Sometimes roadblocks and road closures force you to detour in ways that turn out to be useful.
That isn’t a metaphor. Honest. So, I found out a while back that D.A. Powell would be reading in Butler University’s Visiting Writers Series, and knew I had to be there. Butler is on the north-ish side of Indianapolis, and since I drive like a little old lady, I always allow two hours to get there – it’s really not a bad drive at all, but far enough that I really have to want to go to a concert or a reading in order to make the effort. For a while there, I was driving an aging car that was actively trying to kill me (that’s an exaggeration, Mom) so the necessity of renting a car to get much of anywhere meant I got to places like Butler even less frequently – but now I have a sturdy reliable car, and I love driving, so yay for mini-road trips.
A few days ago, Indianapolis shut down two major thoroughfares through the city, I-65 and I-70, to do some major roadwork. For someone who lives 50-60 miles south of Indy I don’t actually spend that much time there, and I don’t know the roads all that well. So I puzzled over the detour maps for a while trying to figure out the best way to Butler, because of course my usual route is via I-65. Which was, you know, shut down. I decided the best thing would probably be to take I-465 about halfway around and then take 38th Street towards Butler, but between the construction sending people on all kinds of crazy detours and the fact that I would be getting into town around the tail end of rush hour (the reading was at 7:30 and hell if I was gonna be anywhere near late), I was afraid traffic would suck. So I allowed a full hour extra.
Traffic was fine, people. You wouldn’t even have known the construction was going on. I’m sure if I hadn’t planned ahead and had gotten into town only to find my exit closed I would have panicked, and if I’d tried to take back roads and cut through downtown or something I would have gotten lost (yes, I have a GPS; yes, I would have gotten lost anyway; I’m talented like that). But I was parked in the parking lot behind Clowes Hall at, um, 6:15 I think.
But then I sat in the car for a while poking at my phone, looking at Twitter and email and weather radar – and turns out if I’d left 45 minutes later, I would have been whomped on the way there by a badass thunderstorm, maybe even a couple of them. Wind, torrential rain, maybe even hail. I would have been cursing up a storm and hating my life. As it was, it sprinkled on me about ten drops as I walked from the car into the venue. So, go me. Hooray for detours and alternate routes!
The reading itself was, of course, fantastic. Powell read a couple of poems from Chronic (including the title poem, which knocks my socks off every time) and then the bulk of the reading was from his newest book, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. As always, listening to the poems (and Doug is a terrific reader of his own work) made me consider the poems differently than just reading them on the page – it’s like when you hear a song live after listening to the studio version a bunch of times, how just a little bit of changed phrasing makes a line stand out in a way that you think “wow, was that line even in there before?” And of course it was there all along, but hearing it in the moment, it’s different.
I’ve taken a couple of summer workshops with Doug Powell and besides being a phenomenal poet (which anyone who’s up on their contemporary poetry already knows), he’s also one of those teachers who can change a poet’s life. The thing about his workshops is: they were terrifying. Because I got pushed hard enough to write past anyplace I’d written before, and to tackle terrifying material. And at the same time, he created a space of absolute support and safety within the workshop, which made it okay to be terrified. Does that make sense? It might sound crazy if you’re not a writer, maybe. It’s not like I run around trying to get terrified for fun. I don’t like scary movies, I’m not crazy about rollercoasters – but being pushed to one’s creative brink like that is fucking exhilarating.
I haven’t been writing lately, and thinking about it now, I think it’s because I have backed away from letting myself be terrified. To be honest, real life has been terrifying enough on several occasions in the past couple of years, and I haven’t felt any desire to step out of my safety zone when I didn’t absolutely have to. It’s hard to write when your life is busy being literal.
But I need to quit that safety zone like the bad habit that it is. I need to get back on the verbal tightrope. I just do.
On the way home I turned on the SiriusXM “Soul Town” station, which gave me some Sly & the Family Stone, some Al Green, some Stylistics, some Gladys Knight, and so on. Along the way I pulled into a gas station and scribbled out about half a poem, then bought an ice cream sandwich and drove the rest of the way in the dark, words bumping around inside my head in a way that I have been missing lately. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.
Also, it occurs to me that maybe nobody should ever try to write more than half a poem. I pretty much only get in trouble when I try too hard to finish them. From now on, I write half-poems. Terrifying? You bet. And hooray for that.