In a small departure from our YouTube Festival videos, today we’re pleased to feature Bridget Talone, our Poetry Festival Assistant from September 2005 to August 2008. Bridget worked for both the 2006 and the 2008 Festivals, and she is currently an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Ordeal and What Comes After/MFA Mid-Life Crisis
In an interview with the Paris Review, the poet John Berryman said: “I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
While that point of view flirts with fetishizing suffering (Berryman goes on to say that he hopes to be “nearly crucified”), I believe Berryman’s quote speaks to the question that catches up to most writers at one time or another: Why write?
For writers who feel they have lived through what Berryman calls ‘an ordeal,’ that question is moot. Why write? Because they feel they have to. Anxiety over—or at least delayed.
Starting out, this was certainly true for me. I was a life-long reader (of just about anything) but only began to write poetry in high school, when my father was struggling with a cancer diagnosis and a host of other issues that accompanied it for him. I wrote in order to express my most painful and unsayable thoughts and feelings—to make some sense out of his, and my own, suffering. I wrote (in the words of artist & sculptor Louise Bourgeois) because my emotions were “inappropriate to my size.” I needed to engage with them outside of my body—on the page—where I had the chance to play with the forces that threatened to overwhelm me in real life. To make what was painful into something I could be proud of—something beautiful.
Now, two years after my father’s passing, and one year after starting graduate school, I find myself asking ‘why do I write now?’ And how? The distress that I experienced while my father was ill, and the grief I felt over his passing have become manageable parts of my life. They will always be with me, but they are no longer as urgent, as total, as they once were.
While I have made peace with this personally, my experience as a writer has been shaken by this change. I used to know what I was going to write about—it was almost as though I had no choice. Now I feel like I am being dishonest if I attempt to write the same poems I was writing even a year ago. Yet, I have rarely approached writing this way—as a choice and a practice.
Graduate school is, in a lot of ways, an interesting place to deal with this question. On one hand, there is a pressure to produce (at least) a poem a week and, ultimately, a manuscript (hopefully with some coherence). This could, if one was not careful, lead to a sort of spitting out of poems—sticking with a subject because it is large enough that one could conceivably write a book around it. Or, to look at things more positively, it could enforce the idea that writing, just like any task ones sets out to do well, takes practice and determination. It even encourages developing a routine. (I am a night writer/morning reviser. And lately, a morning writer.)
I like to think that, while an MFA program can be a place to hyper-focus on your own methods & shortcomings as a writer, it can also be a place to be refreshed. It is a place to learn about and write back to different methods and traditions. To meet writers who came to poetry for a variety of reasons and who continue to write for reasons you may never have guessed. It’s a place for conversations about art and, above all, it is a place where you have to/get to read like crazy.
For me, the recently terrifying question of Why Do I Write & How is best answered after reading—when the terror has dissipated and is replaced with pleasure. I write poetry because poetry moves me. It shocks and shakes me. It reminds me, in the best way, that I am alive and part of a world full of people. It reminds me of the urgency of that we all share, whether we are currently suffering through an ordeal or not.
For more of Bridget’s work, take a look at her poem “Expecting Honey“ at Tin House.