We have a new instructor one day a week at spin class, a young woman who doesn't seem to be used to working with middle-aged folks. She brings in these long, techno-dance songs, and we cycle away to a computerized drum beat that never changes. I've been pleading for more variety, for more rock music. I said, "You had a Def Leppard song playing when we came in, so I know that you know how to find different music."
So, yesterday, near the end of our class, she switched off the techno-dance and played 2 Def Leppard songs, just plopped in at the end. What I really wanted was more integration. I thought, don't these young folks know how to make a mix tape?
Of course they don't. They have iPods that shuffle their music for them.
I spent the day thinking about the lazy days of my youth, when I'd sort through my record albums, choosing songs that went together, making a tape. Usually, my tapes had a theme: music for a beloved, music for a party, music for driving, music for weeping.
When I first thought about assembling collections of poems, I went back to my mix tape roots. Which poems should be beside each other? Which poems make good book-ends, either for a section or for the whole book? What themes run through a particular collection?
In the lazy days of my youth, I'd spend my babysitting money on a few record albums, agonizingly chosen out of all the ones I wished I could have. I'd spend hours listening and analyzing. I'd read the liner notes and listen to the lyrics. I'd try to figure out why these songs deserved their vinyl home.
We need to do the same thing as we assemble manuscripts. We should ask the question, why do these poems deserve to be together in a book? I'm not good enough at yanking poems who don't deserve to be there, at least not right away. Gradually, as I revise manuscripts through the years, the weaker ones come out to be replaced by stronger ones. I wish I was better at spotting the weaker poems earlier.
Of course, I'm not always sure I'm the best judge of my work. I've had poems that I thought were much more masterful than the poems that have gotten published, but those poems remain unpublished.
Does that mean that the University of South Carolina should take back my Ph.D.? Maybe I don't know as much about literature as I think I do.
Of course I don't think that. If a Ph.D. reminds me of any one fact, it's that literary tastes change. You can be the John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins of your generation and be completely overlooked, only to join the literary canon later. Many aspects that have nothing to do with one's writing, like one's gender, sexual orientation, economic standing, or good/bad luck, have more impact on one's acceptance than the quality of one's work.
So, we trod along, making art that our souls need to make, and being happy if a poem here and there makes a connection. We keep our eyes on the larger goal (for me, a book with a spine!), while focusing on smaller goals (publication of individual poems, readings, writing new poems) that might lead to larger goals. As with many a musical group that bursts on the scene, the years of hard work are often overlooked, as breathless journalists rave about the newest overnight sensation. Well, here my analogy falls apart; there aren't that many rock star poets anymore, not that many overnight sensations.
The important thing is the showing up, the creative acts that we engage in regularly. Right now, I have a pot of root vegetables boiling in water as they transform themselves into soup. I'm about to write a poem about Laura Ingalls Wilder and modern technology. Later I'll go back to my administrative life of e-mails and photocopying and monitoring registration numbers. But for this morning, there are poems and soup pots to be tended.
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