Saturday, August 21, 2010

89. Before Writing, There Was the Desire to Write It Down

When I start writing this,
I’m in a bar in Columbus with friends, and we talk
inside a small room that protrudes over
the sidewalk. The city is large but somehow
small in this room,
this little bulbing of glass and wood into opposing space
giving us the sense we can transcend
the limitations of space and body.

It is night and everything
is covered with shadow
(a certain kind of paint)
so I’m thinking of you.

These last three days have been tiring,
tired me out, tired out most of us,
three days from early morning until late night
and all this talking and hearing and seeing
all these strange poetries of ours:
poems as sculptures decorated with words, poems
as letters in a color field, poems as fragments
of words grunted out onto pages, poems as sounds from
the chest, from the diaphragm, from the voice,
and wordless. But we are not wordless
here in this bar on High Street,
and I am lucky to be within the sound
of these voices I too little hear.

Nico’s voice was the last to arrive
and it is the deepest. The words of his poetry
are so delicate and musical, someone might imagine him
tiny, but he is a bear of a man,
two heads taller and better than I am, sturdily built,
and carrying his body knowing what he is. He threatened
to kiss the top of my bald head, in retribution
for something I’d said, soon bearing
down on me like the shadow of a storm cloud,
but gently and smelling of used cigarette smoke,
kissing me, later repeating himself twice.
To be kissed by Nico on the top of my bald
head is to know I’m a man and a poet,
not the genius he accused me earlier
of believing I was, but I am a few simpler things:
a maker, a liver of life.

We walked to the bar with Tom Beckett,
another tall man, so I’m convinced that the best poets
are giants, because that is what we call them
when we don’t call them Olson or Vassilakis or
Beckett. I’m not tall myself but don’t notice
height much. I notice voice or what the voice does
or what the hand guided by the voice makes.

I gave my performance about the word
because the word, variously imagined,
is all I know, all I write about, all I think. The world’s
much more than words, much richer, but I live
this life crippled by the sense that words cover
every object in space, every desire of the body,
every yearning and every giving in.
I thought out loud, and walking, about
what word once was,
referring out to the audience, each of whom was
part of me, ingested by me, fed into my body
through my eyes and my ears, my touch, my sense
of smell, everything but taste, and I created
something in the space of a moment, in the moment,
at that moment in time, confident the only good
essay, the only good talk, is a poem, that the best poem
disappears upon creation back into the collective
soul of humanity, that a poem has to be a song,
even if wordless, even if silent, so I sang
my song, my sign made sing, into the audience,
trying to fill them with a joyous lamentation
for the word. As I sang, people from outside our space,
which had filled with light and the filtering of light,
gathered closer, I thought to stop my singing, to hush
the voice, but they came to hear the voice, to see what it was,
how it was, why it was coming from that space
at that unexpected moment.

It was a good moment, and afterwards
Ruth Sackner and Marvin came up to me to claim
I was a genius because I do so many different things
and so well, and surprised to hear my talking
and singing, my way with the live word. But it is
a disease to believe such gracious praise, so I
couldn’t accept it, though I smiled broadly
at their kindness and I held it in my ear
until it disappeared. The world is not about
genius but about work, like your careful craft
of building a visual poem as a sculpture, which
becomes literally the building of a poem, the way
a body and a mind must always come into it,
something I understood best when you said,
“When I first started writing poetry,
I never imagined I’d be doing it
with a drill and a screwdriver.”

John Moore Williams and Mara
Hernandez join us, my having asked them to.
They are a young couple, two visual poets,
two artists, two people joined together
across the border between two countries,
and I try to erase that border, to turn them
into one, to make them fuse as the poet and
the poem are fused, inseparable, indistinguishable.
Still we know where one begins
and the other ends.

mIEKAL is happy here and I don’t know
if he’s had anything to drink. I’m two
margaritas into cooling down from the art show
and music festival held in the tight hot room
on the fifth floor of a building a few blocks away,
and I’m clear-headed, clear enough to know
how happy I am to be here, with these
people. mIEKAL tells me I’m the Pope
of Vispo, and I smile at the thought of being
infallible regarding issues relating to visual poetry
(knowing that all poetry is concerned with
fallibility). I give mIEKAL as great a hug
as I can, though not as hard as the one I’d given
skinny Olchar earlier (which was long and
hard, a good strong goodbye), and I tell those
in the bar that I’m relatively thin. They scoff
at the word relatively.

I tease mIEKAL, who’s a restrained Midwesterner
at heart, by showing him the visual poems I show
no-one, those I keep almost only to myself, of glyphs
written into the steam of hotel mirrors after my morning
shower, and parts of my naked body captured
in the lowest fraction of the mirror that the steam
never covers. He can’t understand this use
of the body as art, the body as the poem, the poet
as the poem in its execution and its simple
manifestation, the poem in the act of the moment
captured as a photograph of same.

Nancy and CamillE are talking, remembering
our visit to Dreamtime Village two years ago,
the interview CamillE just taped with me, asking me
about poetry, my children, my sincere belief
that my feet are the best features of my body.
For a strange moment, Mara is with them as well,
and the women are separated completely
from the men, as if we are not the same people,
of the same blood and breath. The moment passes.

Crag always interests me because he is funny
but always serious, especially in the field of
teaching, and the conversation swirls around
thinking of reading and writing and what
the world should teach children to learn,
and I wonder if visual poetry itself
would seem like a detriment to any
curriculum, the reduction of word to
amulet, charm, the voiceless tattoo
on an otherwise bare arm. Crag asks me
about the point I made in my talk,
that a thing is always a symbol of itself
as well as itself, just as a human also is,
and we think about it a little. Some thoughts,
I think, are merely intellectual exercises,
not provable, merely
ways of looking at the world and making
it into sense.

I have spent far too little time
with so many people here, but I’ve spent
almost enough time with my friend Tom Beckett,
who gave us a presentation, a poem, that was
nothing more than questions, answers to which
we in the audience sometimes threw back to him.
That night, Nancy and he tried to convince me
not to write one of my letters (like this one
to you) each night, to take a break from writing
365 letters in 365 days. I told them it was impossible,
that my constraints required me to begin a letter
every day and finish it and mail it as soon
as I could. Their intervention took so long, though,
that I fell behind in my writing of
these letters. Tom asked me, When does discipline
becomes obsession?
and I told him that that was
a question that made sense only from outside
of the person intent on the task. He laughed,
calling me rhetorically skilled.

What I enjoyed most of what he told me that night
was that I was a beloved figure, which made me
smile, even if I didn’t know to whom
I was beloved or why.

These last few days have been among the best
in my life, with people from three continents, at least
five countries, and three languages coming together
to talk about different ways of writing and making
the art of words real in a life. I realized this week
that I was with my people, people I will never see
often but people I will always want to be with.
And I learned that we will never
always have the people we need with us
to be with us. This means I must
live my life as if I mean it.

I apologize that there are too many words
about myself here and none
about many of the people who made this event
a great coming-together of a people. I do
not mean to do this, but this joy that has pushed me
into the arms and under the lips of my people
has also eased me back into myself, into
reconsidering the value of what I do, which
I always question, which I always must
and will. And that thought forces me
back into my discipline, my obsession
with thinking and doing and
making, and I am struck with
the outrageous and ostensibly conceited thought
(but one that is merely about the desire to create)

If I can’t be everything,
I want to be nothing.


  1. Geof,

    I love this poem with one quibble And you know I admire your 365 Ltr project. But... I am troubled by your final couplet(therein lies the quibble):

    "If I can't be everything,
    I want to be nothing."

    I thought I was the drama queen and you were the "last existentialist." What's up with that?

  2. This isn't meant to be drama, just a note that I have to be everything. It's better rhetorically in this form.