A threshold season, Alaska spring, commencement exercises, turning over garden beds…
For the most part, I find commencement speeches insipid. The same old platitudes, same cheeky graduates, stuffy looking faculty. Leave it to Neil Gaiman to shake up the paradigm.
If you are an artist of any stripe, you should take twenty minutes out of your busy schedule to watch this speech.
Make good art…. no mater what the world hands you.
Make glorious and interesting mistakes.
Walk towards the mountain.
Honestly, I love “walk towards the mountain” so much, I might have to get it tattooed someplace that I can see every day.
I spent a few hours this afternoon indulging my inner Virgo – the one that wants everything to be neat and tidy. I’d like to call it spring cleaning but today it’s overcast and chilly outside, not very springy at all. Instead, I’ll call it clearing-the-decks. I picked up, straightened, put away, and organized my home office.
I don’t know if it’s the change in the weather (sunshine! grass greening up! seedlings on the windowsill!) or if I’ve just been fallow long enough, but I feel lately that I’m gestating something new. I’m ready to address two poetry projects that have been partially finished for a few months. Ready also to continue with a little nonfiction project I’ve been pondering. Even ready to try my hand again at writing fiction (story steeping so strongly in my head that last night I dreamt of it).
Question: Has my art been brave enough?
My answer: Before I started my MFA, I was the master of the safe, pretty poem. I’ve read a lot of these poems, pleasing but somewhat staid imagery, sentiment but no real depth of feeling. I can only imagine that the admissions folks of the several MFA programs where I was accepted looked at my poetry and wondered if I would ever be able to apply my polished sonic technique to poetry that actually said something worth reading.
Three years later, and several hard knocks over the line by my intelligent mentors, I was producing poems that were significantly better. The problem was, I still wanted to be good. I wasn’t risking being bad often enough to consistently find a path out of the lower atmosphere. Then a workshop by a poet (Li-Young Lee) who requested that we honestly put ourselves on a pole over a pit of flame and then decide what needed to be said. Oh, and try to say it in a way that no one else ever has, but which resonates immediately with any reader, even one who has never been in a similar situation.
Earlier this year I started writing a series of poems about my brother who passed away when I was 27. Dangerous poems. Poems with sharp edges. Poems that walked towards cliff edges in the fog. Often really bad poems. Sometimes poems that made readers flinch or gasp. A trade-off: safety sacrificed for work that will honestly bleed (and I mean that in a good, visceral way).
Still, in the last few months of 2011, those poems started to dry up. Only recently (say in the last few days) have I begun to understand why. I got busier, too busy to waste time writing poems that might suck. So, my poetry once again veered into that soft territory of pretty. I turned away from the fertile, mucky, swampy part of my memories, and started tip-toeing around the safe sun-drenched garden.
Time to go back. Time to write a lot of poetry that risks being bad so that there are a few that are actually brave enough to be good. Besides, I really want to finish this chapbook (or full-length collection). I’d better be ready to get back up on the pole and stare into the fire. Sure, it’s hot up there, but th0se flames burn away the merely pretty and light the way towards something worth more.