When I was in poem school, the myth–now realize poets hold myth as ultimate reality–so therefore the truth we used to tell about ourselves was according to the theory of six degrees of separation we have all at one time been intimate with Walt Whitman. I’m not quite sure how it works. His atoms into our atoms. Six degrees of sex. Looking backwards, body to body to body to body to body to the Great Ecstatic Poet.
Me and Walt.
You and Walt.
Your mom and dad and Walt. Wow.
Your great aunt Myrtle in her grave crumbling and becoming earth and Walt. (Way to go, Aunt Myrtle!)
Sex aside, when I read Whitman’s poems, they enter my body and soul. It’s poetry. It’s going to be intimate. For me, his poems are the song of us all. We are Whitman and he is us.
We imagine Whitman as the old grizzled poet, white beard and soulful eyes. What if we thought of him in terms of his voice and not his photograph. Below is a clip of the voice of Walt Whitman–well his voice as I hear it now. Listen to this young Whitman singing his song to us:
That young Whitman in the recording is my nephew in fourth grade. He’d asked to borrow my copy of Leaves of Grass. He wanted to take it school for show and tell. They were doing a unit on poetry. He wanted to show it to a girl but he would never admit that.
When I read Whitman now, that’s the voice I hear in my head. He’s young and discovering each word, exultant in the gallop of his lines, his tone like a clear bell chiming in our midst.
Here’s the text, the first page of Leaves of Grass, the 1855 edition.
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume…. it has no taste of the distillation….it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever….I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers…. loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration….the beating of my heart….the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice….words loosed to the eddies of the wind,
Gary Garrison, Creative Director of the Dramatist’s Guild asked that question a couple of years ago at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. He was talking to a room of us playwrights, our notebooks open on our laps to jot down his advice to us on how to be a playwright, but really he was talking to us about how to just be.
So we wrote it down, the worst thing, the most hurtful judgment anyone ever had the balls to say to our face.
–You always write poetry.
I really don’t remember who said it, or even what play it was about, but it came in those exact words. And I have a clear memory image of a hand tossing my script on a table they way you take your grocery receipt out of the bag and toss it in the garbage as you put away the milk. My play was difficult, weird, had too many monologues (I know! I know!) and was just a bunch of writing. This person had had enough of my wordy birdy ways. It was poetry. It wasn’t a play.
I was a young playwright so of course I apologized and went home wishing I could just quit that poetry shit and write a real play. And believe me I have written plenty of plays that are difficult, weird, had way too many monologues and were just a bunch of writing. Yeah. I’ve even showed that crap to people. Yikes.
Garrison didn’t leave us there, brow beaten under someone else’s opinion–indeed, the state of brow-beatedness does not even exist in Garrison’s universe. Do yourself a favor, and look him up, if you don’t know him.
“Now write down the best thing anyone has ever said about your writing?”
–You always write poetry.
I didn’t know it until he asked us to put into words. The worst thing anyone ever has ever said to me about my writing is also the best thing anyone has ever said to me about my writing. My strength is my weakness. My weakness my strength. Something like that. A two-sided coin. A two-headed monster. Two-Face, the nemesis of Batman. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood.
See what I did there?
It all comes down to the coin toss. Heads: I write poetry/Tails: you read poetry.
Someone I knew died last night. Suddenly. Heart attack. His passing leaves an empty space in our community.
I didn’t know him well, but that’s beside the point. He was kind and creative and made the coolest puppets I’d ever seen. Each one was a work of art, distinct in their detail and personality. I used to wonder what his house looked like with a crowd of his creation filling it. If they all talked at once, what a fabulous cacophony!
He always encouraged me in my writing. Whenever he saw one of my plays he always made it a point to send a message congratulating me. That meant a lot. I know he’d seen a helluva lot of plays.
He was a member of the IATSE union, worked in the wings at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. When I attended plays there I could always see his distinct outline moving set pieces in the blue dark of the scene-change light. When he found out my play Rush was going to go up there this February, he messaged me to congratulate me and we made plans to celebrate with a beer at Darwins, his hangout pub right around the corner.
It’s the little things like that you look forward to. Sure, my play is going up, there’ll be opening night stuff happening, all the big deal stuff going on, but I thought it was really great that one of crew, one of the “cool” people in our theatre world, wanted to have a beer with me.
That beer is still going to happen. Anyone who wants to join me, Feb 14, yes, valentines, can lift a pint to Buzz Schwall and all the people who’ve touched our lives. All the people we miss.
Here in the Valley Between
Everything today asks the same question,
the great mystery our lives:
How long do we have here?
Across the inlet, two volcanoes
stare into the east, their steep faces
bathed in the soft light of this particular earth day.
But what of evening? when the sun
fires the atmosphere
and the inferno remembers
why it is here among us
–Creation and Destruction–
How audacious I am
brushing my teeth against decay, boiling water
for an egg three minutes from now, telling a friend I will attend
the Breast Cancer luncheon next Wednesday.
Tomorrow and tomorrow
and the day after that, I have plans
here in the valley between two volcanoes.
Probably not tonight, but eventually
they’ll shatter our sky. Let’s agree now to look
for each other in the morning.
Think of it as a green forest
where sun travels through
on no particular path,
with no real destination but the whole day itself.
There is song, the smell of earth,
a small table of water where the moon spreads her writings.
Each leaf is a green-lidded eye.
Love who you love. There is nothing
that does not see you.
We wear boredom and routine like armor. At work in the shop, I inhabit the same chair, strum the same calculator, answer the same phone and field the same damn questions I’ve been dealing with for 20 years. The day to day, same ol same ol is a stultifying fortress we sit inside. Nothing ever changes, right? Until news comes over the radio–which usually plays the oldies because god forbid we should sing new lyrics–news comes over the radio that a gunman is lose in the neighborhood.
In Anchorage last week a man fired shots at a police officer and fled on foot. With his gun. This was two blocks from our shop. A huge man-hunt ensued. They blocked roads. Knocked door to door. Released the hounds and called in the chopper. We had a description. White guy with a gun. That was it. I locked the doors and went back to my desk, and watched for white guys who might be walking through our parking lot for no good reason. Let me tell you, when the news is telling you a gunman is on the loose, every guy that walks through your parking lot has no good reason. They’re all scumbags, rapists, psychopaths. Every man is a suspect. Every man hides a gun.
Let me just say, they caught the guy the next day, clear across town walking around in another neighborhood where he was upsetting status quo for other people, and therefore not my problem anymore, right?
Two things about this whole thing strike me: 1) There was a gunman loose within blocks of our shop and I kept working. I added and subtracted numbers, as if that were going to save me. Oh, he won’t come in here because I’m working. I have to have these invoices done by 2pm. And I always have these invoices done by 2pm. These invoices are ‘perennial with the earth.’ Nothing will stop the billing of a customer! And 2) Every man I saw walking became a suspect. Not just a suspect. A dirtbag. A piece of shit. A monster to set the dogs on. My distrust is deep. Maybe that’s good. It might keep me alive someday. But maybe it’s also disgusting.
This is my first blog. I am in unknown waters. The online world is scary. Confounding. My writing is done with a pencil and paper. Not with code and tags and widgets that all need to be enabled and mapped and linked and clicked at like an arcade game. But this is the new world. I am crossing a dark ocean to get to it. The monsters I encounter in the voyage become part of the tale. And that is what I’m here to do–find a story to bring back and tell.
Its eyes blazed across the ocean roil. Its teeth gleamed in the bright salt air. A roar rushed from its maw as if a thousand souls had taken up the cry of selfhood at once. You don’t believe me? I tell you, it’s out there. I’ve seen it.