It’s the middle of August, which means summer is almost over and I have to start preparing in earnest to go back into the classroom. This is the first summer in many years–at least fifteen, I think–that I’ve been off since the spring semester ended in May. I certainly could’ve used the extra money I would’ve earned teaching my usual two summer classes, which didn’t fill because of low enrollment, but I’m also not complaining. I was able to make very productive use the extra time. I finished a first draft of my next book of poems! It’s more a framework for a draft, actually, nowhere near ready to share with the world, and so many of the poems are still in flux—even some that have been published in journals (here and here, if you’re interested)—that I am relearning a lesson each of the previous two manuscripts I have published taught me: patience.
CavanKerry Press, for example, rejected two or three different and substantial revisions of the manuscript that became my second book, Words for What Those Men Have Done, for reasons that boiled down to my not being able to get out of my own way within my own poems. (I was, to put it differently, trying too hard and too self-consciously to make the poems do what I wanted them to do, turning them more into poeticized editorials than works of art.) It wasn’t till I realized that I had fallen too much in love with the formal concept I had for the book as a whole, which was connected to ideas about chamber music and string quartets—ideas that would take too long to explain here—that I was able to hunker down with the language and take the time necessary to transform the manuscript into something worth publishing.
One reason I had such a hard time seeing this problem in the first place was that Words For What Those Men Have Done is so deeply personal. It deals far more explicitly than The Silence of Men with my experience as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and it was, therefore, correspondingly more difficult and painful to write. The formal scheme I’d come up with for organizing the book–four or five long poems divided into four or five movements each–had been my way of making that pain and difficulty manageable, establishing the boundaries that would give it structure and meaning. I hadn’t understood that this structure’s purpose was, in reality, to enable me to generate the poetic material I needed. To turn that material into successful poems, enough of them to fill a book, I needed to allow the structures that would hold those poems to emerge organically–and that required patience.
Now that I have completed a first draft of this new manuscript—the working title is This Sentence Is A Metaphor For Bridge—I realize that I have been through more or less the same process. I just didn’t need to have the manuscript rejected three times for me to figure it out. After I finished Words for What Those Men Have Done, I was, quite frankly, tired of talking about myself. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go back yet again to the violence of my childhood, or the intimate questions about manhood and masculinity that my poems sometimes explore, or the issues of my Jewish identity, or my marriage. I just didn’t think I had anything new to say, at least not in poetry. I wanted to write something that would take me out of myself, that would force me to focus more on the poem as a self-consciously constructed linguistic object, and so I set myself what I thought at first would be a purely formal exercise, sort of like playing scales on the piano. I decided to write sonnets, a form I have always loved, that would not only follow as strictly as possible the rules of the form, but that would also adhere to a set of guidelines meant to take me–my autobiographical self–out of the the poems as much as possible. These are all the rules I created:
- I would write in strict iambic pentameter
- All rhymes would be full rhymes (a rule I ended up having to break only once)
- While I would not hold myself strictly to the Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhetorical structures, the rhyme schemes would adhere absolutely to one or the other of those forms (a rule I broke a couple of times)
- I would not use the first person singular pronoun, I, unless it was spoken in direct speech by a character in the poem
- As much as possible, rather than relying on narrative or logical momentum to move the poem forward, I would rely on the music of the language
I rarely set aside “writing time”” to work on these poems. Rather, I composed them piecemeal, usually on my phone, while I was riding the train or standing in line at the supermarket–pretty much anywhere but at my desk. If I got stuck or interrupted mid-line, as I often did, I just put the poem aside until I could pick it up again. When I did, though, instead of reading through all the lines I’d written previously, I looked only at the line that had been interrupted, and maybe the line before it, finding a way to continue based on the music—the rhythm, the sound patterning—of that bit of language. I didn’t give these sonnets titles, only numbers, and once a sonnet was done, I did not look at it again. I just moved on to the next one. Continue reading