As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I have come to view poetry as a conversation. Twenty-some years ago, I viewed it as a monologue. I wrote all my worst poetry as an undergraduate, and part of the problem stemmed from the fact that I considered it my best. A mathematical principle may be in order here: A poet's ego is inversely proportional to the quality of his or her work. In those days, fueled perhaps by romantic visions of Mozart in the movie Amadeus, I convinced myself that a true genius didn't need to make revisions. I let everything tumble out in a single draft, jotting as fast as I could before the moment of inspiration passed. The result was, to quote a prose poem by Eric Morago, lots of "terrible, awful poetry -- shoeboxes full of folded, crumpled notebook paper that you can one day use for kindling when you're old enough to start a really good blaze."
I don't recall ever burning those old poems, but suffice to say that most of them no longer exist. Still, a few pieces rose at least to a level of competence, and I finally amassed enough to cobble them into a chapbook called Thief After Dark, which came out in 2002 from FarStarFire Press. (Amazon still lists the book, but notes that it has "limited availability" and asks, rather optimistically, "Have one to sell?") Of the 24 poems in Thief After Dark, I am still fond of about half a dozen, and when I scanned the table of contents the other day, I noticed a similarity among them: I had written most of them when I was least self-conscious. That's another way of saying that I was half-asleep. On the nightstand by my bed in the dorm, I kept a notepad and a pencil, in hopes that intuition would strike midway through the night. Wouldn't Mozart, at least in that movie, have done the same?
A few times, I did indeed wake up with an idea, scribble it down, and then fall back asleep. Among the fruits of that strategy was "Host," which appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder and is probably my favorite poem of those undergraduate years. It's a short piece -- most of my nocturnal ones were -- and consists of two rhyming sentences, each broken up by a long dash (a heightened pause) in the middle. The poem doesn't officially have a meter, but it settles into a casual rhythm when read aloud.
What intrigues me most (I say "intrigues" because I am so far removed from the 21-year-old who wrote it) is the premise. It's a vignette about a pair of nameless characters, and while plenty in the poem in unexplained, nothing is inexplicable. We can fill in the blanks. Starting with the monosyllabic title -- "Host" -- it's obvious that the poem is about a performer of sorts: a host, an entertainer, a provider of hospitality (or sanctuary?) to others. Before he passes the reefers out, / he checks himself in the mirror -- black jacket with the collar pressed, / hair parted, / skin like sand. Obviously, his appearance matters to him as much as the actual offering to his guests. As one who is adamantly not a junkie, I admit to knowing little about recreational drugs, but I've always thought of marijuana as a relatively cheap and easy substance to obtain. Why, then, is the host dressing up like Gatsby to dispense it? Perhaps he fancies himself providing a high to the beautiful people. We are all entitled to our fantasies.
When he tore the cuff link on his right, / he lit her cigarette with his left -- Now, another character enters the poem, obviously someone who arouses the host's desire to impress. Why does he not simply put on a new cuff link? Perhaps he doesn't have one. In any case, he carefully guards his image, keeping the imperfect side away from her eyes. ...knowing that when the hour was late, / she would never let herself be drugged / by a less than perfect hand. Would she really not, or is he projecting his own standards onto her? How many of us go out of our way to "impress others," when our real aim is to appease our own shaky confidence?
Who is this host, really: an undergraduate, a dealer, an underground playboy? Who are the other guests to whom he passes out reefers? Is he content with the woman simply adoring his hand? Questions about this poem abound. Please don't ask me to answer any of them. As noted above, I was barely awake when I wrote it.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.