Bart Plantenga

What was I thinking at the time? That poems were some kind of inter-cardial communication system? Like the old 2-cans-&-a-piece-of-string telephone thing? Actually, I should confess to something even more naive: I became a writer in part because I thought it would mean never having to speak in front of people; just write my books, get published, get reviewed, cash the checks, dream up the next one.

I had no plots, theme or purpose in the beginning; mind to hand to pen, ideomotor reflexes as mystifying as the old Ouija board planchette leading our young fingers around the board, alchemizing electrical brain impulses into words. Sometimes I’d stare at the words and wonder how they’d jostled themselves into a particular order, uncertain of what they were trying to get me to say.

The words sometimes converted naive thoughts into hope, the hope that they’d earn me that deferment, allowing me extended escapes into the school library stacks with a thesaurus and The Norton Anthology of Poetry, not quite understanding Shelley, Blake, Dickinson but really getting Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Hugo.

I became convinced I could use words written down as a satisfactory detour around my affliction: abject shyness coupled with [unrecognized at the time] dyslexia. An oral report before the class would generate sleepless nights, shaky hands, shortness of breath, sweat pouring down forehead, large sweat moons under my arms, not eating, trilling voice, nausea... Indeed, public speaking was akin to the worst KGB-CIA-Mossad-invented tortures and should be added to the list of tortures denounced by Amnesty International as cruel and inhumane.

David Bowie claimed he was “painfully shy, withdrawn” and Ella Fitzgerald too admitted she was “very shy” and I have no doubt and plenty of sympathy for them and their kind. But I was shyer, SO shy that I had to write my own name down on my report – “hi, my name is ...” and then read it straight from the paper in order not to forget it as I lost my place, distracted by a scary heart throb in the neck. As author Shannon Hale described stage fright: “panic stole the thoughts from [his] head” [The Goose Girl], yes, public speaking totally ransacked consciousness.

My anxiety dreams went on for years: Up on a podium fumbling, audience’s eyes growing dark like those of beasts of prey, audible snickers shattering me into a thousand worthless pieces. I’m repeating a line over and over; each time I forget a key word. And there we go again – tape rewind whrrrrrrr and replay that section over and over. Entire body flooded in sweat, forehead flushed and dripping with each rewind. The speech progresses slightly, the audience revealing baffled, agitated faces, my words inaudible and in the wrong places. Stomach holding a thousand nervous butterflies.

That the writing didn’t go according to plan is stating the obvious. But did the words dodge, mock, betray their promise out of some kind of unspoken spite?

Anyway, things eventually changed; why shouldn’t I have entertained this thought of writing as evasive maneuver to avoid humiliation coupled with cultivating renown and reaping the remunerational benefits? Well, as we know, humans have this weakness: scratch where pride hides, it quickly festers, swells, becomes an infected wound known as hubris.

I mean, I thought I was already well on my way, having just had my first 5 poems published in the esteemed [by whom?] Horseheads High School’s literary magazine, bluejeans. They may in fact have been the very first 5 poems I ever wrote, after an English teacher, in front of the class, had complimented something I wrote, encouraging me to write more, submit to bluejeans and ... to my surprise, they accepted my poems.

If you were like me, you’d have carried the magazine around with you everywhere for weeks – lunch, recess, study hall, front of my locker – simply smilingly secretly gazing at the words in “Cancer Cheer” [“Poverty pit fears on fire...”], stare at your name, experiencing a warm bliss that is hard to describe – and replicate. Was my vague awareness of my self suddenly gaining boldly carved, human outlines in an instant of perfect elation?

In fact, if publishing could be translated into a baseball stat at that instant, my batting average would have been 5 for 5, a thousand, 1.000, perfect. I was “sitting on top of the world,” making up my own lyrics to that tune for days.

The bluejeans staff was almost entirely girls – one boy, Christopher, who was so sensitive he was beyond my reach; I think some called him a “faggot.” I also discovered that girls liked boys who wrote poetry. I had no idea poems worked like flowers, like chocolate, like aphrodisia. Especially poems about them. “After the Last Race Was Run” [“She had come to mend my heart”] – Who was this “she” they may have wondered.

Rereading the poems now, I wonder: had I actually written these words? Several girls praised “Mediocre Blues Mile” [“Plastic people / riding on John Wayne egos”]. Was it because it may have revealed how concerned I was about society, the future. So, while some boys had custom Camaros or a shiny CB350 motorcycle as “babe magnets,” I had my sensitive poems [sarcasm].

My newborn talent as a poet – and a promising long-distance runner – essentially rescued me from years of nonentity-nerd-victim status and reconfabulated me as a kind-of someone – a poet in jock circles and the runner among more letterly types.

I began dreaming of girls in bikinis [“I gazed glimmeringly upon the crystalline naked glance of her”] and open-toed heels “walking a distance / hand in sweaty hand.” I began to fashion myself a man of just the right words, the voice of students, the people. The school newspaper published a letter of mine complaining about conservatives. The local newspaper published my letter about book censorship, middle class hypocrisy and long hair. And was it my personal letter to Mr. Thoreau at Walden Pond that appeared in the Annual Essay Anthology [National Essay Press]? I wondered: How does one write an acceptance speech? How does one cash a check?

And, oh, if I wrote particular girls into future poems, wrote about them, them and me, would that be like flirting or dating or going steady?

When did I have my first epiphany about words having the power to express or impress? I was probably 10. The Clara Barton Elementary School in Edison, NJ had a tradition of students exchanging cards on Valentine’s Day. Everybody in the class gave and received cards from everyone else. Guaranteed no dejection. Nice and egalitarian – BUT this gesture also rendered any words included on those cards as meaningless throwaways. Except to me; I gleaned extraordinary meaning from even the slightest of signs embedded in the printed words – “I’m NUTS about you” “Be Mine!” “You’re just my type!” – or a signature with a heart over a dotted-i. Honestly, I saved those cards for years.

In efforts to be less alien as an immigrant kid I did three things: I studied the icons that made American kids American – decorative cowboy holster and gun, “lucky” rabbit’s foot dangling from a belt loop, baseball cards, brushcuts in summer. Second, I wore the clothes my mom received from the families she cleaned house for. That’s how I got my first pair of white Levi’s, a giant leap into American integration.

And third, Mr. Smith, my 6th grade teacher and neighbor, opened his basement library of great books to me – Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huck Finn, etc. and ... the World Book Encyclopedia, which I’d scour letter by letter, beginning with A: Henry “Hank” Aaron, Absurdism, Adirondack Mountains, Alabama, Alamo, Alfalfa production, Aluminum production, America’s greatest Olympians, American nuclear weapons, Aphid, Apples, producing regurgitated-plagiarized reports on the products, sports, deeds, inventions the US led the world in for extra credit in my grand effort to read myself into full American-hood.

At age 16, I irritated my guidance counselor and surprised my stoic parents when I announced I was no longer pursuing a career in engineering and no longer planning to go to Clarkson or RPI or any other engineering school to follow in my father’s footsteps. Did this decision to start writing poetry seal my fate to a life of poverty? Probably. In any case, my mother cried when we got home.

My father, I learned many years later, had actually been secretly relieved because his kind of engineering – metallurgical – was a thankless, inglorious, underpaid, white-collar profession – basically like working in a coalmine above ground for blue collar wages and no job protection. Was it the lure of poetry, girls, and the fact that the exact sciences – including many branches of engineering – were complicit in the promoting of war, bombs and misery for profit? While poetry represented the romantic noble force of good, soft, tender, sympathetic dreaminess as the counterpole to the logical lockstep of the murderous sciences? Something like that.

One day someone sent me a copy of a small obituary in the paper for a guy I admired in high school. He was 64 and died “after a brief illness.” The only other boy poet in that issue of bluejeans was a guy named Burton Rought. I did not know a Burton Rought even with his half-dozen poems. I only later learned that this was the mysterious poet, Bryson R. who, in my mind, was already sitting on top of a big rock candy mountain with a view of the entire world. His beguiling smile made girls melt, his soft-spoken and kind nature, a natural athlete with suave, effortless moves, a natural curve ball – a friend said he thought he’d “even done a bit of semi-pro ball after high school.” His jeans always fit just right, touching the tops of his shoes perfectly and no amount of studying them would avail the secret of precisely how. A twist of his neck would give his long hair a cinematic windblown effect. He was already a good poet with lines that seemed to venture effortlessly into a dark mysterious ocean, diving deep and using just the right number of words. What thoughts was he thinking in his profound gaze-out-the-classroom-window silences? What simple words was he gathering to evoke such deep truths?

But now, upon rereading Burton’s contributions seeming centuries later, I was disappointed. Although showing sensitivity, the poems seemed a little too greeting-card-lite, with no singing in the words, no waft, no glimmer nor concentric ripples on a lake inside his mind. Maybe Bryson was off his game that year. Or maybe Burton really was Burton.

So I began to search, ask around and, indeed, I learned that Burton was not Bryson using a pseudonym. Burton was a year younger and known as “Buzz” and lived the life he was dealt – nothing more nothing less. He once crash-landed a glider off Harris Hill in a heavy thunderstorm and survived. He joined the air force, left after a dozen years, was “wise beyond his years.” His wife, I hear, died in her sleep at age 29. He opened a clock repair shop in Addison, west of Big Flats. One of only three references online described him as “craftsman/blue collar.” A full-page article in the Elmira Star-Gazette in 2003, described his ordeal being diagnosed with lung cancer and dying by the end of that year. He was also an inventor and smoked a pipe, I learned.

Bryson remains an enigma; he was apparently more fragile than my hagiographical sentiment would allow at the time as he drifted away from conventional activities like sports or work to – I heard – drink, drugs, skipping school to contemplate on a rock in the Chemung River.

By the age of 28 I hear he was a regular resident at Big Flats Psychiatric. Rumor – but what’s rumor but a foul wind coming from an undetermined direction – was that he had totally flipped out, was most recently living in a group home, which I hear is something like a deinstitutionalized controlled environment with some autonomy. Maybe he was happy there, or safe or partially incarcerated for his own good or that of others. Maybe he’d be there forever. Was there no turning back from this forever?

More rumor has it that, in his last days in the free world in a Big Flats trailer, devoid of basic conveniences except a typewriter and paper he stole from the local store, he had taken his grandfather’s dog for a walk down by the river and shot it. When they found him he was sitting on a rock in the shallow bend of the river with his head in his hands repeating over and over: “They’re dead but they’re grateful.” It was assumed that maybe there were more canine mercy killings. Was my friendly source reliable? He’d himself say he was not, admitting to brandy, too much of it for too long ...

And so, when do the Burtons, Brysons and barts, when do WE finally admit poetry’s no hot-air balloon, no life preserver, no blossoming flower in the heart to give life meaning. No, it was but a confabulation, a con job, that tromp l’oeil painting of a smiling man holding a sack of jewels. An elaborate self-delusion project, where you deceitfully claim that the soulful communications of poetry usher us into a deeper state of consciousness allowing us to transcend the mudane – Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison’s “other side” – a belief that must serve as our compensation or revenge on the “straights” and the rich.

Someone once said – maybe it’s me – poetry’s like communicating with the dead interred behind a brick wall down a dead end that does not show up on any map anywhere. Others claim its like a silver bullet hitting a bullseye.

Regrets? I’ve had a few... I wish I’d gone and burned that pew ... I once contemplated torching my poems, stoked by the disappointment of witnessing it all tumble steeply downhill from that initial high. Better off as ash spread over a field to nurture the soil, I might have written down, only to have all those words hover and haunt overhead like vultures over roadkill during a very long roadtrip.

What I really wish is that I had crossed that short distance that lay between our worlds and just once told Bryson: “I like your poems.” Or asked him what he thought about, feared, how he wrote. ... How little we really cared or knew about one another. All of us, none of us.

Bart Plantenga writes: "These are 2 pieces of 3 on the subject of [literary] rejection, that, though stand-alone, seem to fit together. The first part appeared in Vox Populi: “How the Soul Remains Miraculously Intact Despite 2000 Rejections,” Vox Populi, 09.20."
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Blogger Unknown said...

I always thought Syracuse University was your first choice, then Cornell University. Days of dreams, loving.

12:02 PM  

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