Poet Laureate of Maine, 2006-2011
When it comes to occasional poems, Terrence Des Pres in his book Praises and
Dispraises distinguishes between tactical and strategic poetry. Tactical poems respond to some immediate thing or event. These poems may live and die with the event considered, having done their work in the moment, and so pass on. Strategic poems are less keyed to a specific event and are written with an eye to existing beyond the initiating occasion. These poems in my experience come from a deeper place where the initiating occasion and something personal in the poet work together, so the external occasion and some inner response dialogue with each other, making a creative tension that inspires fresh and urgent language, perhaps complicating things beyond the initial trigger.
When asked to respond to a specific occasion, I fear I end up on the more tactical end of the spectrum—not from lack of trying to write a more lasting poem, but because too much of the writing is coming from my head, trying to fulfill an external assignment, sort of like painting by numbers. Only once, I think, have I responded to an assignment and ended up with a poem that came from a deeper place where external occasion and inner response fed each other and at least aspired to real art. But that took months of revising after the initiating occasion was long past.
How I admire those poets who can respond to an assignment with inner depth and linguistic originality. But to start with the external and find an inner language that allows the linguistic work of art to occur is harder for me, especially when a deadline is involved. The one time I got close to it, I wrote in response to two professors who were teaching a class on poetry and photography and asked me to write in response to a photograph and then discuss the process involved. When I said that I really didn’t work that way, they responded, “It doesn’t have to be a good poem.” Well, I thought, I can write a bad poem and discuss the process if it would be useful to students. So I wrote my bad poem. But then something in it wouldn’t let me go and over the next year and a half, that poem woke me in the night, popped into my head in the middle of a class, in church, in the grocery store, pushing me through countless drafts. That poem made it into a book.
But the rest of the poems I wrote in response to various occasions lived with their events and passed away.
However, that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth writing. One set of poems was the product of a collaboration between the Portland Police Department and several poets and photographers. Each artist got a police officer to ride along with, get to know, and then help compose a poem (or take a series of photographs). Marty Pottenger, a genius at drawing artists and community members together through her organization, Art at Work, created the program and the end result included two calendars sold to raise money for the families of fallen officers. We all learned from each other. Originally just the officers were to have poems in the calendar, but they insisted that we poets should have our feet held to the fire as well. (“More embarrassing for you,” they argued, because you’re supposed to be good at this.”) The project occurred in 2008 and 2009, when I was still Poet Laureate of Maine. My two poems belong to that time, that context, those amazing months working together. They existed, they did their work. Beyond that, they don’t need to be memorialized. There’s nothing wrong with tactical poems, and I have been happy to compose them. But for me they don’t fulfill the further criteria of work that deserves to be given a second life in books.
Some people might even argue that such poems don’t need to be written, but I disagree. Especially in collaborative projects the community formed around that making, the lessons learned in the process, the joy people discover in the act of creating—those are significant values to share in our world of increasing partisanship and isolation. I still remember sitting in the assistant chief’s office when another officer came in at the end of his shift. He was putting his gun in a locker, taking off the cuffs and nightstick and other equipment. As he did so, he looked at me and said, “You want to have peace in your life? You want to sleep at night? Don’t write poems.” Sometime later, that officer, in response to a heartbreaking case of child abuse, reached for a pen and wrote a poem.