Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is the content of an individual’s writing career. Most poets have what might be called an obsessive stock of material. Plath’s father; Oliver’s seaside setting; Piercy’s Detroit; Merwin’s nature. The best poems of the individual poet’s career are often in the obsessive material and the best poems that are not are notable for being outside of the poets usual world of content, image, and language. The material that we’re called to write about is inescapable. I can list dozens of poems that I’ve started thinking that they were new only to find out they were about one of my obsessive issues: my dead sister, feminism, lesbian sex. I should just say, blah, blah, blah, here’s the same old stuff rearing it’s nasty head. Go away! I thought we were done with that. I want to be done with that! Then the lines piece together, the discovery is made and again I am writing inside my obsessive material. Still obsessed.

Part of the work is coming at the material again and again and again and making it new, reencountering it in some way to make it useful. There is also a fear, for me at least, of losing the material. On one hand, it is tiresome to rehash the same issues again and again, on the other hand, leaving them behind is terrifying. I always think, well, at least my sister will always be dead. I’ll be an eighty year old poet writing about the absence of my sister. (Oy, I hope not, that just sounds too pathetic.) Then I remember that part of this life work is keeping at these things until they resolve and then open into something new, which I fear will be as equally obsessive.

At least in the work of poetry, there is the combination of personal projects, that is attending to the issues of my life refracted through poetry, and the political projects of including and transforming poetry through the lens of lesbianism and feminism. It keeps it interesting for me and creates a balance between self-involvement and engagement in a broader political project. Still, the political project weighs on me sometimes in the same way as the obsessive nature of the content of poetry. Does it really ultimately matter if I write sexually explicit lesbian poems in a context of the “classic poetry tradition?” Does it matter if I write about race and sex and class in poems? Shouldn’t I be out there doing actual political work? If I chose to do this work in a literary context, must I share it with others in that context? Will my entire poetry workshop implode if I bring in a poem about lesbian ejaculation? I think that the answers to all of these questions are yes.

If obsession is both the risk and necessity of writing poetry, then the risk of the political work within this intellectual rubrick is failure. That’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about in conjunction with the content of my intellectual life. I have a great non-fiction writing project that I have outlined and read about. I have a good working bibliography and pages and pages of notes. I have some drafted prose. I look at it and I freeze. I feel paralyzed. I am not up to this task. I am not the right person to write about this. I am not smart enough, not knowledgeable enough. Lately I’ve been thinking I don’t have the proper theoretical framework. Before that, it was that I’m not a physicist or a chemist. If I went back to school and became one of those, I could do it. After another ten years of study. I fear failure. Less for myself, although I’ll be honest that is part of it, but more I fear failing the project, not giving this work, this content, its intellectual due. Not being rigorous enough. Not being an important enough person to take on this task. I fear letting the material down through my human failings.

I wrote an essay over the summer about the work of two poets, Reetika Vazirani and Nadia Anjuman. Both died at a young age. I love their work. I feel like their stories are important in a political context and in a literary criticism context. I wrote an essay. It is unworthy. It is incomplete. It lacks a deeper critical engagement with the texts. It doesn’t contextualize imperialism enough. I don’t read Farsi so I was working with translations. It lacks a theoretical framework. It has so many failings. It was the best I could do, and still I failed these writers, I failed this content, which I believe is so important.

I failed.

I failed.

I failed.

And now all that is left is to try again.

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