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.