Friday, June 22, 2012

This note ran as an item in the Poetry International Festival blog on June 7:

The Middle

Ron Silliman’s lifelong poetics of the incomplete

© Didi Menendez. Big Ron.

It has always been true that I think a long time about something before I begin. I was calling myself a poet for at least two years before I sat down to write, although I then published my very first poem (derivative, arch, pompous beyond imagination – the waiting seems not to have taught me all that much about what I was going to do).

I knew at a young age – still in my teens – that I would write a long poem, but it took me nearly a decade before I actually began the work I am still writing today, some 38 years later. Some sections of this project – I call it Ketjak – have taken a long time to get under way: one section of The Alphabet took over 20 years from conception to completion. A section of Universe that I am working on presently – Parrot Eyes Lust – is something I have been thinking & dreaming about since my first false starts on the poem in 1973. 

Being unfinished is for me the norm – I am in fact always in the middle, rarely in a position to take a step back and say that this (or this) is the final shape of something, only building blocks toward an emergent thing that I call a poem principally because poetry is the art of language, and hence for me the category that contains all others at least implicitly within. The detective novel, for example, is merely a defective poem of a certain type. Ditto theater, even cinema. Ditto even tweets.

When I begin to sense that I am nearing the completion of any section of this project – maybe 50 pages out, perhaps just ten – I start to be aware of a rising tide of emotion not unlike the impending loss of a loved one. I often ride this emotion much in the way that a surfer rides a wave, and this directs me toward understanding what that moment of temporary closure might be. In my best writing, I give up all control to the poem: I’m barely holding on.

But it also means that often I am working on passages, material, with no such sense at hand, not unlike a sailor who is out at sea, but unable to read the sky nor get any clues of direction from the horizon: sailing blind. In such moments, I have to trust in the process, in what the poem is telling me, and I have moments of enormous anxiety during these periods.