Chained to the Gates of Heaven: what I think I might be doing

One of my volunteer “beta readers” for my manuscript got back to me this morning with all kinds of really interesting, detailed comments. I asked a huge variety of folks to respond, and I did so because the last thing in hell I want is to only hear from pro poetry types. I want that feedback, yes, but I’m also after something larger, so I put it out there for some “laymen,” as well. Anyway, a friend who happens to be a serious genius scientist type took things apart, and there was a lot of value in that dominant left-brain take. I replied, and then decided that my reply might make a good photon-killer. So here’s a slightly edited version, if anybody cares….

If you’re one of the aforementioned readers, you might want to give this a pass. It might poison the well, as it were. Your call.
Dear Xxxxxxx,

I immediately made three changes on reading this (and how the fuck I overlooked that damned typo as many times as I’ve read that poem is beyond me), but after reading your comments I can see how badly I’ve tormented you, and in your final remarks I think you hit on something:

“Maybe I’ve suppressed all my emotions to the point that poetry just doesn’t move me, I don’t know. Decades of loneliness and aloneness tends to do that to you. But if I don’t understand most of what you are trying to say, I don’t know what to feel.”

See, you’re a scientist for starters. You work very hard on developing your right brain, but you have twisted your emotions to the point where you simply don’t trust them anymore. So you don’t always know how or what to feel, as you say. You ought to trust them more, but that’s another argument.

Now, what does any of this have to do with my book?

Well, the book is designed to, among other things, completely confound the rational. There are linearities in it, but in so many cases I go out of my way to blow them apart. Part of the intent is to cripple the very possibility of rational dissection – which is what you instinctively want to do, and it’s what high school lit teachers do in classes every day, and the result is that people like my wife run away and never come back. The other thing is that I want to set up alinear emotional and spiritual harmonics – a line in book 4 triggers something from book 2, an image in poem 3 directly references a philosophical trope in poem 32. Etc. Poem A serves as an inspirational jumping off point for a song for Fiction 8, which then gets translated back into poetry for poem C, which also makes use of three lines that are outtakes from Poem D, etc. References fly in from everywhere (nobody alive will get more than 75% of them probably, and the gods have mercy on the poor slob who actually gets all of them), and the whole of the work is simply impossible to fathom using just your brain. You need your brain, of course, but you must feel your way through substantial portions of it.

There are all these places where the order of things baffle you, where you can’t help trying to rearrange so that it makes sense (that’s the dominion of the rational at work), and the way you articulate the confusion is to say “X doesn’t work.” In places, X very well might not be working – I have to think more closely about some of these spots – but in other places it actually is working like I want it to, but on a wavelength you’re not allowing yourself to access. There are spots where your description of why X isn’t working is pure joy for me because your description of why makes clear that, for better or worse, I have done exactly what I hoped.

There’s a larger political thing at work here for me. I hate what too many high school English teachers have done to destroy poetry by attempting to colonize the right brain in the name of the left (and how lucky I was 30 years ago today to be sitting in the class of one sirpaulsbuddy, who made it a point not to ruin it for us). By pretending that you can analyze art the same way you analyze a frog. Yeah, but a poem is like a frog. Once you’re through dissecting it, it’s dead. It won’t hop around and croak anymore, and hopping and croaking is sort of what’s magical about a frog, when you come right down to it. So I’m trying to compel people into the right brain by making a left brain reading impossible. Sort of. Actually, in order for it to really work, you have both sides clicking together.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean that what you’ve given me here doesn’t help – it does, more than I can readily say. Like I say above, I already made some changes, and will probably make a few more. For example, I’ll probably take the spacing out of “vorteX” – I put it in originally because some wingnut said he couldn’t hear the rhythm, so there I’m probably being patronizing? You’re right – got to get it out and trust people. I also just changed the name of the AIDS poem to reflect the time factor you’re talking about – it’s a 1992 poem, and seems obsolete if you don’t know that. I’m mostly glad two or three others didn’t sound obsolete, frankly.

As I say, I asked a variety of folks to read for a variety of reasons. You’ve done a fabulous job of showing me what this looks like from a certain perspective, and also the things you read into the narative in spots are interesting – there are places where what you think is going on never entered my mind But, readers do things with your work you never expect, and it’s amazing the things you can learn from that. I feel like a good poem has its own meaning and mission from the author’s perspective, but that it also has room for good readers to interpret.

Thanks again. I’ll have more to say as I sift through your comments in more detail.


2 thoughts on “Chained to the Gates of Heaven: what I think I might be doing

  1. I like what you have to say about harmonics. The poet Ronald Johnson uses this technique a great deal in his book: Ark
    guess I should get moving on finishing this critique, hm? lol

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