Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 47, November 2014)

Jennifer Firestone
Notes of Ambivalence

Poetry, and I do say this seriously, has saved my life. Poetry offered me a space in which to live and keep living, a space in which to say things I wanted to say and couldn’t in other places. It provides a forum and format for me to think through ideas in ways that other modes don’t offer. While the act of writing can be problematic given that the tools that we write with (the inherited words, grammar, syntax, etc.) and the world and my position in it, are limited, I nonetheless feel more agency while writing. When I write I’m able to sort and organize, though not resolve, numerous personal, social, and political concerns. I’m able to mediate between the internal and external. The poetic process is exploratory; it is about engaging experiences in the world. The world is nuanced and strange and I feel strange in it—this condition is my material and my approach.

As I’m writing this I see just beyond my balcony a bright red cardinal. I’m aware of my attention to it and I’m curious what would happen if I transferred my observations to the page. Would I slip into invoking exhausted modifications that conjure beloved and pedestaled ideals? Would writing “bird” or “cardinal” be sufficient? Would writing anything at all bring me closer to the knowing or awareness of this bird, or would “bird” not be part of the material? And I’ve come to collecting bird relics. Is this attention more about the relics or is it more about the living animal? Will I take some symbolic leap in analyzing this? Should I turn to ecologists, naturalists, ancient art and fables and folktales to collectively discuss my “bird thoughts” and to entertain my affinity for documentary and investigative techniques? Writing is self-conscious. “I” along with everything is subject to critique. My thinking/writing is an attempt to examine and engage not only my personal concerns but larger social structures, cultural habits, and ideologies. It is a place that is far from static; the dust never settles and all is not status quo.

Another frame I’ve been considering is a poetics of ambivalence. I shrink from labels, which frequently arise from the anxiety of being nameless and therefore being deemed invisible. I am wary of “types” and self-assured convictions. My work provides a space in which to air my ambivalence, and I am not associating ambivalence with a mealy-mouthed, weak-minded or boneless position. Quite the opposite; I mean ambivalence as a strength—as a sustained critique and investigation of simultaneous conflicting ideas and an admission that the world is an extremely complex place and therefore difficult to discern and digest. I’m suggesting that ambivalence is something that invites a process-oriented approach where one’s thinking, concerns, and unresolved ideas are transparent. This path involves bravery, fear, and humility—particularly when squeezed into a society that favors certitude. I appreciate the wandering space of poems where being unsure and questioning is not understood as diminished or threatening.

In presenting my work as idea- or thought-based I realize something remains amiss. In fact, much of the time my writing opposes this approach. I’ve always been drawn to sounds. I have acute hearing—I can latch onto a soft buzzing in a building space. I could not listen to music while I work or I would be too distracted. Oftentimes words strike me as purely sonic expressions. I say them repeatedly in my head and sense them as textures bleeding out. They begin to collaborate, corroborate and often disintegrate as they stream on to the page. It is often sounds that lead me to the poem that’s being constructed. To be able to have sound as content—or if not sound, the visual, the way words, lines, and space can architecturally inhabit a page—is what interests me.

Poetry is a form of pedagogy. When I say this I’m not visualizing myself as the teacher to an audience of students. In fact, “audience” through that lens would be crippling. I imagine a more dialogical model where conversations develop in the reading process between the reader and me, the reader and the poem or any of the above. This brings us to questions of clarity and accessibility, issues my poetry students constantly struggle with as they swing between being too overt and obvious or being too convoluted and hermetic. I am not enamored of work that is ostentatiously “smart” or purposefully obfuscates itself for fear of doing otherwise. But I respect work that is elliptical or cloudy because it is integral to the poem. In essence, I respect work that is innovative, willing to take a shaky step on to destabilizing ground instead of merely recycling conventions. I am pleased when writers can overcome their own narcissism and reveal an assemblage of varying ideas and voices. I’m more than pleased when a poem can artfully take a crack at hegemony. But I think we should keep in mind that, despite our beliefs and aesthetics, the poem might have its own willful trajectory, pushing to the surface, wrangling for air.