I work six days a week now. It’s a precarious writing environment.
My writing days are determined by shifting factors.
And sometimes during my writing days I don’t write at all. I need to be idle. I am not a machine.
I can’t write when my hand can’t feel.
In my twenties, there was a year I would wake up with my hands numb or tingling. Eventually and expensively, I discovered herniated discs in my neck were pinching down on nerves. The channel of writing opens when my muscles are stretched, either after exercise and stretching. Or first thing, before breakfast, coffee, or anything, before the tightness of sleep becomes a clench.
I stretch on a mat in front of two windows while listening to podcasts. Or shoot a hundred baskets at an outdoor court.
Half of my writing happens on my back on a couch or a half-made bed. This is essential writing equipment.
My first book was drafted almost entirely in bed. In dishabille.
When my body is good and I have time in the morning before I work at the bookshop, or labor library, or before some article or paper or whatever is too close to being due that it eclipses everything, I write poetry. This might be on the bus, or on the red benches of the Gimme! Coffee on Cayuga St., or in the quiet room of the labor library. I tell myself I am trying to write good poems, but really I’m practicing putting language into motion, accessing a vocabulary and rhythm, touching a thought I think is surfacing.
Writing that might have atmosphere oxygen often happens later in the day, after being among people, some new or deepening or fraying social being.
A text from Marty, an email from Carra, a card from Jennifer, 3 black hearts from Ellis, the little hierarchy-establishing gambits of overwrought neoliberals at the bookstore, the floods and multiply dividing streams of talk, complaint, consideration, chatter, cooing, dissection between Cheryl and I as we make dinner.
I write this walking up a steep hill in Ithaca on the back of drafts of poems I cut from a reading after driving into town with Cheryl, talking, talking.
I remember playing guitar and hanging out with my friends E & J on Utica Street, going home to my kitchen table, opening my notebook and drafting a poem straight off with the conversation of guitars in my head, the chord changes of E’s song.
I remember sitting in on conversations and confrontational meetings between student reps and administrators (and cops!) as part of Living Stipend campaign, going to bed upset, waking up, processing It through writing. I have recently been trolled by far right fucks on a post asking for translation assistance for someone. Fuck you troll! I’m turning it into writing. I am eating your energy. Give it to me.
I am ambivalent that this is what it takes to have a writing day. I want to be more than a witness to my local social and political world. Raquel Salas Rivera wrote this year about their poems as solidarities: “There are poems like solidarities. This is the most ideal case.” I sat a long time, thinking about what this meant as a horizon for writing. I’ve also returned to Nathaniel Mackey’s discussion of Cante Moro and the idea of “the cultivation of another voice, a voice that is other than that proposed by one’s intentions, tangential to one’s intentions, angular, oblique—the obliquity of an unbound reference.” Cultivating this voice can mean listening to the dead, sure, but also listening intently to conversations with the living, making one’s poetry in dialogue with those. Anyway, I don’t think my life or writing achieves these things at all, solidarity, unbound reference. I’d like it to. It’s certainly not on par with the work of these writers.
Conversations with other people and witnessing civic acts of discourse makes me remember the heft of language, that breathes life and change into my usual isolated language calisthenics and gives writing days a certain energy. I mean, my first book, Pigafetta Is My Wife, was a book-length love poem for my partner Cheryl. My second book, The Container Store, I wrote with Chad Hardy. It came alive during furious, dialogical editing sessions where I would see his edits in real time and respond, the cursor gobbling up entire stanzas, moving pieces across pages.
There are writing days where the writing has piled up across months and years and must leave me. It must go. Then I find a way to be with the mass for whole days. I figure out a way to be alone. These are risky days, with the work obsessively, to not let it go, to walk with it, to sleep with it, to wake with it. To finish it, to salvage something from it, to decide if it’s worth the world at all.
Draining puss, removing green digits, knitting strange organs into the mass to mediate its energies. I might print the MS, put it in a clipboard and crouch into a hot bath, the end of the clipboard balanced at the top of my belly. I might take each page and tile the floor, think I’ve got it, gather the pages, then an hour later start again, convinced it is worse than before. This takes space.
There’s no hiding from writing at the end of these days, the absurdity and smallness of it in the eyes of others, the untruths, slips, mistakes in my own eyes.
No matter how it’s gone, at the end of my writing day I go to bed feeling like I’ve just stolen something from someone I love, or I feel like a spider who has extruded a very beautiful web.
Wake up, do it again. Face the whole mineral accretion touching one’s ability to know and realize intention in and through language. Kocik, Robert: “When words mean only what they say, we die” (293). Splashing in the tub. Fun with words.
Last time, for Someone’s Utopia, I was in a timeshare, using my brother’s days—by a lake in winter, off-season.
I wrote at a tiny desk,
read lots of poetry in the bath,
took a lovely slushy walk
kept putting hot sauce in my food resulting in stomach ache
watched Aronofsky’s terrible genocide-porn Aronofsky Noah
felt a day and a half before it was time to go that that MS wasn’t going to get better, that I’d made unfixable errors at the beginning, and sat in front of my laptop for who knows how long, some dangling disassociated moment, before I clicked send, whipped laptop off desk and ran around the house.
A Materialist, Aren’t I?
I’ve been trying to describe writing with a certain kind of energy.
Aluminum processed at the Taishan City Kam Kiu Aluminium Extrusion company
raw Aluminum from the body of Taiwan.
Steel from Unisteel Technology Ltd in China.
All the human labor to extract, produce, ship, vend, maintain
For first drafts, a notebook, strong binding, small enough to carry for two to four years, my laptop, a socket, copy paper, a hot drink, my phone in another room, the book I am reading or a book as a model at hand, sometimes a book (why am I embarrassed to write that?) that I write principles in.
A desk at a window facing South or West for light. This might seem banal but was a point of contention between Cheryl and I. The desk in our previous home was against a North facing window in a room painted brown in grey Buffalo. I kept relocating to an east facing chair at the kitchen table. In a small apartment this meant I was everywhere.
Joe Hall is the author of Someone's Utopia, three other books, and articles on poetry in the 17th and 21st centuries. He has a PhD in literature and works in a labor library and bookstore in Ithaca, NY. Judge his extrusions: joehalljoehall.com, @joehalljoehall.
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