It started as little love notes in elementary school. Possibly out of boredom; perhaps because I wasn’t diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder until I was nearly twenty-one years old; or, perhaps from an utter fascination with the female form.
Anyways, while the teacher was going about his or her teacher duties, I would doodle in my notebook, or compose little poems to the girls in the class, or I would stare out of the barred windows waiting for recess. I had not thought of the precise time period when I began writing or wven why I began until I read Georges Perec’s novel W, or The Memory off Childhood. He wrote: “The idea of writing the story of my past arose at almost the same time as the idea of writing” (26).
Now back to elementary school in Detroit, Michigan. While the teacher was guiding the other attentive children through our Hooked on Phonics books, I’d sit silently with pencil and paper writing love notes to the beautiful Mexican, Black, Asian and Indian girls. I didn’t care what language they spoke but knew holding hands and kissing cheeks was universal.
I remember writing love notes to Mariana—whose long dark hair feel across her smooth, tanned face. The sound of her name was a poem in itself—Mariana. Say it out loud. I’ll wait.
After I wrote the poem, I’d place it in my pocket—anxious to givfe it to her. Throughout the class, I would open and close, open and close the note to see if what I’d written was right.
That anxiety, I realize, was my first practice with revision.
I was trying to communicate something, whatever it was I’m not sure of. To this day, when I write, I am still attempting to communicate something with my poems.
That idea of trying to reach someone with my words, like a little love letter, is still helpful. The best poems I’ve composed I was attempting to do just that. Ted Kooser’s idea of the ‘imaginary reader’ has been helpful throughout my poetry:
I recommend that when you sit down to write you have in mind an imaginary reader, some person you’d like to reacher with your words. […]. The more real your imaginary reader seems to you, the easier it becomes to shape a poem that might reach through to that person. If you keep the shadow of that reader—like a whiff of perfume—in the room where you write, you’ll be a better writer.
[…]. The important thing is to have a sense of the person for whom you are writing and address your work to that person (The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, 20).
I thought of that advice the other day while I was in my backyard drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and reading W.S. Merwin’s translation of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.
While reading that collection I was thinking of my friend whose birthday was coming up and how difficult it was for me to find a present for her. I was looking at the trees that I do not know the names of in my yard. I figured she’d be able to tell me. And I was staring at the roses which were drooping towards the grass and then I wrote this poem for her. The title is quite clever.
To a Friend on Her Birthday
I’ve searched and searched
for the right present for you—
I’ve asked the birds to sing
a different tune for you
I begged the roses and lilies and orchids
to wake from their sleep
but they continue to mourn
the ones lost in recent floods
—so they won’t do
as these words won’t come out
of the clouds
now that I’ve tried making them
into an endless necklace
of stones and flowers
but the colors and weight were off
—I tried to form
tho it seems I’ve forgotten
how to weave them
into something simple
—something light for you
to wear & warm yer white wrists
as the sun
After I revised the initial draft a few times and felt I said what I felt, I wrote it in a card for her. The card design was nearly the personification of her; it had an antique and modern touch to it. I put the card in a matching envelope, sealed it, and gave it to her at work.
She read it and her reaction ‘made me feel all fuzzy inside.’ She nearly choked up and couldn’t keep from smiling. And seeing that smile, I couldn’t keep from smiling. I thought to myself, I wish every poem I wrote evoked that same reaction.
In the poem, I let nature reflect the feelings I have for her. I wanted the images and associations to leap around the page, as Robert Bly wrote in Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations:
[…] [A] great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around the magnet. […]. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem. A poet who is “leaping” makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance (4).
In the poem, the feelings I have are the unconscious substance as they are not stated directly and they jump to objects that are in a physical substance, such as the sun and flowers and stones and clouds and birds.
But I went off-track.
Often in everyday interactions with friends and family and so on, I have trouble spitting out the things I want to say or things I’m feeling; for me, poetry is the most effective means for communication. This problem has affected me as long as I can recall.
This inability to communicate is most likely linked to a lifetime of high-anxiety and ADHD and being taught as a young boy: Don’t speak unless spoken to.
There’s also too many things running through my mind. It seems as though my mouth has thrown in the towel trying to keep up.
Anyways, I was senior in high school when I began my ‘serious’ writing.
One day—in spring or the beginning of summer, I can’t remember when, but it’s not important, what’s important is what happened on that one day—a local poet who also happens to be an undertaker in a neighboring town came to talk to my creative writing class and read a few poems.
His name’s Thomas Lynch.
He read the poem “Grimalkin” from his collection Still Life in Milford (Norton, 1998) which changed my future right there. The poem influenced me to become a poet. Here it is. Get ready. Well, a piece of it.
One of these days she will lie there and be dead.
I’ll take her out back in a garbage bag
and bury her among my sons’ canaries,
the ill-fated turtles, a pair of angelfish:
the tragic and mannerly household pests
that had the better sense to take their leaves
before their welcomes or my patience had worn thin.
For twelve long years I’ve suffered this damned cat
while Mike, my darling middle son, himself
twelve years coming this May, has grown into
the tender if quick-tempered manchild
his breeding blessed and cursed him to become.
And only his affection keeps this cat alive
though more than once I’ve threatened violence—
the brick and burlap in the river recompense
for mounds of furballs littering the house,
choking the vacuum cleaner, or what’s worse:
shit in the closets, piss in the planters, mice
that winter indoors safely as she sleeps
curled about a table leg, vigilant
as any knickknack in a partial coma.
The poem has one of the best first lines I had ever heard. The poem’s packed with humor as well as a sweetness to it. And I wanted to write poems such as ‘Grimalkin.’
The first serious poem I published was after W.C. Williams’ poem ‘This is Just to Say.’ I wrote it after an argument with a girlfriend. This is my apology poem to her. It’s titled after the Williams poem.
This is Just to Say
This is just to say
I’m sorry I took so long
to get to your house.
I figured I would take
half an hour tops
doing the usual—
showering, scrubbing, shaving,
and all that good stuff.
Once I got out of the shower
I stared at myself in the mirror, naked…
Let’s just say
I didn’t enjoy what I was looking at
and assumed you wouldn’t either.
The hair would have to go.
So I started
the terribly time consuming task
of getting rid of all that hair.
Making my balls
as smooth as eggs
just the way you like them.
The online literary magazine that published the poem is, appropriately named, Origami Condom.
But let’s go back to my poem ‘To a Friend on Her Birthday.’ I had been reading a lot of Neruda and his influence on this poem is throughout it—as his poetry has left an indelible mark upon my own and continues to creep into my poetry, as well as other influences. Christina Garcia wrote a wonderful description of Neruda’s style in the introduction to Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:
It is the combination of the sensory and the natural, the subjective and the eternal, the instinctual and the commonly transcendent (coupled with a fierce anti-intellectualism) that distinguishes Neruda’s poetry from that of his contemporaries. He finds the glorious in the ordinary, transforming it, simply and forcefully […] (x).
That’s exactly what I hope to achieve through my art, and perhaps once I’ve felt as if I’ve come close to it.
I apologize. I got distracted. It happens often and I cannot help it. I’ve learned to live with the distractions and, once in a while, even to welcome them.
Let’s return to why I write.
Besides wanting to communicate something, the reasons why I write and why I’m writing this are extremely simple. I mean it’s terribly simple and not poetic; I write because I enjoy it.
I enjoy every part of it. The feeling of the chair supporting my ass so well while I have been sitting here for the good part of two hours. The feeling of my favorite pen between my fingers, scribbling across my notebook. (Yes, I have a favorite pen. It’s a BIC Atlantis. I refuse to write anything without one. And yes, I create all my drafts in pen, and then transfer it to the laptop and then print it and then I revise it in pen and then transfer it back to the laptop over and over again until I’m satisfied or tired. Also, I handwrite all my poems because with all the recent technological advancements, a computer is very difficult for a writer who has ADHD to deal with.) At this very moment, at two-forty-five in the morning in White Lake, Michigan, I even enjoy my forearm resting on top of the kitchen table as I’m writing this. It’s so comfortable. I haven’t moved it in twenty minutes.
I enjoy the shitty first drafts, even the shitty final drafts. I especially enjoy the poems that come out exactly how I wanted them to—perhaps you noticed me patting myself on the back for ‘To a Friend on Her Birthday.’
I suppose you may be a little disappointed with my explanation of why I write. I’m sorry. I forgot to use the lofty, poetic claims other writers make which piss me off.
It’s entirely irritating picking up the latest issue of Poets & Writers and have the bold type-face WHY WE WRITE smack me in the beard with interest. I thought, Hey, this could be interesting. But, as I just disappointed you a moment ago, I was mistaken. It was awful. Read part of Joyce Thomas’s article “The Word in the World” and you will experience that same disappointment as I did:
I like to tell my students that only the letter l—that bare alphabetic Maypole—separates word from world. I remind them (or, more often these days, tell them) how, in the first chapter of Genesis, God’s voice literally conjures the cosmos, that string of “Let there be” imperatives summoning from nothing the light and firmament and seas, the sun and moon and stars, the Earth and all the creatures upon it. How God’s voice crafts something out of nothing, how it transforms chaos into design, into meaning.
That first creation is replicated as we acquire words, those bite-size morsels that fit so well upon one’s tongue, each new morsel, each acquired word another piece of the world. […]. Each word enlarges and focuses our vision; by means of it, one sees more, sees better.
I write because writing helps me bring life into clearer focus and gives shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards […].
Writing enables me to take back the world as cosmos, a world with a pattern and, perhaps, a purpose. By writing, I better see those things that cause my heart to gladden (32).
I won’t judge you if you stopped reading.
You see why I despise those dull, grandiose claims? Yes. I bet you do.
In my poetry, I do not try to order the world. The world, as I see it, will never be in order and attempting to do such a thing is too much pressure on a poet. I mean it’s too much pressure on me. I will not stop anyone who wishes to do so, or has the time to do so. But I have neither the time nor patience nor savings to do so. I also do not have the attention span required for such a job.
The lack of attention span is what makes poetry and writing poetry extremely attractive. In the past six years, I cannot recall a time when a poem of mine exceeded three pages (though I am currently working on a poem that’s nearly 11 pages—which with later revisions and reworking and rewording will most likely turn out to be about three). And that’s why I cannot write short stories. And I also don’t like writing in prose. For me, the only interesting thing in prose is “rose.” Writing prose requires too much of a commitment. It’s too involved. I like to get in and get out.
I write of commonplace things, of things found in nature and so on. Raymond Carver’s essay “On Writing” from his collection Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (Vintage, 1983) has influenced me since the day I read it in David James’s creative writing class at Oakland Community College.
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power (15).
I’ll let that soak in. While that soaks in, here’s a six line poem I wrote a couple years ago which appears in Michigan State University’s literary journal The Offbeat vol. 10.
A woman reading my poems
has a slight smile on her face
staring down at the page.
Her hair (long, dark brown)
grazes one of my poems.
I close my eyes,
imagine it falling on my face.
Perhaps you’re able to tell I do not like to confuse whoever reads my poetry. As I said, poetry is communication. When another writer confuses me again and again, I eventually get frustrated and stop reading. I absolutely and completely hate tricks. Perhaps you noticed that the poem’s I’ve mentioned in this essay do not contain any such things. I really hate tricks. Of course, throughout my poetry, I use poetic devices (since I’m writing poetry) but I never use those devices, or want to use them, to alienate the reader.
Pablo Neruda was asked in an interview for the Paris Review in 1971: “What do the dove and guitar signify?” and Neruda replies: “The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.” And then he elaborates for the interviewer: “When I see a dove, I call it a dove. The dove, whether it is present or not, has a form for me, either subjectively or objectively—but it doesn’t go beyond being a dove” (173).
But back to my writing. Of course I write because there’s a deep joy in it. But there’s also frustration and pain.
When the words aren’t doing what I want them to, I become depressed. But it’s not such a deep depression since I don’t do it for the money. I knew from the beginning that there’s no money in poetry.
I don’t write expecting to be able to live off my work, and talking about poetry and literature. I’m no Billy Collins. Of course, you noticed that. The first thing that separates Billy Collins and I is our names; my name is John Farmer. Two; I am thirty something years his junior. Three; I don’t have a collection of poetry appearing on the shelves of Borders nearly every year. Four; I’ve only been paid for my poetry once. It was a check for three dollars from an Ann Arbor based journal, Third Wednesday. I have yet to cash it. Perhaps I’ll frame it. I can only guess that Billy has been paid for his poetry more than once. Five; I don’t have Poets & Writers interviewing me and writing on my writing. Six; when I submit a batch of poems to—let’s say—thirty magazines, I expect twenty-nine rejections and hope for one acceptance. And I can go on and on.
It seems I’m distracted again.
But back to the joy and pain of writing. Tracy K. Smith said something that wonderfully captured the pleasure and pain in the Fishouse anthology:
I remember the moment when I learned that a poem could start from something it didn’t know the answer to or from an experience that I didn’t fully understand I felt. I remember feeling so relieved. The process of sitting down to write a poem suddenly was really fun. When I get the itch to start something now it’s not because of what I know, it’s because of what I wonder, and it makes the process so much more satisfying because it’s so much more unpredictable. The pain is very deeply connected to the pleasure, and it’s about that not knowing. I get an idea for writing a poem and I commit to the first liens and I have that feeling, the exact feeling of falling in love, and then I get scared, and I don’t know if the poem is something I’m capable of bringing to its rightful close and I wonder if what I’m able to see and say is adequate for what the poem’s promise is (25).
As I said earlier, there are times when the words refuse to do as I tell them. This happens periodically. Sometimes it lasts only a couple of days. Sometimes it can go on for weeks. That gap depresses me, but the words come back from somewhere and so does the joy. That constant struggle is another reason why I write and also why I have a day job.
There’s an interesting essay in the Poets & Writers issue I mocked earlier. Michael Klein wrote of the need to have a day job because “poetry isn’t something you do for money” (27).
It’s an exhausting job—thinking about it, writing it, reading and talking about it—and a painful one at that. I don’t know of a job where one is constantly rejected, told how bad one’s work is over and over again. But I continue to write.
Klein and I are extremely similar. Like him, “I’ve never had the temperament or skill set of somebody who can sit at a desk every day with a restless heart and pursue the empty page. I get antsy. I need breaks. After exalted periods with poems, thinking starts to feel occult. Occasionally something even worse happens: I completely lose the thread of language and what it does and why I am doing it to it” (27).
The reasons I have been writing this are—one, I rarely talk about my writing because most of the people I know aren’t interesting in poetry and other forms of art and because I don’t like talking about myself. But here I am talking about myself. Whenever I’m with other people, I don’t feel a need to talk about myself. I’d rather listen to them or read a book. I’m also superstitious about speaking of my poetry.
When I’m in a “zone” during writing where I turn out a few decent pieces in a row, I get a little confidence boost that usually ends up messing with my head and pen. I can’t write for a few days after I write a decent poem.
The second reason is; I believe talking about one’s poetry hinders the important part of the job description—the writing.
The third, though connected to the first, is my fiancee asks me about my writing and wants to know what’s going on in my brain while I’m writing. And as I said, I just don’t like talking about myself. So this is partially for her.
The fourth reason is that this is a distraction for me from my ‘serious’ writing. The poems have slowed their pace lately. I’m just writing to write.
But here I am writing about myself and writing on my writing.