I started listening to David Sedaris’ new journal memoir “Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002” and, aside from being shocked by how much meth he did in his probably-not-misspent youth, I was intrigued by some of the peek it gives at his creative process. Listening to his recorded memories of his art school days made me long for a time when someone would give me an assignment and make me work on something. Art has such an unhelpful mythology hanging onto it – art springs fully formed from our noble brows; art comes from some mystical place from beyond the veil; creativity is augmented by various substances or found deep within the hulls of so many emotional shipwrecks – and of course so much of this is piffle.
When I was working in New Jersey after law school, I started writing regularly as an escape from a dreary job. Following the wisdom about an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of keyboards, I sat down [a single monkey at my single keyboard] resolved to produce a ton of garbage. I did. And I managed, I think, to produce some decent things as well. So, in an effort to get back to that productive period, I’ve started giving myself assignments. The last few weeks, I’ve fought with Petrarchan sonnets, Shakespearean sonnets, Pantoum and Sapphic verse. I’m producing a lot of garbage again, which is fine. Some of it I share, figuring that perhaps it means something to someone else even if it doesn’t mean much to me. The hendecasyllabic line structure and inversion of stress in the Sapphic verse is infuriating and I usually just end up shoehorning a syllable in to make it all work. It ends up working, inelegantly. Petrarchan sonnet is similarly infuriating because the rhyme structure feels both hokey and distant. ABBAABBA ends up with a lot of repeated rhymes within a short amount of time, making everything feel a bit like a limerick. The flexibility within the sestet, and the natural volta between the octet and the sestet are nice, but I don’t think I’ve managed to produce anything worth reading in this form because I’m working so hard to meet the requirements of the form itself. I seem to really like Pantoum; the structure works well for the theme I’ve been exploring recently: memory. I suppose the woven structure of the pantoum mirrors the non-linear nature of memory as the lines wash over us, catching us at different moments, catching us as different selves.
It’s one part memoir, one part practice in these specific poetic forms I’m chasing. Sedaris writes about an assignment from an instructor: they were assigned to listen to and record overheard conversations and turn them into a poetic dialogue. The entire exercise seems to be geared toward flexing the muscles of observation. Since beginning the collection process, I’m shocked at how little attention I pay to others. I can recall that someone nearby was having a conversation, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I might be able to tell you what they were wearing, what their emotional state seemed to be. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is rude to eavesdrop, so I’m working against years of training to avoid overhearing people. Perhaps I’m just more interested in my own words than those of others. Or perhaps I’m just waiting for a moment of profundity from someone else, when intellectually I know that the true art will be the “elegant corpse” I construct from the mundane. Whatever the reason, this is proving to be a tougher task than anticipated and I’m not sure how long it will take for me to collect enough scraps of overheard conversation to turn them into a poem. Nor do I have any idea what that will look like when it is done. Meanwhile, I’ll keep struggling with the others. I’m not sure when I’ll feel done with the Petrarchan sonnet or the Sapphic verse, but I suspect I’ll be admitting defeat rather than victory at some point.