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Respecting the chasm.

FOR SOME TIME I'VE HAD A FANTASY ABOUT having a studio in which to pursue my writing in some regular way. This is probably because I've read a lot about studios other writers have had. We seem to assume that each specific writer has specific circumstances in which his or her writing best unfolds. It follows that one's studio would be designed to maintain those circumstances. I don't know, though, if this assumption applies to me, my writing, because I've never had a studio, let alone any of the studios I've fantasized about.

Of course, circumstances do have an effect on my writing. I've noticed that certain situations lessen the chances that I will write, or write something of any worth. It's harder to pinpoint the inverse situations--the situations that could be said to increase my chances. Only the obvious things strike me: free time, proximity to a meaningful spectacle, freedom from looming hassles. I've been fortunate enough to get access to these things--now and then, and to some extent--but never to the extent that I felt I could take the next step, implementing a specific site and a specific ritual for the site. Instead, I've just written whenever I could, which means whenever a certain sort of quiet developed, the kind inclined to fill up with language that seems inexplicably telling. I've written, that is, wherever I could, which means alone at some table somewhere.

Thus, for me the really interesting question is: what are the underlying conditions wherein or whereby I am able to write poems? And my answer is: day-dream. I write poems from day-dream, which is the state or mood that obliterates the kind of sense that registers specific locale. Day-dream space is illocal, to use a Dickinsonian term--it is wherein my ordinary sense of where I am is no longer operative.

Gertrude Stein said: "It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing." I'd argue that Stein, here, is speaking of the day-dream, the quiet, that I'm speaking of. Its origin is mysterious, to say the least. It has to do with extracting oneself from doing something, if by doing something one means being immersed in a self-possessed, heard-of activity; to be extracted from heard-of activity is at the same time to be extracted from being somewhere, if by somewhere one means some previously inhabited place. Such extraction allows for a quite different sense of things to develop, and out of this sense a kind of profound inaction might take place.

Most mysterious in this whole process is the final step in the extraction, the going from being near day-dream to being in day-dream. I'd like to compare this transition with the transition that a sleeper experiences as he goes from waking thoughts to asleep thoughts (i.e. dreaming); in a way, it is not a knowable step--it is perceptible only by implication, when it's long gone, and even then only within a kind of guesswork. Its having taken place is known because of what it has produced: the dream, the poem. To compare poem-generating-space to dream-space is hardly original. Recent discoveries about sleep, however, have enriched the analogy considerably.

We now know, for instance, that the brain needs sleep; we don't know exactly why, but we do know that we cannot live without it. We can go without sleep for only about as long as we can go without food. Our need of poetic speech is not such that we will die if we do not have access to it, but there can be said to be an inherent need of it or an inclination toward it. The analogy is even stronger on other points. For instance, consider that in sleep, the brain shuts down, above all, its attention and memory functions. The sleeper closes his eyes and literally ceases to know where he is; he is released from his ordinary (i.e. sensually verified) notion of location. Dream space, because it is purely imaginary, is illocal, and thoroughly believed in.


The key point is that the dreamer is freed from the diminished reality implicit in attention, and freed from the kind of memory that works for and within attention's necessary vanity. Imagination, during sleep, is able to derive imaginary coherences typically too large--too broad, too subtle--for attention to make useful. Images detached from the locus of "reality" turn more clearly and easily to one another, even as they are driven to seek what they lack, leading the dreamer always back toward the reality he has never been able to fully represent. Hearing poems, or recalling dreams while we are awake, we stand strangely between our two potential modes for regarding reality: we stand at attention, which possesses and thereby diminishes reality ... and at the same time we bear witness to imagery that, because it is evocative of a less diminished reality, is capable of possessing us.

I've written poems because I've had the sense that attention can diminish reality. In writing poems I allow images to be detached from their false foundation, which is to say, from the ordinarily and easily possessed reality (with all of its common sense); thus detached, the images might turn to one another more carefully, more ambiguously. In doing so, they provide, in the best-case scenario, a glimpse of a less diminished reality, which I am happy to be possessed by. And I mean happy mainly the way that one is happy to scream or punch a wall when one feels an intense despair or frustration. Good poems, in my view, are joyful cruel sabotage, and I must confess that I enjoy their obliteration of the diminished reality as much as their glimpse of what withstands that obliteration. The process is highly emotional; both the trigger and the response it produces, so long as they remain true, resist being organized or devised. To be concerned about the concrete location of the process (i.e. the studio)--the kind of space it lives to obliterate--seems odd to me. It presumes, I think, that the chasm between what we say and where we are can be understood, managed, or even lastingly bound together. I find fault with this presumption; it disrespects the chasm.

Wesleyan University Press published JOE WENDEROTH'S first two books of poems: Disfortune (1995) and It Is If I Speak (2000). Verse Press published Letters to Wendy's (2000). This essay appears in The Holy Spirit of Life: Essays Written for John Ashcroft's Secret Self, which Verse Press will publish one month from now. Verse Press will also publish a nonfiction work, Agony: A Proposal, in 2007. Wenderoth is Associate Professor of English in the M.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis.

photograph by Tim Boehme
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Title Annotation:circumstances effect on poetry
Author:Wenderoth, Joe
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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