Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 46, October 2014)

Brandon Downing

I’ve been turning back and forth on how I could come across as some impossibly cool and revelation-slinging cipher here, and somehow stand out among the august company of my fellow writers.

Most recently, I was going to talk about how so much published poetry feels as if it was created in a War Room – not in the crucible – and that the reader, dear reader, is the enemy, or some kind of opposite: but one that is to be sated rather than defeated. That the WAR is never fought but is certainly planned, with various colored pins arrayed across a strategic map, laying out the poem’s signals and strengths as a broad thrust or front. In my crap analogy, the campaign is one of balance. A delicious sense of ellipsis divides the battalions. Images separate the air troops from the ground forces, that sort of thing. The war ends in yawns but hopefully not discomfort! Such steeped ambivalence I set out to share with you.

This was the 35th idea that I have abandoned on this mission to reveal my prophetic and amazing perspectives.

It has always been terrifically difficult for me to write about process, about writing. Know why? I never wanted to be a poet. Ever. I was not torn up by the light of the idea at all. I was determined to be a linguist, then: a collagist. Then an amazing director of the cinema. Now, decades past determination of any kind, I frequently find myself around groups of people who would gladly, publicly reveal their occupation, their identity, as poets. This has always made me feel really uncomfortable. The surety of their love of the art from the earliest age. Phenomenal, demonstrable recall of verses (historic, their own, or their own), furious acquisitions of collections, all made louder in the bright night light of group settings. I’ve come of age, and gone past that age, in big cities, literary cities; and the discomfort with poetry as a public identity signifier (or cloak) runs through my past lives like a carbonized skewer. And so I never became a poet. I didn’t. I remain some torn up, half-abandoned mutt of it. Really, you just couldn’t graph my ascension towards this line of work. What do I say?

“How can saying you’re a poet be so easy to say?” I’ve thought when looking onto crowds of my giddy – and frequently awesome – contemporaries, the audiences of us around us. In New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or at the damn conferences they have for eager writers, I’ll sometimes look around me at 100, 200, 500 people – total hordes – of which easily 95% would absolutely say of themselves, first above all things, that they’re poets. Yes, sure, some of this is straight numbers and flow, stemming from the whole MFA factory farm complex that Marjorie Perloff, and, shit, just about everybody else, has been complaining about in essays about 2-5 decades. And I’m going to sound like probably 600 other cranks when I say it, but, god people, quit using that word so freely. Poet. Poem. See, this is my angle. Poetry is punishing and just below impossible. And I’m not talking how people will laugh at you if you claim the mantle for yourself (real people, not poetry people). A poem is heavy, it’s incredibly private, it’s a noiseless emission of a ferocious impact. I hear one and I look around and I don’t know where I am, I can’t remember who I’m with, and my clothing feels scratchy and wrong.

I probably hear about 100+ public readings of poetry each year. Last year, at those 100+ readings, I heard about five or six poems. I heard alot of poetry collapsed out of other poetry. But those aren’t really poems, dude.

Should I say that the real poem is some sort of white-hot phosphor of sound that burns all associations that came before it, while punking all that follows? I am saying that. I know, I sound like a doofus, but for me it is one big true thing. I came to poems because of the way that language feels as the active earth-layer for me. The surface, the home of erosion, not some hot, staid, well-funded core. Now I have always been able to cut and splice music, the sciences, movies, even words. That’s my jam, my body efficiency, just go look at what I make. Only speech, at its barest, has seemed like something that is impossible, or nearly so, to split apart into freestanding, new wholes. That’s why I’m here, at the reading. Language is some seriously irreducible shit. I can’t say I’m a poet, because I can’t always deal with the activity the poem delivers onto me. I have to take it in sips because it stomps on me so hard, and I get freaked and have to go read scientific treatises and cool my breathing down etc.

When the word-mind is really activated, hotted up, when the steam of saying, and the images behind the images, start to wall up in the mind and scrape it:

when by some combination of mangled idea, misheard word, hot fume; by a bad thought, brief nap, slick hallucination, or faceplant; by means of simple, gross-out collision...

I get a lucky look in between this indivisible speech, and see all those electrons cooking and hurrying in the opened breach, see the GAMMA FORCE behind the willful signifiers! Oh shit, I always think, this fucking god does not play around. I’m hit, hit, hit, hit, by it. I have to write it down somehow, and surround it with words that can absorb it. The atom’s been cut, and the mess slipped into me.

Would you believe it. I have seen a glimpse of the poem. I have to transfer it over the the other side. To waking life. For my own sake. I have to give it to somebody to read. It needs to make some sense. I’m ready to work. Though I am consistently left SUPER INTROSPECTIVE and VERY REMORSEFUL by this dazzling activity.