An Option for Poets in a Rut

I’m a poet, meaning I’m well acquainted with insecurity, plateau and stagnancy. Poets––the artistic type; not the CV-building, award-seeking, willing-to-write-whatever-to-get-published type––desire only one thing: growth. When asked which poem I’ve written is my favorite, I always say: “The one I haven’t written yet.” While a poet does, for one minute (one emphasized), feel pleasure upon completing a poem they like or can at least tolerate, and while a poet does feel proud (for one minute) when a journal picks up a piece, it’s still never enough. Poets want their next poem to be THE poem they’ve been meaning to write ever since the start, but oftentimes––even when a final piece presents an illusion that it is, in fact, THE poem the poet’s been waiting for but a day later decides it’s not––satisfaction is never at the level one would like it to be. This pattern is a lineage to utter frustration and thoughts about giving up.

If you’re a poet with no clue about anything above, clearly you are a very happy person without neurotic symptoms, or you are the type with an “anybody can write poetry just like anybody can play hand drums or paint abstract pictures” mindset. As for this poet? Well, you can say I’m familiar with mental health facility lobbies, and you can say I’m a stubborn dick who does not believe anybody can write poetry, though I should clarify–– While, yes, anybody can technically write a poem since there really isn’t a set of criterion to evaluate what makes for a good poem anymore, NOT everybody can write poetry with a deep, intense drive to master the art because that takes a lot of work, most being very hard work that needs to be done while feeling uninspired, exhausted, doubtful, self-loathing, et cetera. Simply put, while anybody can write a poem, only few are willing to do what it takes to write a good poem.

What can be done, then, if discouragement and doubt is beating a poet down? My answer, though pertinent to those not studying writing at a university, is: Investigate some universities or community colleges and look at what creative writing classes they offer––anything from Intro to Creative Writing through Advanced Poetry Writing. While combing a given semester’s course offerings, note the instructor’s name who is scheduled to teach the classes you’re interested in. When finished, Google the instructors’ names and see what you find.

I did this in 2013 just after I had completed my undergrad degree in creative writing. I didn’t need to go back for more classes because I didn’t know how to practice on my own; it was a desire for a new challenge, and by that I mean I like to write, at times, as per an assignment or prompt, and I’ll admit having a deadline is a nice motivator, too. During the Googling process, looking up those writing instructors, I didn’t find many I was interested in. There are too many old-schoolers out there with a very specified agenda, the same they’ve been teaching for up to decades. For example, you can take a poetry class with an instructor you know nothing about and then discover he/she teaches only Whitman––nothing else––because the instructor believes only Whitman is worth studying. It happens with fiction as well, the case often being: only Raymond Carver is worthy of study. I’m not going to quarrel with that, though. Carver is the man.

After several fruitless searches, I gave Ivy Tech Community College a try. (FYI, this is back when I lived in Indiana.) They offered an Intro to Creative Writing class taught by Norman “Buzz” Minnick. I pasted his name in Google and landed on his website, where I found this poem:

AT THE AUTO REPAIR SHOP

Everything,

even the gumball machine, is grimy.

The mechanic has his name on a patch

above his heart. His fingernails

and the deep lines in his cracked hands

are forever black. The shop smells

like tires and stale coffee.

Chilton’s service repair manuals

and parts catalogues are stacked

behind the counter. No one notices

the zweep zweep sound of an air

impact wrench torquing lug nuts.

Cigarette butts float in the toilet

above which hangs a pinup

showing a woman wearing only a pair

of bright red high heels

that compliment

the bright red muscle car

she sprawls over.

She has thick, dark pubic hair

which upon closer examination

is only the smudge

of a greasy thumbprint.

First appeared in the Oxford American, later published in his book Folly.

I was SOLD. (I’m one of those frowned upon poets who champions poems that make sense, though Norm has the capacity to write some pretty tricky shit.) There was no need for any further investigation. I contacted the school, said I wanted to audit the class and showed up a few weeks later to the first session. Norm came in with tattoos cloaking his arms, and I think I remember his first remark was along the lines of: “If you can’t stomach vulgarity, sex, violence and such, then this might not be the class for you.” After letting the class know what they were in for, he opened with his first lesson by asking: “What is love?” Every answer was exactly what you had likely thought of just now––something grounded in a feeling or emotion. I didn’t say anything since I had no idea what he was trying to do. But as more and more clues started to surface every time he’d reply to an answer, I picked up on his trickery. I raised my hand and said, “Love is authentic gumbo found in Nebraska by a Louisiana native.” I had never been asked how to define an abstract noun before. I knew to avoid them when writing––not all the time, but more often than not––but I’ve never given very much thought to solving how to work around an abstraction, so I’d just bypass them altogether. That answer I gave triggered a poem I wrote called “A Cincinnati Boil,” which was later published by The Baltimore Review. In fact, after the semester studying with Norm, four out of however many poems I penned for the class wound up published. Along with Baltimore, poems were taken by Atticus Review, Hobart and Cleaver Magazine.

Through the course of the semester, Norm and I discovered we had a lot in common outside of poetry. In fact, I’d argue we have more in common with most everything BUT poetry since we’re both outspoken, stubborn assholes with strong opinions about the craft (e.g., Norm doesn’t care much for George Bilgere‘s poetry while I, however, think he’s a damn fine poet.) This is likely due to the fact we both were (me: past tense / Norm: still at it) members of punk and/or hardcore bands at one point or another. Norm is lead singer for a thrash hardcore band called Bush League. I was bassist for a few lesser-accomplished hardcore bands back in the 90s. So, as fellow punk-poet hybrids, we have had a few poetic debates (Norm knows well how to defend a good argument) over the past couple of years––always edifying, though. I will always remember meeting with Norm and his (who I think is) mentor Larry Atwood, who is as hardass as they come. We were at a bar reading our poems to each other. Following each reading came some serious shit-talking––sometimes warranted, other times just to be a dick––but it was a good time, and there were, for the record, moments we praised another’s work when we couldn’t deny its worth.

Anyway, I think I’ve harped a lot longer than I had planned to. Bottom line: If you want an extra boost when feeling like you’ve plateaued or that you’re in a rut, consider auditing a college creative writing class of some sort. Just be sure to look up the instructor so it doesn’t result in wasted money. Had I not stumbled upon Norm, I would likely not be posting this advice, but given the fortune I found in studying with the guy, and how I learned new things in new ways, I felt inclined to let fellow poets know that auditing a class is a viable option to help amplify your writing.

Interested in Norm? Here are some online poems I really like, and some just happen to appear in Split Lip Magazine. Huh. 🙂 5 Poems as Featured Poet in Atticus Review. 3 Poems in Split Lip Magazine. And 5 Poems in Gadfly. Find Norm online at www.buzzminnick.com.

And if you liked the “Repair Shop” poem among others from links above, you can find it along with other outstanding works in his latest book Folly. Go and get yourself a copy!

folly

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