56 poems into my manuscript and I’m back to Day One.
On Day One, I was enrolled in the workshop where the project was born. A. Van Jordan, our instructor, had us select a historic event and try writing about it. Often, okay it is the case for me and I can only speak for me, art emerges from a very personal space. Poets are constantly accused of being navel-gazers; narcissistic even. So the exercise would move us toward sources of inspiration other than ourselves.
At the time my first manuscript Weekday 4 a.m. was hot in my hands and I was ready, I thought, to start polishing it for the sale. Indeed it is a very personal take on what it means to be bound and how I perceived the negotiation of such boundaries among the people I knew, observed, or imagined.
Now here I was beginning a new manuscript about a huge event that had happened when I was 3 years old–the deaths of over 900 Americans that represented the largest loss of American life before September 11, 2001.
The assignment was to write 1 poem. Just 1. Not necessarily polished and publishable either. Just 1 of these. But I was in a room full of talent and good writing–that assignment may as well have been to walk rim to rim across the Grand Canyon in 20 minutes barefoot. Oh the pressure!
I stared down the pictures that had framed my whole interest in the topic–smiling and afro’d; face-down and bloated; babies asleep on a porch; kerchiefs tied about the heads of farming men and women, side by side, and teenagers lounging in cutoffs and tall socks. Who were they? What were their motivations and quirks? How did they end up dead on a jungle floor?
That morning I ate breakfast and sat outside the computer lab where I was to print the poem I had not been able to write the night before. I pulled up the most striking, at the time, photo from Jonestown. It was a couple. They reminded me of my parents in 1978–except my dad never left the yard in his cornrows.
I closed my eyes and thought up excuses. I hoped for some momentary catastrophe to cancel our morning workshop. I decided artists can tell other artists something as honest as “nothing would come.” And as I resolved to do just that, I saw orange. I imagined the jungle. I wrote the first poem that was ever published from the collection.
And I wondered over that burst of knowing. I know this is what she would say, I thought, and I wrote it. First just wrote it; then did the poet thing on it. Then just sat scared with it like I was about to be possessed by a bunch of restless souls like a really bad horror flick. Then typed it and made copies real quick before class started.
My fear has often stilted the project–not necessarily the one I just named–but all the fears that come with writing with external voices vying for their space in your head. Turning down their volume–it’s tough to really make them go away–is the best advice I could give fellow writers. And being quite the novice I am in writing myself, I imagine that’s not a lesson they haven’t heard already, anyway.
But 56 poems later; well, I guess I’m just saying, feels kind of cool.