All poets write the poems they want to read, or at least they try: I think I write poems for others to read as well—I like the sense that I am not, or not always, alone in a room. I like commissions, challenges, deadlines, set forms, word counts, anything that gives me some purchase in the void of what we are pleased to call contemporary poetics, where everything is permitted but nothing (so poets fear) gets noticed unless it’s attacked. I do not think I could write a single poem collaboratively, but I have been delighted by this collaboration among poets, and among poems, where each serves as a prompt and a constraint for the next—each contribution must count as a response to the one before, in some way that alert readers might detect.
At least that’s how I’ve treated it, and I’ve been grateful to Caleb Klaces, our host, and to Alasdair Paterson for his poems as poems on their own, and as prompts for me. His ‘road to ruin’ became the Ramones’ Road to Ruin, his terse consideration of advancing age, of a road all too securely taken, became for me an excuse to revisit the teen years when all roads seem scary, and most of them enticing, and none irrevocably taken. It’s also of course a poem about gender dysphoria, with more facts, about the Ramones and about myself, than I’ve put into other similar poems, though the details do not exactly fit my life (I wasn’t yet in my teens when the album came out).
Like so much, perhaps too much, of my other poems and prose, this sequence with two authors has turned into a way to think about the life course, about the overlaps and contradictions among its supposed stages—childhood, adolescence or youth, irresponsible young adults, supposedly responsible middle-aged adults, and those older than they. Thus Alasdair took, from my poem about Road to Ruin and the back of a teenager’s bus, a reason to address the back end of rockers’ careers, almost never the most illustrious part: adult poets may wonder whether we are more like historians, who tend to do their best work late (since they gather more data throughout their adulthood), or more like rockers or athletes. We may never know.
I wasn’t satisfied with my own ‘Rue,’ because it seemed too thick with quotations, as if to armor an otherwise too vulnerable poem. Rather than set up another contrast between other people’s words and those supposedly all my own, for my next segment I wrote a persona poem, in which each word seemed mine but not mine. And after Alasdair’s references to pop stars who must have felt old in middle age (Julian Cope, Mick Hucknall), I wanted to speak for a singer who seemed at once too old and very young. Avril Lavigne, and her entourage, must have feared losing her fans, and her public image, by the time she reached the American drinking age. I really do like most of her songs, almost as much as I like the Shop Assistants and the Fastbacks, and for most of the same reasons. (The first sentence in stanza three is actually hers, from the booklet included with Goodbye Lullaby.) I’m also interested in the way that her persona, any celebrity persona, might be like the persona, the created figure, behind the ‘I’ of any poem; I think both might count as collaborations. We think of celebrities as manufactured, poetic voices as genuine, but is that fair either to the craft of poetry, or to what celebrity pop artists think they can do? Is it always fair? Is it ever fair? What’s the difference between a celebrity performer whose work comes from multiple collaborations (songwriters, producers, makeup artists, stage techs) and a poet who works as Eliot said poets work, by incorporating herself, like a catalyst, into a preexisting tradition? And where better to ask those questions than a venue that’s already collaborative?
Then Alasdair wrote another poem about music (harmonica music, ‘folk’ music) that gets old while seeming young, that recurs and follows us through the years while seeming still unripe (like green tomatoes): and so I wanted to write another poem about adolescence, without any names for real people this time out (though it does name some gods). All poems involve an internal collaboration—there is the part of the poet the poem represents, the persona (the word means ‘mask’), and then there is the once-removed maker, producer, who must detach herself at some point from the work of art to make sure (are we ever sure?) that she got it right. I wrote about frustrated love and lust, resignation and friendship and loyalty, here again (I think the poem points back to ‘Rue’). I imagine a disconnection, here, between the figures in the collaboration. There is the maker, the frustrated blacksmith god, the cuckold of myth, the responder, the sad boy who won’t mind if we see him as sad, as long as we like what he makes. And there is the figure who comes first, the performer, the beauty, the goddess, who may quarrel with all her lovers, who may never be satisfied with herself.