Wednesday, January 23, 2008

confessions of a poetry squatter

In Truth and Beauty (which I just finished and highly recommend), Ann Patchett says that she always thought being a writer meant living in some drafty-but-romantic wreck of an apartment and writing by candle light, which she was fully prepared to do; in fact, for her at least, it meant being pampered with muffins and solitude at a series of writers’ colonies.

My reality has had light bulbs, but not a lot else so far. I’ve applied to a couple of writers’ retreats, but haven’t been accepted. Although the prestige and the uninterrupted time sounds great, the truth is I’ve become almost too good at getting books written at Starbucks, one hour at a time. When I have time to submit work, it seems more appealing to send my manuscript to publishers than to picturesque cabins in various woods. After all, I’m an urban writer. I like a little noise.

But all this was before I came to the University of Arizona an hour ago.

I’m in Tucson for work right now, and when you work for an organization with “poets” in its title, the kind people at the U of A Poetry Center offer to put you up in one of their “Poet’s Apartments” even if you’re not technically a poet.

I guess I’d pictured a dorm room with a couple of books of poetry sitting on the back of the toilet. But this is a modern one-bedroom with pale gray-green walls and fresh red tulips and a guest book signed by Lucille Clifton. There are framed broadsides signed by Allen Ginsberg, Li-Young Lee, Leslie Marmon Silko, Brenda Hillman and Billy Collins. The cupboards are stocked with granola and organic soup. There are mugs with pictures of poets on them, and all the silverware matches. None of these things are true about my actual writer’s apartment (though it’s a huge step up from my previous two).

Sometimes I have what I think of as an Annie Complex. Do you remember how, when she first saw Daddy Warbucks’ mansion, she was so thrilled that she didn’t know what to clean first? When she found out she wasn’t there to clean it—just to enjoy it—she could barely comprehend her situation.

I didn’t grow up as an orphan in the Depression, so I don’t know why luxury scares and confounds me, but it does. I think I’m afraid I might get used to it, and then I might start demanding things. I might become fussy and dissatisfied with my current material life. This is a problem because A) I pride myself on being low-maintenance; it’s almost a pathology with me, and B) I don’t have the money to have regular-basis luxury, and not wanting too much is a defense mechanism.

Twisted logic or not, I found myself wondering if it was okay to open the soy milk in the fridge because it didn’t expire for months and I certainly couldn’t drink all of it in two days and wouldn’t it be better to save it for Lucille Clifton, who was a real poet and would be staying longer?

But between Truth and Beauty and my truly beautiful surroundings, I feel inspired to be more ambitious. To believe that my writing deserves more than the occasional latte as fuel. It’s part of that whole believing-in-the-power-of-art resolution, right? Good lord, the vase of willowy magenta flowers next to my bed alone makes me want to be a better person in every way.

Reader, I opened the soy milk.


Don Cummings said...

From now on, I will picture you as a writer in beautiful, tasty places. With large advances.
Have a great time! No need to be a peasant to be creative.

Cheryl said...

Well, if my powers of visualization are weak, at least yours are strong, and hopefully transferable. I'll visualize fabulous things for you too.

Jamie said...

I'm glad you opened the soy milk. Hope you snarfed down the granola, too:)

Cheryl said...

How'd you guess?