Category Archives: Poetry

Rosetta Poem

I’m stuck tonight. Many potential articles are on my list of titles but none of them will come to me, and I think it’s because I am “overdue” to write a poem: like a woman in week 41 of pregnancy, I’m uncomfortable and irritated with my condition. As I wrote in Poet Mode, my bad poetry fills a slightly different space in my soul, and it’s become very important to my recovery and my ability to stay connected to myself.

There’s been very little chance to get away alone this week. I can carry off prose by putting on earphones and ignoring what’s around me for a while, but poet mode requires a different space. A cafe is all right as long as nobody there knows me; so is a library, but I can’t seem to engage poet mode properly when my family is around. I’ve also found my high pain level distracting.

If I even had a half-formed poem in my head, it wouldn’t be so bad…that’s a   different kind of frustration. But I don’t; I just know I need one. I find myself brainstorming about potential subjects for poetry, scanning the “universal” topics to see if I get a flash of response I can narrow down:

…love hate indifference despair depression apathy wrath
grief loneliness
breaking up breaking down dying
resurrecting dying again failure
battles ambushes glorious last stands
beauty power transformation
sex good sex bad sex weird sex no sex
growing up getting old time timelessness
confusion frustration truth gods demons journeys memories…

it’s all real but nothing jumps out and says “Me! Me! I’m the general theme of your next poem!”

Crap. That technique has worked for me before when I truly had a blank canvas, and this means that there really is a specific poem stuck in there, a specific image or feeling that is waiting. I can sense it now. What does it want?

Something in my psyche is really digging in its heels…until this damn poem, whatever it’s about, comes out I apparently won’t be writing anything else, prose or poetry. How do “real” poets deal with this issue? Is it just a matter of writing frequently, or always having fragments of multiple poems around so that “poem pending” becomes the natural state of things?

In general, I don’t like to write about not being able to write…I feel as if it’s been done before, often. But I suppose there’s a reason it’s been done a lot: it’s a central part of the creative experience, which is a central part of the human experience. So who am I to be so arrogant? Am I so special that everything I share about is supposed to be somehow unique?

Integrative recovery is about growing in multiple directions…not upward, but outward like the arms of a starfish. Reaching into human realms we’ve been cut off from for so long, or never had the chance to experience at all. Human realms, so I need to get over myself. My writer’s block is just as relevant to my message about life in recovery as anything else is, because it’s my truth at the moment.

By the way…I know what the poem is about now. It was my ego, my perfectionism, that was standing in the way of realizing it. The poem’s an old idea I have had on hold for years, because it is very special to me and I don’t think I can do justice to it. Now I see that it is time to set aside that insecurity, put on my black turtleneck and beret, and get to work.


My mind can get crowded
with drama and fears
but what frightens me more
is when Nothing appears.

I can work with a challenge;
Act braver, be true
but when Nothing’s going on
I don’t know what to do.

At one spot on the wall
people notice me stare
My eyes can’t look away
because Nothing is there.

Though this party’s a treat
I must hurry away
for I’d better not speak
when I’ve Nothing to say.

I can try to be calm
Rid my mind of its pains
but if I should succeed
sometimes Nothing remains.

If my work’s done today
Prayers said, conscience clear
I can honestly say
I have Nothing to fear.

And I know in the night
when I’m rigid with dread
All this time Mom was right–
Nothing’s under my bed.

So when kindly you ask
why I’m quiet so long
Now you know what it means
when I say Nothing’s wrong.

Poet Mode

Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.

What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?

Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.

After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure.

But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.

Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.

I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.

I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion  more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)

You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.

Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites.

Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Its permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.

One-Note Solo

Bad Poet got me thinking about how I find it hard to give myself permission to do things that I think I don’t do well. To be fair, my attitude has been fed quite a bit by the culture I live in.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age 7, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.

Bad Poet

I want to be a bad poet.
I want good poets to shake their heads indulgently at the rawness,
the lack of craft,
the lack of depth
in my work.

I want to be a drama queen with words and images;
smile sheepishly
when I read a poem a week later.
I want to publish things impulsively
like this.

I want to sit in cafes feeling sensual with artsy paper
getting ink on my fingers
while I scrawl the “perfect” phrase
and oh,
I want that phrase to be so, so imperfect.

What glorious liberation, to be a bad poet!
What freedom to shout, what license to play!
What security to know I am bad,
and never waste

one more moment

fearing that I might be.