blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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To Failure

Billy Beane is a famous baseball dude who was drafted into the Major Leagues as a teenager but did not achieve Babe-Ruthiness due in part to an inability to forget his losses. (This is what my husband tells me; I’ve never met Mr. Beane, and I don’t know much about baseball that I didn’t learn from my husband talking about Moneyball.) [1] In the field, he’d fixate on his last strikeout and couldn’t connect bat with ball. To be a great hitter, apparently, you need what they call a baseball memory—the ability to inhale the scent of a potential home run while ignoring the smoke bomb of your strikeouts.

When I was twelve, a teacher told me I was good at writing. At twelve, I didn’t feel good at much. You’ve guessed that I wasn’t well versed in sports. I also had an uneven perm, awkward curling iron technique, and ugly discount pants (plaid, it turned out, was not brave and quirky). I was also oblivious to how few seventh graders wanted to talk about Macbeth and Star Trek. I felt a little bit lost between the world of myself and the world of the world, so I started trying to write a corridor between them. I clung to the idea of being good at anything besides reciting the Articles of the Federation, even if poetry wasn’t as cool as volleyball or, say, having friends.

No, don’t worry about twelve-year-old me. I had two friends. And eventually seventh grade ended, curled bangs went out of style, and I got way, way cooler. Or Star Trek got cooler. Or both. I wrote whimsically and without discipline throughout high school and college, thinking that poems should be granted like wishes. When they didn’t materialize finished with sanded edges from the ceiling fan, I assumed that my talent had been a lie propagated by a guidance counselor who hoped that having something to be good at would save me. Of course it did. Of course it was more complex than that.

My hard drive became a graveyard of strikeouts: half-villanelles and anemic Italian sonnets that exhausted me until I let them bleed out. My choices were to give up or truly become a student of process and craft. So I worked. I realized that I have to do everything I wish a muse would finger-snap into existence: practice. Read as much as possible—even poems I find dull. In fact, read those poems over and over until I figure out why the world disagrees. (Shout-outs to Hopkins, Frost, and Keats: mad love, gentlemen! Sorry, Shelley.) Pry bark from the deadstand of consciousness to find emotionally evocative images that make only the wrong kind of sense. Cut lines and stanzas that don’t pull their weight. Scrape away the film of sentimentality until the poem squeaks with resonance. Read some more.

I go through an abbreviated version of this every time I write, start each poem believing I’m due for a visit from a glitter-and-eiderdown-clad poetry genie. That jerk never shows. Instead, it’s just me in a room filled with craft glue and feathers. [2]

We’ve read so much about the physical particulars of process: unbrushed teeth, neglected phone messages, sun rising like a pale fever before the last line is written. [3] I turn on the TV and let the drone of procedural crime dramas carry me like a mantra through the anxiety of an incoherent first draft. While I romanticize the notion of writing at a commanding oak desk, notes fanned like affable sparrow tails around me, I always, always fail the desk. I find myself cross-legged on a couch (the current incarnation, in our apartment in southern China, is wooden and not very comfortable) with TV, eating cinnamon candies. But the physical particulars aren’t enough. Each draft before the final draft must be nothing but pretentious abstractions that I soothe like petulant children. I have to curry clichés and doggerel, prune and irrigate nonsensical leaps like tiny, exotic shrubs. Revision, revision, revision! I love it.

The hardest part is writing the first draft of wrong words. Then I’m free to bend them back upon themselves and forth again until they have what Frost called “the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.” To tap syllables like Morse code along the shelves of the library. To slide punctuation back and forth on an imaginary abacus while waiting for the bus. To striate grocery lists with euphonic names for ugly things. To pickaxe through sense memory in search of a phrase that will tap against the thrumming pulse of the reader. To turn free verse into pantoum, stretch sestinas and ghazals into thin noodles of free verse. To delete with abandon.

I get lost in those sublime particulars, in failure after failure, until all I can see is the process. When I’m lucky, the bat propels the ball; the corridor door opens. I fail in order to connect.  end


1  Confession: I research almost exclusively on the Internet. Once, I spent hours reading about the color, shape, and blooming habits of azaleas on gardening websites and didn’t notice, until my husband pointed to them, that our house was surrounded by azalea bushes. [4]

2  Confession: Once in awhile, there’s an idea like a cut in my mouth that I can’t stop poking with my tongue. But usually, I begin poems for tedious, un-admirable reasons: I read an incredible poem and feel jealous; I can’t think of any other way to dull the guilt of not writing; I want to avoid the laundry.

3  Confession: I am convinced that every poem is simultaneously the most badass poem ever written and proof that I’m an incompetent fraud about to be ridiculed in poetry-centric Facebook groups. I suspect this is a vital component of the process.

4  Confession: That’s a lie. I knew the bushes were there. I just didn’t want to stand up.