On February 27, 2009, I got up before dawn, as I often did, to write a poem. However, this time I knew that later that same day I would be conveying the news of layoffs to nearly forty percent of my IT department — people I had worked alongside for years, had come to admire, and whose families I knew. It all stemmed from the financial crisis. And so my greatest temptation, in the face of finding myself in the middle of such a difficult moment, was to hate those who had precipitated this painful event.
But a vitriolic rant was not the poem that came out. Although I mentioned this experience in my commencement speech at my MFA graduation later that year, I did not read the poem. In the groundswell of Occupy movements, stretching from Wall Street to my own alma mater, now somehow seemed like an appropriate time to share this piece. It came out of my own private protest, years ago, in the hours before sunrise.
Each chapter of John Rember’s MFA in a Box can be read in the time it takes to travel between Finchley Central and Leicester Square station on the Northern Line of the London Underground. I know because I read it this way. At least, I read full chapters on the days I could claim a seat. Other days, I read what little I could at the distance of two inches from my nose, using the book as a v-shaped shield against the armpits of businessmen’s suit jackets as they made their way into the The City to plan the next financial collapse.
A recent transplant to London from a rural town in California, I was following the “when in Rome” adage — immersing myself in written ideas to transcend the fact of my animal body crammed in with the warmth and smell of my fellow humans in a speeding subterranean metal box. Each article in the tabloids unfurled all around me had been engineered to be read in the length of one tube stop. By a precise mix of fact and moral opining, they were also designed to provoke an “Isn’t that terrible?” reaction, before being discarded in the overflowing waste bins at the top of the stairs.
I was reading a book about why one should try to write literature. But in fact, MFA in a Box is about much more than this. It is about how to survive, and perhaps even thrive, through writing, in this highly-engineered world.
I met John during my first residency in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program. It was less than a year after the death of our infant son. John gave a talk that was to become chapter eight, about The Book of Job, and Leviathan, and why one should “go deep” in the process of writing — as “conscious dust” in a cosmos that we can only pretend to control, wrapping our arms around the big human questions because we are human, and questioners, and big and deep at our core, despite our cultural contract that says we should instead keep lacquering the surface.
The current economic recession is my generation’s wake-up call about the difference between promise and lasting value. Whether we heed the call remains to be seen. The promise of ubiquitous home ownership, “money for nothing” investment strategies, and consumption founded on debt has collapsed. Some undoubtedly hope that we will be able to return to our collusion of shortsightedness soon. I hope, instead, that we can learn from this time to focus on more lasting foundations of value, which includes making responsible choices, and being grateful for the things that matter most in life.
Poetry, too, suffered a similar collapse. With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, the mainstream audiences for both classical music and poetry went that way. And yet, fifty years later, I still detect a strange undercurrent of hope, among those deeply involved with poetry, that somehow poetry will recover its mainstream prominence. After all, we traditionally look to our national poets laureate to devise projects to increase poetry’s appreciation. Ted Kooser started the American Life in Poetry column to get poems back into local newspapers, and Robert Pinsky encouraged people to get together to read poems as part of the Favorite Poem Project. All of these efforts are commendable, and no doubt good for both poetry and society. Yet projects like these and countless others seem to indicate an underlying hope against hope that poetry can somehow regain its former glory.
“What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”
-Mark Doty, “Visitation”
It is now a matter of public record that my company recently laid off 40% of staff. But numbers do not do justice to the sense of loss. Today I rifled through comments written in our software source code management system by ex-members of my programming team. Sprinkled among the technical remarks were little witticisms and the occasional wry geek joke, artifacts of camaraderie among the ash.
I have been cauterizing the wounds of loss with poems — more reading than writing lately, and catch-as-catch-can. I could not have willed my way toward a better book in this challenging time than Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire. Doty captures the fierce and sometimes terrible beauty of life with musical phrasing, stanzaic integrity, and the courage to look and look, deeper and deeper, into the human world. It is from loss that these poems are written, but their trajectory is towards awe — the hope that springs from amazement, the amazement that springs from deep observation, the deep observation that settles in the ashes of loss.
Doty’s carefully-measured stanzas seem to propel his poems like an engine — which is, after all, a series of well-timed explosions. Each little engine links together to drive us into the depths of the poem — be it the shell of a turtle, the smoky glitz of a cross-dressing bar, or the heart of a man care-taking his dying love. Doty is not afraid to hold with the poem until it opens up, frequently busting the page barrier in little epics that never feel watery, or strain to make a point. It is an inner fire he seeks in each poem, heating up line by line and phrase by phrase — his technique a poetic kiln. Thank you, Mark Doty, for firing your ovens, and plying your craft — producing stunning reminders of the beauty that can rise from flame.
I had the poignant duty of sending out the email newsletter announcement last night that the 2009 Ojai Poetry Festival has been cancelled. The current financial situation has affected our founders, our prospective donors, and our hopes for ticket sales considerably. So, the committee is conserving its resources in hopes of reviving the festival in 2011. Having already sent hundreds of emails and made numerous updates to the website in anticipation of such a great lineup, I am, needless to say, disappointed.
And yet, I am heartened by the absolute flurry of poetry events passing through in recent weeks. A small but formidable group of women poets are hosting a reading in a beautiful backyard just around the corner from me. The names of two fellow students from long ago found their way to me in announcements of their separate readings. Others seem to be driving up and down the California coast reading poems associated with their recent prize, or book, or just because there seems to be a hungry market for poetry right now.
In some cases, the marketplace of poetry does intersect with the financial marketplace. Those poets who have managed to in some way cobble together a lifestyle of writing and teaching poetry are likely influenced by the recent economic downturn. Yet there exists a separate marketplace for poetry wherein supply can be measured in willing voices, and demand in eager ears. This marketplace seems to work almost inversely to the financial marketplace, in that difficult times bring us back to the necessity of art.
Writing poems is, in many senses of the word, “free.” And during times when it can be difficult to be generous materially, opportunities to be generous with one’s time and creativity seem to represent an outlet for hope. Attending readings, buying and borrowing books of poems, is generally inexpensive. Yet the payoff is significant. From a small investment of time, an enrichment of perception. Therefore, as the stock markets, and other markets, continue to rattle and roll, I say let us all invest our human currency — in reading, writing, and listening to great poems.