Tony Hoagland said it so much better:
“A real diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing. The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage.” (To read the entire, very short essay, click on this link to Sabio Lantz’s blog “Fields of Yuan.”)
But I gave it a try. At It’s About Time, the reading series at the Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch, last night I began by talking about what I learned from the OED about obsession, that it has a 16th century origin, from the word “siege,” and meant, originally, to besiege. What I notice, living among teenagers (like Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees, as I’m fond of saying) both daughters and students, is that we are besieged today by data. Smartphones chirping and humming all day with updates from Facebook, texts, Instagram, and who knows what-all they’re into, but also the usual suspects in our already very busy lives. To be a poet, IMHO, one must BE the besieger.
I then talked about one of my current obsessions — let’s call it a passion, shall we? — an old obsession, in fact, with the farm on which I grew up. The excerpt (above) from Hoagland’s essay provided a perfect segue, as our farm was both boggy and it had spring water. This was a problem for the surveyor (don’t call it wetlands, he warned us) as we needed a well associated with the property the house sits on in order to sell it. Wells in this corner of Lewis County often prove disappointing. My uncle says his water tastes of sulfur. When Mom sold the timberlands in May, we retained a one year right to the spring, but we hadn’t yet gotten around to contacting a well-digging company. Despite our one year agreement, when logging began, the water line was broken. The property has been logged before, of course. It was clearcut before my grandfather bought it in the early 1920s. In recent years, my dad had selectively logged some of the bigger timber.
A day or so before logging began, I took a walk across the property — in the rain — with my daughter Annie. We got soaking wet. We lost the old tractor road amid downed trees and overgrown undergrowth (no cows now to keep it down). I had hoped to walk all the way to Deer Creek, but in the deep woods we stopped and took several deep breaths, and turned back. I’d like to maintain that had it been a sunny day, I could have easily made it. As luck would have it, on turning back we immediately stumbled onto the new logging road, and walked out through splintered alder and fir trees.
I keep waking up at night and thinking of the trees. Sometimes specific trees, especially the big firs not far from the old barn, and the huge maples at the edge of the woodlands.
I lost my way in my talk, too. I had intended to weave in one more definition, of aporia. You can see the “pour” in this old word, and the a- which blocks it. In literature or philosophy aporia means an impasse or a paradox. Think of where the logs fell, preventing the water from passing through. When you’re obsessed with an issue, as an artist, you want to stick with it, to keep focusing on where you can’t seem to get through. It’s exactly where the most interesting stuff lies. Your job is to get it flowing again. To paraphrase my poetry professor, Nelson Bentley: When an image keeps returning to you, deviling you and ruining your sleep, that’s a poem asking to be written.
My talk was supposed to be a craft talk, but it turned into something as rambling as our walk across the farm that day. I think I should have titled it, “Where my next book of poems will spring from.”
Lovely, Bethany. You do have your own lovely, welcome way of putting things.