COVID-19 Day 8 of Retreat
Throughout my teens and 20s, I had recurring dreams, nightmares actually, but the kind just shy of waking you in terror, a scream lodged in your throat. I had those too. But the dreams I had most often were of being forced to witness genocidal acts or their aftermath, forced to bear witness to massacre more than actually commit murder myself. Sometimes they were dystopian; I was often running from “the city,” my home. Sometimes I had a cherished person with me—family, friend—but most often I was on my own, with little to carry. I may have encountered others fleeing but never throngs, just occasionally one person, a small family, all dazed, like me. The sky behind would be the color of fire. The same as the city. There was much smoke. I knew death was behind me and there was nothing to do but run. There was no guarantee that death was not before me as well.
I have been contemplating my memoir for years and it has been nearly two since I sat across a table from Steve Kuusisto—dear friend, and touchstone often— in a local watering hole; Stve issued his directive. “I want you to start your memoir, the memoir of the blue-collar poet. Just write a scene a day and in a year we will look at it for structure.”
Understand, I have never considered myself a blue-collar poet but I am also not an academic, a fact I used to bemoan. But I understood that Steve knows enough of my history to see that I come at this poetry deal from a different angle. Scrappy, I guess I could say. My career has been anything but typical or charted. But poetry has been the driving force, even in the lengthy quiet time during which it was hiding.
These days, I am all in. Writing is my everything, and still, I do not follow conventions. But everything I do is connected to my identity, mission, purpose as writer. I teach, I edit, I write, I read, I stare at the sky, all in pursuit of poetry. Yet, for 2 years, I have avoided establishing the discipline to commit to that scene a day, although the assignment is the same one I profess to others.
If I am generous, I forgive myself with the list of ideas stashed in a pocket notebook, likely a score from trick-or-treating at any number of AWP book fairs. I acknowledge that I also finalized a 10-year book project since that cocktail conversation, and was coming off another anthology project as an editor. Then there is the excuse of being so very busy.
Busy indeed, but truth be told, there has been the need for some necessary—even understandable—rest from the most recent book, coupled with a hearty dose of avoidance. I desired a month alone, to focus and commit to a steady writing practice to produce the prose that will become at least one book. But the expense of a month’s retreat at a writing colony has been completely out of reach, given the nature of my income stream and commitments to others.
This moment in global history is yet to reveal all it will be but it is perhaps the most significant event I have been witness to in my 66 years, and I have been witness to much. The world is in the grips of COVID-19. We are in isolation. There is insanity in politics. A lot of people are going to die. Many more of us will survive. To get through it all personally, it is time to be serious about the memoir assignment. I feel compelled to speak out to the world through the screen before me. I must leave a morsel of the life I have led, and the reasons why poetry has saved me, over and over.