The following essay was originally given as a lecture at the Sylvia Beach Hotel as part of our 2018 Poetry Winter Workshop.
The alternate title of this, of course, is how the fuck do we write now.
Just as the customary greeting of hello has been replaced with what the fuck is going on, and you grab your friend’s arm almost against your will and shake her a little bit and say no seriously, what the fuck is happening.
Just as your face has been replaced by a question mark immediately followed by an exclamation mark immediately followed by another question mark.
Just as your heart has been replaced by what happens to a bunch of seagulls when a dog comes running down the beach.
Just as your blood now carries in its current the Jaws theme.
Just as some days I put my bra on inside-out and it seems too hard to fix so I just sit there staring at the news in an inside-out bra.
Just as whenever you read one of those super-positive Lin-Manuel Miranda tweets that’s like
G’MORNING. YOU’RE A GORGEOUS RAY OF BABY LIGHT THAT SHINES ON ALL HUMANITY
you picture the president reading it and nodding and thinking, he’s talking about me.
That your attention is in one sense the most precious part of you, it is your soul spending yourself, to teach you that there’s always more.
That your attention is a resource that can be drafted, commandeered, militarized and made to march — like youth, passion, or patriotism.
That your attention can be diverted and used to power the devil’s Hoover Dam.
That we live in a time where people pay to be locked in a room together and have to find a way out. That this is fun to us now.
That if you’re trying to write through a wall you’re not alone.
That if you’re drinking more you’re definitely not alone.
That if you feel like you’re being slowly digested by a sarlacc pit you’re not alone.
That if your deodorant doesn’t seem to be working anymore you’re not alone. We stink together.
That if you sometimes try to comfort yourself by thinking, Cows don’t know about him, you’re not alone.
But the pure concentration that you live in when you write a poem is still there, is still just beyond us as the green dimension. It can still be accessed through the door of yourself, you can still swing it open, though the hinges scream.
Because it is a place of pure concentration it can wait forever for you.
I think that we go there when we die, but do not have to wait to die to go there.
If you live there all the time you probably grow at a different rate, like Robin Williams in that movie where he was actually a mental child except super hairy all over.
The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine. If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. If I don’t look out a window right away the day will be windowless, it will be like one of those dreams where you crawl into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, or like an escape room that contains everyone and that you’ll pay twelve hours of your life for. If I open up Twitter and the first thing I see is the president’s weird bunched ass above a sand dune as he swings a golf club I am doomed. The ass will take up residence in my mind. It will install a gold toilet there. It will turn on shark week as foreplay and then cheat on its wife.
English will come out of it wrong, and then English will come wrong out of me.
The scaramucci is not just a unit of time, it is also a unit of conspiracy against you, and the work you were put here to do.
The feeling you get after hours of scrolling that all your thoughts have been replaced with cotton candy — or something even nastier, like Runts or circus peanuts — as opposed to the feeling of being open to poetry, to being inside the poem, which is the feeling of being honey in the hive.
The single best way to give the morning back to myself is to open a real book as I drink my first cup of coffee. I’m not sure why real books are best. I think the pages remind me that I have fingerprints. I think I like to see what I have read lying sweetly by the side of what I’m about to read, like a wife.
It sometimes helps to let someone else tell you what to do, so listen: GET IN THE TUB and make it so hot that your heart bumps stupidly against your rib cage like a manatee. Read Saki’s short stories out loud. Read the most minute descriptions you can find about other artistic processes: Moss Hart writing plays with George S. Kaufman, his teeth glued together with terrible fudge; Maya Angelou on the road in Europe with the company of Porgy and Bess.
If you have an afternoon, cook something that takes a long time, it will think along with you.
Keep a physical notebook. Remember how to use the kind of pen that runs out. Go into churches, mosques, temples because even when their ceilings are low, they impose a shape on great height. Go to the post office, with all its sounds of being sent. Learn the names of trees.
Read diaries, which make the day permanent. Read anything that slows you down to the pace of real life, like Zora Neale Hurston’s preservations of dialect that walk in dresses down dirt roads. Read one of those Annie Dillard books where she watches an ant fuck for like fourteen straight hours and at the end of it somehow believes in God even more than she did already.
Read Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters and say the name Stieglitz hatefully to yourself as you piss. Read The Woman Warrior and think yourself on that mountain with her, undergoing the same apprenticeship, until finally you can point at the sky and make a sword appear.
Remember a time, not so long ago, when email was good. Imagine every email you ever received being delivered by a very small guy on a horse, galloping through an ether landscape. Think of Sylvia Plath — My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold A Mailman On The Street! Think of her fresh red heart.
Look out the window the way Dorothy looked out the window in The Wizard of Oz — as if the tornado has plucked you up and next you might see anything. Pretend that you’re a child and homesick and get a sleeve of saltines and a stack of books and read the choicest parts of each one of them. If you can’t work, watch a movie. Before every movie, play exactly one of those old 30s cartoons where the worst thing that’s happening in a mouse’s life is that a bee won’t leave him alone.
Think about who you are writing for, who you are writing against.
Think about what isn’t in poetry yet that you could put here.
I have in mind the very particular sensation of holding your second toe as you paint the nail, rolling the joint back and forth between your fingers.
Draw the thing you used to doodle in science class. Imagine someone sketching you with a very soft pencil until you can feel the detail of your face from across the room.
Plant your feet on the ground and breathe in deep and let your chest rise rusty as a partridge’s and sing.
Stand exactly in a doorway like a cat and try to feel the religious feeling that a cat clearly feels when it stands in a doorway.
Imagine yourself being ejaculated by a cloud. Imagine you’re a living chess piece and a hand in a black leather glove is making long sweeping moves with you.
I can’t stress it enough: get your penis pierced.
Think about the days on Twitter that are really good, like when two llamas escape or an angry goat on roof only respects one man, and think of everyone in the world pouring their faces into their phones and just thinking llama. llama. angry goat on roof. which is the closest the current population will ever get to united opinion, which is the closest we will ever get to peace.
That the line in you will one day be memorized by other people, even repeated by them silently as they brush their healthy teeth.
That your similes can make things love each other. Mary Ruefle writes:
Metaphor is not, and never has been, a mere literary term. It is an event. A poem must rival a physical experience and metaphor is, simply, an exchange of energy between two things. If you believe that metaphor is an event, and not just a literary term denoting comparison, then you must conclude that a certain philosophy arises: the philosophy that everything in the world is connected. I’ll go slowly here: if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise — that things connect and exchange energy.
That the place in yourself where metaphors wait is a place where all things in the world are one, where the globe is all possible circles imposed on each other and we are the final Venn.
It’s like jumping exactly into double dutch. It’s like the point where you’re hardly moving at all inside the hula hoop, and it’s going to keep going forever on its own.
I am thinking of the most sacred headspace of all, which exists in absolute opposition to the thick loud smog of the present. That is the headspace of the first book. Before anything happens. The air there is so thin and sharp and keeps you in a kind of exquisite pain. It is crowded with flowers, which open into red throats like tiger lilies, ready to speak. They are an opening to possibility, they are a trembling in the air, they are the fact that anything can be a poem. The tongue tastes two things: nectar and stamps. Well, that’s a lie. It tastes blood, too, and the food of your childhood, and the backs of other people’s necks. The animals just wait in the gold parted grass, with more eye ear and whisker than they have here. It is a paradise like the sonnet, where everything is named and a snake has been purposely introduced.
You are completely at its mercy and it is your kingdom. The apples are all the things you have ever compared to apples. The stars are all the ways you have tried to describe the stars. Paradise is not just the day when the poem pours down like Niagara with the hottest couple in the world kissing steamily behind it, it is also the day that you spend changing the word A to THE and back again. That concentration is reverence. You are passing the beads of things through your fingertips and your head is bowed and your mouth is moving and the preexisting rhythm has found its place in you.
I’m not saying you’re lucky to be there. I’m saying as long as you live there you are in opposition to the powers that rule the world. You are the opposite of money. You are against presidents, oil spills, slaughterhouses, Young Sheldon. You’re the opposite of the red button under Matt Lauer’s desk. You’re the opposite of the red button that ends it all. You have never been so hard in your own name. Nobody has you.
Last week I was revisiting my own first book. What a physical thing it was to me but also how it was a place that I went, like the diner to be discovered, like the pet shop to simply be washed with the pure colors of the tropical fish. It lasted an eternity. All I wanted, in a life that might offer anything, was one of those deeply ugly covers that was like a public-domain closeup of some guy in a nightgown holding a lyre.
Of course, it was never published, which is the fate of most real first books. By the time you’re in print, they’re second, third, fourth books, and something is missing from them, that initial wild leap into the idea that you can do this.
I will put you back in that time. Bill Clinton was president, then George Bush. Thongs were huge and it was cool to pull them up over your low-rise jeans like you were tempting little kittens to play with your string. The shirts that we wore to the club were basically napkins that tied in the back. The kittens liked that also.
We had all recently gotten addicted to chocolate-covered coffee beans and were operating in a state of permanent caffeine psychosis.
There was a terrible passion at that time among poets to talk about things fisting themselves, like “the sun is fisting itself on the horizon,” which has thankfully mostly passed, though sometimes I miss it, because it was hilarious.
My hand fisted itself on my pen and I wrote this poem.
I am reading the ancient book, all mine. It sends me back then and back then. “Is my butt normal?” I wondered some nights, and others, “How far will I go?” Back then I kept it to 69 pages. Back then I printed it out and laid the whole thing on my lap, still warm and seeming to move, like a bag of sugar as it spills. I slept with it under the pillow and prayed, don’t let the crash come for me just yet. Keep me alive till I’ve finished that line. People need this, I need this, the compl- eteness of the world is in danger if I die. In that way I thought I could go on forever, a like someone in a fairytale who keeps wishing for a title the next size up a until suddenly they’re the pope, and the trick then is just not to wish to be God. Though everyone did. Everyone did, and found themselves back in their beds again small, rushing back into the oh of the original mouth.
The search engine smoked in my head; it spat terms like Geographic Tongue. There were many, many freaks, which had something to do with those music videos where someone danced in a butcher apron like a pig abortionist, and people were frequently born with scales, which are also, did you know, a music thing. I liked the word glissando, anything could do it, a harp that was alive, a song-serpent masturbating in a public pond. Occasionally you can feel me holding myself back from yelling, BAM, bitch, and throwing salt all over you. Speaking of salt. Lot’s Wife. Bam, bitch. I had the pale
aaaaaa concentrating face of someone who had earnestly tried to picture manna, and in conversation I would get the look, halfway between Joan of Arc and lactose intolerance. I clutched my stomach, my head, but the linebreak is what hurt. Hot swords were slicing through the world knot. The sun closed her eyes and saw me, splotch, terrible things were happening aaaaaaaaaa to bodies that were not mine. There were leaps off cliffs and the most baroque suicides, Richard Corey was normal compared to these people. Something died at the end of each one, not me. You, maybe. You were reading me sometime in the future, I loved you, I wanted to punch you straight out of the universe so hard you’d think it was your own heart. Your forehead like an evening, with a new crescent scar, and both of us waking between your sheets again small.
I could not say the word phone, or gum, or car. Still, picture me in the booth on the corner, waiting for my mother, chewing nothing. I called it Volta, a which is the change that comes. I felt I could not change at all — aaaa no good and I knew I was great. You don’t understand, I told my mother, who leafed sometimes through the pages baffled. Didn’t she know it had kept me alive, me with the next-size wish in my mouth. Didn’t she know how I stepped off the curb and entered a seven-league blackness and woke miles and miles away in the manuscript. Didn’t she see the flung rain, the headlights, me flashing before the poems like a long rich life … didn’t she know how the whole world swerved for me. a You have to be there, I told her, flying. a You have to be there and then somewhere else.
Patricia Lockwood was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised in all the worst cities of the Midwest. She is the author of two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and a memoir, Priestdaddy. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Slate, and The London Review of Books. She lives in Savannah, Georgia.