Mind the gap

Writing, like any complex skill, is an accretion of layers of experience and learning. Writing well is an mixture of a lifetime of reading deeply and widely; years of study, including apprenticing yourself to other writers; and practice, focused practice incorporating what you’ve read, learned, and experienced. Most of all, good writing is based on paying attention.

Because I teach in a low-residency MFA program, I spend some time each month reading response papers. Response papers are intended as student reflections on the books they’ve been assigned, some of the techniques employed by the poets, and how what they’ve read applies to their own writing and goals. 

It’s easy for me to forget that I am approaching these works with a much greater level of experience and learning. Sometimes I read over a student’s response and realize they’ve missed the historical context or have no knowledge of an entire school of thought. I panic. How can I give them what they need to advance their work? How can I help them fill this gap in their education?

Then I remind myself that we all have gaps, also wens, scars, and willful blindspots. That the best thing I can offer to my students are maps and questions. I can’t give them the destination to which I’ve already traveled, because the journey is the purpose.

I can keep reminding them to pay attention. That good writing (and good living) is made out of 100% paying attention. This means allocating space, filtering distractions, and making choices that foster awareness.

For me, it’s all about the walk in the woods that turns up a volunteer pansy blossoming too early in the season. A small yellow amongst so much leaf litter. And then at my desk, remembering that the name “pansy” is thought to be derived from pensée, French for thought or remembrance. And that another name for pansy is “heart’s ease.” All the layers, all of the focused attention on this world. All of it poetry. 

Ursula Le Guin and Eagles

I begin to think the eagles in the tree outside my window are channeling Ursula Le Guin. When I read her essays in Words Are My Matter, the eagles trumpet from their perches in the high cottonwood trees. Trumpet is rather wrong, it is much more like emphatic flute players.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ursula had the thin squeaky voice that, incongruous as it seems, eagles possess. But rather, when I start reading these by turns serious, by turns funny, essays, I have the distinct impression of a voice from above, slightly disappointed and frankly exasperated, pointing out where I have gone astray. A voice from a being who could easily rip my heart out with knife-like talons but who will, for now, try to put me back on the path gently but persistently. 

It is so easy to begin to doubt. When our culture spends all of its time telling us that the almighty dollar is the highest good, what then are poets supposed to do? We know each time we set pen to page that monetary gain gathers her silken white robes and heads for the door. So why on earth do we continue? Even those lucky enough to find their words on the printed page know that the audience is small, fickle, and prone to promoting their friends’ work rather than reading broadly. 

So often, writers (especially those poets) will reply that they write because they must. As if writers are some evolutionary subset of humanity, driven to create.

But is this true? We want it be, because lord knows in our current culture we would prefer to be counted on the side of the creators rather than the rising flood of destroyers. Yet I wonder how many of us are simply trying to imagine ourselves into a more congenial world.

“Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They many not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of mind. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”

-Ursula Le Guin, “The Operating Instructions”

How many of us who are scribblers began as deep readers? The kind of kid falling into the open pages of a book and finding a world that felt much more like a home than the place where we hung our clothes.

And for now, we are writing our way into another world that contains us fully realized in all our diversity. Not for monetary gain, but to once again say this is the path that creates my world, this the spell that manifests it into being, the scratch of the pencil on the page or rattle of the keyboard. We send those words out into the world in the hopes that for at least one other person they might provide a signpost toward home.

When one of the pair of eagles returns with a seemingly impossibly large stick to bolster the nest, the other calls out for many minutes afterwards for reasons I can only imagine. Together they are building their home. With these words, I am building mine. 

On a different day

“We live in a strange time, so the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple. Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.”

– George Saunders, in his Man Booker prize acceptance (2017)

I don’t know about you, but I process confusion by getting my ass into a chair and my pencil onto a page. So when the video of the young man staring down the Native Elder surfaced, I watched it and paid close attention to the emotions that rose to the surface in my body. I didn’t respond on social media. In fact, it didn’t take too long for me to stop looking at social media altogether on the issue. I wrote about it in my notebook.

Then the various interpretations of the episode slowly came to light and the stark categories began to soften at the edges. I watched how these new stories unfolded. I read responses. I paid close attention to what my body was telling me. I wrote about it in my notebook.

Of course there was nuance. Of course things were not a simple as they were portrayed at first. No situation ever is. But I had been paying attention to my body, and my body knew the facial expression on the young man from the Catholic school. When I saw the scrap of video in which he stood very close to the older Native man, when I saw that smirk, my chest constricted, I flushed. Because I recognized it. I recognized it as a someone who attended, for one year, a small Catholic high school in the deep south. I recognized it as a former high school teacher.

I recognized the privilege that allows that kind of facial expression. That kind of ability to stand so close to a Native Elder and not give him enough room or respect. The freedom from expected consequences that some segments of our society enjoy, while others are persecuted harshly. 

Was there more going on there? Sure. There always is. There were many ways that the situation could have been handled that would have been kinder, more open, more generous. I kept wondering, where were the adults that could have helped those young men contextualize the situation? Where were the chaperones that could have prevented that ugly scene and transformed it into a chance for those young men and that Native Elder to truly meet? There was such an opportunity for recognizing the humanity in each other that was lost. And doubly lost.

When I taught high school, I spent a lot of time choosing novels that I hoped would expand my students’ empathy, help them walk in another’s life for awhile, break down some of the barriers. That’s what literature and poetry does best, it shows us how it is to be another person. I remember how hard it was for my students in a small town in Alaska to really put themselves into the place of Ishmeal Beah in A Long Way Gone or Amir in The Kite Runner. But when they succeeded, the transformation was permanent. They could not go back to their own small lives without carrying some of the lives of other people who were different than them…. and the same as them.

When I write, I try to offer my reader that same chance to step into the poem. “Did you lose someone to Alzheimer’s? Was it like this?” I offered in Every Atom. “Are you lost and looking for the way some god might be all around you? Does it feel this way?” I wondered in Boundaries. 

Recently, I look at my new poems and think I am asking, “Do you love the world? Are you open to the way the crow flies across the cold sand? Are you willing to listen for the soft compression of wings on air?” 

“Are you ready to have faith that what you call other is only you on a different day?”