All poetry is local

Last summer I had a poem featured in KC Studio magazine. I’d met the editor, Alice Thorson, during a studio visit, and she encouraged me to send her some poems after seeing the concrete/zigzag poems I had taped up on the wall.

It took me a few weeks to send anything, since I hadn’t written any actual poetry in years. The poem-ish things I had written were more design than language-based, funnel-shaped clouds of text that took the reader (if there was a reader) in several directions at once. I spent several nights cranking out pages on the refurbished Lettera 32 I keep on the work table in the garage, with the door cracked open to let the rain in a little bit. Jenn found most of them disorienting, but liked this one, and so did Alice. I called it “To Alfonso, Gardener of Moon-Dried Tomatoes.”

I didn’t know the magazine had come out until my friend, poet Jason Preu, sent me a message. The only other people I heard from were a senior editor and my managing editor at work, and some friends of my parents. One of my parents’ friends, intrigued by the title and confused by the byline, apparently thought it had been written by my father. “It’s so neat that your husband writes love poetry,” she told my mom. “But who is Alfonso?”

All of which drove home the mildly unsettling reality that publishing poetry in your home town is not necessarily the most comfortable experience. In Ben Lerner’s book-length essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” he frequently quotes the Marianne Moore line about poetry (“I too, dislike it…”), musing about how admitting that you write poetry as an adult is a dangerous thing to say, in that you invoke not only resentment of the writer (“can’t you find a real profession?”) as well as resentment of self (“I used to appreciate/write poetry, but somehow lost the capacity to do so”). Lerner’s analysis of the leisure vs. industry conflict surrounding poetry from Whitman through his own career is an interesting one that certainly holds true to my experience.

At the time, I felt a bit awkward about how something I wrote in a moment of inspiration and honesty was being interpreted by my elders as something curious, secretive and homoerotic. But I’m over that now. Any embarrassment I might have felt is canceled out by the knowledge that I did my best to write a good poem, beginning with a line that came out of nowhere and provided the central motif of flight (“there are only so many sounds…”) and sustained throughout the work itself, which is addressed to someone who has suffered loss but come out resilient, closing with a passage that is an almost direct homage to Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

(Lone quibble: I’m still not sure why exactly I wrote never as “ne’er,” except perhaps to double down on my sense of poetic entitlement to do whatever I want. It certainly helps one’s confidence to write from commission rather than as a submission, perhaps to a fault.)

But here (yes, finally) is where it gets interesting. At the time I wrote the poem I had no idea who Alfonso was exactly. I did have a recipient for the poem in mind, but I had no clear reasons for choosing that name. Until just last month, when re-reading my favorite anthology of Latin-American poets in search of a Nicaraguan poet whose cosmic verse I remembered liking. And there it was, “Space Song,” by none other than Alfonso Cortes.

Cortes wrote his best poetry in lucid intervals between schizophrenia, and his Hölderlin-like struggles with sanity combined with his extraordinary vision and lyrical gifts were exactly what I was addressing in my poem — to Alfonso, to myself, and to the reader. The moon-dried tomatoes are of course the poems themselves, the lines we store up and hold closely, the songs we compose in the quiet moments, while flying true if not exactly straight. If you write poems (or make works of art) and release them to the world, you’re going to confront a lot in yourself that is naive, clouded, embarrassing. But sometimes they work, or stick, or soothe — providing a postcard of somewhere you might have forgotten but can now return to.

In the end there’s nothing like waking up to find out your dream was real. Heirloom moon-dried tomato-poems. The inner treasures we inherit from ourselves.

(note: you can actually subscribe to print editions of KC Studio for free. It’s an excellent publication that makes it much easier to keep a pulse on what is happening in the Kansas City arts scene)

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