Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Story of My Books

A friend tells me he has been reading my first book, Boy Land & Other Poems. It is a difficult book for me to reread, not because I dislike the poems but because thinking about them transports me back to a difficult time, the decade of my thirties, when I was perpetually driven and exhausted, responsible for too many farm animals, overwhelmed by the exigencies of very young children, desperate to negotiate a private life, clinging to the spar of poetry. If my word choice here seems ridiculously purple, that's because most things in my life seemed ridiculously purple. I cried about everything. I gritted my teeth and barged ahead. I picked fights and carried silly issues to extremes. The crazy-young-woman hormones had me at their mercy, though I did not recognize that then.

I spent ten years learning to write the poems in Boy Land; and by the time it was published, in 2004, I was moving into a different realm. I was forty years old, both of my children were now in school, and I was beginning to feel more confident as both a poet and a prose writer. My memoir, Tracing Paradise, eventually published in 2009, is a link between that earlier world and the new one I was beginning to explore--one in which my reactions to what I was reading were pushing me beyond emotional response into an amalgam of emotion, thought, and history. As I was writing Tracing Paradise, I was also writing the poems that became How the Crimes Happened, released in 2010. In a way, the two books work in partnership: a single era in a life, two versions of expressing that moment.

Throughout my forties, I wrote numerous essays about what I was reading (or, mostly, rereading), and chronologically that prose collection, The Vagabond's Bookshelf, should have appeared in print just after Crimes. But publisher after publisher rejected it as "too well written" (I am not making this up) and thus unmarketable. That collection will finally come out this spring, with a 2016 copyright, but it is not a new book and it will be uncomfortable to pretend that it is.

Meanwhile, in 2012 and 2013 I was invited to write two books that I would otherwise never have considered constructing: the anthology A Poet's Sourcebook (published in 2013) and the teaching text The Conversation (2015). As I worked on those books, I released a third poetry collection, Same Old Story, in 2014. Overlapping my work on those three projects was a fourth poetry collection, the heavily researched verse-history Chestnut Ridge, which has yet to find a publisher. As of early 2016, I am writing and revising new poems and fine-tuning a prose manuscript tentatively titled The Language of Love, a combination of belle-lettrist and personal essays.

In short, I spent the decade of my thirties writing the poems for a single book. I spent the decade of my forties writing six books, most of them simultaneously. The contrast is very odd, and I cannot possibly predict what the decade of my fifties will look like. It interests me, though, that I did not write anything worth saving when I was in my twenties. When I did try to write, which wasn't often, I focused on fiction, and all of it was lazy and unfocused. Basically what I wanted to do was read books while avoiding a commitment to a real job or a graduate education. At the time I seemed to be wasting my life, though now, of course, I can see that I was feeding the furnace. Yet my family has not necessarily benefited from my selfishness. And there's no way I can avoid calling such behavior selfish. It may be necessary for art, but it does damage.

Last night I was reading a New Yorker article about Goethe. In it, the author, Adam Kirsch, explained "the concept of Bildung--a word that means learning and education but also implies a cultivation of the self and of maturity."
[The concept] was central to Goethe's thought, and he, in turn, made it central to German culture. For Thomas Mann, whose admiration of Goethe took the form of spiritual imitation, Goethe was above all an educator, but one who had first to learn, through experience, the wisdom he taught. Mann wrote that a "vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty--from the difficulty of knowing one's own self."
Mann's idea of educator does not imply that Goethe went into the classroom and instructed students. Rather, Goethe's writings delineated the pattern of his own difficult search for self-knowledge, and Mann learned from Goethe because he traced the path of that search. It makes me sad to hear, as Kirsch tells me, that "the very simplicity of Goethe's language makes his poetry untranslatable." I would like to learn from him too.

I'm not sure why I felt the need this morning to lay out a rough sketch of my own pattern. I think imagining my friend reading Boy Land triggered a kind of pity for my harried self. I wish I had been there: to change a few diapers for her, to milk a few goats for her, to bring her another cup of tea and stroke her hair. Poor child. She made so many mistakes, but she did the best she could.


Ruth said...

There is a line from a song Nobody But You "Sometimes I'm a selfish and stupidest woman, but sometimes I do the best I can. But I would be a sorry woman indeed, if not for you." Boyland was the first one of your books I read. It was my first time at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I kept picking it up, reading a poem and putting it back because I couldn't decide if I wanted to own it. Finally, I knew I HAD to have it so that I could reread those experiences.

Yes, I am still working on Tu Fu!!!!!!

Carlene said...

I think the perspective you've shed on your metamorphosis is both enlightening and familiar. Sometimes I cringe at the memories of the silly, fraught, overly-serious self I was: the drive to carve out an identity separate from goals that were already wearing thin, to make "everyone" happy but forgetting to please myself, to try new things without worry and regret. O, those thirties. But then I think, I'm far more solid in my sense of self now, and I feel like all those parts of me are finally integrating. It's the cusp of my 50th year--maybe it takes that long to spin a cocoon and then break out of it.

I hope I have pretty wings.

Ruth said...

Well, I am nearing my 70th year and I've spun several cocoons over time and have broken out of them. I like to think always with prettier and stronger wings! I likw that image, Carlene. Hanging in my bedroom window is a small figure of a dancing woman holding high a ribbon. She is one of a series called The Ribbon Dancer. I am the ribbon dancer.