Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Direction & Misdirection: A Confession

A little over 6 months ago, I moved to Kill Devil Hills, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina along a stretch of the Atlantic sea.  Maybe it is because of this relocation that I find myself lately so preoccupied with the notion of direction, with compass points and stars to steer by, with sextants and old maps, with navigation and being waylaid, with sound buoys and sea markers as a way of avoiding danger, of staying true to the course you set out upon. 

Treacherous Waters & Waylays:
A Down-and-Dirty Quick History

In the early 1700s, intrepid British, French, and Spanish mariners ventured to South America and the Caribbean in quests for new territory, for exotic spices, and for new world treasures.  They brought with them the world's riches (among them, sadly, slaves).  On their way south, they invariably navigated along the coast of North Carolina through a treacherous area where the cold waters of the Labrador Current collide with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The hazards of severe weather, strong currents, and navigational challenges resulted in so many shipwrecks that the area became known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" and today there are thousands of documented sunken vessels.

From the earliest days of sea exploration and navigation, mariners were faced with drinking water that would become rancid: during the long voyages, bacteria would grow in the drinking water.  British navigators, however, in a stroke of ingenuity, found ways to sweeten the water's taste: they added strong rum to the casks of water.  Sometimes, in order to stave off scurvy, cane sugar and lime juice were also added, making a thoroughly palatable drinking water (the first "mixed" drinks?).  By adding rum to the water, the alcohol would be diluted and would lessen the chance that the sailors would become drunk.  The rum had other helpful side effects:  it helped the sailors to "keep their spine" during sea battles or stormy weather and it helped steady the nerves of the gun crews.

On the Atlantic side of the barrier reef known now as the Outer Banks, shipwrecks abounded because of the shallow waters.  Because of the numerous shipwrecks, pirates and buccaneers – along with some local scallywags – devised ways in which to waylay and then plunder the unfortunate vessels.  Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Calico Jack all headquartered in the area between 1717 and 1718. 

But perhaps the most enterprising of all were the local scoundrels who  "encouraged" shipwrecks by hanging lanterns around the necks of their horses and leading them up and down the beach at night (the nearby town of Nag's Head was named for this practice). Passing ships would see the lights, assume they were seeing other ships moving in a safe harbor, and they would change their bearings, drawing closer.  By the time the ship's navigator discovered his error, the vessel would already have run aground and the crew would shortly be meeting its fate at the hands of plunderers.

The wrecked ships carried, among other goods, rum.  Hogshead barrels of rum washed up close to shore where "wreckers" (as they were called) would scavenge what they could of the ship's cargo before it sank, then hide their pilfered rum behind the large sand dunes – the same dunes where the Wright Brothers would later achieve first flight.  English rum was prized among all the recovered loot:  undiluted, the rum was so strong, it was said that it would  "kill the devil."  Thus came the name to my town: Kill Devil Hills. 

It is a sordid little tale, told happily again and again by locals here, and they tell it with great relish.  I appreciate how the tale keeps company with all the other tales of skullduggery by early settlers who laid the foundation of this country. I appreciate too that I live in a place that openly lays claim to its rather wicked history. But what has puzzled me, as I stand on the fringes of the nighttime beach here, is this:  how could those experienced navigators have succumbed to the wiles of scallywags and thieves.

O How The Mighty Have Fallen

It strikes me, as I stand ankle-deep in the tides of these treacherous Atlantic waters, at the edge of the graveyard of those foundered ships that, as a writer, I also may have been easily waylaid and, in turn, may have waylaid others despite my most earnest intentions to do otherwise.  This is especially true in workshops and classes where, as a professor of creative writing, I have held analysis and craft in esteem while the art and its audience were not as well-regarded. It saddens me to admit to you here that I probably never mentioned audience as a consideration in moving the work forward.  Rarely have I asked a student writer in class or workshop what her vision was for the work or believed that vision might be important to the discussion – and to the direction the work would take. 
What a foundering! 

I started writing many years ago with a high regard for the value of the writer's singular vision and the early creative impulses, and yet how easily they fell away during my education as a writer.  Maybe it is because somewhere, in the formal study of the art, I learned a way of speaking of that thing we call "craft." I learned to read literature and to study it, trying to tease out all the elements that helped to make it memorable: structure, form, enjambment, nuance, tone, music, diction, metaphor, allegory, simile.  And more.  

I became a literary sleuth, in hopes I could then take what I'd learned and apply it to my own writing.  In graduate workshops, when my work was under discussion, I learned that I was expected to politely thank my peers and teachers in workshop for their analyses but that I was never, ever to mention what had prompted the poem or why I felt compelled to compose it and write it as I had.  The implicit assumption in workshops is that writing should be "fixed." Underneath that assumption was another:  the writing was "flawed."  Under that assumption was a deeper assumption - and perhaps a more devastating one:  My peers knew better than I what the poem should say, what it should NOT say, and how it should look and sound.  During the "objective" discussion of the works, no one even knew who the author was.  Nor was the author queried or allowed to speak on its behalf. Nor to say where it might be headed.  Or towards whom. 

Sins of commission and omission:

I was a studious pupil and I eventually carried all my lessons into the classrooms and workshops where I have taught.  Over the years, I have stressed revision not revelation.  I failed to question or even acknowledge the artistic vision and impulse that had been driving the work forward before it came to us:  that course the writer had set for his/her own work and was navigating towards before the class and I "corrected" the compass – or broke it entirely – for the young writer. 

Craft, craft, craft, one of my most formidable teachers insisted, writing is all about craft.

Now, looking back, I can see the misdirection – and its consequences.  For those of us who write, there is more than craft.  There is also passion and faith, hope and despair, draft and revision, trying to deliberately hone the words so they convey what we almost mean to say.  Or think we mean to say.

What I know today: fine craftsmanship did not save the Titanic.

Compass, Sextant, and Stars to Steer By:

The questions that haunt me now as I enter into my later years of teaching are these:  Is it possible that, along the way, I lost a certain crucial balance and, in doing so, may have also hung the lanterns around the nag's necks and paraded them up and down a dark stretch, passing them off as lights in a safe harbor?  Have I, as a teacher, too often conflated the craft of writing with the art of writing? And what have been the consequences of that for my students and their work?


During the heyday of the New Criticism, and its proponents' open disregard for the poet behind the poem, Muriel Rukeyser exerted, "One writes in order to feel; that is the fundamental mover." 

Rukeyser could see, clearly, how much we needed poetry, as a people and as a war-torn nation.  As a young writer (and by "young," I mean in my early forties), I resonated more deeply to Rukeyser's assertions about the role and worth of poetry than to any textbook I had on craft - and I had plenty of them.  It is curious to me now, looking back, that nowhere, in classrooms, was poetry spoken of in the way she had spoken of it and written about it.

I returned last week to Rukeyser's essays in The Life of Poetry, because I believe, for my sake and for the sake of those who turn to poetry out of some deep human need, that I need to keep finding a new language: a language that can accommodate human experiences and observations – a language that refutes the static points that my Christian upbringing and Southern propriety would have allowed me. I need to search for a language which can move as water moves, in its deep and troubled bed: tortured by tides, filling with currents and shipwrecks, pulled by those old chains of sun and moon back and forth over the wide curve of the earth. 

I have needed a way to say what I have seen, what my hands have touched, where I have wandered, where I have almost lost my way.  I have needed to be able to say what humans have done – no, what they DO – to each other and how, as my good friend Jo-Ann Mapson once put it, we all live now with a heart that is mostly-stapled-together. I need to be able to say, in the opening line of a poem, "I set out once to kill a man when I saw what he'd done to a ten-year-old girl," and not have the old workshop editors all up in my head again, insisting, You can't say that. That's not poetic.

My deepest dilemma with writing has always had less to do with craft and more to do with the nature of the art itself, with how it can show me what is at the heart of being human, both the great and the mean of it.  

To put it bluntly, daily I must remind myself, again and again as I compose, that I am a human being engaged in an art intended for other human beings, that I am speaking TO someone, on behalf of someone. That is the certainty toward which every composition – word, phrase, image, and metaphor – must be directed.  That is the sextant, the compass, the polestar. And this is the dark beach in whose watery hem I stand, waiting.