Something interesting is happening with my daily chance ops poems: I’m not actually doing them daily. Instead, I put it off for as much as a week, then write anywhere from three to eight of them in a row, in quick succession.
I am still sticking to my plan of not looking back at any of them until I have at least fifty written (six to go, if my count is right), so I can’t say if each poem feels like an isolated piece or a section of something longer. At this point, I can’t even guess what I’ll find.
This is a dream I had in high school. I’d had actor’s nightmares before this, of course — and I’ve had many others since. But this one was astonishing in its duration and complexity. Also, even as I was dreaming it, I thought it was hilarious.
It begins with our whole cast and crew crammed onto a coach bus as we speed across a vast empty parking lot toward a sports stadium. Out the windows, we can see other coach buses converging on the stadium. We yell to the driver to go faster as we run lines.
We are part of a cross-country competition in which different theater companies race to be the first to arrive at a location, set up, and stage a play. Then we strike as quickly as we can, get back on the bus, and hit the road for the next location, which is sometimes several days’ drive away.
The dream jump cuts to the interior of the stadium. We are running up and down stark concrete corridors, pushing costume racks, carrying carpeted blocks and other set pieces, frantically trying to find our dressing room. We’ve been assigned a room, but the numbering system doesn’t make sense. Each room we look in is a cluttered storage closet or a utility space full of pipes and mysterious, bizarre equipment.
Another jump cut. Now we’re on stage: the performance has begun. The houselights are on, so we can see the packed audience under the glare, watching us disinterestedly. Whenever it’s not their line, actors slip offstage to the green room to get fitted for their costumes, or to scavenge for necessary props. The stage manager is studying a fuse box as the lighting designer is puzzling over the light board, pushing dimmers up and down to see what, if anything, happens. The crew is building the set around us, so we’re shouting our lines over the constant din of hammers, drills, and the occasional circular saw.
Sometimes I’m an actor, sometimes I’m in the crew, but in the final scenes of the dream before I wake up, I’m one of the playwrights. We’re crowded into the green room beside the seamstresses at their sewing machines. We’re writing the play as it happens: brainstorming, jotting notes, and banging away at large manual typewriters. When someone finishes a page, they pull it out of the typewriter and run to the copying machine. When the copies come out, someone else grabs the sheets and runs out into the house. Weaving between the members of the orchestra (who are crammed in the space between the front row and the stage, sight-reading music they’ve never seen before), the runner then feeds the sheets up to the actors, who pass the script out as surreptiously as they can while carrying on the performance.
I remember I woke up laughing. I was relieved it was only a dream but I was sorry I didn’t know how things turned out. How, for example, did anyone actually win this competition? As with any actor’s nightmare, however, it was both worse and better than some acting experiences I had in waking life.
Freedom is a great and paradoxical burden: it is something that can only exist incompletely, and which cannot exist without constraints. The desire for freedom and its attainment are difficult, and come fraught with dangers: When we assert ourselves as free and sovereign persons, for example, are we causing others to give up their own freedoms and sovereignties so that we can claim ours? And do we desire to be free of coersion, or to be free to coerce?
This is true both for individuals and for groups. All we can do is strive to fight against those constraints that enslave us, and grasp for those constraints that will set us free.
Epictetus said that if you wish to be good, suppose yourself to be evil. So if we wish to imagine freedom, suppose ourselves to be enslaved. What, when you are enslaved, do you desire that is denied you? To act as you choose; to assert your judgments as you choose; to identify yourself how you choose; to live as you choose.
But if you do not know how to act, if you have no judgment, if you don’t know who you are — can it be said you are free? Therefore Epictetus also said: The masses are wrong when they say only the free can be educated. Trust the philosophers instead, who say only the educated are free.
(I wrote this on 25 March, 2019, but never posted it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti died yesterday, and I’ve been thinking of this short piece today. This is more about my father than it is about Ferlinghetti, but I always think of Ferlinghetti and my father together — because of their shared birthdays, I think, which, I concede, is silly. But in that peculiar way that artists choose their own predecessors, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my ancestors, and indeed, one of the earliest and most profound.)
On Poetry and Bullshit
Lawrence Ferlinghetti just turned 100 yesterday, on what would have been my father’s 95th birthday, and I find myself thinking about where I started as a writer and as a person.
I began writing poetry as a teenager but I didn’t take it very seriously until a teacher showed me some of Ferlinghetti’s poems outside of class. Many other poets have since accreted in the subsequent three decades, of course, but Ferlinghetti’s influence — along with Cummings, Stevens, Plath, Bishop, Rilke — is batholithic.
Initially, I thought I’d be a novelist, producing “large, loose, baggy monsters.” But I discovered that with poetry, I could build something in an hour or a week (or, okay fine, a month or more) and then build something else, and so on, until I had collected enough tiles for a mosaic that could — in theory — rival any doorstop.
Indeed, Durs Grünbein, in The Vocation of Poetry, says: “I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible.”
From my father I learned that the opposite of the truth isn’t a lie but, rather, bullshit. Both “truths” and “lies” are equally committed to a coherent vision of the universe and they often serve the same sort of purpose; a person might tell the truth or a lie for surprisingly similar reasons. But bullshit is faithless. It’s incoherent, and it has no integrity.
So the Statue of Liberty can wield a sword instead of a torch in Kafka’s Amerika, and Ben Franklin can be a DJ at a rave in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Both false and true at the same time — but not bullshit.
My father learned the power and poison of bullshit in the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. After the war, he went to law school in the Netherlands — not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted to be a writer. Then he gave up everything to move to the US to marry my mother. Then law school — again — for a second law degree. He worked in publishing; then in the crucible of a massive law firm; then taught; then founded his own firm. He did many different things, and started over many times. But it was always about language, about learning how to use it with humility and respect; to fight against bullshit and chaos. And countless stories at the dinner table, all coming together as one big story. A hedgehog who talked like a fox.
One small thing, then another small thing, then another. Steering by compass, from tree to tree, post to post — all the way across a continent, a lifetime, one poem at a time. Always seeking clarity and integration, attending to what’s there, and how it all fits together. And if you are seeking several destinations, all on a circuit, a seasonal cycle, following a rhythm, a flow — then you never really arrive and you never really depart. You continue.
The third series didn’t last. After an extremely promising first few days, I discovered the source text was problematic; I kept landing on passages that needed way too much massaging to render them usable. So I’ve settled on a different text and it’s been so much better. I even did five in one sitting the other day, just for kicks, which caught me up on the days I’d missed while looking for a new text.
I had to remind myself of a similar stumble before the second series, where I cast about for over two weeks, trying out three or four different source texts to see if they’d work. Something that looks like it’s going to be great can often present problems that make the chance operation more cumbersome or annoying than it’s worth.
Maybe I’ll talk about what I’ve found to be good and poor source texts some time.
Also, there’s something I’m trying to do differently this time. The poems in the earlier series each stood very much on their own. They all felt like they belonged together, of course, by virtue of the source texts setting the tone, so to speak; but they were each quite self-contained, at least to my ear. This time, I’m holding the idea that they are stanzas in a longer work.
Are they all by the same “speaker”? Are they parts of an ongoing dialogue of some kind? Not sure. If I continue my habit of not looking back at earlier days’ poems, then there won’t necessarily be any explicit through-line from one poem to the next any more than in the earlier series, since it will be yet another exquisite corpse, of sorts. But sometimes, simply “holding an idea” can be enough to alter the trajectory. We’ll see whether that’s true for this project or not.
I started my third chance operation series yesterday. As with the first two, I’m drawing five words at random from a predetermined list, then I’m using a source text to choose a line at random.
The first series ran for about forty days and the second for a bit over fifty days, which felt right for each of them. But I plan on running this series for at least three months, to generate as many as ninety or a hundred poems, from which I can select and winnow. This time, I want as many options as possible: I want the luxury to cut ruthlessly and still have something left over after the carnage.
I plan on doing it daily, but I did two today, so I’ve already written three. I also intend to not look back at the pieces until I’ve written at least 50 or 60, but I went back and copied out these first three poems since I had left them in something of a mess. And… something is happening. Something is clicking. I may even have a title for the project already.
I was especially pleased that the editor commented on my use of enjambment, since this was a deliberate and essential aspect, along with the mildly twisted syntax, of the poem’s halting flow. I wanted to create a music that both sang and stumbled, like the faltering breath of a fading life and of the survivor who mourns.
(But I am just a little concerned that people who like “Polly” may be startled by my other poems — like those Edina moms buying the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me after hearing “Skyway” on WLOL as they carpooled their kids to hockey practice.)