In real life, I am a happy person. I am grateful for what I have, and I enjoy my family, friends, and sometimes even my job. I am quick with a smile or a laugh, and I have been known to possess a certain level of wit and weirdness. I am wild and upbeat and generally well-adjusted.
So why is there this disturbing shadow in so many of my poems?
My manuscript was up for discussion last night, and as I had constructed the packet of pages, I became aware that there is much about my work that could be called “dark,” or “sinister.” Whether it’s just a slight tinge or an obvious stain, somehow damage, danger, and doom factor into even the poems that start out most innocently.
Some of the comments last night involved words like “creepy,” “psychological,” “disturbing,” “threatening,” “power issues,” and “abuse.” Many of the comments were in the form of questions, trying to figure out what was supposed to be happening in the story of a poem or how to take the images and characters and attitudes I had managed to portray. I realized that there are a lot of major issues at stake with many of my poems, questions that the writing asks without me knowing such questions were even anywhere in the vicinity of my own concern. It was pretty intense, and also very amazing. I was proud of what I found I had accomplished with my writing, and I enjoyed watching my classmates’ reaction not only to the work, but also to me as the maker of such uncomfortable objects as I sat right there in the room with them.
At one point, my professor wondered out loud where this side of me had come from, since I’m such a sweet and happy person. I liked that, too. That there’s something so hidden in the depths of me that I hadn’t even realized I was capable of producing something that would illicit such surprising and visceral reactions.
I had wondered if the darkness emerging in my poems was “okay.” And maybe that’s because I don’t see myself as playing to that chord. I was trying to do something with my work that maybe it turns out I can’t actually do. But it’s funny that when I try to show beauty and good, it turns into something completely different, and probably much more effective and true in a way I hadn’t previously conceived. In the statement I wrote to go along with the poems, I found myself concerned about the value of these things, but through the course of discussion, I realized that the statements I had made about my work really didn’t belong anywhere near it. What I needed to do was let it do what it did, figure out what that was and how to get it working up to its own potential. Apparently, I know what I’m doing, I just don’t know how to talk about it. Of course, my trouble with talking poetry is nothing new, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that analyzing my own work doesn’t come easily, either.
The highest compliment to my work that I received yesterday was when Lana said that she saw duende there. That’s something I have admired in poetry from Neruda to Nick Cave. It’s also something that I never really thought I could achieve without falling into the traps of excessive cliche or sentimentality, which crosses over the fine line where duende lies. But there, someone said it, duende, and she was referring to a poem with my name on it. Something that I had written. From my own head. How is that even possible?
I was talking with James last night and today about all of these qualities in my work, both the outright dark and disturbing stuff and the duende, and he teased me about it. A lot. And I tried to explain, rationalize and to defend myself, knowing that he knows who I am and how I’m not at all suffering in our current life. But I was really just trying to reconcile it all in my own head as I spoke out loud to my husband. And I came up with this, which has to do with my artistic process:
I start somewhere. With a story or moment in my own life, or a tale or scene from somewhere else, somewhere or someone outside myself, which I then internalize in some way. The poem begins to take shape as a personal expression or formal exercise. I feel connected in my mind and heart to the piece. It then goes through revision, and at that point, I sever myself in order to make it into art. When I see it as a work of art, it ceases to be me or my voice. It becomes whatever it needs to become in order to become good as art. And even though the poems are still mine, from my head, heart, or wherever, they no longer define me. However, sometimes when I am considering my body of work, I end up reflecting more about the earlier stages of the process and my own attachment to the first drafts than on the piece of art that the poem has become, which is why I hesitate to embrace the darkness that lies therein.
Maybe all of this makes some sense, maybe not. It’s a tough thing to articulate, but I’m glad that I’ve managed to find a little more confidence in the poems I’m writing. I think that will make this whole thesis extravaganza a little bit more bearable.