Breaking Down the Inner Wall

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While mulling over my experience at the Vermont Studio Center and the ALSCW Fellowship, I keep thinking about the word routine. How important routines are, psychologists tell us, to our overall mental health and happiness. For writers and artists, I have found this to be true as well. It’s hard to argue that the development of a regular writing practice does not make one a better writer. What happens, however, when a writer’s routine does not and cannot include that practice for reasons outside of their control? What an awful place to be! And just the place I found myself in last year, before receiving the fellowship.

In Hamlet, Claudius says, “When sorrows come, they come not as single spies / But in battalions.” It’s one of those quotations that I wish were not true but find often that it is. My family had experienced a barrage of bad news in the way of health diagnoses. I returned home to help hold the family together and serve as a fulltime caretaker for my uncle who suffered from multiple strokes. It put my life on hold and certainly put my writing life on hold. After a while, I knew I needed a way back in, a way back to my poetry. Receiving the ALSCW Fellowship was that way back. It meant I had a month to focus on my writing.

There are two extremes regarding how to approach a residency. On the one end, writers may shut themselves in their studios, rarely socialize, and focus on production. On the other, writers may produce hardly any work, focusing instead on making connections and mentally resetting. Both, I think, are important modes depending on what you need from the residency. What I needed certainly veered toward the former extreme, but not completely. I put myself on a strict daily writing schedule, but left room for some wonderful conversations with my colleagues that helped inform my work. I also treasured the opportunity to connect with and learn from Rosanna Warren, a poet who meant a lot to me as I developed as a poet. During our one-on-one meeting, she gave me insights into the way I used metaphor in my poetry, insights that proved valuable as I completed my project. Most importantly, she said I was onto something with these new poems.

The poems I wrote seemed to be loosely themed around the idea of walls—literal or figurative boundaries dividing people in the large sense and dividing our self from ourselves in the micro-sense. My family immigrated from Hungary—a country with a complex relationship to itself. One can easily see, for example, how its history might lend itself to its current nationalistic tendencies. I have hard time reconciling, however, my family’s negative attitude toward immigrants in the US, given that we are fairly recent immigrants ourselves. Who I am is indelibly wrapped up in this irony.

An interesting thing happened when I started writing the poems. They came out as love poems. Love poems to barriers. Love poems to those on the other side. Love poems to those who break those barriers. Love poems to those who build them. One thing I’ve learned as a poet is to follow an obsession, a voice that drives poems forward. Don’t force them in or out of something. So I ended up with about 60 pages of barrier/love poems and was able to continue writing them even after the residency.

I realized, later, that maybe my unconscious turned them into love poems because they needed that extra layer of complexity to be successful. Perhaps they needed an emotional thread that would open the reader up to the rest of the material. Other times, I think that maybe I’m just a sentimental fool.

I’m okay with that. To return again to Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”