Today I found inspiration in a situation, and from a voice, I never expected to. Because of a class obligation, I attended a poetry reading and Q& A session earlier this evening honoring the poet, Camille Dungy, whom I had never heard of prior to this class. In all honesty, I had not even read through our assigned reading of her poetry collection before attending the reading because, ordinarily, I despise poetry. I find it pretentious, inaccessible, absurdly abstract, and too whimsical or depressing for my liking. This poet, however, was different. I did not have to decrypt or muddle through what she was saying- it just resonated. And hearing her speak and respond to her own work was even more enlightening to contemplate than her words on the page.
After the expressive, animated and truly engaging reading of her work she offered, Camille opened up the session to questions. I gathered the nerve to shoot one her way, and was incredibly moved by her answer. This insightful response followed from a question I had asked her about her writing process, and whether or not she knew exactly the course each poem would take before she set her pen to the paper. Did she have a moral, motif, or agenda she meant to emphasize with each poem? A concrete story she wanted to tell with a predetermined narrative arch? Although I suspected she would answer ‘no’ to this question, I was curious to hear her reasoned response. That response was this:
“If we knew where we were going, life would be a commute, not a journey. Nobody likes a commute.” She then went further with this analogy. If we know where we are going, she said, it seems unpleasant, inconvenient and obligatory to commute there. Might we all agree? Along a mundane commute such as this, we are forced to find things to distract ourselves from the monotony. Rolling the windows down, turning up the music, playing license plate or road sign games, snacking, talking, etc. Camille’s point? These spontaneous, often random digressions along the trip, not the drive itself, represent life’s journey. They are the the things we do to give meaning to our existence, an existence that would otherwise be formulaic, predictable, and intolerably boring.
Recently, I have been growing restless and concerned about my lack of foresight into the future, and what awaits me in my next stage of life. Camille’s words give me hope that this is all part of the journey, and the real fruit of existence will be harvested along the way, not only once i’ve arrived. The mistakes, detours, digressions and distractions can be as essential as the full tank of gas, road map, and knowledge of destination with which we begin our journey.
Another inspiring point Camille illuminated in her lecture, was in response to another of my questions. This time, I asked her if the process of editing her poetry ever did a disservice to her work, or betrayed the original sentiment that inspired the commentary. I asked her this question expecting her to give a somewhat ambivalent or situationally-contingent response. I wasn’t expecting her to so readily reply “no.”
She then explicated her answer by giving us an anecdote. In brainstorming one of her poems, she had wanted to include a reference to an invertebrate species, whose name she was not sure how to correctly spell. She had to look up the species on the internet to find out, at which time she stumbled across an interesting related search that led her to the page in which she found a quote that would later become her epigraph for that poem. She also found out in this search that the species she was looking up was not, in fact, an invertebrate, requiring her to research a replacement species that was. In this erratic sequence of associative searches, all stemming from the impulse to fix a misspelled word, Camille altered the entire basis for the poem she was to write, creating something totally authentic Essentially, the editing process did not compromise her poem, it created it.
Elaborating on this concept, Camille went further to say that if she knew what she was going to write, she would write it in a prose essay. She would state a predetermined thesis, support her argument, and succinctly reinforce the running objective in her conclusion. in other words, if she had a “destination”(or agenda) in mind, so to speak, it wouldn’t be poetry.
I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the ambiguous nature of poetry and life itself. Life reveals new insights each and every day; one seemingly insignificant event can yield profoundly significant results and/or opportunities. Likewise, remaining open to life’s “suggestions” is the best way to find personal truth. Better, perhaps, than yearning for life to give us absolute answers, or hoping to discover an authority or arbiter of this grandiose notion of “truth”.
Instead, with editing and revision, trial and error, evaluating and re-evaluating, listening all along to life’s quiet “suggestions”, we refine our work to perfection and improve the quality of our lives. This is not to say that every poem we write will be award- winning or even published, just as not every project or goal we attempt along life’s journey will seal our legacy. If we don’t feel inspired, or are disinclined to return to a work (or an endeavor of any sort) to better it, it is probably not going to be our groundbreaking masterpiece. This poem, or that subject matter, is not the appropriate muse. Rather, inspiration will come when the time is right, and the inclination to actualize our goals will follow. In the meantime, we will produce a lot of mediocre or crappy poetry until that perfect sonnet comes along, born from a revelatory moment that emerged along a marathon of failed attempts, missed turns and re-routing.
Better said, not every life endeavor will be our shining moment. We will not succeed, or even know what to attempt, a substantial portion of the time. But eventually with patience and perseverance, we will produce a piece of work to be proud of. One with rich language, fresh insight, precise articulation, revelatory discovery, and a profound moral resonance that lends to our understanding of our self and the world we live in. Eventually,we will discover who we want to be in relationship to who we have been (another of Camille’s chief quandaries). We will find that career path that is calling to us, a path with infinite offshoots we can take as we learn more about our talents and our desires. As we travel further along, re-evaluating and questioning what we have always known and what we wish to discover, these offshoots will again split off, presenting even more options for us to take, more decisions for us to make. But at each fork, no prescribed destination has to direct us along one route or the other. Perhaps we spot a rustle in the bushes on the righthand trail, and decide to investigate. Once we have spotted the bushy tail of a squirrel retreating away, we will continue down that path and find some unexpected destination it has in store. Perhaps it was exactly where we needed to go- and we might not have ever arrived if we hadn’t waywardly veered onto a path to peek our nose into a shivering shrub.
The point that Camille has elucidated for me tonight is this: if you do not have a destination yet, my friends, fear not. It is the journey, the music, the scenery, the detours, the hitchhiking, the poetic digressions, and all other associative experiences life hurls your way that make the journey worth taking. You’ll get there….wherever “there” may be. Don’t be afraid to “edit”, to fail, to stray, or to go off the beaten path without a road map. It is these situations where you discover intelligence you didn’t know you possessed. In these situations, you discover who you are, how you are, and why you are. These situations keep you asking these important questions. So keep seeking, everybody, and don’t forget to relish the journey you took to get there. Cheers!