Starting with A: On Art & Anxiety
A little while back I had the idea that I’d write some essays for myself that were autobiographical and in some ways dealt with writing or at least creating. It wasn’t hard to come up with this idea, as it’s basically what my blog has been since 2006. However, I wanted to give myself a construct, something that would keep me going, push me in the right or wrong direction, or at least keep it interesting. So, I figured it could be alphabetical. Right off the bat I couldn’t figure out what the “A” essay should be about. “Art” I thought. Easy. I could write about growing up around painters and ceramicists and sculptures, or that time I was feeling pretty alright and went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (god, I love Van Gogh). But then, the way most things happen when trying to create something, I couldn’t control it. The “A” essay subject reared its ugly head without warning: Anxiety.
On Friday of last week, my fourth book arrived into our rusty mailbox here in Kentucky. I had just had breakfast with two writer pals up the street and on a hunch ran to the mailbox before even unlocking our front door. I sat at the kitchen table, and opened the neatly packaged bundle. There was a nice note from the publisher and…the book. I grabbed the top one, already determined that this would be the one I carried and read from forever, because I’m insane and overly attached in this way. It’s gorgeous. The cover (which features a painting by my mother) is soft with a mat finish and it has cover flaps so it feels substantial and weighty. (The fact that it’s a bit over 100 pages always makes it feel weighty.)
I sat there, alone at the table, for a few minutes. I wanted to savor this. I kept trying to think of all the work it took to get here to this minute, to this book. I wanted to feel out of my skin happy. I wanted to feel as if something had broken open and I was finally coming into my own. And then, what I thought was originally excitement, turned quickly and perhaps inevitably into a full-blown panic attack. Now, I am familiar with panic. If my own particular messy issues were to sit around the table vying for attention, anxiety would take the queen’s seat. Luckily, I know enough to identify it and sometimes quell it before it grows into some tortuous tornado that leaves me crawling into bed and numbing out. Instead of giving into it, I sat looking out at the trees, took some deep breaths and tried to figure out why I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my body.
After I calmed down a bit, walked the dog, meditated in the living room, and posted my books on Facebook—thank you fellow writers and fellow readers for being there, I needed you—I realized what I think it was that was causing all the commotion inside the blood.
I wasn’t just anxious. I was white-knuckling-for-the-take-off scared. For me, this book is the most personal book of poems yet. It’s raw in a way that I’m not used to; I don’t mean unfinished, I mean, “open.” Though the previous books of poems are certainly me, and expose all parts of me within them, this one doesn’t hide under anything. For starters, the poems never (or very rarely) change tense—the “I” in these poems is “ME.” I remember, while I was writing some of these poems, saying to myself, “Okay, what’s the poem you are scared to write?” and then trying to write it. I did this over and over again. So, this book holds a lot of the things I might not say in person to a good friend, and yet here it is in the world where anyone could pick it up. The poet, Mark Wunderlich once said to me, “Isn’t poetry strange? We write down all our deepest darkest secrets and then slip them under the door because we don’t want to be in the room while someone reads it.” This is an odd art we’ve chosen to love.
The second thing is, this book contains my first real love poems. Writing love poems is something that I find terribly hard to do. Oh, I’m good at desire poems, want poems, but love is harder. I’m good at wanting, not so good at having. The fear here is that when you write a love poem there’s the moment when you think it has ruined everything. Like saying “I love you,” the words hold an awesome and terrifying power. What are those great lines from the Alex Lemon poem, “Boundless”?
Soon, no one will want unlimited
Texts because it will be known—
This here right now, this,
Exactly what you mean—
The last thing, and this might sound strange, but this is the first book that I did not write for poets. I love poets, don’t get me wrong; they are my tribe. But I wrote this book for myself, for Lucas, for my friends, and family, and for people who don’t always read poetry let alone a single poem. Which is perhaps another reason why I felt like there was a bald eagle on my sternum when I first held it in my hands. This is a book that is less concerned with artifice and obfuscation and more concerned with saying it as truthfully as I can. This wasn’t easy for me. I like to sing my way out of a poem, I like the dream bird to come in and muddle up the meaning. Not this time. It’s as if every time I went to write a poem for this book, I was asking myself if I was hiding. I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to say something that mattered and that I wanted to say. I did not want to write poems to write poems, I wanted to write poems to reach out and to connect. I wanted them to feel alive. I hope they do. Like Frank O’hara said, “I don’t like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your gut.”
But in doing that, going on my gut, there’s another thing I was scared of: not seeming intelligent. This is a big one for me. And I’d say, I think it’s a big one for a lot of women in particular. If you are writing about what matters, does that mean you are writing about the “F word?” Yep. Feelings. I had a boyfriend once who said that there were “thinkers” and “feelers” and I was a feeler. (Clearly this has stuck with me, look ma, no damage!) Inherently the word “feeling” makes me think “naïve” or “dumb.” It makes me want to say, “Listen, I’m not good at math, alright?” And yes, I do think society views it differently for men or male writers. I think it might be harder for men to talk about their feelings, but when they do, we think they are being brave (And they are! Yes! Nick Flynn’s great new book of poems is called “My Feelings”!), but when women talk about their feelings we are being overly emotional, needy, whiny, and it’s, get this….easy. I’m not saying any of this is true. I’m saying this is what my brain tells me. Writing it out here is already helping. These are my fears. These are, actually, my feelings.
Almost a week later, my anxiety about the book is lessening and I’m feeling a rush of excitement every time someone tweets about it or shares a line from it on Facebook or Instagram, but I’m still aware that with this book, I went all in. And, I’m also aware that sometimes that means you lose big. All this said, I’m glad I did this. I’m glad I risked feeling like an emotional fuck up if all it means is that I know I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone. I wrote this book with the quote “Fear is only excitement without the breath” over my desk and it’s something I have to remember now. This is what I wanted. This book. Now I just have to be brave enough to own it.