Over the last couple of months I've taken on a task that some days seems like a cowardly escape from the business of writing poetry, and other days an ingenious excavation into my archives, mining for forgotten gems and possibly a chapbook or two based on themes instead of chronology, my usual format. I have been sorting through 20 years of poetry, year by year, file by file. As disorganized as I
often feel, I have at least been throwing my work into folders each year, and dating each poem as I write it. With open mics and submissions, I've begun to accumulate multiple copies of certain poems, and scant few of others. Tossing these extras is always good; my file drawers are somewhat limited, and since I expect to continue to write for a few years, every inch of storage space counts.
Another goal is to create a master list of titles from which to draw from for chapbooks and readings. I had a large stack of what I thought was a good variety of work, but now seems limited to more recent, and perhaps more currently meaningful pieces. I am assimilating these poems into the general file, and within each file, organizing poems alphabetically by year. The master list will cover
the years 1990 through 2010. Work prior to 1990 I still consider somewhat immature (even for me), but some nuggets may be found there yet. For now, 20 years is quite enough to deal with.
Since my poems have always been very personal, traveling back through the years this way is somewhat unnerving. Some years were more prolific than others. In 2001, I wrote something like 74 poems, most before the Towers fell of course. Although I have always said 9/11 left me speechless, poetry-wise, for months, my files tell a different story. I was up and running a lot more quickly than I recalled. Survival, I guess. I was also hearing too many bad odes to the victims, etc., things you would typically expect poets to write after such an event. That alone must have driven me to try to capture the mood, my reactions in a different way. In part I succeeded.
In 1993, I was in grad school in Albany, and taking a poetry workshop with Judith Johnson. It was a tumultuous year which ended with my moving back to the Hudson Valley and quitting school. In that year, I counted 7 poems that began with the word, "I", a record for even me. It is not my best year of work by a longshot. I moved in part to escape a failed romance, and started one in Albany that was doomed from the start. I worked in a chain bookstore at the Crossgates Mall (with aforementioned doomed object of affection) and barhopped most nights. From what I can see now, little of that material is salvageable, but I'm sure it helped me to stay functional and make the good choice of returning to Ulster County, where many longtime friends were and are. It was an experience and I still go to Albany for the active poetry scene there. Not so much for the romance...
In fact, one of the blessings to come from this sorting is the amazing realization that I can no longer name every lover obliquely referred to in a poem. Ah, thank goodness for that middle age forgetfulness!!
I am in the home stretch of this project. I have 1999 to sort through, alphabetize, discard extras and remove the many staples I must have felt were vitally necessary the last time I tackled this. I have the rough drafts for many poems, and I hope these will help in rewriting. Is this a worthy activity or just a way to hide from the subjects I have yet to explore? Both, I think. I can go back and confirm that I have accomplished something over the years, that I have at times written poems that satisfied me somewhat. It is reassuring at a time when I am a bit tongue-tied. I always have things to say, but not always the balls to do so. And yes, women have balls too, according to Joan Jett. They're just higher up.
I need to find my balls again. Reassessing my past is one way to invigorate my future.