On Writer’s Block, Fear of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser…

May 27, 2008:

“The fear of poetry is an indication that we are cut off from our own reality” — Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell lately and I know certain people who would scoff at that statement, shake their heads and say “Shannon, you can’t produce publishable work every damn day!” (that’s almost a direct quote). Of which I’d say…well, of course not…I hardly think I produce publishable work each year, let alone day. Anyway, I’ve been frustrated lately. I demand too much, I think, of myself. Perhaps I demand too much from others as a result. But I digress.

I get in these mental blocks where I fling myself around (in my head, mind you) and despair that I will NEVER write another poem AGAIN! Surely I will never be blessed with inspiration or even a good image or two, again. Right? Why did I ever write a poem to begin with? Who was I kidding? And so I read things, I study thing (right now it’s the work of Richard Feynman – how did I not know about this character? What the hell was wrong with my education that it lacked so desperately in the Math and Science department? Sigh…expect more on him soon).

Anyway, so I study things…. hoping that I might learn things, hoping I might be able to hold a conversation about computer programming or nuclear science if ever the need arose…but the end result is maybe, just maybe, if I become just that much more knowledgeable, it might help me somewhere down the line in my poetry. I long to learn more and more about whatever I can. I was almost ANGRY when I first started reading about physics and stuff because why the hell didn’t I know any of this? Where the hell have I been for 23ish years? Oh, yeah, reading poetry and Jane Austen, Milton, stuff about the British Empire, etc. and ignoring anything having to remotely do with science or math because I have what you call “Math Anxiety.”

It’s true. I actually enjoyed Chemistry and Algebra 1 in high school…but when I got to college, I opted to take the course called “Topics in Mathematics” which is supposed to be “easy.” You know, for the Humanities students who only need one credit of math to graduate? Anyway, so I took it…and my teacher didn’t speak English…more like…Japenglish. So, after a heart attack on my first day, I switched classes so I could get a different professor, one that spoke s-l-o-w-l-y when discussing equations and moles and statistics and what all else (I really didn’t learn anything). But still, I got a D on my first exam. I walked out of class, got in my car, lit up a cigarette (back when I had that disgusting habit) and cried for about an hour…. Surely my life was over. So I decided to go to a tutor. He was nice enough. He was brilliant, actually. But brilliant in that “I can understand what you’re talking about, thanks for explaining it to me in laymen’s terms” way. However, even he, a programming, computing genius, said “Shannon, you should have taken calculus or something….this ‘Topics in Math’ B.S. is really f****ing hard!” Thanks, I know. Anyway, then he decided to try and get me to sleep with him, which was quite unfortunate. So, needless to say, I hated math.

So, back to my writing problem: I just feel a bit strange…because I have all of these ideas, but once again it’s like someone has taken away my ability to implement them into eloquent lines. When this happens, I’ll be running down a sidewalk (something I do quite often, run, that is) and I’ll think of a great image, an idea…and then poof! It’s gone. And I sit down, sweating, heart pounding and think “damn, I’m such a failure.” When this happens, I immediately think about what I always say to anyone else who has this problem “have faith. It’s ok. You are a writer and the Muse will grace your door again soon.” However, this is ME we’re talking about, and so of course I never listen to my own advice.

It’s odd to describe this type of panic. I was reading The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser (AMAZING book, a must read for anyone who loves poetry) on the plane a couple days ago and…you guessed it….I started kind of crying…but not really because I was sitting next to this kind of scary looking man. Anyway, she writes so passionately about the art…I actually had a whole blog written up dedicated to this book, but perhaps I’ll post it another time… She discusses the fear of poetry…why people may resist the art…because “a poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.” Hmm, perhaps that’s why some people are uncomfortable with poetry.

Anyway, she explains further:

“Faith is found here …. Do you accept your own gestures and symbols? Do you believe what you yourself say? When you act, do you believe what you are doing? … It comes to that if form is going to be achieved in life or art…”

Then, she speaks directly, again, to the poet:

“Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry…All we can show to people is themselves: show them what passion they possess, and we will all have come to the poetry. This is the knowledge of communication, and it is the fear of it which has cut us down. …Our lives may rest on this; and our lives are our images”

OK, so that’s some powerful stuff right there…believing in oneself, in ones authenticity. I know I have trouble with that a lot. I over analyze, sometimes, the things I write. I question myself. I have learned to do that less and less, but it’s a struggle. And about Faith — especially in times of “writer’s block” – in oneself, faith Poetry, in inner-beauty, truth. But here’s where I almost started crying (keep in mind I had also just finished “The Best Day The Worst Day” about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon’s life together and about her dying of cancer…(geez, I’m so upbeat, aren’t I?) anyway, this sentiment here:

” We are cut off from large areas in ourselves, and we make the specialized skills and expressions our goals. … We think in terms of property, weapons, secrets; we exalt the means….less and less do we imagine ourselves and believe ourselves. We make a criterion of adjustment, which glorifies the status quo, and denies the dynamic character of our lives, denies time, possibility, and the human spirit….What is the fear of poetry? (here she goes back to society’s resistance to poetry) The fear is fear of disclosure, but, in this instance, of disclosure to oneself of areas within the individual, areas with which he is not trained to deal, and which will only bring him hostile relationships with his complacent neighbor, whose approval he wants.”

So, I’m going back and forth here between my frustration with my writer’s block, and the sort of frustration I feel as far as being a “poet.” Let’s face it…if I was this passionate about, say, medicine, and I was going off to be a Dr., that would fall more in the social norm category, right? But, I think both of these frustrations are inherently linked…because in times of doubt in myself, it’s easier to feel insecure as a whole….”why am I even wasting my time pursuing this, etc. My family would rather I do business or law, etc. I’d be more financially secure, etc.” You get my point.
But then I look at myself a couple years ago…heck, a couple months ago, and I thank God I am pursuing this….even if I am in a dry spell and doubt I’ll ever write another acceptable poem….because, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m honoring Shannon…I’m listening to her passion speak up for itself. Does that make sense? It’s still so hard. I write a poem and think “ugh, this sucks…” or I spend too much time comparing it to something someone else wrote…or I listen to certain people go on about how I shouldn’t write about that or shouldn’t disclose that or “don’t I have any filters” etc. But what of this communication? Honestly? How much of that queer feeling is their insecurity? Their discomfort?

Why is it not easier to have Faith and Conviction about my practice? When will I be bold and passionate 100% of the time when it comes to my writing? I’m not talking about thinking I’m brilliant or anything, because Lord, the day I think that is the day I stop becoming a better writer, but what I mean is, the kind of conviction and passion that Wordsworth’s Prelude had, or Milton…or Muriel Rukeyser (yes, I am placing her in ranks with them, this book is brilliant, go get it)

Perhaps when I have a bit more confidence in myself. It’s funny…I feel like I have gained a lot of confidence of late…but do you know what? I have this sort of residual feeling of guilt…I think to myself “Oh man…I sound arrogant…do I sound arrogant? Should I not come across so passionate? Maybe that passion comes across in a false light?” But on the flip side, I feel guilty for not being as passionate, or retreating in my enthusiasm.

Patience. I think it comes down to being patient….with the self and with the audience.

Anyway, I will sit back and allow myself to fall in love again and again with poetry and people like Muriel Rukeyser and Wordsworth, etc. I shan’t feel ashamed of my desires. I do not want to keep crawling back and seeking the approval of my complacent neighbor.

And as for writer’s block…again, Faith. Keeping my eyes and heart open to my emotions, my reactions. Not allowing my fear to shut those feelers down. For example: tonight I was walking from my car to my front door and I smelled the most amazing smell. I almost resisted stopping and instead rushing inside…but I did stop and breathe it in deeply, allowing my mind to wander. It smelled like my grandmother’s old house…though I never knew my grandmother (she died when I was 3) we used to go to her house a lot when I was younger…and the way my mother looked one time, going over her mother’s old journals, tears on her cheeks. And the way I saw my grandmother standing over her, hand on my mother’s shoulder. I was always speaking to my dead grandmother, seeing her here and there…Of course, perhaps it was my own childish imagination, but I did see her a lot. And anyway, so many times I’ve dismissed it…told my now adult self that that’s a lie…but the purity of such things as a child—the different way in which children really do feel and see the world. Anyway, I think it’s the Magnolia tree that recalled the smell. Do Magnolias smell? Either that or these vines my landlord has, with the yellow honeysuckle flowers on them…I used to suck the juice out of the stem when I was a kid.

Sometimes I just want to feel everything like that again…in a state of constant wonder, and always believing blindly what one feels. Not “how should I feel right now” but “how do I feel?”

I miss that intimacy. And yet, you’d never know it.

Now why the hell can’t I write a poem?

Breath. Patience. Faith.

And why is it I need to write? To communicate….communicate from the deepest, purest areas of the being…creating that intimacy between poet and witness. To create a living, breathing account of Truth. Who am I to even attempt this miracle? Really?

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