Today, I did a very strange thing, which I’m not sure has ever happened—if it has, then by accident…let’s chalk it up to the imminent calendar flip here in a few hours. I’ve been superstitious about how I spend NYE for as long as I can remember—probably since my early twenties. It’s the one superstition that always pans out for me exactly as advertised. The way you ring in the new year is the way that year will go. The last time I didn’t heed my own advice a couple of years ago today, man. For those of you who are familiar with the ol’ Rider-Waite, it was one long, slow Tower from, I kid you not, Jan 1 to Dec 31. So, y’know. Last year around this time, I stayed home and lit candles and popped a bottle and ate fudge and gave thanks for having made it another lap around the sun and watched cartoons. This year, I was home again, on an uncharacteristically balmy if drizzly winter day, leafing through my books. Not out of any sense of hubris, mind you, but it felt like I was looking for something specific that I’d recognize once I saw it.
But seeing them all together like that…poetry collections, poetry anthologies, a book of writing exercises, a journal I edited for six years…you know what never gets old for a writer? Seeing your name in print. You know what else never gets old? Knowing that somewhere in the world, someone has quite literally picked up what you’ve put down.
That said, working my way back through time—I mean, it literally felt like I’d found a cadre of time capsules, because with the exceptions of the most recent few, I don’t read out of those anymore—I grinned and cringed and became very somber and not gonna lie, there were more than a few tears. The one thing I can say for doing one’s best to occupy the Eternal Present, is that you don’t often think about the past. Technically, you have that person’s memories, but you don’t really identify anymore with who you used to be. Works wonders for momentum when taking not-so-low-threshold entry risks. Working my way through, I was slammed by a lot of backlogged emotions—things I’d forgotten I’d said or even cared about. People I am no longer in love with or even talk to anymore—some of those same people I thought at the time of those books’ publication dates, we’d all grow old together and sit on the porch and hold hands and drink spiked tea and watch the neighborhood kids play. No longer an option for me and a lot of those folks. Too many, perhaps. It’s sort of morose, nostalgic moments like those, I take great comfort in this particular Alan Watts gem:
“It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it's dense, isn't it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you're a complicated human being.”
As I’ve grown as a writer and a person, particularly in recent years when the goodbyes have been more often unceremonious than not, where the closure just won’t come, where forgiveness has generally been a one-sided act (as in forgiving myself for letting a scenario drag on too long), eschewing victim mentality and not taking splits and setbacks so personally, takes practice. And even though at this point, as evidenced by too many poems filled with so much regret, mine is a kintsugi heart. So, y’know. Poetry is cheaper than therapy, I suppose. And artistic expression exists because better out than in. Left alone, grief will fester and swallow you from the inside. So, I try to think about those people and those versions of me that wrote those poems, who felt those moments so, so deeply—whatever I was obsessed with at the time—as a kind of intellectual enterprise. In theory, it shouldn’t have felt any more awkward than assessing a piece of taxidermy.
The hardest collection to make it through was the first one. Oof. A lot of cringing there. I got it picked up by a Kentucky press in 2008 and it came out in 2010. I will stand by the poems from my first book until the day I die because at the time, I thought they were my best thing, raw as they were. You have to start somewhere. And now this collection is my best thing. The covers feel kind of similar, though, right? Beyond the fact that the one on the left is my face and the one on the right is my own drawing—a version of kinda how I look in my head. I don’t know that that choice was on purpose. But while they’re both still veiled and bedazzled women, the only difference, perhaps, is in the first collection, Kaffir Lily, that woman was still trying to keep some distance between herself and All Of It. That woman collapsed in on herself for a long time. But in this collection, Black Mermaid, she’s outstretched and bare and whole, reaching up towards the surface of whatever void she finds herself adrift in at the time.
But it wasn’t until I found a bag full of old playbills from high-school theater and very elaborate notes swapped between classes with my then best friend, that I think I got a little bit closer to what I was looking for. Six year prior to that first official collection where a press outside of my house vouched for my work, I found a faded copy of the book I put together back in 2002. I hadn’t even graduated undergrad yet. Eighty-five pages of poems and stories dedicated to my crushes and friends, shapeshifters all. Believe it or not, I think it was better stuff than what came out in KL. It also felt more sincere although the attention to craft wasn’t yet there. It read like I wasn’t trying so hard. I was writing for the sheer joy of writing and for the even sheerer joy of sharing what I wrote by dedicating poem after poem to places and people who had moved me. Quite suddenly, without warning, I remembered being her for the first time in maybe ten years. Without knowing it, that was my true beginning as a writer. Someone who took her voice into her own hands just because it felt good, not because some journal or anthology solicited it or I was trying to win a contest.
It’s weird. I was thrust so intensely back to those packed open mics in coffeehouses and bakeries and bars and low-lit basements where we all just collided there together like solar-system formation, I remembered the sounds, the smells, the sensation of holding hands with best friends and clinking glasses with strangers, ink-splotches and all, and the urgency to capture it all as fast as possible before the glamour fell away.
Those moments are increasingly rare for me now, particularly in mixed company. Back then, I didn’t know how drastically it would all change. How serious and somber an affair writing poems would become. I never knew then how I would be obliged to write a CV or interview for a teaching gig or build an audience through social media (there was no such thing then) or take myself so seriously because it was this thing I just did the way our organs just do what they do. It may have not been snatched up by some shmancy press (mostly because I didn’t even know that was an option to me then—as far as I knew, you just printed up as much work as you could afford, and you were paid with whatever crinkled bills someone had in their fist). But I found the first clue in a long time in that little book of something very pertinent to why I continue to do what I do that I think I’ve misplaced along the way—not unlike Toodles in Hook who legit lost his marbles, lol. But here it is, to be summed up again with more eloquence than I’ve got to spare at the moment, by your boy, Alan Wilson Watts, Capricorn:
“I have always done things in my own way, which is at once the way that comes naturally to me, that is honest, sincere, genuine, and unforced; but also perverse, although you must remember that this word means per (through) verse (poetry), out-of-the-way and wayward, which is surely towards the way, and that to be queer—to "follow your own weird"—is wholeheartedly to accept your karma, or fate, or destiny, and thus to be odd in the service of God, "whose service," as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer declares, "is perfect freedom."