When I was in high school I lived about half a block from an enormous cemetery. In the three or four years we lived there, I went in maybe twice. My Mum went all the time, because she's metal, but it wasn't for me, even in the spring when it was very beautiful. It wasn't the darkest time in my life, but it wasn't great, and something about walking through a cemetery, even a civil war era cemetery, felt morbid. I wanted to find a bridge between that feeling and the idea of low or fairy roads, the line between life and death and magic. It was a very strange time in my life, strange to live and stranger to look back on. The air off the cemetery in summer was cool and dreamy, though. Small blessings.
I'm not here to talk about writer's block. We've all been embattled with a scene that won't materialize, or even an essay that simply needs more words we can't conjure. But I want to talk about something more existential.
I've spent most of this quarantine in a fugue state, for mostly practical reasons, but there's a spiritual, psychic weight over the whole world. As of a few days ago, I became well enough to write, a little, and that's been more frustrating than anything. Allow me to explain.
Sometimes, as a writer, I feel like I've broken through to another plane, maybe not a better one, but a different view, new topography. Occasionally, there are moments that feel like enlightenment. Writing is a practice, but its growth isn't always linear.
I feel like I'm coming out of an ice bath, like in Atomic Blonde, and things are sort of unfamiliar, and I have to fight the words onto the page. I've also penned a few short poems in my notes app half asleep, some sort of delirium, like Coleridge writing Kublai Khan, except without all that opium. I'm writing, and any writer will tell you, that's half the battle.
It's also not about quality. Am I complaining about good things now? I don't know. The fabric of reality isn't what it was. I've been thinking about the ancient Greek idea of the thread of a person's life. It feels tangled. And yeah, I'm going through some stuff. Aren't we all. I've also been thinking about Van Gogh, the way his antidepressants made him eat yellow paint, how he did his best work in the hospital, but people use him to say that pain makes better art.
I was a huge, huge Fullmetal Alchemist fan when I was younger. Still am, I guess. This isn't the post for that rant, but the manga, not the anime. I read it. I guess I've always just been Like This.
And a lot of the time I think about writing like that, and especially poetry. You start with a feeling, and you make it into something else. A lot of my early poetry, probably a lot of other peoples's too, was very literal. I could only say what was happening to me. And then, I began to understand both the importance and the technique of abstraction, of preserving the feeling but blurring out the details, like those edits people do of Hozier songs where you're in an abandoned cathedral, or by a window to the rain. Ideally, the feeling is almost unbearable, and completely stripped from its context. Maybe my writing ethos is weird. We're all just feeling our way in the dark, as far as I can tell.
But this works for me. A lot of the time, what's going on in a poem or a life is dark. We can't all eat our paint. We can't all make suffering into a spill of sunflowers. Sometimes, the alchemy works. I'm particularly proud of Ode to Oranges, which I've talked about here, a little. It was written about some rather grim experiences, as well as a few sort of ennui soaked vignettes. But I like it as a poem, not just because it talks about things that happened to me.
Sometimes the alchemy doesn't work, though. Sometimes you're thinking about something dark, and you write a poem, and the poem is fucking dark. It's not fun. It's not something you can paste somewhere without feeling like you've smeared the inside of your brain on it. You can't read it as a poem.
I have problems knowing when things are too grim. Maybe we've all been through something that kills the mood. You know what they say. What doesn't kill you, makes you weird at parties. Sometimes a poem looks like a poem, and sometimes it looks like the wreckage of your life. There's no easy way around this.
I think there are a few problems, no matter how much I feel this way. Art can feel like a performance, even if no one's seen it. But as much as the job of art is to be interesting or entertaining to those who experience it, it's not my job to be interesting every second. And even if it were, that doesn't mean it all has to be cheerful, or profound. Sometimes life just isn't like that. Yes, it feels good to look at something clean and shining you've dredged from the mud of what you're going through, but it's not some sort of moral imperative. You're entitled to feel the way you feel, and make the art you make. Of course you are. And I always think it's better to write the poem than hold onto it. If it's something you don't want to look at, that's fine, but it's not a reason to hold it under your tongue.
Sometimes, things need time. Sometimes, a poem is too raw, but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Not every poem has to be your finest, and the first draft, or even the fifth, doesn't have to be final. Give yourself space. One day, I'll look at the pain on these pages, and I'll know how I actually want to convey it. How to take the dead thing and turn it into a meal. Art isn't easy. Sometimes it isn't even possible. The modernists thought that no one would ever be able to create beauty again. But they still made music. And now, there is still music. Just one foot in front of the other, even if it's easier said than done. I promise. -Sekhmet
There's something sort of disquieting about pigeons. I'm a New Yorker, so they're incredibly mundane to me, but if you actually start to think about them. Something eldritch, something fae. Pigeons have no fear. I wrote this while thinking about Mary Oliver and all her animal poetry, and also about the framing in some of Richard Siken's poems. What would pigeons say, anyway? Birds in poems can be a lot of things, but in this case I wanted to capture their weird, wise, uneasy energy.
We've been gone for a while for a number of reasons, but we want to be clear where we stand, always.
Black lives matter.
Black trans lives matter.
"Color is to the eye what music is to the ear." — Louis C. Tiffany
BY VIOLET AUSTEN, AKA ASTRAEA
I grew up in New York, and I was always surrounded by languages. Spanish, Cantonese, Sanskrit, Yiddish, Mandarin. This is an angrier poem than I've posted here before, but sometimes I don't want to translate myself. Sometimes I don't want to tell people what my name means. Sometimes I am angry. Of course, plenty of people have a much harder time with this, but it's all the same problem. People pretend they can't pronounce my name. Mostly, I'm polite about it.
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This blog is the companion to The Last Day of the Year Literary Magazine. Follow us here for thoughts, process, and our own work. We're so glad to have you.