Monday, April 9, 2018

The Widening Spell Widens: Memoir

It has been several months since I posted on my blog. During that time, much has happened in my writing life that I couldn't write about as I was experiencing it. With a bit of distance, I now turn a corner in the content of "The Widening Spell" to bring my readers up to date on some of those experiences. Hopefully they will be as helpful as my past posts about some of the poets who have influenced me the most. This blog will always be about poetry--or at least about my reading and writing experiences that began for me as a junior in college--attending my first poetry reading by William Stafford, and then decades later having my head spun around for a second time, reading Larry Levis. All of my life I have been caught in poetry's "Widening Spell."

However, motivated by Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir, in 2016 I wrote 650 pages of memoir. When I began Karr's book, I had no idea that I would be examining the story of my life--both its exterior trappings and its interior conflicts and struggles--to discover for myself first, and then for any future readers, what it all meant. I certainly had no intention of writing a memoir. But I became addicted to my morning two hour sessions from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. at my local coffee shop, cutting myself open and bleeding onto the page. The resulting draft was terrible by even the lowest literary standard. But the process reactivated my memory of events and feelings I'd all but forgotten. It also gave me an outline for 5 separate memoirs to be written--something I felt totally inadequate to do. The only genre I was just beginning to feel comfortable writing was poetry. Non-fiction seemed totally out of my reach.

During the six months it took me to get that draft down on paper, what kept me going were the words of Melba Beals, one of "The Little Rock Nine," whose prize-winning memoir, Soldiers Don't Cry, I had read after Melba became one of my customers at a men's clothing store. She had just retired as Professor Emerita from Dominican University of California. When she found out I was a poet, she invited me to lunch to talk shop. Mostly, she talked and I listened in awe to her rendering of events not included in her memoir that depicted her going to high school every day with an armed national guardsman, as one of the first nine black students to integrate high school in the state of Arkansas. As we were parting, I mentioned that I was dabbling in memoir, with about a dozen pages written. "What about your life is so interesting that other people would want to read it?" Melba asked. I must have flushed, knowing the significance of her public life compared with mine. "I grew up in a pathological family," I said. "Give me an example," she replied. "Okay. Here's the first sentence to what I've written so far: When I was nine years old, my father taught me how to kill a man with my bare hands, and how to please a woman, both in the same conversation." Melba paused and, drilling into my soul with her ink-colored eyes, replied: "Keep writing!"

So I kept writing--two hours every morning for six months. And when I looked up there were 650 pages in my word file. What to do with these disconnected, randomly remembered stories of my life? How to revise them, connect them, order them? How to structure a coherent story from them? I sensed, from reading other poets turned memoirists--Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird; Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories; Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City--that my memoir wasn't going to be a chronological telling of story in the classical sense of 1) beginning; 2) introduction of problem or conflict; 3) rising action; 4) climax; and 5) denouement. My story wasn't tidy--it wasn't even a story--it was a chaotic mess, just as much of my life had been. I needed help.

That help came in the form of a workshop offered by a new conference center, 1440 Multiversity, in Scotts Valley, California--a 2-hour drive from where I live. Last September, I attended Nick Flynn's workshop entitled "Memoir as Bewilderment." Since I was certainly bewildered, I thought there might be hope for my memoir. It turned out there was. Applying what I learned in Nick's workshop, I have edited my 650 pages down to 275; I've organized my draft according to a "closed energy system" of places and scenes that orbit one central place which is a metaphor for the entire memoir; and to my surprise, I've started writing poetry again, triggered by my own memoir--portions that just don't work as prose, but do as poetry. Here's an example:

Returning To My Childhood Home Thirty Years After Foreclosure

From across the street in my rental car,
first thing I notice is the teardrop-shaped
juniper my father and I planted
when I was eight, grown taller now
than the roof, covering what was then
my bedroom window.
At the front door,
I ring the bell and mourn the loss of our brick
planter attached to the porch, the four o’clocks
I grew from brightly colored packets of magic
seed, mail-ordered from Better Homes and Gardens.
I caress the doorframe, wonder if it was the replacement
we had to buy, if I were the only boy that ever saw
his father walk through this door, splinter it
away from its hinges.
I remember the night—
playing on the living room rug, my mother yelling
in the kitchen at my father, her breaking into pieces
a burner cover on top of the stove, repeatedly
hammering exclamation points with an iron skillet,
screaming my father was never home, so she might as well
destroy every damned thing in the house.
       My father
always needing to prove himself better at destruction,
answered by riffing on his PTSD in syncopated rhythms—
opening and slamming cabinet doors, shattering the God-
damned plates and mugs, flinging our best china
against the wall.
   When my mother threatened to call
the cops, my father went for his sawed-off shotgun,
dared her to dial the phone, loaded a single red shell
into the breach and clicked it shut. 
         I covered my ears,
tracked my father’s boot steps into the front hallway,
mother’s muffled words trailing behind—little deaths
nipping at his scarred ears; marching into the front yard,
he filled the dark air with buckshot.
I can still hear the clack
as my mother locked the door behind him, the crack as he split it
in two walking back through it, the concussive sound of it
smacking the floor—“Don’t ever try to lock me out again!”
Gathering his bags, he walked back through the emptiness
he had opened up in our house, loaded his truck
and gave himself back to the road.
I ring the doorbell again.
Different notes sound from tones heard back then. Slight man
in shorts with coarse gray hair on his chest opens the door—
“Yes?” he says in broken English. “I grew up in this house,” I say,
“and was wondering if I could come in for a minute or two…”

         I hear a woman’s voice call from deep inside,
the rattle of a swamp cooler fan, the motor’s whine; I feel a chill
of air as he shakes his head and shuts the door, leaving me outside,
standing with one foot on a stranger’s porch, the other on what once was
a flowerbed—now dry unforgiving sand, runneled with long shadows.

(Previously published in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters.)

Stay tuned for progress reports on both the memoir, Flight: The story of one man's escape from religious fundamentalism, and my pilgrimage as a poet.


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