by Lynnell Edwards
I was recently in correspondence with one of our newest alums about where our poetry was taking us next and how. She had just closed the door on her thesis and found herself going back to fundamental questions about form and “what’s next?”
As for me, my most recent collection, This Great Green Valley, was released in May 2020—just in time for the pandemic!—and after several virtual readings I had been feeling a little deflated about that work kind of being in the rear-view mirror without ever having much of a life on the road to begin with. But more, the very interesting archival and documentary work I did in that collection felt sufficiently exercised for now. I haven’t had the urge to return to the personal and public histories of the white pioneer settlers of eighteenth-century Kentucky—at least not in poems—and in some way that I can’t quite articulate, I feel “done” with that work. And the poem that constituted the second half of the book—a long, memoir-like free-verse account of a particular moment in my childhood—has satisfied the itch I felt to speak from a particular time and place in my life.
But it also doesn’t feel at this moment like I’ve been engaged in anything like a habit of writing, or even remotely something I could call a “writing life.” After our exchange I wondered, “What, exactly have I been writing?”
Much to my surprise, when I looked through the folder titled “New Work 2020-21” I discovered that I have been writing! And there's a bigger-than-I-expected pile of poems. It wasn’t clear, though, whether on closer inspection they actually add up to much, consisting as they do of such wonders as:
A poem in parts titled “History of the Pandemic,” cleverly begun before the pandemic ended (which of course it hasn’t) and which at best can be described as myopic. Five terrifying poems in a series written over a relatively short period from March to May of this year. All have the title header “Skinny White Women . . .” and I suspect I may never attempt to publish them. There are a few more poems that may have a life in a manuscript nearly complete about mental illness and the family (and that also likely represent the end of a streak of prose poems that seemed very well suited to that subject matter). There are some April Poetry Month poems, many of which are vaguely pandemic-themed or otherwise suggest a siege-like state of mind. And then what can only be described as random other poems, including the most recently titled “Magical Thinking,” which is what I suspect I’m doing right now about my writing life.
I have been in this position before, however, and I’m here to say (mostly to myself) that
this time in the wilderness will end. I remember giving a reading at the University of Louisville following the release of my second collection and being asked exactly that question: What’s next? My answer was that I didn’t know. That I had a lot of poems in a pile that I hadn’t even tried to make hang out together. That I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore. I managed to ward off a total and public crisis of confidence there at the reading, but it was, for a while there, kinda scary. And then, writing through it, Covet emerged—a book with its own integrity that corresponded with the person I was at that time in my life and with a shape that was new and right for what I was saying then.
But it wasn’t “magical thinking” that made Covet happen. It was being deliberate about the wandering and continuing with the habit of writing, in whatever form of bad, weird, myopic, or unpublishable poetry it might take.
It’s a cliché to say that you just need to give yourself permission to: “Treat yourself!” “Say no to a coffee date you suspect is really just about networking someone’s new manuscript!” “Turn off your camera during a Zoom call because your hair looks like a dumpster fire!” And, of course, “Write the bad poem (or short story or essay or . . .).” Of course we have to write the bad poem; that’s part of the agreement we made when we signed on as writers. But I think it also might be important to give ourselves permission to say, when someone asks what we’re writing, “I don’t know. Buncha poems, I guess.”
I am not quite at that radiant place of negative capability, that sublime habitation that Keats describes in his letter to George and Tom Keats of December 1817 where the poet must be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Honestly, I still don’t even know what I don’t know. I’m still wondering whether even just “capability” is a fair descriptor of my skill set as a poet. And the doubting, harried part of me that sometimes wants to do anything but confront My Writing worries that because I’m not yet onto a project, a concept—in short, a path out of the wilderness—I need to find some explanation other than “Buncha poems, I guess” to define what I’m doing these days.
In the earlier correspondence that opened this essay, I responded: “The poems of the last year seem to add up to . . . not much.” But that’s not quite right. And it’s taken me almost a thousand words to convince myself of it. And so I’m going to give myself permission to believe that somewhere in the “buncha poems” in the “New Work 20-21” folder, there’s a core of something that will become the Next Big Project. And Writer, you should tell yourself the same thing next time someone asks.
Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the School of Creative and Professional Writing, where she is also faculty in poetry and professional writing. Her five collections of poetry include, most recently, This Great Green Valley (2020); Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop, Covet, The Highwayman’s Wife, and The Farmer’s Daughter. Her book reviews, poems, and short stories have been included in numerous journals including Pleaides, New Madrid, American Book Review, Sou’wester, and Waccamaw.