Seamus Heaney Died Today

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, and as a young Catholic man, he embraced the rise of the Provisional IRA, but before long, he realized that the two paramilitary sides would never solve anything. He was under pressure to use his gifts to benefit the cause. So, he left and went to live in the Republic. He wrote what was in him to write, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it.

The Irish president also is a published poet, and he spoke today of Heaney’s scope and of his care for poetry from all over the world, especially the poetry of the oppressed. He had such humility that he was shocked when he won the Nobel Prize. And, he had the simplest philosophy of writing. He said that he “always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.”

I love that. For one thing, it takes a lot of pressure off. It puts the importance on the writing more than on the writer. Rilke had the same notion. Before he wrote the Duino Elegies, he could feel them coming, and then he could hear them coming, and he was so moved that they chose him. In a way, all of this points to Erato, the muse of poetry. There’s something to be said for inspiration.

Heaney and Rilke are not similar as poets, but they both knew what mattered. Getting the work written. They knew what poetry can do. And there’s a real comfort for me as a poet to know that the poetry itself plays a part. It will get itself written. I have felt it demanding to be written, if I’m honest. The next time I feel panicky and incompetent about my work, I’m going to try to remember Heaney. It will somehow get itself written. Remember that.

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Nothing but Myself to Recommend Me

In one of my favourite novels, Jane Austen writes about “a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him.” It would be wonderful if people would look for themselves and judge another’s merits. Isn’t it strange that people don’t value their own judgement? They’re so uncertain about it that they need the validation of three referees. Who knows where that magic number three came from, but in my experience, that’s how many we need. Everybody asks for three. I suspect they do it because they’ve seen somebody else asking for three, and so it goes.

We apply for jobs or grants or residencies, and agencies don’t trust their own judgement. In fact, they’d rather avoid personal contact. It’s really odd, this whole keeping a distance thing. I make claims for my own merits, and I understand that some fact checking might be necessary. I don’t want to end up in Catch Me If You Can. But it’s especially easy now to see if I did teach all those courses and publish all those things. Those are the accomplishments, those and the education. Those are the things that qualify me for the job or grant or residency. But, very ironically, those things are not the focus of investigation. Only one of my many applications has ever required proof of a degree.

I have nothing but myself to recommend me. In the end, as Austen’s Persuasion shows, even if we have rank and possessions, we still have only ourselves, for good or bad. Today, yet again, I have sent out requests for people to write reference letters for me. I wish I were past that. In a very real way, reference letters don’t prove anything. Letter writers might be fabrications. I wish I were measured by my merits as I describe them, rather than how someone else describes them.

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Wading Through Grant Processes

When I was working on my PhD, I remember thinking that anyone who could complete an SSHRCC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) scholarship form should automatically get said scholarship. I got one on my second try, thank you very much, and it was worth it, but I often think that application processes are made daunting intentionally, to weed out the uncommitted. It takes mental and physical energy to do these things, especially knowing that–most likely–there’s no reward.

I applied to the Canada Council three times, all for the same project, before I got a grant, and I kept working on the project all that time. When the grant letter finally came, I had to read it a lot of times before I understood it said what it said. My brain assumed it was another formulaic rejection letter. I put it down and then came back and read it again before I told anybody. That project is finally complete, the final report to the Council is sent, the file on that grant is closed. So I can apply for another. Oh Yay!

This summer, I am applying for grants from two agencies. The provincial one defines “project” very differently from the way I do (or any dictionary does), so I was having a terrible time figuring out how to word it. My planned manuscript is about half finished, but the forms warn that the project cannot commence before the grant start date. It turns out that writing the last half of a project is a project. Thank you, Jill, at AFA. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to definitions, and I’m also painstakingly honest, so you can see my predicament. I want the money, but I don’t want to lie. Hurray that I can apply with a clear conscience.

That application is now submitted, all its four copies, with all its pages of information, its detailed balanced budget, its project description, and its accompanying writing sample. It weighed so much it qualified as a package, so I had to pay $10 to send it. Now, I turn my attention to the second application. I’m asking the Canada Council for $20,000, over two years, and I want you to try to imagine the detail required in an application for that much money. To a writer, that’s a boatload of money.

The application requires a two- or three-sentence summary description, plus a lengthier description, which may fill up to two pages. Striking the balance in these two components is very difficult, but very critical. The summary has no room for anything beyond specific points, yet it must have something in it to engage an unknown assessor. The detailed description, at the moment, is a whirling mass of passion and data. My son says I’m to find a way to mention that the last time they gave me money, I finished and the manuscript is about to be published–that’s The Hungry Grass. He has a point. It adds to the balancing act. I’m going to try to wrestle it to the ground over the next few days.

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Casting the Net

Robert Frost wrote about trees as those who talk of going but never get away. I think of those lines often, not only as a lovely poetic moment, but also as a caution. I’ve been talking for several months, maybe even a year, about the urge I feel for my next major writing project. Some of that time has been spent trying to ignore the idea, to resist the idea, hoping it would go away, or at least back off, but it won’t. I’m not going to lie: it’s a daunting prospect.

The writing phase is a long way off, and I know it will be creatively and emotionally difficult. But first, I have to do the research phase. The very idea makes me go pale. But I don’t want to be like Frost’s trees, talking talking talking. I’ve got to pull up one firmly planted foot and step out into the work of it. I did that yesterday, and it was scary and exciting. I cast my bread on the waters: what if it doesn’t come back? What if the waters throw it back with force?

I sent an e-mail to a person I do not know, asking for help making the contacts I’ll need if I’m going to have a chance of accomplishing my vision. That e-mail was a commitment. What comes next, I don’t know, but over the next few months, I’ll be setting up plans for a month of research next June. I’m putting together a grant application and searching for accommodation. The logistics, all of the not-creative work, are vital. No funding means no research time. Here’s hoping.

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Go Ahead and Ask

I’m always telling students that one serious difficulty facing the writer is that nobody cares if you don’t write. It’s a solitary business, and nobody else is affected when we don’t produce. That only happens when we do. But it’s tricky when someone does ask how the work is going. We often make the mistake of thinking that it’s a serious question, that someone really cares.

Only after we expound passionately for two or three minutes do we notice the look in your eyes and think crap–you were just being polite. So, we mumble our way into silence. Sometimes, it’s really stressful to be asked because the writing isn’t going anywhere at all, and we want to scream at you to stop asking because nothing’s happening and it makes us feel like useless failures. When that happens to me, I respond with some ultra vague generalities. I might say it’s coming or that I’m thinking about something.

The other night, around a table with friends, someone asked what my next project would be, and I started talking, forcing myself to believe that those friends really cared about the answer. They asked some questions. I believed they cared. And I have to say it’s nice to be asked. If you know a writer, ask how the work is going. Risk being shouted at in frustration. Risk a wail of despair. Risk a passionate two minutes. Try to care. Try to make us think you care. It only takes a few minutes, and it means a lot. It’s the cheapest fuel there is.

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No Limits to Perfectionism

I wish I had understood very early in my life that I am a perfectionist. So many incidents and frustrations might have been avoided, if I had known that fact and how to use it. Some people think that it’s a thing from which we should seek to recover, like alcoholism or Catholicism. Not me. I embrace my perfectionism.

Simply knowing that’s what it is that’s driving some reactions and impulses does, in fact, help me to control it to some extent. I understand that not everyone is a perfectionist, that little details don’t matter as much to everyone. And, miraculously, when it is someone else’s work or world or home or clothes, I can let it go. A bit. I can understand that this someone else knows but does not care, and because I know it is my perfectionism at work, I am able not to care so much.

Still, I am stuck with it when it’s my work or world or home or clothes. I had a friend once who said that my apartment always seemed as though I had just vacuumed. I didn’t say it, but it seemed that way because I had. But, my place is always dusty. I hate dusting, and so I rarely do it, because I can’t just dust one room or one thing. Perfectionism is very complex.

This topic has come up because I have written a long poem in seven syllable lines. My reader commented on there being some lines that weren’t, but that they didn’t disrupt the rhythm. I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After all, this is my work. I re-read every line, tapping out the syllables (tapping out the syllables has seven, by the way). Not only does that much tapping make the wrist start to ache, but I found about thirty lines of 2290 that needed an additional tap. I fixed them. I blame their existence on my inability with numbers.

At dinner on Wednesday, I mentioned these thirty lapses to my companion, who gave me a look, and I explained that it isn’t easy being a perfectionist. I said I hoped I would be able to keep myself from doing another count before the poem goes to press. But I won’t. I know me. And I want it to be perfect.

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Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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A Metaphor of Stone Fences

Even as the morning was happening, I knew it was a metaphor, and by the time it was over, I experienced such a euphoria at my accomplishment that I stopped in at the church and lit a candle. It all started when I set out to walk to Synge’s Chair, the spot on the north end of Inis Meain where J.M. Synge used to sit and contemplate. It’s a beautiful spot for a writerly person.

On my last visit here, I was told it’s possible to walk all around the edge of the island, and I decided to set out, but I didn’t get committed until later. This is a very rocky place, without enough soil to support trees and only rare bushes. On my right, as I proceeded counter-clockwise (another metaphor, now that I think on it), there was a high barrier of piled rocks, so that while I could hear the ocean, I couldn’t see it. I stumbled and tripped and teetered over shards and stones and occasional bits of grasses until I came to a stone fence, which I climbed over. I did that about six times.

As I searched for footholds, I pointed out to myself that maybe I shouldn’t do that, that it was foolhardy and didn’t I know my age. I replied that in that case, this was probably the only time I would ever do it. So I kept on. I started composing my apology to the search and rescue people who were going to have to come out and find me after I sprained an ankle or broke a hip. All the time, I could hear the ocean and sometimes I could see the spray. I wasn’t wearing a watch.

And then, I came to the end of the high barrier and could see the ocean. I could also see the flat stone platform that circles the coast on the sea-side of that barrier. And I thought to myself of course I did it the hard way.  I always do it the hard way. It happens without even trying. I have a gift for it. But, for my own mad reasons, I didn’t turn back, didn’t give up. And I felt such relief when I got to a bit of road and the walking got so easy, even though it was all uphill. When I got to the spine of the island and could see the dun, I began to feel elation. I felt a euphoria of accomplishment, and parched as I was, I took a few minutes to light the candle as a gesture to the universe before heading home. I’d been gone three hours.

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The Unpleasant Can Be Beautiful

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how artists make the ugly beautiful, how they keep it ugly but so artfully give an understanding of it. I’m thinking of those moments when I am simultaneously aware of how miserable or painful or revolting something is and also how skillfully and certainly I am shown a new way to see it.

There’s a scene in The Pianist, during the Warsaw uprising, when a woman is running down a street and she is shot, but she doesn’t just stagger and plop onto the pavement. She balletically folds herself down into a heap, and it’s a beautiful visual. The scene is a delicate collaboration between Polanski and his bit player. It doesn’t make what happened in the ghetto beautiful, but it makes her resistance beautiful in more than a philosophically prosaic way. It shows us there’s more than we have thought about those historic events. It makes us see them in new ways.

Recently, I read Down All the Days, by Christy Brown. Brown’s personal story is a hard one, and he uses it in this novel of Depression-era poverty. The father in this novel is a violent man, a drunk, who beats his children and his pregnant wife, blaming everyone else for everything, often making irrational connections between people and events. There’s nothing pretty about that. But Brown very bravely offers some of his pages to the father and allows him to show himself as a bewildered, defeated human being. Instead of milking the situation to generate a reader’s loathing for the father and sympathy for the mother, instead of taking that easy often-written road, Brown allows the father to speak.

As the man staggers home drunk, his belligerence is nowhere in evidence. He’s alone, and as he thinks about his life, about how he is confused by it, doesn’t control anything about it, didn’t get what he thought he would, Brown situates us with him and gives us compassion for him. We don’t excuse the things he’s done, the cruelty of his words and his actions, but we see how they have come about. We see that he is not solely to blame, that the powers controlling his society have set him up in some ways, and suddenly, he’s not a monster. He is to be pitied, too, as his family is.

Making the unpleasant and the ugly into beauty is a difficult thing, and I want to be able to do it. That has to start with knowing those things in an intimate way and confronting them when we really want to avoid and if possible forget. Look at them dispassionately and let them show their many aspects. I think it is hard to look them in the face for long enough, but the result is a kind of alchemy. It takes away their power and then gives them new power.

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All That Energy

Every ounce of writerly energy I have went into the two major projects I had to finish before the end of this month. One of them was finished at the end of January, and the other was finished at two o’clock on Tuesday. There’s been no other writing, no time or words to spare for any other purpose. It’s difficult to push that hard for that long and then stop. I have a terrible impulse to find something else to throw myself into right away. I’ve had this feeling before.

When I finished my PhD, it took me about two years to realize that I could be permitted to take a day here and there without working. Apparently, this tendency has something to do with psychic machinery which seeks to recreate the recent experience. So, I’m having to take a bit of time to resist because if I don’t, how will I ever open up the space to allow thoughts and ideas to come of their volition and in their own time. I want to be able to hear them coming, like Rilke did.

Whatever it is that comes next, I want it to be something that offers itself rather than something I lunge at just because I feel a need to be doing. I’m trying to learn that the waiting is part of the doing, and that’s very new to me. It’s hard to think of doing nothing as doing something. I’ve been writing to make a living for the past few months, and that’s creative, too. I enjoy it, and it has its lessons, too. But I am  waiting for something that is mine, as the long poem was mine, to ask me to write it. It won’t do that unless I quiet myself enough for it to emerge.

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