Julia Story, author of Post Moxie, shares her insights about the importance of influence in the life of a poet.
One of the highlights of AWP this year was reconnecting with my first poetry teacher, who was a graduate student in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa at the time. When I was in his class over 15 years ago, I was a nearly silent, self-conscious and freaked-out sophomore. I don’t remember very much about what took place during our class time back then, but I do remember the feeling I had whenever I was in his presence: that being a poet is a way of living in and seeing the world, that he or she isn’t just someone who writes images and figures out line breaks. One of the only things I remember him saying in class was this: “You’re poets! You have to decide if you believe in God or not. And you have to explain what God is. That’s your job.” I still believe this: poetry is the act of channeling the sublime. It isn’t just writing words from your ego down on paper, though there is a place for the ego in poetry. It just comes later (like maybe during revision or when you sign your books).
At AWP, during one of those off-site parties with a bunch of Coors in the fridge and poetry ranging from pretty cool to unbearable in the background, I had a conversation with this former instructor, and again don’t remember many of the actual words exchanged. We talked about heaven, channeling, and risk-taking. We talked about which is less scary: transcendence or hell. We agreed on hell. He told me I should read The Changing Light At Sandoverby James Merrill and I have been reading it with joy for the last month.
Talk about risk-taking: Merrill, a well-established, award-winning poet decided in the mid-seventies to hole up with his boyfriend and a ouija board and to turn the results of this experiment into a three-book, 560-page epic poem. Though words like “occult” and “supernatural” are often used to describe the elements of the masterpiece, I find that the channeling used to create The Changing Light At Sandover is more like tapping into the collective unconscious than entering the realm of the dead. Or perhaps there is a little of both worlds there. The older I get and the longer I am a poet, the more I see the lines dissolving between these worlds: heaven/hell, self/other, you/me. Ephraim, the “spirit” who is contacted in Merrill’s poem, admits almost immediately in the poem his plan to lead the men “by the hand to Paradise / & not let go.” To me, Ephraim is an inner guide rather than an outer spook, the guide that leads Merrill around his own poem before it even finds its way to the page.
Whatever hand takes hold of mine, I trust that it comes from within me and will take me to the words waiting there and will not let go. This reminder has been a comfort as I stumble around in creating my new collection, and it brings me much happiness to know that this seed was planted when I was a fledgling poet, thanks to a true teacher.
Winner of the 2009 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry
Selected by Dan Chiasson
In a series of "prose blocks," Post Moxie explores a speaker's inner life as it begins to change. The poems travel through the unconscious, introduce a variety of nameless characters, and play around in a landscape both actual and fake.