Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Personal Archeology

December 16th, 2008

I've been doing some excavation. I've been digging into my old works. Why would I do this? I can safely identify a couple of reasons. One: pure morbid curiosity. I've been writing since I was fourteen. I wanted to see if I could discern the original spark of talent that I was so convinced I had. Two: I wondered what it was like for me before I knew I had kidney disease. Was I a less serious person? Was I blissfully happy? I was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1986 at the age of nineteen. So, I had about a five year window when I was writing to see what my life was like before.

So what did I learn? It's complicated. I learned the Jon of twenty-five years ago is an absolute stranger. I have memories like anyone else, but they seem to be from someone else's life. I know that sounds odd, but I am convinced I wouldn't recognize my teen self on the street. As for this idea I may have been "happier" when I was younger or before I knew I had kidney disease, that didn't turn out to be true. Not at all. Look at the poem on the right. It is a fairly straightforward poem that chronicles what it's like to be in the process of growing up. In my case, way up. The language choices in the poem reveal that my internal processes were not without a flare of adolescent ennui and drama.

While this younger Jon may feel like a stranger, we have more in common than I thought. We both have a flair for the dramatic. We both write to help ourselves unscramble our feelings. We both feel like we are "in progress" and growing. Today, I am in the middle of this end stage renal disease to transplant journey. My pain is mostly physical rather than emotional. However the situation has given me the opportunity to imagine, much like when I was younger, what my life will be like "after." I feel much like I did when I was younger that I have the unique opportunity to invent myself (or in reality re-invent myself). I feel there are new possibilities ahead. I feel my life has untapped potential. However, there is one significant difference between me and my younger self. Thoughts of the future and what I might become made the young Jon quite anxious. Most surprisingly, today, I am hopeful.

I've posted a couple older pieces of work on my website http://www.joneseaman.com/. "Inheritance" is a poem and "Absolute Zero" is a short story. I wrote both over twenty years ago. I think these pieces show where I came from and how far I've travelled. Perhaps they even reveal that raw spark of mythical talent as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Poet or Patient? Curious Readers Want to Know.

December 4, 2008

The short answer is poet, first and always. However, it took this nasty confrontation with my mortality to spur me to action.

Today I do want to write about being a patient. Many kind folks have emailed me or signed up for the newsletter. The question folks ask repeatedly is "Why did your kidneys fail?" As you can imagine, this is a sensitive topic. Most people are genuinely curious, but sometimes it feels like there is an accusation hiding beneath the polite layers of inquiry. In fact, a few people have even bluntly asked, "What did you do to make your kidneys fail?"

First, I assure you that my kidneys did not fail because of some moral weakness or divine retribution. The damage did not come from alcohol addiction or drug abuse, drinking the water in third world countries, unprotected sex, over the counter pain medication or too many cups of coffee. Lastly, my kidneys did not fail because I struggled with obesity for a time. However, that word "failure" is powerful. Failure is personal and demands introspection and accountability. It carries a heavy aura and acrid bite. Sometime I feel its stench on me. How do I explain this? I have asked myself in quiet moments, "Am I defective in some crucial core way that makes me less worthy of life than someone else?" and "Do I deserve this?"

Here is my personal story, the short version. From the time I was a baby until I was three, I had recurring kidney infections. They discovered my ureters, the tubes that connect your kidneys to your bladder, were defective. This caused urine to reflux (backflow) into my kidneys. So, I had an operation to reimplant my ureters. The surgery worked - no more infections.

The rest of my childhood was healthy, as evidenced by my 6'8" frame and active mind and body. Then in college, at the age of 19, as a joke, I stuck my arm into a blood pressure cuff. My blood pressure was abnormally high. After a month of tests, we found that significant kidney damage was causing the high blood pressure (and vice-versa). This damage stemmed from the reflux I experienced as a small child. Unfortunately, kidney damage is a downhill race. The doctors told me that I would have 2 years until kidney failure. This was in 1986. I cannot explain how this affected me. You will have to read some of my poetry for insight. Suffice to say I felt very "temporary" about myself. This reality colored every aspect of my life.

How does this story end? My kidneys did fail...in March of 2008, beating the estimate by 20 years. You see, I took charge of my life at 19 and went on high blood pressure medication. I followed a diet based on the best medical evidence at the time. I monitored my condition with doctors regularly.

Now when I look deep inside and ask myself if I am a "failure," I smile and say, "Hell no!" I am a success story.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Discoveries

11/19/2008

I'm kind of a science nut. I'm curious about everything. My mind is hungry for the "new." I'm enthralled by anything that peels away the layers of what's visible to reveal the workings of the invisible beneath. I'm equally fascinated by knowledge that expands my field of vision beyond the narrowcast of our daily lives. So, last week when the story broke that astronomers had taken the first pictures of planets outside of our solar system, I totally geeked out. Invest a couple of seconds in this NASA video and see what you think.



A little dry for you? This quote from the LA Times put the accomplishment in a perspective that fired my imagination. "Scientists compared the imaging of these so-called exoplanets to taking a picture from Los Angeles of a firefly buzzing around a searchlight in New York." Creates an image doesn't it. For the full article, click http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-planets14-2008nov14,0,435832.story

How does all this relate to poetry? Obviously it is source material and inspiration. Poetry uses heightened language to explore our relationships with both the intimate and vast. Poetry illuminates shared experiences and unexpected interconnections. When done well, poetry has a visceral emotional impact. Here's a link to "Astronomy Lesson" a poem by Alan Shapiro. I admire the accessibility, intimacy and relationships in the poem as it contemplates the ordinary and the infinite space between. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171394

As for my own work inspired by this discovery, stay tuned.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Revisions

11/14/2008

I continue to work on my first book of poems called "The Skeleton Watch." My goal is to have fifty polished poems ready to go by December 31. I am well on my way to that goal. Central to the work are a few core poems that are gateways into the theme and act as connectors to bring everything together. Last night as I was working on one of these poems, when I realized how intensely personal and intimate these core pieces are and how very difficult they have been for me to write. Let me see if I can explain.

I used to be a professionally trained actor. One of the classic dilemmas my actor friends and I loved to talk about was nude scenes. Would you do a nude scene? What are the specific circumstances where you would be willing to be nude on stage or film? It is a fun gut check where you place your desire for fame, artistic integrity, and morals in a thought blender. The resulting goo was always predictable. The "serious" actors among us would end up with the predictable conclusion, "only, if it is in service of the story." That's a nice and noble answer. The play's the thing, after all. However, it is bullshit. Here what is really behind the nudity question; are you willing to make the most private part of yourself public? Should you? If you do that, what is left that truly belongs only to you? Perhaps most importantly how will people respond? There is nothing more terrifying than exposing yourself and facing rejection, derision or worse apathy.

On the other side of the equation, we have all experienced a moment where someone crosses this line and "over shares." This usually happens with a person who you don't know very well, in a drunken moment, in a public setting and for some reason you can't escape. You just have to sit there and squirm.

Back to poetry. Yes, poetry itself can be a very personal and intimate art form. Unfortunately, poetry can also be a squirm worthy over share. There is certainly a fine line. These core poems in my book are definitely a step beyond my comfort level. They are risky. They express things that I don't talk about at all, with anyone, ever. What I hope is that the construction, the art of the words, the unique expression, earns the intimacy of the reader. I am naked here. Exposing the inner workings. Wish me luck.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Poetry and the Battle Against Cognitive Decline

11/10/2008

This is a risky thing to admit in a blog, but I am experiencing cognitive decline. Sounds melodramatic doesn't it? Unfortunately, this is one of the well-known side effects of chronic kidney disease and dialysis. I have to be honest. I am experiencing this daily. For example, I have found that my ability to concentrate has diminished. My memory is no longer as crisp as a cold Fuji apple. Sometimes specific words I am looking for vanish in a curl of vapor just before materializing on the tip of my tongue. The worst and most frustrating aspect is that my ability to make connections quickly is gone.

Think of it like this; imagine you are an excellent jazz pianist. You have internalized the music and instrument. When you play the music just flows from your fingertips. You easily touch ether without the burden of consciously calculating every note Now imagine you are forced to play with ski gloves. Not only would it blunt your speed and technique, but you would have to rethink nearly every single aspect of how you play.

That is how I feel. Often time for me poems would "appear," translate themselves from the invisible and appear on the page in just a few minutes. Now I find that a similar poem takes four or five hours to make its way to the page. In addition, when it arrives, it does not just need a little polish, everything is askew. It is not as if I missed a button on my shirt. It is more like the buttons are too large for the holes. It's damn defective. The meters all fucked up, god-awful cliches stare at me, and somehow the central threads of emotion are unraveled. This makes me unbelievably angry. Often times in the revisions poems take a much darker tone than I originally intended. I know this is not unique. I think back on other artists who have experience illness. It manifests itself in the work. How could it not?

What keeps me going? Pure stubbornness mixed with shot glass full of hope. I write poetry despite the frustrations because I simply must. What helps me play through the ski gloves is the fact that with a kidney transplant my cognitive ability could return. There is hope. Check it out.

http://www.transplantliving.org/community/news.aspx?id=1171

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pet Poetry?

Dead dogs do not good poetry make.

A few years ago, I was talking to an editor of a literary contest. He was moaning about the "quality" of entries. He told me that of the 800+ poems entered; at least 700 were about pets, or even worse, dead pets. Amazing, yes? I racked my memory. For the life of me, I could not think of a single good pet poem. Hell, I still can't. Other than rhyming couplets on roses, there is not a more painfully clich├ęd topic.

Now before you lynch me, I do love my dog. I know that people often care more for their furry friends than fleshy ones. I'm also sure there must be a perfectly good 'Eulogy for Pogo" or "Ode to Mr. Socks" out there. I bet there's even a famous one or two. However, the thought of reading an earnest pet tribute makes me cringe down to my chromosomes. As for contests; keep your pet poems on a tight leash at all times.

Stafford Inspires


I have been reading a wonderful book from the Poets on Poetry series, "William Stafford: Crossing Unmarked Snow, Further views on the Writer's Vocation" edited by Paul Merchand and Vincent Wixon. The book is a combination of Stafford's poetry and his thoughts on the writing process. Why should you care about Stafford and his thoughts on crafting poetry? It's very simple. In his lifetime, William Stafford authored over 20,000 poems. Of those poems, 6,000 were published. The sheer volume of his productivity is mind-boggling. Here's the most amazing part. Stafford didn't publish his first book of poetry until the age of 46.

Predictably, he has some very strong opinions on the process of writing poetry. Much of his advice concerns letting go of obsessive thoughts of quality, embracing the feeling of being lost instead of fearing it, and simply allowing the poems to come to you. I have to admit that I sometimes get wrapped around the "quality" axle. Many times I feel myself getting so tangled in expectations that everything becomes a slow grind. Here are a couple of quotes from the book that helped me "ungrip."

"A writer must write the bad poems in order to approach the good ones--finicky ways will dry up the sources."

"But this makes me think that if you write...the way I do, accepting what comes--then many of those poems will seem insignificant and they are insignificant even ludicrous and grotesque to those who have standards. I'm willing to look awkward when trying to catch the one that can't be caught, to stumble because of the inability of language to get from there to here. So, I don't feel protective of poems."

"Somewhere deep where we have no program--our next discovery lies."

I admit I have a personal connection to Stafford. In 1983 when I was 16 and first learning to write poetry, Stafford visited my high school in Salt Lake City. There were about 30 of us in the library to meet with him. He was very stately with Silver hair. He had such personal dignity and patience. He answered questions slowly, as if holding them in his mind and imaging them in three dimensions. This consideration and seriousness made me feel like a person of worth instead of a dumb ass teenager. He then read a few of his poems. I'll never forget one image about crossing his knife and fork before every meal as a silent protest against war. Imagine the trust he must have had in us to share this kind of thinking. It wasn't until much later in my life that I read he was a conscientious objector. Most importantly I was left with the knowledge that poetry has value beyond the smothering ether of black letters on white paper. Poetry lingers in the mind, often for a lifetime.
Here's a nice bio on Stafford:


http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=6496. You can also find links to some of his poems at that site.

Musing about Villanelles

I have been thinking about writing a villanelle. These poems are powered by two refrains that repeat strategically through the 19 lines. If written well, the refrains echo with new depth and layered meaning with each repetition. What the heck am I talking about? If you are not a traditionalist, you may recognize the form Dylan Thomas' juggernaut classic "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." Notice how the refrains (lines 1 and 3) repeat through the poem and close the final quatrain.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Do you have a favorite villanelle? Feel free to share. Here's a link to one that I admire. Felix Dennis's "White Vase."
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1513
It's a doozy about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun's last moments.

Have you written a villanelle? The meter tends to be pentameter, but I understand that this is completely up to the author. It seems to me the key is nailing the refrains. Any advice before I give it a try?