When we write a poem we often feel elated. There’s a sense of accomplishment and validation but there’s also the corrosive; the acid in poetry, and when we let it sit, it burns through our stomach lining. So writing can sometimes be a desperate movement to relieve pain. How do you understand that corrosive element and the way it forces us to dance?
Accomplishment and validation… The older I get the less intensely I feel those things. Or perhaps it isn’t about age, perhaps it’s about the pace at which I attack each new project. I always have one big writing project on the go – be it a verse novel, my PhD (which I’ve just submitted), a play – and as soon as the thing is finished I get depressed, anxious and sick. There’s a gaping hole left until such time as I start the next thing. Perhaps in the constant quest for validation there’s no room for feelings of accomplishment. Or maybe I’m purely motivated by the work rather than by the feeling it gives me when it’s done.
Individual poems are a bit different. When a poem finally finds its way out of my brain and into my notebook it feels like I’ve freed another little caged animal. That’s a nice thing. I don’t feel personally validated, but I usually feel that the initial concept is now somehow more valid than when it was confined to my imagination. This goes for the majority of my poems, because mostly an inspiration drawn from my life or the everyday stews away in my mind for a while before manifesting itself.
However, there are occasions when a poem charges through me without regard for the usual process. The Darkest Blue is one of those. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety at various stages through my life anyway, but when I wrote that I was going through a particularly dark time. In part because of the subject of my PhD, which is on representations of death in the poetry of Stevie Smith (a rather dark topic to focus four years of ones life upon, apparently). Interestingly, one of the key points in my thesis is that Smith didn’t suffer the same suicidal fate as some of her contemporaries who shared a love of death (Plath, Sexton, etc.) because she indulged the obsession in her writing so prolifically. In a way, everytime she put death into a poem, she experienced the emancipation it brought from the suffering of life. Likewise, when I was horribly depressed and anxious, in bed at 3am at my parents house in Sydney, The Darkest Blue charged out of me and onto the page. I wrote it through tears and the shakes and sleep deprivation. I didn’t edit a word or line-break that came out of me. Not as I was writing and not ever afterwards. When I finished and put the pen down, I was calm. I wasn’t fixed for the long term, but I got to die a little for the fifteen-odd minutes it took to write, and that was a relief. I worry a bit when people tell me they can relate to this particular poem.
I suppose there’s a heavy dose of vitriol in The Darkest Blue. It came from a place of corrosion but in itself it’s fairly explosive. To me, anyway. I wouldn’t call the physicality of what happened to me while I was writing it ‘dance’. It was closer to ‘vomit’. But it’s all just muscle contractions in the end, right?
Someone Else was different. Very different. For 7 or 8 years, half my poems were about one person. If you look hard enough through my catalogue of poems, the same old references resurface: long black hair, guitar, distance, hard drugs… Someone Else was the last of these. Not because he married someone else as the poem suggests, but because I fell for the bass player in his new band and was cured from the one who had cured me of everyman for a decade. Funny that. This poem has themes of corrosion, aside from the way the writing of it made me feel. Corrosion of a strange connection. Corrosion of youth. I didn’t write the poem to vent. There’s a big difference between cathartic poems (like The Darkest Blue) and confessional poems like this one. I wrote it because there’s an interesting story around it, because there were strong images and characteristics to convey. It was a natural poem to write and I drew largely from realism. I think because I tend to remain very close to the absolute truth of the way things looked from my perspective, the emotionality emerges without my having to explain it too much within the poem. Is it a dance? Not so much. It’s more of short walk from the table to the bar. Or the stirring of sugar into a hotel room tea cup. Or something.
The thing is, though… It doesn’t matter how I felt writing the poem. It matters what it communicates to my reader. It matters how the form and sound techniques and vernacular and rhythm work together to deliver something honest and frank to the world. I can’t relate to people who don’t suffer for their art, but I also can’t relate to folks who obsess over it. It is what it is.
I watched an interview with a dancer, that at the time, was considered the greatest ballerina in the world. Her grace and poise was remarkable. French elegance refined and pitch perfect. So it was surprising when she said, dancing was pain from beginning to end. Her feet were in pain as she spoke, even though she hadn’t danced in weeks. The training, just to keep in shape was grueling, let alone when she was gearing up for a performance. The actual ballet would have been agonizing but there was also the transcendence of the moment to somewhere far beyond pain. She was nearing the end of her career, and while she was thoroughly accepting of the fact, it was a decision forced on her by her body beginning to break down. So for me, there’s the negotiation of pain in art, whichever kind we practice. And I sometimes wonder whether it makes it worse. Are those brief moments of transcendence worth it?
My short answer is, No. It isn’t worth it but we don’t do it out of choice. It’s just the only way we know how to navigate living.