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On Hurting the Reader

Updated: Apr 22

Hello, you few but mighty readers. Happy Tuesday.

I've come to a decision: after amassing 51 pages of poetry and starting to order a manuscript, one good conversation with a good friend has completely (and for the greater good,) derailed said manuscript, and I am choosing to start over from near-scratch. I now know what I'm actually trying to write about, and while it's incredibly cool to have that clarity of vision, I'm annoyed on behalf of the other poems in the original project. They're not bad poems, albeit a little prosaic and wordy and in desperate need of revision, and I feel more than a little defeated that I'm somehow back to square one with a thesis concept that has changed shape so many times that it's made my head spin and question everything I think I know about my own writing.

The book continues to be about grief and the landscape of it. The weight of it. The color of it. In my mind, it's blue. And that's not a revolutionary take on grief. I can hear the Meryl Streep of poetry in my ears now: "Blue? For grief? Groundbreaking." But alas, I am, as I'd like to believe, delightfully cliché at the best of times. I think there's merit in cliché. I think cliché is a good thing, that the literary world has come up with such universal depictions of things that everyone, or more or less everyone, can relate to them. My interior landscape of grief is in blue. That's the same for many people out there. No matter that the practical aspects of it have been red more recently: the image of my aunt's burned out red brick house with the blackened windows staring out at the rest of the neighborhood, the blood pumping through my father's failing heart. Never mind, never mind, never mind all that: blue. It's been blue. Dizzying shades of blue. The sort of pale blue of hospital rooms. And more than the personal grief, it's grief at the world, at the atrocities being committed in the Middle East, over the Palestinian students shot in Vermont (one of whom attends Haverford College, which is near and dear to my heart.) Over my friend, the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha being beaten to a pulp by the Israeli army and his family's passports confiscated, including that of his son, an American citizen. There is nothing these days but soul-crushing, paralyzing grief.

The tendency I have towards writing towards the difficult, the painful, is at a loss for words these days. In trying to put them into some coherent phrase, the wording falls off the page. The work will not bring any of the dead children back. It will not un-rape women. It will not heal wounds that are still open and raw and bleeding. And to try to do that work would be exploitative. To try and center my work right now would be worse. Mine is not the voice people need to hear. And among these ongoing concerns, these very public acts of witnessing, I've been attempting to write about my own private catastrophes as part of my thesis, one in particular that's risen to the forefront of my mind, one I'd repressed since my sophomore year of college. I'm not quite ready to name the thing itself, and so skate around it. I talk about the violation that led to it. I talk around the toilet bowl. I will name it in my own good time, but there's also the fear. It's something I've never told anyone about until this year. And what will it mean, when I am brave enough to name something plainly?

And lately, the performance of my own personal pain has become irritating. The other week, in workshop, I was told that the ending of my poem wasn't effective because it didn't carry the Shakespearean gravitas that would warrant such an articulation of grief. Biiiiiiig "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further" by Anne Sexton vibes. It is with these self-proclaimed arbiters of poetry that I have bones to pick. PSA for those out there who think similarly about themselves: just because I don't sleep with the OED tucked beneath my pillow doesn't mean my subject matter isn't "tragic" enough. And frankly, how dare you insinuate that. Being raised femme, there's already the assumption that the work isn't serious. That when we deign to talk about ourselves, our tragedies, we're "navel-gazing," we're somehow lesser-than our male counterparts. If a man wrote a book about the material I'm traversing currently, he'd win all of the awards ever created. People would call him "empathetic" and "brave," but instead, since I am the person I am, people will wonder why I said anything at all. That it's to be expected of my sex and appearance. I'm supposed to be nice and accommodating, and write poems about flowers and horses and all the other things that make me a nice girl. (And no shade to the flower and horse poets out there, you all are fantastic.) I told someone the other week that I was tired of doing the expected. I want my life to feel like my life again. I want to scream. I want to rage. I want nothing more than to terrify you.

But in lieu of becoming terrifying at the moment, I'm working towards being brave. The poet John Murillo came to Syracuse in October, and I had the privilege of introducing him. His collection Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, was my favorite read of 2023, hands down, and his question to me in the individual conference we had has haunted my work ever since: is this a poem, or is it reportage? (That, and I needed to axe the phrase "in my mind's eye" immediately. He was right.) Over the past two months, with this question in mind, I've begun the painful work of articulation, and the poems are infinitely better for it. The narrative impulse I have is curbed slightly in favor of the lyric; the two now coexist more peacefully than they did in earlier work. I feel a new confidence these days. I feel like I might be finding myself in poetry again.

That same good friend of mine who clarified the real subject of the manuscript texted me after I brought in the first post-Murillo revision of one of the thesis poems into workshop. To paraphrase, he told me that I needed to hurt the reader's feelings more. If I wasn't doing that, if I wasn't being truthful, I was doing myself , my audience, and the work a disservice. (He was right.) I've cut the superfluous. Every line is as sharp as I can get it. And sending those poems into the world has been an exercise in pride. I'm proud of the work that hasn't come easy. And not to shit-talk my other poems. I am very proud of them, of Bad Animal, and I still celebrate them. But these new poems are giving me the same thoughts I had when Bad Animal began to take shape. There's a collection in the morass of grief, and figuring out where to strategically chip is different this time. This manuscript, tentatively entitled Blue Traveler, is like peering through a mass of blood in the water and trying to find the body. (That's the only hint I'll give you re: the catastrophe. It's not for the faint of heart.)

Stay gentle. The world is hard enough.


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Dec 05, 2023

From your biggest fan in New York…I am looking forward to reading every wonderful word you write. Kind regards, Melissa

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