18 September 2009

A New Writing Process?

I've been writing a poem. I know it's dangerous to talk about a work in progress; sometimes you can talk it away. But I feel that the act of writing this poem may be teaching me something even more important than the poem itself, and learning it is probably more important (at least for me) than whether or not I finish the poem.

Then again, Jean Valentine once told me that we don't finish poems; we abandon them!

So far, the poem looks like a sort of epistle. I've always liked that genre of literature; in fact, my second published piece of writing after I started living full-time as a woman was a letter (actually, an e-mail) to a friend who suggested that I publish it. In case you're interested, here it is:

5 October 2003

H-e-e-y-y b-a-a-a-be (I can still do the butch voice, sort of!):

Always great to hear from you.

I’m so tired after doing the sort of bike ride I used to do before breakfast. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve ridden about a quarter as much this year as last.

It was nice, though. I pedalled the promenade under the Verrazano Bridge, out past Bath Beach, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst. Men in long dark coats and women in loose-fitting dresses tossed bread into the sea. I have witnessed this ritual many times before: The followers of Moses symbolically cast their sins away as they begin anew on Rosh Hoshanna.

Somehow I identified with this spectacle even more than ever. The past few months have included many episodes of tossing away or leaving behind old parts of my life; this has been a time of starting again.

I continued down Cropsey Avenue, past a chrome and glass diner that elongated reflections of splintered houses and cindery garages, toward Coney Island. Kids, still in the light shirts and blouses and dark pants or skirts they wore to church, circled doorways, ran and skipped on concrete lots or darted across streets.

In front of Sea Gate, I turned left and grunted up the ramp to the boardwalk. Weatherbeaten slats clattered and thumped under my tires; wind whipped sand around my face and the only other person (who was pulled by a squat tan dog) I saw as I teetered to the pier in front of the Parachute Jump.

On a day much like this one--sun and wind pushing away summer haze and whipping the first October chill against my skin--I parked my bike by the boardwalk in Long Branch, New Jersey and shuffled through sand that seemed to stretch as far as the ocean. Further, really: At least I knew that if I could follow the ocean I’d end up in Portugal. I knew that the beach in Long Branch spilled into the ones in Deal, Belmar, Elberon, Asbury Park and Ocean Grove; beyond them lay more beaches, but for how far? To Key West? Beyond?

Just how far, I wondered, was it possible to walk where footsteps faded into shadows of the wind?

I was a senior in high school; I’d just begun the process of applying to colleges (among them, West Point and Annapolis). Although I’d had vague ideas of becoming a doctor or a marine biologist, I felt I was envisioning some person I would never meet, who existed only in the hopes of parents and guidance counselors. Those hopes were no more real to me than my father’s idea of my becoming a general or an admiral, no more plausible than any plan to grow up like him, my soccer or wrestling coaches, the parish priests, President Ford, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bruce Springsteen. Or to become a man of any sort.

I couldn’t describe this dilemma to anyone I knew, in any language I knew at the time. It’d’ve been dismissed as a condition of my adolescence, or worse. I sought the answers in solitude; perhaps, like characters in stories I’d read or movies I’d seen, I’d find the answer echoed in wind and waves or shadowed in the sand. Or perhaps those people who stayed after Labor Day would know--about something. Somehow or another I was supposed to grow into a man, because I had that kind of body. Of course: There was no other choice, I thought.

Twenty-eight years later, I realize I was right. There was no choice, at least not for my male body as it shuffled through sand that echoed the receding sea foam. But as a woman in her mid-forties pedaling along weather-beaten planks, I could continue if I chose. Or I could make a turn. And, perhaps, let that seventeen-year-old boy know that he would be all right, that I would never leave him any more than he would ever lose me.

Oh well. It’s getting late. See you soon.

Love, Justine

I've always allowed the freedom of expression a letter like the one I've shown affords me. That comes about through the relationship I have with the recipient of my letter. And, because I feel the way I feel about whoever receives my letter, I want to write something that's moving and interesting.

And the poem I'm writing is pulling me in that direction: a sort of letter to my parents. It may show them something about me they never before understood, though that is not necessarily the purpose of what I'm writing.

Right now the conflict--which is where the lesson I may be learning lies--is between my "poetic" impulse of being highly metaphorical and imagistic, as many of my poems are and my impulse toward intimacy, which would make the language more direct but could strip it of its metaphors and imagery--or at least the ones that are in some lines of this poem.

Now I'm wondering whether this poem--whether or not comes to be--is going to teach me whether or how the ways I use language--or anything else, for that matter--will change. Will this poem--if it is indeed "born," if you will--be a departure from what I've done previously? Or will it be a modification, or continuation?

I just hope that whatever comes about, for the poem or for me, is more interesting than what I've written here!

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