My only goal was to ape Frank O’Hara when I started writing. Maybe toss in a little Kenneth Koch. There was inertia to the New York School; I thought their breeziness could speak through me the way the skyscrapers, subways, and galleries spoke through them.
Then I got depressed during the end of college, and my writing fell apart. My attempts to echo O’Hara sounded hollow and out of sync, a bad ventriloquist act. Instead, I gravitated to the Language poets. I was angry at poetry, and I liked watching them eviscerate it. They’d crack open the dummy’s head—see? hollow—and go on with the performance anyway. I had a hard time with that second part.
This brings me back to the Laura Solomon quote I referenced in my last post: "sounds don't need words to have meaning but words need sounds / I mean I love meaning but I hate words I like sounds.” When I started reading the Language poets, I hated words too. And meaning. But both obsessed me. Some part of me felt I needed to pry meaning from words. I don’t know why. There was some freedom in that thought.
I’d jumble words on my computer for hours, hoping they’d dissolve, the way something blurs as you stare at it. But words always make sense when you line them up, even if the logic is disjointed. I’d blink, and meaning snapped into sharp focus.
Last week, DeWitt Brinson and I were discussing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. DeWitt was talking about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which the person is exposed to whatever causes their anxiety (“the dreaded event” according to the DSM IV) for prolonged periods. This, he said, “teach[es] the brain that the anxiety will subside on its own rather than needing to resort to a ‘ritual’.”
What rituals, what crutches, were DeWitt and I relying on to write? And how could we deprive ourselves of them? I mentioned a poem I’d just read from Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw:
"A person is phobic, that is, mentally imbalanced, when his fears fail to cancel out his other fears. The healthy, too, are terrified of heights, but equally terrified of depths, as terrified of dark as light, open spaces as closed. The phobic are overbold, not overly apprehensive, and must be conditioned to fear the opposite of what they fear. The difficulty of such a treatment lies in finding the counterbalancing terror. What is the opposite of a marketplace? A prime number? Blood? A spider?"
My fears, primarily, are sentimentality and inspiration. I see both as a trap. Sentimentality is a symptom of being buried too far in your own hole, an inability to weigh your own problems against those of the world. I fear inspiration (I call it "The Lightbulb Voice") because I don’t want to believe in it; if it’s real, how can you avoid dependence? Moreover, it implies some force exists outside us. A force that can shut us out.
I use theft in my writing to neutralize those fears, to defy inspiration and collage over sentimentality. It reassures me; I knock on the dummy’s head—see? hollow.
My GoogleVoice experiment made me really anxious. So I had to try it again.
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with the experiment, but it seems to channel some of what DeWitt and I talked about. In writing about past traumas, I'm confronting my fears of sentimentality, melodrama etc. The two poems I wrote are the most overtly autobiographical thing I’ve written in years. I hate them. But the fact that it churns my stomach means something. I think.
I wrote a new poem about a past trauma and, once again, locked myself in the bathroom. I turned on the faucet. I called my GoogleSelf and waited for it to go to voicemail. Then I read the script. I hung up. Dialed again. Read it a second time, with more confidence. And again. The third time, I read it fast. All in one breath.
I waited. When I checked GoogleVoice, ten minutes later, there were three different “translations” of my poems:
[I should note, again, that GoogleVoice transcripts are in shades of grey, the darkness representing Google's confidence in its transcription.]
"I remember chrome the room for the changed on the sideline next were. I didn't know what else to do. I can't remember which side of her later on when she cried to show up. I never saw anyone crowd like that. If you can shake it was an empty nester a crunch rattled it was were some she didn't cry. It was nothing I can't remember which I arrive late and I can't remember if her eyes were closed or staring. The Walter, bright yellow, Gaudy. There were on the cracks. Color would like to talk to the shade. I think now broken or the night. Maybe even but will turn black for us."
"I remember crawled in the room for days shaped I'd like next door. I didn't know what else to do. I can't remember which, Sat or lay down. G graduation. I never saw anyone crying like that in shake. There's an empty nester a crime she rattled it was worse when she didn't cry. It's not that I can't remember which side of arrive late and I can't remember for either closed or stand the walls are bright yellow body but they were on the cracks a call. I would like to run through the shave. I think you know. Rodenberg tonight me if you can go in black for us."
"I remember her cold in the room per day shades. Ron had like Next, I didn't know what else to do. I can't remember which side of around later but she cried. Sheesh up. I never saw anyone crye-leike that she didn't shake. There's an empty nester were client you've rattled those words. And you didn't. It was nothing I can't remember which is out of her late and I can't remember for eyes were closed at staring walls are bright yellow gaudy, but they're on the cracks a problem with the light shone through the shape. I think now broken, burnt. Tonight makes even Coulter Black for."
I’m less certain where the GoogleVoice “translations” come in. DeWitt and I wanted to deprive ourselves of ritual. I wasn’t using theft anymore, but it felt like I swapped one ritual for another. A new way to neutralize my anxiety. Except for a few damning words, the translation has effectively mangled my poem out of shape.
But it’s those few words I come back to. And I keep trying the experiment to see which words will remain. Even after disemboweling the overall context and meaning of what I wrote, those words still haunt it defiantly.
Like I stopped talking, but the dummy didn’t.