This poem was published in the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College. It is professional journal that mostly publishes articles about teaching in community colleges. But each issue also contains a poem or two.
I submitted the poem to the journal as a lark when I also submitted some poems to Mothering Magazine. I submitted “The Laying on of Hands” to Mothering thinking it was a shoe in. I knew the publisher and editor, who helped me when I created MAN! Magazine. I had published one of her poems in my magazine and in the anthology The Best Man. She would not be the person to look at the poems, but I mentioned her in the cover letter and all that. And I thought, “Of course, Mothering magazine wants a home birth poem by a sensitive man!” Then I also quickly put “The Other Writers Block” in an envelope with a cover letter to the college journal, just to be doing it.
For some of us poets, including me, sending poems out to editors is part of the job of being a poet that we dislike. It makes you vulnerable; it places you in the pecking order of all the published poets. Like everything else there is a food chain in publishing. And since poets are rarely paid for their poems, where you publish is important—if you care about such things. Also the truth is that for most of us our poems are rejected much more often than they are accepted. It takes a strong ego to withstand the constant stream of rejection letters. There are a couple of scenes in the movie Big Bad Love in which the main character receives his stacks of rejection letters. The character is a short story writer and that may be harder than being a poet.
Well, the irony of my sending poems to my shoe-in and my long shot is that the long shot was published and I received a kind of rude letter from the poetry editor of the shoe-in. So much for making assumptions about what journal will take what!
“The Other Writers Block” is a pretty clear poem, I hope, in that it is about the difficulty of being a writer whose main job is to help other writers. Community college teachers teach up to five or six classes. With twenty to twenty-eight students writing essays or drafts of essays almost every week, the load in amazingly difficult. New teachers find it overwhelming, and experienced teachers either get burned out or find short cuts. I would state flat out that it is impossible to be a young enthusiastic totally giving teacher for forty years. Add family responsibilities and other commitments and it is really impossible. Think of what old teachers are—either really cranky or really easy. It is difficult to take the middle road—tough, thorough, but compassionate.
So this is a poem about the irony that we teachers of writing have to return to the basic lessons that we teach our freshman. Those lessons of “Write what you know,” etc. are the basic lessons and simply unavoidable. It is in separate sections, I suppose, because that is the way I wrote it. I never had time to conceive of it as one straight longish poem. My attention span kept being cut.
The middle section is an experiment in different styles and sensibilities that various poets have. The last section goes totally wacky, which I thought fun and different for me. At the time I had listened to Billy Collins—the current Poet Laureate—reading his poems on Terri Gross’s radio program “Fresh Air.” His poems had a lightness to them, a slight hint of humor and the surreal. So that crept into the poem. And there are a great number of puns in the poem. I don’t know where they came from, but I know I like the ambiguity and double meanings that puns add to a poem. They can certainly be overused. Maybe I did that here. The references to James Wright’s poem about being in the hammock Duffy farm and to Rilke’s poem about the panther came to me because they are favorite poems. I first encountered Rilke’s poem in college when reading Randall Jarrell’s “Woman at the Washington Zoo,” which references the Rilke poem. I also reference Jarrell’s poem in a poem in Text and Commentary. I also wrote a poem “Lying in a Hammock at Rose Mountain, New Mexico” that uses Wright’s poem as a subtext.
Over the years, I have written a large number of poems about writing poems. The problem of inspiration and hard work interest me very much because I am basically a poet who relies on inspiration. So for me, the question becomes how does one maintain a level of inspiration so that the output of poems remains steady and constant. My mentor, William Owens, quoted his friend Carson McCullers, “Inspiration follows perspiration.” And I believe in this dictum strongly. So I try to keep reading poetry, keep thinking poetry, keep being aware to where the poems are in my daily living, keep listening to the undercurrents of meaning. And for students, let me say again, keep reading other people’s poetry—Feed off of their inspiration. Their energy will transfer to you. Their love of words will “communicate” with you like kissing someone with a virus. So this is a different kind of submission. The submitting of yourself to the “life being,” the “life processes” of being a poet. You can’t be a poet if you live your life like a prose person. If you live thinking only of facts and figures, you can’t automatically shift and become a person of metaphor and image.
So “The Other Writers Block” is a poem about the struggle of living prosaic life (literally as a person who grades essays) and still trying to be a poet.
Lecture Assignment: Write a poem about listening and waiting for a poem to come to you. What are the metaphors that represent where poems come from for you.
Alternate Assignment: Choose one of your favorite poems and write a poem that responds to that poem. It could use the same images or the opposite of the images. It could be a conversation or speech to the poet about the content of the poem.
Alternate Assignment: Write a letter/poem to a teacher about being in a class. What are the images and metaphors that capture the essence of being in a class room. Prison comes to many people’s minds. Are there other analogies?