Monday, March 11, 2013

"Lapses" by Paul Allen

God has called me to live and work,
three states removed from David Petty. (Praise Him.)
Ninth and 10th grades, band practice, some practiced
while our director locked himself in the supply room
to belt down his morning supply.
Behind the tympani, Petty played me with the mallets,
chant, c’mon c’mon, man, c’mon, c’mon chicken shit,
whatsa matter, hit me, hit me, whatsa matter
But I didn’t know what was the matter.
I couldn’t c’mon c’mon. Even unsaved
I turned the other cheek.
Social Studies, I would dream through my conquistadors
of painting him blue, skewering him
on a lodge pole and offering him to the god of maize.

Extra credit: If an automobile weighing 2,000 pounds travels 60 miles per hour on a straight road, assuming no friction, how high will it bounce when it runs over David Petty’s mother?

Made friends with the enemy. Slept over.
When his breathing became heavy,
lying beside him I’d hit him at the country club,
stick a fork in his throat,
throw him on the cart of the petits fours,
roll him out to the pool, bite off his lower lip,
tear a huge chunk of cheek out with my back teeth
while the membership looked on.
Part of the fantasy always went: The nurses
and orderlies were kind to me.

At home, (even late nights in my underwear)
I practiced for hours with my father’s pistol
strapped to my hip, fast draw in the mirror at myself.

I’ve let all that go, of course.
Even a little chicken….
I can’t help it, though:
sometimes, now, even now,
surviving the siege of the world,
I kneel at the altar, my grown daughters
on either side, accept the host in my cupped hands,
and think of one more way to kill that son-of-a-bitch.

Reprinted from American Crawl (University of North Texas Press, 1997)and appeared in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books, 2008).

Paul Allen in his trailer during his travels around the U.S. He's beginning his third year as a nomad. See his bio below for more details.

Interview With Paul Allen: "In art, one lies in order to tell the truth."

How did you come to write this poem?

I don’t know. Something pops up, something that seems odd, curious, interesting, or haunting, so you deal with it. If you’re a writer, you write. Everything’s just a curious exploration. Who knows why or how an image, phrase, or rhythm comes into his head? It’s like a kid walking along a dirt road. Of all the rocks, he happens to notice one and is somehow compelled to pick it up, look at it, turn it over in his hand all the way home. Later he may show it to his mother or his friend.

How did writing this poem affect your recovery?

I’m only speaking for myself here. For me there are two kinds of poetry: literary poetry and folk poetry. Poetry written with the a priori intention of recovering falls into the folk poetry category. I like some of those that I read, but I find the only interesting poetry for me to write (unlike when I write songs), is literary poetry, the kind that considers elements of craft and art over any personal intent—rhythms, sound patterns, Aristotle’s Unities, all literature, syllable counts, slant rhymes. Again, for me, for my interest, I think the only “healing power” of poetry is in the crafting of art as art, not art as personal statement. As Reinhold Neibuhr says, “The self does not realize itself most fully when self-realization is its conscious aim.”

Flannery O’Connor writes that someone “can’t create compassion with compassion or emotion with emotion or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body.” A writer spends his years learning the craft in order to try to render into a body his emotion. The poem is the body. John Ciardi says it well: “Great human feeling will make nothing out of the cello until the fingering arm and the bowing arm have gone to school,” reminding us of Ezra Pound’s, “Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.”

To me, any recovery from some pain—at least recovery through artistic expression—is one that comes from not thinking about the pain, from finding some other activity, like studying the art and techniques of poetry, counting syllables, or reading hundreds of poets. Otherwise, it’s not art, it’s self-expression. That’s fine, if one doesn’t care to be a serious poet and have his or her poems “please the experts.” I’d rather play badly in the fields around Yeats’s tower than play well in Dr. Phil’s back yard.

Besides, art addresses larger problems than those one thinks he has anyway. I find that simply trying consciously to express what I think to be a problem is unfulfilling. I went to a shrink for around 10 years, but I went for the meds, bi-polar. Though I learned things about myself in those sessions, they were ultimately not very interesting. For me, it’s more interesting to juggle syllables while standing with one foot in a snake pit and the other on the steps of the library.

So: Bullying—recovering from anger: “Lapses” was written approximately 37 years after the event—those years were involved in writing, publishing, talking about craft, studying poetry, art, history, music, religion, and people. As Norman Cousins says, “It’s absurd to believe that the development of skills does not also require the systematic development of the human mind.” I was trying to teach and write the best I could, not to express myself as I knew myself at any given time but to reach the impossibly high artistic bar set by Emily Dickinson, Randall Jarrell, Shakespeare, or hundreds of other writers and great teachers. I fail to reach it every time, but I enjoy trying.

During those 37 years I was haunted by how angry I was at the bully, and at myself for not killing him when I was in high school. Well, that’s not exactly true. I was not “haunted by how angry I was.” I was just angry. Anger per se is not worth the effort to compose a poem. The study, the reading, the sense of artistic endeavor transformed the anger itself into a curiosity about the anger’s staying with me. It’s that curiosity which prompted the poem, not the anger.

The irony is that in some ways, this poem is about NOT recovering. And paradoxically, in composing a poem about not recovering, we recover, though in a different way from what we or a therapist might expect. It’s a roundabout recovery. As John Ciardi says, “In art, as in theology…the long way round is the only way home.”

I do not recall ever thinking about that bully when taking communion, as the speaker does in “Lapses.” I made that up (or it came to me) in the composition process. Nor do I recall ever fantasizing back then about the bully in this way:

         “stick a fork in his throat,
        throw him on the cart of the petites fours,
        roll him out to the pool, bite off his lower lip,
        tear a huge chunk of cheek out with my back teeth”

Not my “anger-mind,” but my “poetry-as-art” mind required, I felt, a rage that was more primal than just beating the guy up, primal and savage enough to become dark comedy. And then, perhaps composing that eating-image prepared me to accept the other eating-image, his being crucified and my eating him as the communion wafer. I’m sure both of the images came about by way of those 37 years of studying religion, mythology, and so forth. But who knows why they came to me during the writing?

The bullying occurred, the pain occurred, the anger occurred, the wishing to kill him occurred. But neither of those particular “eating” images, as far as I can remember, actually occurred. The structure of the poem demanded the parallel. I don’t know whether it works successfully for the reader, but it’s what I came up with.

So too with the bully’s hitting me with the tympani mallets. I don’t remember that happening. He played trombone, I played baritone horn, and we were on the opposite side of the band room from the tympani. Actually, most of it was done in a practice room, and he poked me lightly in the stomach with his finger over and over telling me to hit him. I suspect I used the tympani and mallets for the rhythms and sounds. And it wasn’t my father’s pistol I strapped to my side but my own, a .22 caliber western style revolver. My father’s pistol was small but a bigger caliber. I do remember practicing the fast draw a lot, but I don’t think I was thinking about fast-drawing on the bully. I enjoyed the practice; I was pretty good. Chances are, practicing the fast draw actually was a distraction from thinking about the bully. Using “my father’s pistol” in the poem—I probably was feeling some connotations with father-son-guilt-disappointment and so forth. And practicing in my underwear? Probably feeling some sexual connotations. I don’t know. It’s easier to see why we left something in the final version of a poem than why it came to us in the first place.

Another thing the years of studying literature and writing taught me that helped my “recovery” from the anger is the concept of fictionalizing the main character, which is me. In art, one lies in order to tell the truth.

Indulge me for a moment to explain that. Let’s say your friend, who is not very popular, has an upcoming date. The night of the date which you know is so important to her, she comes into the room saying, “How do I look?” You think the outfit is not flattering to her at all, the hair is wrong for her, etc. But it’s too late to change anything, the date walking up the drive. You say, “You look great!” Did you lie? No.

“No,” because her REAL question was, “Is this night going to be ok? Am I going to survive the evening? Will you love me when I get back?” And when you said, “You look great,” you were giving the answer not to her stated question but to the myriad questions behind it. You knew them intuitively. And your answer of “You look great” was saying, “You’ll be fine. I love you. I will love you for yourself when you get back. You’re a wonderful human being.” And intuitively she knew what you were saying. Art is like that. Art is composed of unstated answers to unstated questions, all of which are larger than we can articulate.

So we lie to tell the truth. The main character, the boy, is me. But it is not me. In the poem, it is me as a boy—me as a suffering teen who hated going to school, who dreaded confronting that bully every day for what seemed then like a lifetime. Me, the one who lay with his head under the covers hoping I would suffocate before morning. Me, who more than once stood in his parents’ bedroom and put his father’s loaded pistol to his head. (“Bi polar” hadn’t been invented yet).

However, while composing the poem, that me became a HIM. I created him in the composition process. “The poet is the Lazarus of the poem, rising up with it,” Tess Gallagher says. So I’m the Lazarus, and what I see after the poem is a different boy, one for whom I’d like to step back into the scene and say, as I put my arms around him, “It’s going to be ok, son. You’ll get through this. You don’t have to hurt.” Until I saw him as a character, he was me. After the poem, though, after my struggling with the images and sounds in order to render into a body that which can’t be articulated, he became himself, and I became a me not associated with his suffering directly. He’s just some kid I feel sorry for.

That, I guess, is how writing the poem led to recovery. For the sake of creating the art piece, using what little I know about structure, lines, imagery, and verisimilitude (making the characters seem real by fictionalizing), I separated myself from the angry, hurt boy I was.

A quick way to determine a budding poet’s level of artistic understanding is to say, “But this doesn’t seem believable,” and that person answer with something like: “But that’s what really happened.” How often we hear that in beginning creative writing classes!

The lie of the composed imagery tells the larger truth of the feeling behind the incident. To create the incident as art, we have to distance ourselves, and the distancing from the pain is what helps us recover from the pain. And the way to get the artistic distance is to focus on the technical stuff while the subconscious gives us the images that may not be factually accurate.

Had I merely wanted to narrate an event and “express my anger,” the poem would not have been either interesting for me to write or interesting for someone to read, if indeed it is. Yeats says as much: “If I wrote of personal love or sorrow…in any rhythm that left it unchanged, amid all its accidence, I would be full of self-contempt because of my egotism and indiscretion, and forsee the boredom of my reader.” [italics mine] Then he goes on to say that he commits his emotion to shepherds, herdsmen, historical figures, or a piece of art. As a novelist, John Braine says, “You must remember that you yourself don’t matter; only the work matters.”

An angry person can’t heal if all he does is express his anger. Same with grief, I suspect. Or love. Can you picture, graveside, the funeral director handing out to the seated family nicely monogrammed note pads and pens with the funeral home name on them in gold, and as he does so, saying to each person, “This is in case you want to write a poem while we lower the coffin”? One can’t write a decent love poem while busy making love. (“Why are you putting your laptop on my forehead?!”) Ok, I’m being silly, but you see what I’m getting at. The pained kid can’t express himself; he’s too close to the pain.

Though I use moments, observations, reading, experiences, and vocabulary that are in my mind (we can use no other), any poem is ultimately not about me; it’s about the poem as artifact. The artifact is merely a symbol for something that can’t be expressed. No matter how personal the poem’s raw material, for the sake of the art, the personal is altered and tweaked enough to remove the writer from the personal itself. Then he looks at the images and character in a new light, one he discovers by forgetting about what “really happened.”

The trick, for me, is to send my bowing arm and fingering arm to school enough that I am able to alter and tweak the facts and thereby find recovery by leaving the personal suffering behind, as though it happened to someone else. It is someone we sympathize with, someone we care about, but someone else nevertheless.

Do you remember a classmate from 3, 10, 30 years ago? Picture that person who was having a hard time with math, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, or parents. As sorry as you may be for that person’s trouble, there’s nothing you can do about him or her now. That’s what happens with writing the poem. By the time you’ve done the work of composing, crafting with the intention of making an art piece rather than healing, you’re able to say, “Oh yeah. I remember her. It’s a shame. Wonder whatever happened to her?”

Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?

The process of composing for me often comes in the form of notes—sometimes an image, and in rendering that image. Describing a memory, describing a scene are nothing until there is a “so what?” The “so what?” launches me into an exploration into the unknown, trying to make a body for the inarticulable. In writing poetry as art rather than as notes for friends and “things to tell my shrink at our next appointment” there’s never a point before writing that I know what the point is. For me, it’s always a matter of writing in order to discover the “so what?” “Why is this image in my mind? And why are these seemingly unrelated images jumping in here?”

Such a discovery takes time. I’ve written few “keepers” that didn’t take me weeks and weeks, and for every page of a finished poem there are 10 to 20 pages of notes and drafts, failed attempts at passages, notes from research, lists of rhymes, etc. As James Dickey says, “I assume the first 50 ways I try it are going to be wrong.”

Composing is like writing a research paper, except in a research paper you have some guidance to keep you focused on the single idea, thus easily disregarding various lines of research. But poems lead you all over the place, the only “guide” being your curiosity and interest. “Poems are not about anything because they are each about everything.” (Donald Hall) For a poem, if I want to use a tree, I enjoy researching that tree, where it grows, diseases it is prone to, and so forth, trying to get at the whole world of that tree. And then when the poem is done, the tree may not be in it at all. But while researching it, another image may have come to me. I do that for many nouns in a poem.

I work to finish a poem because in the process I discover things, the process is full of surprises, and I want to “see how it ends.” As Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Or “The common denominator of quality, of goodness, is…the notion of a little discovery, a discovery which is going to stay and attract our attention also in the future.” (Meroslov Holub) The surprises may be ones of theological ideas, language, historical facts, scientific facts, insights into human behavior—surprises that are far more interesting than my personal feelings.

Writing a poem is kind of like sculpting in clay while blindfolded—enjoying the feel of the clay, the smell of the clay, the shapes your hands make, without knowing how the whole thing’s going to end up. Then, through feel and intuition, you believe you’re done. So you take the blindfold off and get the last surprise, the finished piece. Learning to be an artist is learning how to tie the blindfold on, training yourself to work patiently while blindfolded, and knowing when to take the blindfold off.

Finally, let me say that after all this business about studying and practicing technique, one does it as a means to an end. Technique is simply what you stir the pot with so the good stuff comes to the surface. However, I’m afraid I may have made it sound like everything in composing a poem is a conscious practice of technical things. That’s not the case, not everything.

One of my favorite Delta blues men is Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins. He’s one of the most impromptu, off-the-cuff blues men I know. When you hear everything he’s done, and I think I have, you realize that he only has a hundred or so licks and riffs. He plays them fast or slow, holds some notes longer sometimes than others, plays them in different keys, plays them forward sometimes and backward sometimes, and uses them almost indiscriminately, when the mood hits him, when the song at a particular moment seems to call for it. Sometimes he’ll play a lick that throws him a measure or half-measure off. I’m sure, had you asked him, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you why with, say, “Picture on the Wall” he played a lick one time and the next time he played that song, he didn’t use it. He’d probably look at you with astonishment and say, “Just felt right.”

That’s what I think I mean about the technical elements of art. We study them and practice them in our apprenticeship and then do what feels right. The apprenticeship lasts a lifetime. We have them at the ready for a particular moment of inspiration. Many poets, I imagine, could carry on a seemingly normal conversation in iambic pentameter, or create a chiasmus while ordering at a restaurant. It’s having the stuff at the ready to mix and match as the poem demands.

It’s almost “magic,” the way an image or line flies at us and we’re able to grasp it. I like John Ciardi’s comment: “The minimum requirement for a good poem is a miracle.” But one can’t create a miracle; a miracle created consciously is just a trick.

Part of the artist’s training is learning to accept and trust the “miracle” element. It’s being open to what Carl Jung calls synchronicity. If we are tuned in, something from the outside world will give us the necessary surprises.

As I said at the beginning of this interview—who knows where the original spark comes from? Similarly who knows where the final editing comes from? Writing poetry is a matter of learning all one can so that he can be open to whatever the cosmic energy gives him, with the initial spark, during the research and writing, and in the final edits.

Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?

Well, ME, if you’re in a book-buying mood. But when people ask me that, my first answer is Sydney Lea. His have been the books that I buy as soon as they come out. His new book, Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Spiritual Poems of Sydney Lea, came out recently, and I had to order it shipped overnight to get it to my current location before I had to leave the campground. A book of poems by Pattiann Rogers, Splitting and Binding, is one I have not only read and treasured and recommended often but have also bought for students and former students. Recently I read Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, and when I got to the end, immediately started again. I don’t know that I did it for the love of the poetry so much as because I saw on first reading that he has a lot to teach me about a poem’s composition and voice and sentencing. The apprenticeship continues.

And there are other poets who may not be household names, as are names like Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyaaka, Rita Dove. Some not-so-household names are poets like Adelia Prado’s The Alphabet in the Park, Michael Heffernan’s The Man at Home, Carol Ann Davis’ Atlas Hour, or Andrew Hudgins’ Ecstatic in the Poison. A great example of dealing with the death of a father, who wasn’t a nuturing one, is Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water.

But really there are plenty. Essentially all poems are recovery poems in some way.

Of course, re-read poems and poets you were required to read in your youth or that you read some years ago. Your new self from the years will see new things in them. As C. S. Lewis says, “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.”

What are you working on now?

My previous book, Ground Forces, was the best I had in me. I think of it as my using a large canvas and painting with larger brushes in broader strokes. It concerns more obvious theology and social implications. One section of that book, for example, uses the metaphysical conceit of “Small Penis” (as a character) to represent the sense of weakness and vulnerability and never-quite-measuring-up that the saints, the desert fathers and mothers, and people like C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, or Simone Weil expressed.

That sequence came rather quickly but really after years of reading the saints out of interest. Then I started seeing their struggles of faith in terms of the modern everyman’s struggles, psychologically, politically, and spiritually. Come to think of it, the whole book Ground Forces is about how we’re all in this together, stumbling and failing together. Everyone’s a tragic hero hanging on by his or her fingernails.

These new poems are quieter, painted more calmly with a smaller brush. They seem to me to be much more intimate in tone than previous work. In some ways, though quieter, they are riskier for me, technically and personally. If the new work makes a collection, I already have my title and epigraph. Title: Recalculating: New Poems from the Road. The epigraph is from Larry Levis’ poem entitled “My Story in a Late Style of Fire.” It reads:

          “I know this isn’t much.
        But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
        I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
        You have to think of me what you think of me.”

        (from Winter Stars, p. 39)

I’ll be interested to see whether that title and epigraph are what I end up with. Right now they are sort of guiding the new work.

Paul Allen’s Bio, written and emailed from the road, several months ago

“Lapses” was in my first book, American Crawl. The year After Shocks was published, 2008, my collection, Ground Forces came out with Salmon Poetry (Ireland). In 2010 my two disc CD of songs and poems, The Glebe Street Adios, came out just before I retired from College of Charleston, Professor Emeritus, after thirty-six years. I vacated my apartment, gave my furniture to my daughters, two truck loads of “stuff’ to Goodwill, and a lifetime’s collection of books and CDs to my students, and took to the road in a 20-foot camper. I have nothing in storage, no home to go back to (unless you count “back” as four feet behind my truck). I’ve been living on the road for a year and a half now. And so my little house shakes mightily in the winds of Nebraska; accepts the spiritual intimations of the Black Hills of South Dakota; gives me shelter when I come in from seeing the jail cell of Billy the Kid in Lincoln, New Mexico, or walking the streets in Clovis, where Buddy Holly recorded, or taking the tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. Generally I write in the morning and in the afternoon check out interesting stuff of the area—woods, rivers, quarries, museums, art galleries. Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri and a month later, Willa Cather’s home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Or the room where Jesse James was assassinated in St. Joseph. My trailer holds my guitars ready for when I get a whim to drive into some town for an open-mic. I don’t know how long I’ll live like this. I give myself the liberty to land somewhere permanently any day. I’ll probably continue as long as this strain of poems continues, or until I crash the truck or the trailer or myself. Right now, I just look for the next interesting area to set up camp, the next curiosity to explore the next ghost that speaks from my campfire, the next poem.

Blogger note: Poet Paul Allen is starting the third year of his voyage around the U.S. in a trailer. Poetry of Recovery blog will feature an article about his trip and new poems in a future posting.

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