The Letter Project

June 21, 2009

Special Delivery (09)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:21 pm
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This is a letter I wrote to my husband during my Provincetown residency.  He was visiting his ill father at the time.   His father’s nickname was T.O.M (The Old Man).  –TW

Tuesday June 24, 2008 (24 Pearl Street, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA  02657)

5:43 a.m.

Yes, I have done it again, I have been a bad girl and stayed up all night writing.  Actually, I came to a wall and had some decisions to make.  This was a little after midnight.  I stepped out of the apartment—it had finally quit raining—and walked over to the lounge.  The leaves swooshed all around, and it felt eerie, but it felt good to be out. I fooled around on the Internet a while and by the time I got back to the apartment, I’d made a firm decision about how to proceed.  It’s going to mean changing the point of view in some of the sections, but that shouldn’t take more than a day, at most, to complete.  The whole book is going to be from the point of view from the man.  I’ve created a character and a voice that delights me and makes it easy to say what needs to be said.  I know exactly how things will go now.  I even know the end.  Once I make those changes, the rest of the book should fall into place.  The book feels fresh and alive now.  It’s very different than I imagined it would be, much less serious and much more fun. I’ve kicked the belief that this has got to be a serious book.  Finishing a rough draft before I leave here seems even more do-able than before.  I’m up to 50 pages now.  That’s 50 REAL pages, not just rough pages.  So now it’s the 24th, and I’ve got a week to make my goal of 80-pages.  I think I can do it.  That’s only about 4-pages a day.  That puts my draft about the half-way point. 

How are you doing?  How is T.O.M.?  Are you keeping your spirits up?  Because you know I love you.  Thank you for bringing me to P-Town.  May this book provide us even more adventures still.

Love,

Theresa Annie

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June 14, 2009

Special Delivery (08)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:09 pm
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This is a letter I wrote to my husband during my Provincetown residency. The “feeding tube” was a system my husband worked out for feeding our cats while he was away.  He took the dogs with him.–TW

Monday June 23, 2008 (24 Pearl Street, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA  02657)

5:42 p.m.

It’s been a slow day.  It’s cloudy and feels like the clouds are ready to burst any time.  I got up in the early afternoon but still felt sleepy.  I read a little on the couch, pretended to sleep, then took my shower, made my bed, and went to check the mail.  There waiting for me were your two sweet letters.  I’ve got tears in my eyes because they are so sweet.  Your letters are always the best.  Mine pale in comparison to the amount of love you are able to express in just a few words.  Thank you, baby.

In response to you about your wish that I should live to the fullest here:  I am.  I may not be one for high adventure, but I’m on an adventure of the mind and that takes me to great places.  With $22.00 left I don’t mind eating the pantry food.    

As I was writing last night, I got the idea to make the male character more vivid and strange.  I felt the narrative was lacking in the magic-department and I needed a way to approach the absurd.  It’s still hard for me sometimes to separate the male character from you, because I use so much of you and your experiences.  But I want to make him a little more strange:  well, I know you’re strange, but I mean a different kind of strange.  It didn’t mean starting over; I added a section and then did some touch ups in the sections I’d already done.  The reason for this is because I got to the Pittsburgh section and found I had run out of gas.  It just wasn’t coming out right; the writing was so bland.  I needed a way to energize things.  I had to make the man more weird so he could say things that most people would never say. 

When I checked Facebook today I saw that George Carlin has died.  I really liked him.  Russet and Carlin:  RIP.

 Your dad must be feeling a little desperate if he is talking about taking more treatments.  I don’t think that will happen, do you?  He may have waited too long.  It’s an awful kind of cancer to have, the worst in my opinion.  I pray the rest of our family will be spared. 

You said you are staying until the 6th.  That’s a little more than 2-weeks.  That makes a good visit; did you take the boat? I know he will love having you there.  You brighten the spirits.

How were the kitties doing?  How are them raggedy-arse tinkers?  How did the feeding tube work out?  No further obstructions?  Were the little bastards glad to see you? 

What does your dad think of your hairy-arsed friends?  Have you made them do their tricks?  Was Sweet-Pea nice? 

Normally, I’d end this and get it in the mail, but I think I’ll wait for a sunnier day.  Have fun with T.O.M.

June 1, 2009

Special Delivery (07)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 10:15 pm
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This letter is written to a  former teacher, Mr. Conrad, in response to an assignment I gave Contemporary Poetry students at BGSU.  In this letter, Luda writes insightfully, intelligently, and with compassion about James Wright, his poetry, and poetry’s potential for saving lives.  –TW

April 1, 2009 

Dear Mr. Conrad,

 Today, we meet again with the passing of paper, ink, musings and words. I’m curious to the places this letter will take me, as each letter-writing session over the past few weeks has been a pleasant surprise and simply unplanned expedition. It was very nice to hear back from you via email, and I’m relieved to find that you’ve been receiving my letters—hopefully you enjoy reading them as much as I do writing them.  Though James Wright has been the main topic of discussion, exploring his poetry and letters has led me into an exploration of myself. I highly encourage you to look into reading his letters, and maybe learn a little more about yourself within them. There is a quote I love by John Donne, that says, “Letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” Wright did so through his letters, and it is incredible to read the way he bare his soul to his correspondents.

What I believe to be most magnetic about Wright’s letters is their confessional quality. He so openly explores the depths of himself, from the extremes of his happiness to the profundity of his loneliness. I remember reading a speech by Robert Bly, Wright’s close friend and correspondent, given at the first annual James Wright Poetry Festival in Martins Ferry, Ohio, 1981. “There is an immense loneliness surrounding him,” he said. “So you felt this immense loneliness you feel around him, and then you feel a tremendous dignity in the middle of that loneliness… All around him—the loneliness.” In his correspondence, Wright admits to the depths of his loneliness, and attempts to understand its role in his poetry and life. But the loneliness, like Bly said, is dignified—not once does Wright ask for pity or consoling—he accepts it as a part of himself. This ‘dignified loneliness’ can be seen in Wright’s poetry, but it is never overbearing—his poetry explores his own personal alienation. I’m reminded, now, of one poem in specific, called Beginning

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the fields.

The dark wheat listens.

Be still.

Now.

There they are, the moon’s young, trying

Their wings.

Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow

Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone

Wholly, into the air.

I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe

Or move.

I listen.

The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,

And I lean toward mine.

To me, this is Wright’s honesty—embodied through poetry—at his best. He acknowledges that he has his own personal demons to explore, just as we all have our own. Wright openly acknowledges the idea of entering his own darkness. I love the last two lines especially, “the wheat leans back toward its own darkness/And I lean toward mine” –they send shivers down my spine. In a more technical sense, it is refreshing to see that Wright does not rely on a line break to bring surprise, but more on the narrative itself. As I mentioned in a previous letter, Wright did many translations of world poets (Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pablo Neruda, Victor Hernandez, Karen Hesse, Joy Katz, Georg Trakl) and this poem certainly shows their influence on his writing, as he imagines the wheat, shifting in the wind, as if back and forth from its own demons. 

Wright wrote to his old friend Eugene Pugatch (Sept. 30, 1960) who was also experiencing depths of loneliness. “I will not enter your own loneliness with smug moralism and pieties,” he wrote. “The ability to face and endure and—most of all—to acknowledge each suffering in its reality is what makes you a great man.” You see, Wright did not aim to give pity or a pat on the back to Gene, but to relate to him the acceptance he himself felt of his own loneliness, or what he beautifully called it “poverty of the heart.”  What Wright conveyed to his friend was that accepting and admitting one’s shortcomings is most important: “To be one’s true self, and yet endure. That is everything,” he wrote. It is not the shortcomings that define us. Many people forget this, and focus on faults. In closing, he wrote something that still resonates within me: “Remember: our life does not turn on trivialities, but on the stars.” I love, love, love this—what a great thing to remember—to not dwell on shortcomings, but simply overcome by admitting them to yourself. It’s a reminder we could all use on a daily basis.

 There was one letter that I really connected to, when Wright wrote to Donald Hall (June 26, 1973) about a feeling of detachment. He described that he had been feeling disconnected with himself: “I seem to be losing touch with myself, if you follow me,” he confessed, “I don’t mean I’m boozing (I’m not) or that I’m ill. . . I just seem to have lost touch with poetry and don’t know quite where to turn. I feel low about it.” You see, to be disconnected from poetry must have been incredibly difficult for him, as it was his voice and outlet. I know what he meant, in my own way. There are just some days where I find myself struggling to connect with anything. This letter really let me realize just how important poetry was to Wright’s life.

Wright found great comfort through his own poetry, and that of his friends. He once wrote to James Dickey after reading some poems (Nov 19. 1959):

Maybe now I can just face the fact of my own alienation, maybe I can realize… that you too have your own alienations and yet are able to fulfill your humanity, your (I can’t withhold the word, and I hope it doesn’t embarrass you) greatness, in those poems that you read, poems that, in the face of all the hostility and blindness and deafness and absurdity around us, make sense in some kind of ultimate and tragic and triumphant way… what I mean to say is that I feel changed – perhaps restored, saved. I think I can go on now.

There is a poem in particular that reminds me of this ‘restoration’ he speaks of.

 Milkweed

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,

I must have looked for a long time

Down the corn rows, beyond grass,

The small house,

White walls, animals lumbering towards the barn.

I look down now, It is all changed.

Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for

Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes

Loving me in secret.

It is here. At a touch of my hand,

The air fills with delicate creatures

From the other world

In the speech I mentioned earlier, Robert Bly referred to this poem as “a praise poem.” I admire this description, as I truly see Wright’s hope shining through the lines. He writes of a struggle, internalized:  “Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for/Was a wild, gentle thing.” But it is all changed, and he became open to the world around him by overcoming self pity and blame. I can relate to the first few lines extremely, as I’m sure most people can. How many times do I catch myself staring into space, internally reliving experiences passed and worrying? I really do love this poem–it has many levels, some which remain unspoken.

It is true that there are utterly incredible moments to be found in Wright’s letters—moments when he felt lucky to be alive and connected with everything around him.  A quote of his that I really enjoyed was in a letter to James Dicky: “I am not dead! This joyful thought fills my mind each morning when I waken”  (Aug. 25, 1958). How I wish this thought instantly popped into my head on those days when I can hardly wake up for my 9:30AM class. It’s true—we are all lucky to have each day and live in it! There’s a story about James Wright that I really enjoy, when he was spending a few days at Robert and Carol Bly’s farmhouse. One night after the Blys were asleep he got quite drunk and snuck into the chicken coop. He later wrote about it to Dickey (Dec. 18, 1960):

Sitting here alone in this warm chicken house, I have an indescribably sense of warmth and love,” he described, “I am as it were basking in the golden blades of light, the imagination, the friendship, the truth to the spirit…those precious things I had forgotten to love; and now at the very least I love them, and I know my love is true; so I feel very happy.

What a simple yet beautiful realization he had come upon—I can just imagine him sitting in a chicken coop, scribbling poetry with a grin on his face. What a great image!

Poetry is what really gave Wright a sense of self—I think because it was how he really expressed himself easiest. He found great solace through poetry, and felt most like himself when writing. Poems gave him freedom, as he wrote in a letter to Robert Bly of Bly’s poems (Feb. 18, 1960), “…they always give me an awful sense of liberation. I don’t know quite why, but it is a feeling that the best poetry can give.”  Anne Wright, his wife, once found a short note with a scribble of the beginnings of a poem on it. It perfectly describes what I have wished I could say about poetry. In its uncompleted state, it is great nonetheless:

Poets pass on a chill spring

and a dying fire to one another,

but poetry is not a cheap trick.

It is the true voice. It isn’t an

ornament flung random on life. It’s

The flowering of life, as Guillén said.

The note reflected thoughts on a book he had just finished reading by Gibbons Ruark, and Wright was quite shaken by the work—he had also written, “This man is real. So he’s a real poet. There is no other kind.” Another letter to W.D. Snodgrass (Nov. 7, 1960) captured Wright’s revitalizing attitude: “I do not know how things are working out as poems. But I will say this: I feel alive with them, and I am seeing things I never saw before. And, though it sounds (and probably is) immoral, I am having a hell of a good time with poetry. I had lost that, and to get it back is worth everything.”

Wright and his first wife, Libby, did not have the best relationship. In many of his letters he confesses their physical and emotional separation. There was an incredibly poignant letter between them  (Aug. 12,1960) that particularly resonated with me. It showed true tenderness of love past, but also relayed Wright’s passion for poetry. In it, Wright writes of how he came across a poem that he wrote a while back, and the effect it had on him. It’s incredible to think that simply finding an old poem could affect him to such a degree, but the poem was actually about his wife and unborn child, and took him back to an incredible place in his memories. I’m including quite a longer passage of it because I couldn’t bear to weed any of it out:

I looked at the poem, and was able to say: whatever I have to give—as man, poet, as living creature on this earth—is here, and it is good…As I sit here, I have no way of knowing myself at all: for all I know I am a hired liar who has already gone insane and is convinced that his lies are truth; so this old poem is a kind of reassurance, like a compass in the hand of a man lost in a strange forest, or like a signpost in the midst of the desert.

How confidently he writes, and how beautifully! I can’t get over the fact that he realizes this poem is a testament of himself, of his creation, and of his art. He tells Libby, “even if I can’t hang on, even if I go utterly to pieces, I wish you would look at the poem anyways, because I wrote it once and it was as near to secure truths as I ever came of maybe ever will come again before I die.”Such powerful words. I often spoke of an element of transformation in Wright’s poems. I saw this element within his letter—the idea that his poetry outlasts himself, and that within this single poem he discovered truth and meaning. “For at least once in my life,” he concluded, “all I had to give in love, sharing of pain, and poetry, all of these came together in one single and whole moment of life.”

I’m running out of time and paper, but there is one last letter I’d like to tell you about. Wright not only kept correspondence with his close friends, but also with his students and readers of his poetry. This letter to Wendy Gordon, on September 6, 1975 asked Wright the simple question of why he writes poetry. His reply was stunning:

Why? Because we live in a horrible century, and poets have been able to keep one another alive. How? I don’t know how. I do know this much: when I moved to Japan thirty years ago with a bayonet on my shoulder, another boy named Toshitada Iketani was waiting…with a bayonet on his shoulder. Somehow—don’t ask me how—he and I didn’t kill each other. Three years ago he translated one of my books into Japanese. In our correspondence, it turned out that he too had carried Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with him in combat.

It may seem silly and cliché to say, but in this case, didn’t poetry save lives? It is without a doubt that Rilke saved these two men from killing each other, although they had no idea at the time. I am constantly reminded of how small of a world it is, and it is these little connections that prove my point time and time again. What are the odds that this would have happened? Kismet.

Oh how I’ve rambled on, Mr. Conrad. There is just so much to say. Reading James Wright’s letters has been so…indescribable… to me, so maybe this letter has shown you why. I send you my best, to yourself and your family. Congratulations on your second son, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the news.

All my best,

Luda

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