A Letter to Dan and Gale
Memoirs and motivations for God, throwing stones, and really bad poetry
filed 9 March 2001 | Chicago by Todd Heldt
I was a graduate student in creative writing with Dan and Gale. We were always asking each other why we wrote poetry, poetry being, for the most part, a dead art. Did you know for instance, that only 1% of 1% of the American population will buy a contemporary book of poetry this year? That was the statistic back in 1996, when I was in grad school to learn how to write better poetry.
After a great deal of thought, though, I think I have finally realized why I write poetry. I write poetry because I believe in God. I don't write religious poetry. I don't write poems that rhyme "life" and "strife." All my poems, I think, are about life and strife, though I hope I find better ways to say it. I write poems that are indictments and prayers and explanations and apologies... to God. God? I don't know what that means or what God is. But I have reached a profound state of existence within the context of the universe: God fucks with me. He provokes me.
And I throw rocks at him. No, this is not an antagonistic relationship, but a humorous one. God puts obstacles in front of me and tells me, "You need to be a better person." And I try and fail, and I shout back, "You didn't give me much to work with down here, okay?"
Anyway, that is my relationship with God, and it is not a bad one. That is essentially what my poems are about: the things that provoke me and my responses. I attach God secondarily, I suspect, but I think He is there. I mean no disrespect by calling It "He." I was raised that way and can't eem to get away from it without feeling silly.) If nothing else, God is a retty good audience. If He is the Alpha and Omega, then we must suspect He is a pretty captive audience.
I used to sit around with a friend in grad school. Neither one of us wanted to be in West Texas, and we were both pretty disenfranchised by the program at Texas Tech. Though eventually we would gain a measure of favor there, suffice it to say that, for most of our time there, we were very unhappy with our circumstances. As it came to pass, we would get stoned at his apartment and read through the magazines we were published in. He was published a lot more frequently than I, but the magazines I was in were better. I guess that probably made us about even, though I was sure he was better than I was.
Still, he would send poems to "Cool Poetry Magazine" or some other such nonsense. The magazines he was in would consist of his poem and a bunch of dreadful poems…Sheila B. Rourke's "The Mighty Warriors" springs to mind. It was a poem I interpreted to be about how the government had engineered AIDS for military purposes. It contained words such as "fearless," "merciless," "terrible," and "awful." These were all words used to describe the "warriors." Apparently calling them "mighty" in the title didn't quite inspire the kind of dread it was supposed to. I suggested we look Sheila B. Rourke up on the
Still, I digress. That story has nothing to do with God, except maybe to show what God is not. I mean, I feel pretty confident saying that the poem had a cringe-factor of around 10 on a scale of 1-9, but I also know that I don't really matter much in the grand scheme of things to Sheila B. Rourke, the Mighty Warriors, or to the editors of "Cool Poetry Magazine" (or whatever it was called. I think it was out of Connecticut. Milford Magazine maybe?) The fact is, no matter what you send out, you will not connect with people in the way you want to…unless you are a damn good poet (scratch that; it has not happened yet, for reasons I will explain later. There is no such thing as a good poet). Most likely, your poem will end up being read by 30 to 50 people and totally dismissed by most of them (unless they are stoned…then you will be made fun of).
I used to think that if I published a poem, it would mean I would never be alone again, because that would mean someone had really felt me. But, no, now that I have edited for poetry magazines, I know that the decision is arbitrary sometimes: "No, we have to use this poem; these other two won't fit into the space we've got left…unless we take out your [editor in chief's] cousin Bob. And we can't do that."
So, realize the system is corrupt. Go through "Best American Poetry" and connect the dots between who knows whom... who workshopped under whom, and who worked with whom. It is enough to make your stomach turn. We're quite an incestuous lot, we seedy poets.
I digress again. I must apologize. I am not writing a formal essay, merely a letter to some friends, notably Gale and Dan, who braved West Texas with me. Hi guys. I wanted to tell you that I think I write poetry because I believe in God. I mean, I have to be writing to someone. You have to concede that poetry is a public act; otherwise it would just be journaling. You have to be writing for someone or something. (People who get up and read their work, then refute criticism by saying, "I only write for myself," are delusional.) Everything turns into dialogue. Everything is dialogue. The dialogue needs to be significant to others or it fails. We have already seen how terribly capricious and shitty readers are. Listeners at open mics are generally no better. How many times have you seen someone read his stuff at an open mic then leave or go talk to someone while others are reading? I don't BLAME people for saying they are writing poetry only for themselves, because often, de facto, they are. The art is dying because people, in general, don't really care about poetry. Fuck it.
On the other hand, sometimes the audience is not sure when the poem is over, and there is a kind of tense hesitation, and then everyone applauds. It is in this moment that the civility of open mics nearly falls into shambles as a discarded and useless construct of human decency. This is as real as an open mic gets….Every once in a while I feel like someone should stand up and say, "That was shit. No one knew where it began or where it ended." Fuck it.
So poetry can't be based on the idea of "connecting" with people. Most of the time it won't happen on a significant level. If it is not about connecting with people, maybe it must be about God somehow. But not just by default.
Oh, shutup. Another tangent: I don't want to go to coffee houses and read tragic things about shocking things about funny things. I don't need the attention. I don't want to be cool, or get laid after meeting someone at an open mic…though I used to. I outgrew that, and realized it was not what I wanted out of poetry. I wanted something out of poetry. (Poetry did not choose me. I did not choose poetry. It happened accidentally. I failed my first poetry class.)
What I want out of poetry is to capture some moment and make it holy. Holy means "separate." I want to make something holy by pulling it out of the flow of space and time, and saying, "Here. What do you think of this?" I do it with intention, questioning myself at every word. I don't believe "first word best word," as the Beats espoused. I think that leads to some very lazy practices in writing. I guess it takes me about 2 years to write a poem that I think is successful. And then, beyond that, I have never written a good poem.
Ideally, if I ever wrote a good poem…not just a successful poem…I would find just the right language and that language when read by the right reader would MAKE an object. If I wrote a good poem about an orange and it was read by a good reader, an ORANGE would materialize somewhere in the world.
A real goddamn orange: <POOF!> There. An orange. You could pick it up and eat it. (I'm not just saying that.) So that's how weird I am. I think of poetry as creation fostered by participation of writer and a reader or an orator and an audience. No poem exists in a vacuum. No object exists without being verified. No God exists without relating to someone. No person exists without relating in some way to something or someone else. We need one another. (The cruelest joke of existence, eh?)
Okay, a poem is a way to form concrete out of abstraction. We only ever really get out of our heads through language. And language means nothing because it is too abstract. By trying to make it concrete with visual, aural, and other sensual images, the language becomes palpable. If you choose the right words, you can make an object. If you create an object, you become in God's image.
But the relationship is not that simple. Not as cut and dried as saying, "create, be like God, write because you believe in God." No, God is a mystery and might not even exist, though I believe He does and am big enough to accept that I don't fully believe. (The greatest love is the one that can encompass disdain and admiration in equal measure.) Anyway, I write poems and assume that if no one else is reading or listening then maybe God is. Or maybe I write poems and look for God between the lines.
- Todd Heldt