Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Project Verse--How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Angst

Nine weeks ago, I stepped over the edge of the cliff and agreed to be a contestant in Dustin Brookshire's Project Verse, an online competition for poets modeled after “Project Runway”. I was sent on permanent caesura this week (that bloody villanelle!), but I have learned much on my long journey, and you are about to hear allllll about it, my pretty, and you cannot escape my senseless rambling. Bwahahahaha!

So, what was it like to compete, you ask? Nerve-wracking. Exciting. Exhausting. Joyful. Emotionally draining. Intensely creative. Intensely production-oriented. Generally awesome, but in a painful sort of way.

Writing Poetry: An Act of Listening

I tend to be a very kinesthetic person. It is extremely hard for me to sit still at a computer or a journal for long periods of time, writing down words. I tend to create my best lines not when I’m actually writing, but when I’m the midst of doing something purely physical. I used to worry about my tendency to jump out of my chair and pace a lot during my writing sessions, until I realized that for me, something about physical movement seems to circumvent the intellect, and allow space for the words to come through me, when my mind is not consciously trying to force anything.

I spent many years as a massage therapist and a mind/body counselor. During my two-year training program in body-based counseling, we were taught to be in what the instructor called “allow mode”, (or yin mode). To be in “allow” mode is to be totally present to the given moment. It requires patience, listening, following your client’s process with no agenda, and being in a state of exquisite awareness to both yourself and the person you're working on. 95% of your success is in simply learning to tolerate not knowing. That's a much harder thing to master than you'd think, but the rewards are well worth it--its only when you've learned to be fully present that you know when the time is to speak. Its like standing, with your ears plugged, in the flow of a twisting river...Its a very quiet, but very full experience. And its a process that tends to be anathema and frightening in our culture, which is very yang-oriented—we want to make things happen under our own steam; we want to identify, control, analyze, categorize, solve, and above all, know. I have these same strong tendencies as well; it can feel very unnatural to simply be in a space of waiting, to fall into to a mystery and let it unfold before me in its own time, instead of seeking to solve it. But this is how I do my best writing—by listening, by leaping into the emptiness, by tolerating the not-knowing. And, as my instructor always said--"the not-knowing is the most powerful place you can be in."

At one point during the contest, I found myself obsessed with the need for silence. I had worked many long, frantic days in a row, three of them very long hours at an extremely loud, frenetic, sticky, crowded event, and I was sick of sound, sick of words, sick at the thought at adding more noise to the world. I was in tears with an almost visceral need for total silence, mentally, emotionally, and verbally. I realize now that I wasn't getting enough time to be in “listening mode” before having to sit down and write each week. I didn’t have three or four days to let the poem dream its dream, to just fall into it and allow it to reveal itself to me; those three or four days needed to be spent hurriedly producing, producing, producing and revising, revising, revising. I was having a very difficult time working in a way that was completely alien to my natural process, and I'm grateful to be able to return to a more intuitive, less production- orientated mode of writing.

That having been said, I'm also eternally grateful that Project Verse helped me find my Poetry Warrior--my focus, my fire, my determination, my will to break through fatigue, terror, self-doubt, envy, and at times, God-awful working hours, to get the job done on time and under budget. The necessity to choose a direction, commit to it, and move forward very quickly helped me increase my focus and get very clear about my commitment—my highest priority each week was getting the best work in that I could by the deadline. Consequently, I can no longer deceive myself that lack of time, physical health, space, resources, inner peace, or inner turmoil keep me from writing. Its over. I can't blame any other external circumstances in my life if I don't park myself at the page and get down to the business of writing. (Damn you, Project Verse!) It has given me a lot of confidence that I can, indeed, create under pressure. I may not like creating under pressure, but I know now that I can do it, and even at times, do it well.

Poetry and Competition

The experience also brings up lot of questions for me about the relationship our culture has with competition, and how something like poetry fits into that phenomenon. The elements of spectacle and drama were all there, of course. I've mentioned envy, and was I ever sick with it—at least once a week I read something just amazing by the other contestants that I was convinced made my own entry look puny and jaundiced. There was the irresistible thrill of being Flavor-of-the-Week, and crushing disappointment and embarrassment when I tanked. I told myself I wasn't going to be all a-twitter about the guest judge, in fact, I wasn't even going to look, but every week, I did, and got nervous about that poet reading my work, and what a schmuck I was going to look like to them. In spite of my running mantra of “I will remain detached and focus solely my poetic vision and refuse to invest in what others think”, competing brought out all my vanity, my jealously, my self-involvement, and my desperate need to be liked. I cared what others thought, a lot. A fair amount of this was actually caring intensely about the quality of my poetry—I very much wanted my poems to work, to communicate effectively, to do whatever it was I had written them to do. And, a fair bit of it was about not wanting to look bad next to everyone else.

There were many good poets who were cut early on simply because, with all their best efforts and intentions, their poem in that given week just didn’t quite do the trick, or didn’t work as well in the judges’ eyes as some of the other work. These were all poems that I felt had potential, and it was sad to see so many good writers go early on. The cold fact is that someone had to go each week, but still, somewhere in my thin-skinned, poet's sensibility, I always felt slightly battered by the brutality and unfairness of it all; that we didn't all get stay to and write our poems together the whole ten weeks. I mean, don't get me wrong—I understood perfectly well that it was a contest, and that every week, a cut would be made, but each time when it was, I somehow felt that poets should be exempt from such hard and fast, black and white rules. I don't know why, logically, that we should be exempt; it's just something I felt. and I plan to examine that attitude a little more closely in the coming weeks: Am I harboring an unconscious, elitist feeling that poets are so special we should be above survival-of-the-fittest dynamics? Am I just an “everyone-gets-a-trophy” kind of girl at heart? Do I feel that there really should be no objective criteria with which to judge art? I don't know the answer to any of this. If you feel like weighing in, please do. I would love to hear what you think.

The Contestant Speaks:

In the end, while Project Verse is not something I would choose to do again—way too stressful, way to emotionally taxing, not to mention fattening (it messed up my gym “routine”, I tell myself)--I have no regrets. As nerve-wracking as it was, it was exciting and really fun, I met some combo fabulous poets/great people, and I had the enormous honor of having my work reviewed by some stellar poets.
Totally worth it.

Special thanks to our tireless weekly judges, all the guest judges who took time from their busy lives to read our work, to Dustin for setting up the whole popsicle stand, and to my fellow competitors, all of whom kick ass!

And most of all...thanks to my AWESOME, husband (my very own emotionally available James Bond), for putting up with my angst, hills of wrinkled paper, crying, weekly declarations that I was just going to quit the whole damn thing, and fits of temper when it was midnight, 110 degrees in the apartment, and I just! He was really my coach through this whole thing. (Did the judges like me? They were brilliant! Not like? Ha! What a bunch of clowns!) He kept me going, he kept me laughing, he kept pushing me, ("Do you want to WIN, Maggot? Huh, do you? Then just shut up and write that damn poem, pussy! Do it! Dooooo it!!! Then drop and give me 20!") Seriously though, he was 100 percent behind me no matter what, and I don't know how he put up with my crap, honestly. But he's still here, and I'm taking him out for dinner where ever he wants to go to thank him for everything he went through. Eesh!


Kimberlee said...

You totally rocked the competition and I loved finding out all of this inner goings-on. :) Thanks for sharing this and your fab poetry.

The Good Typist said...

Aw! Thanks, Kimberlee! And thanks for following the contest. I can't root for one finalist over another because they are both just amazing, but I can't wait to read Kathy and Emily's final poems. I'm still processing the experience, but it was really something. Today I sat down to write on my own, just following my own process and impulses, and it was heavenly. :)