Writers on Writing #112: Chad Parmenter
Letting the Perfect Poem Go
For a long time, and still sometimes today, I get an image and a narrative of what writing looks like, that has a lot of staring, a vicious level of frustration, and a kind of titanic inward shudder that leads to a single, perfect sentence. Then, the writer masochistic enough to do that several thousand more times can end up with a set of “great” books. He or she might even loathe most of them, and leave just one for everyone else, maybe tastefully post-mortem. The key, mostly, is that relentless, painful focus on the single text, the book that must be written and can’t let anything else happen until it does, and involves, also, delving for truth, because that’s a big deal. It might be a Modernist image with Romantic roots, or it might just go back to some hair shirt vision of things that I keep getting, and getting to let go.
Some writers seem to work best when immersed in a single project, and I don’t seem to be one of them. When I started in SIU-Carbondale’s MFA program, Rodney Jones told me, “I like to keep a number of canvases wet,” and some version of the caricature in the first paragraph came to mind, along with a strong feeling of “well, I’m not going to be that kind of writer.” Along with that came some resolve to find the project, really probably the single poem, that would rate all of my attention for an admirable amount of time, and vanish into it as completely as I could. The problem was in trying to make that happen, while drafting sonnets and other exercise poems that were supposed to lead right there, giving shape to that thing--but them not wanting to go there, diverging in every conceivable direction and mostly ones that I couldn’t conceive, pointing toward tremendous possibility instead of reducing things to just one.
At that point, I was walking to the campus bookstore and buying brown paper journals with corrugated covers, then heading back to the little apartment at the back of a house that looked out on a back yard where the grass kept growing long, and the back yard next door held a white camper that someone had set on concrete foundations, while also nursing my dear, pet cat that I had never been able to name anything but Buddy, through his last days. Pursuing that single poem, that looked like it might never come, now that I look back, came from a numbing and understandable kind of drive to not look at how fast everything was changing for me, that he showed me most of all. He mostly slept, couldn’t keep much down, and moved gently, delicately, from the linoleum in the kitchen to the carpet in the bedroom, while his spine, under my hand when I’d pet him, served as the reminder that he’d lost a lot of weight. But I was there to write. Wasn’t I?
It also seemed like the stacks of books of poems that I checked out from the library presented me with relentless evidence of that single-minded labor, and my mind presented guilt that I wasn’t getting there, as if the fact that they had been printed in a book showed that a series of people, starting with the poet, had carefully assessed the hours of labor, level of inspiration, and elements in the poems themselves until an invisible, giant set of rules had been fulfilled, propelling it into Print. And what I kept getting, as a writer, was more of that sense of enormous possibility that seemed like a sin somehow, a way of avoiding The Calling---that a dozen poems might not only show a dozen different approaches to poetry, but many more within those, and the simple fact of not knowing what was going to come in the next line. A picture I have from that semester shows the dictionary of poetry terms that I read, its laminated cover worn tan, and Buddy helping me read by planting himself in my lap, all showing the beauty in that endless possibility---but wasn’t it frightening?
And where was he going, this friend of mine, after he left our life? Did he have a soul? Would it head somewhere else? By the time he did, in my second year of the MFA, I had what felt like a zillion starts in different directions, with a few different drafts that looked finished in some ways, at least presentable in workshop, but this fearful sense, under all of that, that each of those different approaches, using different techniques and influences, taking on topics that morphed into characters and pointed toward feelings I hadn’t expected to run into, each also pointing toward more possibilities. And heading in their directions, as many as possible, didn’t mean mounting lots of different forms of grim determination; it meant what my reacting to his passing also meant, opening up, breathing as deep as possible, and letting go, and letting go, and letting go of whatever my fearful mind said had to be next.
That’s how I found the parts of him that stay with me today, and how writing seems to happen most joyfully and adventurously for me today. Still with no full length book of poems out, instead I seem to have a zillion different, wonderfully fun tries at different things, including a few possible manuscripts, one 10,000 line epic in heroic couplets that came from who knows where, a bunch of play drafts, fiction pieces, nonfiction pieces, interviews, translations, and even a script for a comic book miniseries. And photos, and music. A lot of people help, and there’s lots of effort, but at least part of that effort is letting that crusty, fearful ideal go repeatedly, of that monolithic poem that just never did exist, and finding, with all of that help, a thread in the writing that leads me free of expectations, and points, like my Buddy did and continues to, at that blessed, endless kind of space of not knowing what’s next, and breathing it in.
Chad Parmenter's poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazyhorse. His chapbook, Weston's Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo's Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published last November.