I am sitting at my small round kitchen table, my sleeves pushed back. I am revising new poems, reading the words as they appear in a line, checking the line: Do these words belong in this line? Does the line break feel organic? Does it break on the best word, the best sound? Are the lines and line breaks enacting what the poem is about? Does the shape and the form of the poem enact what the poem is about? Do all the nouns belong in this poem? Are they all of the same universe?
When I begin, I don’t know where I am going. Writing poetry is probably the only example in my life of that kind of risk. I’m terrified of change. I have fear when my daily structure is upset but here, working on my poems, I am able to practice risk, to enter not knowing and follow intuition: sound, music, movement. Not that entering the unknown isn’t also terrifying. It is. Writing is the one thing I put off doing. I can’t bear the thought of entering its rooms. I’d much rather waste my hours doing what I know: reading, cleaning the apartment, going online, daydreaming. To enter a poem is to enter a dream, awake.
But writing poems allows me mastery over a miniature universe. For those moments or hours, I am God of my kingdom. No one tells me how things go. No one can argue against me when I’m writing poems. When I am writing, I get to speak.
Anorexia was about making my world small. The world was too large for me. I was confronted with too many choices, so I made my world miniature, manageable. I still have a tendency to do this: isolating alone in my apartment, not making plans with friends, following the highly structured dictates of my day-to-day schedule. Then my world contracts, again. My life is a box, tamped down. I like it that way. Get up at six, pray, meditate, eat breakfast. Read the New York Times, write, answer emails.
I utilize this same structure, this same control, in my poems. The poem must sing, it must have music. Music and language and beauty and a tear of darkness. In poetry, I take what I don’t know, and follow the music, the sound, until the thing becomes a warped little song. I make meaning out of chaos.
Writing is a means to vanish. When I am writing, the world falls away. I am no longer who I am in the world. What people think of me doesn’t matter. As French philosopher Helene Cixous writes, “I pick up my pen—magical gesture—and I forget all the people I love.”
When I write, I die a small death. And the world dies with me. When I write, the world slides away.
Writing is a means to stay “alive” after one has died. To, in a sense, never die. I am dead to the world when I write, trying to keep myself alive forever.
When I write, I am working hard at never dying.
When I am writing, I see only the letters I am writing, hear only the small voice in my head.
The Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard wrote, “I existed only when I was writing.” He had to write in order to remain alive.
Writing is a means to make a mark, to put a stake into the ground, to claim one’s space in the world. I spent much of my life silent.
When I was in high school I secretly took voice lessons. I’d save my weekly allowance, catch the bus an hour each way to the city, and walk a half hour down a dusty road to the home of an eccentric older woman, a former opera singer. I would stand before her in front of a giant mirror, mouthing the sounds she made. I couldn’t. I was ashamed; I could not make a sound. I felt as though to make a sound would kill someone. “Don’t speak unless you are spoken to.” As if learning a new language for the first time, I stuttered, and the woman said, “Again.”
After a few sessions, I gave up. To pay a woman to force me to speak stopped making any sense.
It wasn’t the first time I’d needed help with speech. In the second grade, my teacher screamed at me for not speaking. The punishment was seeing the school’s speech therapist twice a week. I couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make me speak. Not speaking is a way to vanish. I was invisible most of my life. I didn’t speak in school until the third grade.
When I was five years old and my mother was beating me and I couldn’t find a way to survive, I wrote, “Help Me” on a small slip of paper. I crumpled up the note and threw it in the trash, hoping someone somewhere might read it. Someone did. My mother found it and when she found it, she beat me.
The opera singer said, “Louder. Again.” My second-grade teacher yelled, “Speak, why won’t you speak?”
I cannot speak. To speak is to kill someone.
When I write, I am speaking. I am saying, “I exist. I am alive. I am not dead yet.” When I write, I am neither here nor there, I have vanished into a dead zone, a crawlspace all my own. I am speaking into a long tunnel. Each word I write is a mark, is a weight. I am saying, “I have a voice. It was not smudged out.”
I am here. I am alive, I did not vanish.
Rumpus original art by Lara Odell.