Sunday, February 19, 2012

David Antin, Brief Weather, The "Writing Life" or Lack Thereof

I stumbled upon (and I urge you to take this figure of speech literally--if you could see my apartment at the time, you'd understand--400 square feet, two small bookshelves and over a thousand books makes literally stumbling over books a frequent occurrence) Conversation with David Antin, by David Antin and Charles Bernstein somewhere at the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007.   I had just finished something of a milestone year--both poetically and personally.  I didn't know when I picked it up that it would play a role in fundamentally altering my own "writing life."

I spent the spring of 2006 writing the poems that would eventually be collected in Brief Weather and I Guess A Sort of Vision; I began in March at the request of Betsy Wheeler, who accosted me at the Garden Party in Austin and asked to publish a book of mine.  Christ!  I guess I had to write a book.

The origins of that slim collection involve an airplane, my then-girlfriend Laura, and a book of sudoku puzzles.  There was also the now infamous make-out party in the Austin Hilton lobby, complete with stolen wine (I won't reveal what now-famous children's book author stole the wine by insisting on using me as a pack mule because I happened to be wandering around the Hilton with a backpack--but you can probably guess. It's okay--I don't feel guilty, as we were robbing the Poetry Foundation, at a "private party" that we just crashed).  There was the kindness of James Hall, who chauffered Laura and I around a bit.  There was the squalid apartment we spent four days in among piles of dirty beer cans, garbage, and a bathroom with one towel, one wet towel   There was the Nordic Venezuelan named Virgilio who spent the entire weekend locked away in a back room, drinking gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi and watching extreme sports videos.  There was The Princess Bride and the still-awful Star Wars Episode 1.  There was also the dissolution of my romantic relationship of the past year.  Yeah, that thing.

As soon as I returned to Oregon, I began writing every day, sometimes just a few lines; other days I'd knock out two or three drafts.  My method of working was very deliberate--each poem was made of nine lines, and they were assembled consecutively.   That is, I wrote each poem one line at a time, and line 2 always followed line 1.  There was no line re-shuffling allowed.  I'd often stop mid-poem to walk down the street for coffee, a journey that almost always involved being dive-bombed by starlings who resented my taking up residence in what was obviously their apartment.

I finished a batch of about 40 poems in around 6 weeks' time.  I sent them off to Betsy that summer, and she responded with extremely generous commentary, all handwritten and beautifully understated yet enthusiastic.  She focused her editorial chops into honing my 40 poems into a 27-poem machine.  This was expected, as the numerology of the project required 27 poems, no more no less. I published 8 of these poems prior to that in Court Green, under the dubious title "Aviary Evacuation Plan."  Betsy re-titled my collection Brief Weather..., which was a stroke of minor genius.  I had, at this point, ditched the bird title, and was leaning toward Cold Front which strikes me today as a terrible name for my little book. 

The book came out in November. I gave a single reading in Portland attended by very few people. I don't think a single person bought a book that night.  I lost my camera. I remember drinking a lot of wine.  Then I don't remember.


What I'm building toward here is the 3 year gap in my writing life that began soon after the book's publication and soon after I picked up Antin and Bernstein's book-length conversation.  By March of 2007, exactly one year after I'd begun the project, I had completed the FULL 81 poems--actually, there are a few stragglers in closer to 90, but if it ever sees the light of publication, I will of course trim away nine of those bad boys.

And then I stopped.  I can't pinpoint when and how it all went down or why.  I just remember reading the give and take between Antin and Bernsteinn, and being thrown a bit for a not-unpleasant but still somewhat jarring loop. Antin's talk-poems and his discussion of his poetics and practice are all a bit dream-like in their logic but fiercely intelligent.  I got to the point where I began to think that if David Antin is a poet, I don't know if I want to be a poet.  I didn't know if I could be a poet any longer.

And then the vagaries of a life ill-lived invaded, happened. Suddenly I had new priorities, a new  relationship, a series of episodes (fits? brief respites from sanity?) of mental and emotional self-reckoning and evaluation.  Not only did I stop writing but I also quite reading poetry mostly (save the weekly editorial meetings at the NWR that were then, unbeknownst to most of us poetry editors, in their final days).  I quit sending poems out to editors.  I shut down.  And I was strangely okay with that.

Life came on full-strength and I was, for a time, a very destructive force.  (Wallace Stevens in his odd little poem, wrote that Poetry is a Destructive Force--he had a point.  It had turned me into a bitter, often resentful little person.) I hurt a lot of people, made a lot of mistakes, and then, inexplicably, was blessed with a beautiful daughter amidst all the madness, the general ickiness I had made my life.

That daughter, now almost three years old, is the reason I returned to writing.  I'm still in the nascent stages of my "re-arrival" onto whatever "scene" it is I have wandered into. Trying to figure it all out by writing through the pain and mess that still lingers, and yes, also the joy. Especially the joy.

I never quite manage to end where I began, but I try.  Here's David Antin:

             . . . i had always had mixed feelings
        about being considered a poet        "if robert lowell is a
        poet i don't want to be a poet         if robert frost was
        poet i don't want to be a poet        if socrates was a poet
            ill consider it"

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