Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Way of Being in the World: Poet James Tolan

James Tolan
Having been the editor of my high school newspaper my junior and senior years, I aspired to be a journalist. The leap to being a poet a few years later is one I never would have anticipated. I can’t recall ever caring for poetry. It was a language foreign to me and often comical. I remember my sophomore English teacher perched on a stool in front of our class, her legs braided around themselves and her upper lip swollen from a bee sting, she was reciting her own poetry to us. “I love these hills, Mother,” she began, and my friends and I tittered.

A fifth-year senior nine credits shy of graduation. I was attending a free yoga class on campus and was distracted by the young woman near me, who was practicing in a pair of floral-patterned jeans. I wanted to scoff at her for wearing tight jeans to yoga but found myself mesmerized instead. I was down and out and couldn’t afford to take her on a date, so I wrote her a poem, an affected pseudo-surrealist love throb complete with my phone number. The poem was magically effective at gaining her affections. I kept writing her poems and she kept asking for more. I was delighted and decided to try and parlay those poems into three credits of poetry workshop.

I had no idea that the poetry professor on campus at Northern Illinois University, Lucien Stryk, was what he liked to call “internationally famous locally” as both a poet and translator of Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry. All I knew was that the poems pleased their intended audience to an extent I found giddily delightful and so, I thought, should earn me three credits. The first of the love poems I turned in to the workshop he judiciously critiqued. I deemed him incapable of recognizing my genius and planned to drop his course when the next student poet was cautioned against using the word caress in her poem. Stryk pointed out that it was an overly poetic word and should be avoided. I immediately dashed off the following, which I handed in as my next poem for the workshop:

Just a Feeling

Some days
I’d just rather jack off

or caress your teeth
with a ballpeen hammer.

It’s nothing personal
just a feeling.

I intended the poem as a dismissive gesture on my way out the door, but Prof. Stryk liked it, found it funny. The young woman who had used the word caress the week before was peeved, questioned why I could use the word and she couldn’t. Prof. Stryk gave us a lesson in the importance of surprise and the unexpected with my poem as the example.

I stayed in the class. I wrote more poems, following his admonitions to use fresh and unexpected language and images, to trust the language to guide the poem and not our will or what we thought we wanted to say. Two of my poems, including “Just a Feeling,” appeared in the student literary journal that semester, and I was hooked. I read Stryk’s poems, his anthologies of Midwestern poets, his translations of Basho and Issa and Shinkichi Takahashi, the poets in Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry (our class text in which Stryk was included but never discussed). Among these books I found poets and poems whose language I understood, or wanted to understand, and admired, poems whose imagery and metaphors I found luminous. More than words on a page, I found in those poems a way of being in the world that I recognized in a nascent way as my own.

This has to be the difference between a calling and a career. I didn’t choose to be a poet because I was appreciably better at it than I was at being a journalist or a philosopher, a ballplayer or a library assistant, nor because it afforded me social mobility or financial prospects. Being a poet chose me, found me just when I most needed to be found, when I was broke and listing, rudderless and ready to go down, dragging out my undergraduate education because I had no idea what to do next. Poetry afforded me a way of being in the world, offered me a life I knew I wanted without being able to explain precisely why, knowing only that it was the only life I had found worth living well.

Inspiration from the beginning has been a moot point. At first I wrote to get the girl and keep her, since I write to converse with those I most admire among the living and the dead, the poets I read and read and read, and the only way to have a conversation with those close friends I know through their poems is through poems of my own. The magic of inspiration is no more than filling my mouth with the words of others, with poems I unreasonably love and admire, or poems that vex and trouble, only to find that new words come spilling out of me sometimes of their own accord.

The trick, the craft of the art, is how well I dance between those words that arrive from a second voice and the form they take as they enter me. Years ago, from the get go really, I learned not to lead. The poem would be what it would. The more I tried to assert my will, the more it fell to rhetoric or dullness or the nonsense of cleverness. The work for me was and continues to be to listen, to hear what the poem wants to be and to allow it to take me where it needs to go.

The personal result, not surprisingly now from a perspective a quarter century long, is that I no longer trouble over who I am, no longer seek to discover my self as if that self was not what was made through being and doing. I define myself as a poet and just as my art and craft as a poet is to offer shape and form to those words that find me so too does that work shape and form who I am. The process is not willed or intended nor is it the goal. The goal is to make poems as good as I can make them and in the process such making makes me. That is the paradox and metaphor of this life; I become who I will be through doing what is given me to do with as much grace and attention as I can muster and learn. How can I offer form to the words that visit me unless that form is born of my self, the form of me? My self is far less the personal and so much more the form, the home I shape for my life, through what I make and how I make it.

Sometimes it comes all in a rush and I am lucky to catch nearly all of it, perhaps a few cuts or adjustments to language or line, but largely born whole. Often those are the special ones, the poems that carry the greatest energy, magic, music, and surprise. Most of the time my mechanism, my ability to listen and hear not only the words as they come but also what form they offer in terms of line, stanza, and overall design, is not as quick as I would like, as quick as the poem needs, and the poem, like any living thing that has not found its natural shape, its proper form and place in the world, becomes ungainly or stops before it is complete because I am unable to keep up, unable to discern the form required to hold the energy it brings. Then I can only count on patience, the hope that if I stay with the words given me, find for them their right form, the voice or its kin will return while work and move that poem to its conclusion. Sometimes this happens within minutes or hours or over a few days. It has taken as much as fifteen years. Often it doesn’t happen at all.

As a young poet I was loath to accept poems that arrived fully formed. The poem that has in many ways been my most successful—well-published, anthologized, performed on BBC radio, and available at—I wrote in fifteen minutes in my late twenties while helping to facilitate a writing exercise for high school teachers. When my professor asked me to share what I had written in response to his exercise in order to grease the skids for the others, one teacher was indignant. I could not, she said, have written that poem just then, in such a short amount of time, but I had. I took the cue given me, heard a line that I muttered to myself, kept muttering and writing as the poem came and when the time for the exercise was up, I wrote my last line. Later, I showed it to my wife before dropping it in the trash. She called me an idiot and fished it out. I didn’t trust the poem. It seemed too easy and how, as an egotistic young man, could I take credit for a poem that came so easily. I preferred the tortured poems I slaved over, thinking those the ones I’d earned. The truth is, a good poem is a gift. And the parallel truth for me has been, the more I consciously listen, as attentive and open as I can be to the world of the life given me, the poems I read and hear, my memories, fancy and imagination, the more likely the unconscious floods me with poems that don’t require my anguish and ego.

When I first began to write in the late ‘80s in DeKalb, Illinois, I lived on the second floor of a converted nineteenth century carriage house with huge and abundant windows and a tremendous claw foot tub. When a poem would come to me I would chant the lines as they came, but I found that I couldn’t do so standing still or sitting. I had to move, but if I walked randomly about the apartment, the energy would dissipate. If it was late enough so that no one was around, I might head to the small park nearby and pace its single block. But more often I’d hop on top of that tub and pace its rim, chanting the poem as more lines came. My memory could usually hold four or five lines until I’d have to come off the tub and write the lines before I lost them. Sometimes I’d write awhile and when I got stuck, hop back up and resume the tub-top pacing and chanting, beginning with the last line or two I’d written.

Then the personal computer came along and spoiled me. I could type fast and see the form as it appeared. I could cut, paste and maneuver the text so easily. My poems grew longer and more polished in appearance. Everything came faster when it came and I was better able to keep up. Imagine though the difference between reading letters and hearing a loved one’s voice. Both have their advantages but when I miss someone I love, little affords more solace than their voice. Now I’m trying to learn how to compose aloud again, to hear my poems before or as I write them.

Many people I admire insist on a set routine. How can the muse find you, they ask, unless she or he knows where to look and when? This never worked for me. I can’t show up at an assigned time and expect to write, perhaps when I’m revising but not when generating new work. When the poems come, everything else has to go. This is probably why poets and other artists are so often difficult creatures. Anything short of my wedding or my son’s, a poem takes precedence. Even on such special occasions, I take a notebook and pencil from my pocket and duck into someplace discrete as soon as I believe I can get away with it. My sense of when and for how long has improved over the years as has my ability to give myself permission and to surround myself with those who understand. My wife and I loved the choreographer Pina Bausch, but my wife knew that I couldn’t make it through an evening with Bausch’s dance company without retreating to the lobby to write. Rarely was I beside my wife when the curtain fell.

As a poet, I’m always reading poetry, often a variety of poets at a time, other times sinking into the work of one. Not to do so seems to me akin to a musician not listening to music or the devout ceasing to worship. One of the joys of poetry now is the range of contemporary poets available and the range of fine translations from so many traditions and ages. The mercantile among us argue that poetry is a dying art because sales of individual books don’t compare with bestsellers. That’s like arguing that mulberries or truffles are outmoded foods because Monsanto can’t find a way to harvest them: best sellers iceberg lettuce, poetry a wild root. Right now I’m discovering the poetry of Paul Blackburn, settling into A.E. Stallings’ new book Olives, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, and working my way through reprints of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties. I recently finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

For many years the most damaging myth I held to about writing was that true poets and writers work independently: the garretted artist, the lone wolf. As such a poet, I learned to write good poems. Many people can write good poems, but without the attention of a community of readers, I didn’t learn how to make those poems better. Art and poetry of the best quality, the poetry I aspire to write, rarely happens in isolation. Poetry requires a community; people invested in helping each other make their art better. The trick is finding and sustaining that community of poets and readers invested in the art and craft more than the mutual care of each other’s egos.

My latest book, Mass of the Forgotten, is a collection of poems, some of which are more than twenty years old and others which I wrote last year. Finally, with much help from others, especially Owen Lewis, I was able settle on a form for the collection that not only cohered but also allowed the poems room to speak to one another and across themes. In many traditions, the work of becoming an adult is taking the dead from your back and through praise and truth telling help them to leave the world of the living to the living, to show them you don’t need them to take care of you anymore, that you can take care of yourself better now without them, that you thank them and need them to leave so your life can become your own, so they can breathe life into the living from a home of their own. That’s what this book is about.

The next collection is for my son Junuh, who’s ten now. He’s always asking me for stories, so this is a collection of largely narrative poems for him. It’s called Raveling, and I’ll begin circulating it among friends for suggestions and revisions next year. With Mass of the Forgotten out soon, I need to focus on keeping that work fresh when I read from it and to continue to write new poems because unless I’m creating I don’t feel like a poet and can’t read my own work without feeling like a fraud.
Copyright©2013 by James Tolan