens: as if words make up the vessel in which I’ll be caught. As if poetry ever had anything to do with the soul.

When I’m writing, I tell myself it is toward messiness and complexity. But I repeatedly run head first into an inherent disposition toward composure, toward control, engulfed in the fear of anything otherwise. Can fear be a habit? I tell myself that I figure out important personal things in writing, but perhaps I am making it all up, the words acting like a safe distance, like an arm’s reach I can keep myself at always. Sometimes, I’ll realize a mistake I’ve made in life, see something in the poem and chastise myself for not having recognized it sooner elsewhere. But with any instance of clarity, I’m never learning from my mistakes so much as finally catching up with them, out of breath, making space for myself slowly over long stretches of uneven time. Trying to un-contain and re-contain my body through language and yet remaining consistently frozen with my back against the wall, with my back against the page. A safe or habitual or made-up response to the world’s pervasive demand that I compose myself.

 

[Note: this essay also appeared in the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter]