Poetry for Southern California
Frankie Drayus Guest Editorial
by Frankie Drayus
Why do I write? Why does anyone write?
I write in order to have what I call “the conversation”— to create an exchange with my reader, even if I’ll never meet her. I try to leave enough space in my work for this unknown other to answer. I do the same with other people’s written art— I listen, and then I answer. Then perhaps I ask them something, too.
I used to think that everyone else wrote for the same reason, all of us carefully folding and sliding our little messages into little bottles and dropping them into the water from the islands where we’d marooned ourselves. But I have since learned that this is not the case. When I was teaching undergrads, I discovered that most of them had no idea why they wrote. They were simply compelled. When I asked, one young woman told me, “Because I have something to say?” She said like it was a question, as if she thought I was searching for The Right Answer when really all I was searching for was her answer. Your answer.
Why do you write? Surely you have been asked this question countless times. You may even have a convincing answer, a memorized thing you tell people so that they will be satisfied and leave you alone. But what about your real answer, your secret answer?
When I ask this question to older people— adults in their 70’s and 80’s – the answer changes yet again. Often, they write not only to remember but to be remembered. They know things no one else knows, and they want to pass these memories along while they still can, like the old man in W. S. Merwin’s poem, “Authority.”
“At the beginning the oldest man sat on the corner
of the garden wall by the road under a vast
walnut tree known to have been there always
he came back in the afternoon to the cave of shade
in his broad black hat black jacket the striped gray
wool trousers once worn only to church in winter
with a cane on either side resting against the stones
he said when your legs have gone all you can do
is to sit this way and be useless I believe God
has forgotten me but I think and I remember
he said that is what I am doing I am thinking
and things come to me now when nobody else knows…”
He thinks and he remembers. There is probably no one else left in his village who remembers when the walnut tree was there but he was not under it; he and the tree are both taken for granted, and so is their permanence. But he knows better. Similarly, the older people in my workshop are very aware of the history they contain— that whatever stays inside them will eventually die with them, so they have to get it out. There is an urgency to their telling.
Sometime I write because I am in the grip of the Muse, by which I mean that voice who speaks me out of a sound sleep and makes me reach for the pile of paper beneath the pen next to my side of the bed while I flail around for the light. These are the lucky times, the times when I’m called, even when that voice makes me trip in the dark or run dripping from the shower to quickly find something to get the words down before they disappear down the drain.
I can’t imagine what it would be like not to know this voice. Those who have never heard it must think the rest of us are crazy. Those who listen for it and are occasionally rewarded— we know what the others are missing. Certainly I’ve encountered people who seem quite threatened when I broach this subject. They look at me like I have something contagious and they wish to move away. But I’ve always been sure that those who remain unvisited have dull, empty lives.
A life without compulsion— how awful to never be led to create something, anything—a poem, a painting, a piece of music— what is it like to never be seduced in this way? Because that is what it is— seduction. It’s the act of leading, the act of being led. The fact that one is being led towards art makes the act of giving in no less relevant.
Some writers confess they find the act of creation painful, difficult— they go so far as to say they hate it. Even so, I can’t believe they would ever trade it for a silent life, a life without that voice, a life that never yanked them from their beds to sketch out an idea, to write a fully formed line that magically appeared from that nowhere that must be somewhere. Repeatedly I hear that writing is a lonely life. But being without it is the loneliest thing I can imagine.
I do not think that the opposite of writing is “peace”— I do not think my life would be less troubled were it undisturbed by the Muse. But perhaps I have a more positive relationship with disturbance than most. To me, disturbance means I’ve been moved, touched, transformed by something or someone. It means I’m alive.
And so I make a daily practice of coming to the table, of moving my hand over the page. I try to be ready in case the voice calls. Is it inconvenient when I spend all morning being ready and the voice waits instead until I’m speeding down the freeway late for something at 85 mph? Yes. But you can’t say, “Come back later – I’m busy right now,” to the voice. When the voice has something to say, I listen. I try to get it all down.
Why do you write, then?
There are many answers. Sometimes I write into a question. It helps me to understand, or it least it gives me the opportunity to try and understand. Some write in order to be understood. Some in order to survive.
Nazim Hikmet writes in “Letters from Chankiri Prison, 12
(from Section 5)
But not sad.
This privilege is reserved for us:
on winter days in prison,
and not just in prison
but in the big world
to be cold
but not sad…”
Hikmet is also having “the conversation” in much of his work. In this case it is literally of the message-in-the-bottle variety— each of these poems contains the subtext: I am here, I am in prison, your life goes on outside and the world turns but even so, do not forget me.
Sometimes we write to anyone in the world, and sometimes it is directly to a specific other, as in Hikmet’s poem “On Death Again”:
…Whoever dies first,
and wherever we die,
you and I
can say we loved
and the people’s greatest cause
— we fought for it—
we can say
Poetry is sometimes a matter of life and death. And I don’t say this to be melodramatic. I say it to be truthful. You are probably thinking of at least five other “poets of witness” I neglected to mention along with Hikmet. Yes.
Sometimes we write in order to find hope for ourselves, or to give hope to others. We write in order to give voice to those who have no more words because they have been silenced by fear, or other more direct physical means.
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent
seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in
Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing
behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of
course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started
out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper
(everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had been her face.
—Leningrad, 1 April 1957
(from “Instead of a Preface” in “Requiem 1935-1940” by Anna Akhmatova, trans. by Stanley Kunitz)
We write in order to remain. To escape. To remember. To forget. To tell. To have a conversation. To mourn. To laugh and loaf and celebrate. It’s a surprising basket of contradictions, but since they are all about the saying, they are perhaps not contradictory at all. In fact every single one of these answers seems to be about speaking something into existence.
Why does anyone write? “…to jostle cozy notions and wake us up to what we’ve never known,” in the words of Alice Fulton. To shock us. To give us comfort. To exert power and make the sun set. Make the sun rise. Start a revolution. To make language do what it hasn’t done before. To support convention. To break with convention. To write an “autobiography” which is supposedly by your lover who is writing all about you, which couldn’t be done until it was and now, well, it has been, Gertrude. To investigate sound and meaning. To look for boundaries. To ignore boundaries. To change one’s identity. To discover one’s Self.
Because Art imitates Life. Because Life imitates Art. Because imitation is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery, and sincerity has no substitute. Sincerely, I ask you, why do you write?
Sometimes the intent is very simple, as in Frost’s “The Pasture.” The speaker says, “I sha’n’t be gone long.— You come too.” That dash means everything to me. It’s the poet extending his hand, inviting me in. It’s a different way of having the conversation. It says: Here is a door. I am holding it open for you. Please come in—
Why do you write? Tell me. I’m listening.
You can find the full text of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Authority” in his book, The Vixen, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1996. There’s a very pretty paperback version available since 2002.
Both Nazim Hikmet poems are found in the same volume, Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, with a foreword by Carolyn Forché, from Persea Books. The introduction by Mutlu Konuk contains a lot of astonishing information about his life.
The Anna Akhmatova excerpt comes from the beginning of her long poem, “Requiem 1935-1940” and I quoted from the Stanley Kunitz translation found in the book Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, from Houghton Mifflin. It is in both Russian and English on facing pages.
You can find the Robert Frost poem, “The Pasture,” everywhere at this point, but I have it in The Poetry of Robert Frost (all eleven of his books—complete) from Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It’s one of the first books of poems I ever bought with my own money, back when I was around fourteen.
The Alice Fulton quote comes from her essay “To Organize a Waterfall,” found in her book of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, published in 1999 by Graywolf.
Poems and short stories by Frankie Drayus have appeared in Ninth Letter, diode, Third Coast, Boxcar Poetry Review, Per Contra, Poemeleon and Barrow Street. Her manuscript was a runner-up for Marsh Hawk Press and a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award. She is a past poetry editor of Washington Square and completed her MFA at NYU. She lives in Los Angeles, where she was recently Poet in Residence at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center. She co-curates The Third Area: Poetry @ PHARMAKA, a monthly reading series in a downtown LA art gallery.