To the Love Poems I Can’t Write

I assume I’ve always been incapable, that I was born without some romantic bone or with too many bad teen TV dramas. The truth is I consider myself a closeted romantic, a sucker for the good and pure Hallmark Christmas movies and ogling the elderly couples at the coffee shop. I hate weddings, not because I hate performative romance (I do), but because watching what is supposed to be a very intimate ceremony feels intrusive. Valentine’s Day brings up all kinds of personal conflicts.

I’ve tried writing love poems, and this is why I believe I’m incapable. They’re jaded and honestly a little sad (says more about my romantic history than my writing ability). I rely on other writers to write love poems on my behalf. People who are better at this than me — both love and writing — need to give me words for this junk.

I wish I could’ve told Paige Lewis this when I heard them read at the Stein Galleries on Wright State’s campus last spring. I confessed I write “Pavlov was the Son of a Priest” on just about every notebook I’ve used since it was published in Ploughshares two years ago, hoping it equated a profession of love. But since I also use the poem itself as an indirect profession of love, I only proved to myself that god love is hard to write about. Check out Paige’s tweet about the poem here since you can only read the digital version with a subscription.

It doesn’t start as a love poem. Honestly, I don’t know if everyone would consider it as such if it weren’t for the most quoted line (on Poet Twitter): “Now, I / demand a love that is stupid and beautiful, / like a pilot turning off her engines mid-flight // to listen for rain on wings.” Hallmark stories are simple because you know from the get-go they’ll be romantic, but the kicker is the characters don’t. The characters think they’re in a poem about Pavlov’s lineage or diamond thieves at the Smithsonian, then Twitter will throw that one romantic passage out like parade candy. Perhaps it is more romantic for the romance story to start as something else. Perhaps it is even more romantic to over-analyze the romance rather than try to write any yourself.

Thank god for secret romance poems, and thank god for more up-front This Is a Poem about Love poems. I need poets to write those on my behalf, too. Supposedly, writing about nonromantic love is a way to phase out the jaded-ness I’m guilty of. I still have a hard time understanding there’s a difference: I love my friends just like I do my partners and my family and my cat. I struggle glueing platonic declarations to a page. Yet another love poem I can’t write.

Chen Chen, to my mushy little secretly romantic heart, is the one to know regarding universal love poems. Love for the sake of love. Love for the plants and the puppies and the unending wish that everyone would just kiss already, especially the men. He writes of love that is gritty and mundane and includes the ugly parts. His love is all about the ugly parts. His poem “Maybe love is a tandem bike marathon up in the Adirondacks” (on page 38 of DUSSIE issue 19) frames itself as a work-in-progress, and feels more attainable to one who finds herself unable to write love poems: “Maybe I’m just trying to write a really good doing-it song, / & failing. But in that failing is something funky, // maybe worthy.” He is actively writing a love poem on behalf of others — it is a gift for us. And it’s a gift to the people he writes about: Keirkegaard and his grandmother and Björk.

At a morning poetry workshop hosted by Open Mouth in the fall, poet Ross Gay asked us to write questions we’d like to answer in our memoirs, then pair up with a stranger and ask them our questions. We used those answers to write a poem for our partner, and shared them with the group. Our prompt was to make a gift for someone else, not our own portfolios. I love what I make best when it’s for someone else. I’m most crafty during the holidays since I adopted my handmade gift philosophy. I tried to get the attention of the girl across from me, whom I didn’t know but pegged as a safe and non-intrusive writing partner, and inadvertently agreed to be Ross’s partner instead. Writing a poem for him was terrifying and beautiful, and I love the one I received in return more knowing it was for nothing but the gift itself.

I’m not saying this is how love poems should be written, I’m obviously not the authority on this. But I understand love better if I think of it as a gift rather than a portfolio builder. Paige didn’t read “Pavlov” at the Stein Galleries, instead chose more recent poems in their book Space Struck published this year. An audience member asked during the Q&A if they write their poems intending they be read aloud, or prefer read silently, and Paige couldn’t answer. I decided I preferred that one only be read silently, selfishly keeping that gift for myself.

I guess this holiday season I’m thinking more about the gifts I give and how they’re received. Or maybe I’m thinking of the gifts I took as gifts when they weren’t for me at all. Or maybe my complete inability to make these kinds of gifts for others. Basically, we should make and give more gifts. But I still need someone to write my love poems for me.

Redefining a Tattoo 5 Years Later (call me again in another 5)

Last night at the pub, sitting outside under strings of lights and canopies to catch the rain still falling from trees, my friend told me her conservative mother’s plan to get a tattoo.

“I know, I was surprised too.”

It’s simple, inconspicuous, and dedicated to her children. She’ll never regret her children (which was also a pretty permanent decision), so why would she regret a tattoo for them?

I’m not one to oppose tattoos ever, even if their appeal to me has dissipated since getting one myself. I had similar logic: I’ll never regret my religion, so how could I regret a tattoo dedicated to it? Fast forward five years — I no longer attend church, I openly oppose missionary evangelism (which I believed for years was “my calling” and brought about this tattoo), and I’m very sick of everyone asking if I’m Jewish when they see my Hebrew tattoo.

I don’t regret the tattoo or my faith, but I do dread explaining my hipster Christian phase. When I was sixteen and dreaming up potential tattoo designs with my friends (none of which we ever got), I believed a tattoo was a way to be publicly understood without having to explain. Not only is it naive to believe a questionable tattoo gotten at eighteen could accomplish this, but it’s naive to wish to be understood so easily. Or at all.

Sometimes I get worried when I realize how well I agree with Jack Kerouac (he never had steady employment, was constantly borrowing money from his family, and was more or less homeless much of his life), but his lament of being misunderstood and accepting that it should happen hit home in his 1948 letter to Allen Ginsberg:

“Realize, Allen, that if all the world were green, there would be no such thing as the color green. Similarly, men can’t know what it is to be together without otherwise knowing what it is to be apart. If all the world were love, then how could love exist!”

Essentially, if we were all understood, there would be no meaning to understanding. As though being misunderstood is the value in being understood, or the headache from skipping morning coffee makes the coffee more precious.

Ginsberg doesn’t buy this, however. Unfortunately for me, a sudden convert to Keroacism in misunderstanding, Ginsberg uses his next letter to expose this reason as merely an excuse for Kerouac to hold himself back and hide his vulnerability:

“Don’t you see that it is just the whole point of life not to be self conscious? That it must all be green? All love? Would the world seem incomprehensible? This is an error. The world would seem incomprehensible to the rational faculty which keeps trying to keep us from the living in green, which fragments and makes everything seem ambiguous and mysterious and many colors. The world and we are green.”

I know enough people with questionable tattoos to know they don’t make people more interesting. Almost anyone with a large amount regrets one, usually the first. “Tattoo fever” is supposedly the urge to get another tattoo quickly after the first, and how so many of my friends spent their refund checks in college. They’re addicted to the expression, to the feeling of being slightly more understood at first glance. I didn’t feel that way. I instantly felt like I was pretending to be something I was not, a devout Christian who agreed wholly with the church. Even then I was beginning to pull away, but like anyone in a sinking ship, I did what I thought would save me (or show I went down swinging): I permanently stamped my devotion on the back of my neck.

It’s “God is love” in Hebrew, a paraphrase of 1 John 4:12–16, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love, God lives in us . . . We have come to know and believe the love God has for us. God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God.”

I discussed my tattoo at the pub last night, and I read these words in Ginsberg’s letter this morning:

“We are inexistent until we make an absolute decision to close the circle of individual thought entirely and begin to exist in god with absolute unqualified and unconscious understanding of green, love and nothing but love, until car, money, people, work, things are love, motion is love, thought is love, sex is love. Everything is love. That is what the phrase ‘God is Love’ means.”

Ginsberg tries his best to deny his mysticism for new-age religion. A decade after writing this letter, he would convert to Buddhism. These early letters to Kerouac reference western religion countlessly as someone who respects the philosophy but struggles with the execution. I sought to distance myself from the church. I wore collared shirts and my hair down so no one could confuse me as evangelical. I don’t regret my faith, and I still have it, though it doesn’t leave me searching for that community like it once did.

All expression should come from a place of honesty. That way, there isn’t truly regret. In the end, I only regret the times I was false, and those are when I believed I knew things completely. Now I realize this is impossible. As Ginsberg wrote, “What the fuck do you actually care whether or not you know you are love in the false way that you seem to think you ‘know’ things now? Why are you afraid to submit to the annihilation of such stupid meaningless unreal knowledge.” Perhaps we are mostly misunderstood. Philosopher Alain de Botton believed this is the side effect of a creative mind, and puts us in the company of great artists. But, in a way, is that not understanding?

“Don’t say that it never becomes complete because what I am saying is that that is just the whole point, even of you, that it can be complete. All green. Abandon everything else.”
– Allen Ginsberg

There Should Be Love Languages for Patriotism

Name a person who has a flawless relationship with their country.

We’re unwillingly thrust into a dangerously co-dependent partnership with our country from birth. In America, this is a particularly complicated affair — we cannot escape patriotism. It’s summer in Arklahoma, and the red-white-and-blue lake wear and beer coozies are quickly taking over. I own one bandana inspired by the American flag, and I wear it once a year to watch fireworks. I’m convinced of ostracization if I don’t.

Looking at the political climate and ruling government, I want to do away with anything that celebrates the country as it is today, and there’s not a ton of history I think is worthy of pretty pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, disagreeing with patriotism is directly translated into “I hate the troops” (which is so wrong but none of us have time for that discussion right now). This made last week’s Memorial Day celebrations particularly conflicting.

Memorial Day is the kick off of the Old Fort Days Rodeo, our decades-long family ritual. I’ve missed one year since I was in the womb. There are friends of my parents that have actually seen me grow up year to year at the rodeo. I own two pairs of cowboy boots and one belt buckle.

Much of this culture I have little in common with, though there was odd arena-wide unity when the announcer and clown (yes, they hire clowns as the comedic relief. It’s not as bad as it sounds) made jokes about Colin Kaepernick and no one laughed, or when they brought out a life-sized Kim Jong Un doll to the bull fighting and we were all tangibly uncomfortable. The most concerning bonding experience, to me, is the American war montage they do on the first and last nights.

Always, the national anthem is sung after prayer, and two ladies circle the arena on horseback with fringed flags. It’s a solemn event. On Memorial Day, and again the following Saturday, the precede that with audio clips of post-9/11 speeches while riders leisurely trot out with military banners, one for each branch. There’s silence, and the bridge of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” plays. The crowd goes wild.

This is the concerning part.

The ways patriotism is written into our history sets us up for failure:

1. The national anthem, based on an 18th-century British pub song, is difficult to sing (sober) and is written about on object in a battle field. Not the countrymen, or even the reason for battle.

2. The motto, “E pluribus unum,” is disgustingly self-aggrandizing: Out of Many, One.

In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, a war veteran, laments all the inadequacies in our expression of American pride. He points out America has a law he claims no other nation has written about its flag: “The flag shall not be dipped to any person or thing.” This dipping in other countries is considered a “friendly and respectful salute.”

The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness and somehow welcomed them into society and its real estate.

3. Few industrialized countries encourage school children recite a pledge of allegiance — or have a pledge at all — to an inanimate object. North Korea students pledge to Kim Jong Un. It’s officially not been required in America since the mid-twentieth century, but response to NFL protests show how little that is acknowledged.

Since legal adulthood, I’ve gotten more and more wary of flag worship. Most men in the Arkansas River Valley would take insults to their mothers better than insults to the stars-n-stripes, as they unwittingly spill Coors on their flag-printed shorts or adjust their star spangled belt buckle.

It’s about honor and respect — this I understand, but the execution is my concern.

Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U. S. of A.
Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way

This is Keith’s bridge that causes everyone to cheer at the Old Fort Days. It was written as a response to the 9/11 attack. At the time, it was a rally cry that let terrorists know America wouldn’t be knocked down, that we’ll unite against our enemy and cannot be defeated. In the 17 years since, we are no longer the only country that has survived such a horrific event, but we are the only ones who still retaliate as though you’re the boy that broke our sister’s heart in high school.

Based on this song and our anthem, threat of violence equals love of country.

As Vonnegut said, we are quick to battle our external enemies but ignore what’s happening at home. This is what makes our unwilling family tense. To point out our own flaws this time of year is to denounce your love of America. You can’t be patriotic and self-critical.

There is a song by Mt. Joy about police brutality against minorities. Like the other lyrics mentioned, these are just as influenced by our history of violence and conquest, though the perspective is flipped: “There’s blood on the streets of Baltimore / Kids are getting ready for the long war.” Both Mt. Joy and Toby Keith call the young to step up (Keith’s line, “Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,” refers to the Armed Forces draft that called primarily on men aged 17–25, though hasn’t been used since 1973), debatably on opposing sides, while our anthem feebly promises the inanimate flag will stand no matter the outcome.

Mt. Joy sings in the chorus, “Cut it up, but it’s still the red, white, and the blue,” denouncing flag worship but still holding to patriotism. The Memorial Day display was once my favorite part of the entire week — it gave me chills when the flag was galloped out just as Keith sang “We’ll put a boot in your ass,” and led the other banners in a victory lap around the arena, stopping in the middle while the other riders circle round with fireworks coming out of the posts. I kid you not. This used to be my favorite part, and now it’s problematic because it still somehow brings me nearly to tears.

There has to be other ways to express patriotism that doesn’t center on conquest and defeat. It’s a tough discussion, and not just because we still lob the name “commie” as an insult in 2018. It’s like having an entire family you disagree with but you have to love them because they’re family, no matter how racist or sexist they are at Thanksgiving. I love this country, even the history, when I see those few glimpses that make me think we can do better. But loving a flag is hairy business.

The Roughly-Scheduled and Totally Expected Love Letter to My Hometown

I left Fort Smith, Arkansas, telling everyone I couldn’t find the job I wanted here. I have a mismatched bachelor’s degree that is two parts music and one part creative writing, and I saw no one around me who had any idea what to do with that; I moved to Colorado for an internship with an orchestra, convinced myself I should do that, but not yet; I am halfway through a master’s program in Ohio, and all I know is full-time professorship sounds about as appealing and useful as a third big toe.

I’m not worried about this. I’m not focused on a straight-line career and I’m more patient with it than I thought I’d be. But I am starting to amend my first belief that I’d have to leave this place for it.

I’m sitting now at a coffee shop in Poteau, Oklahoma, with retired locals and students from the community college down the street. It’s finals week, the clouds are white and many, and when they’re in the right position it looks more overcast than it really is. From my view, it’s easy to forget how much I hate the hot, humid weather here, that the college is one bad enrollment from closing, and if I had a conversation with any of the people here they’d ask, “When are you getting a real job?”

And yet, I wish I could stay.

My favorite thing to do when I come home in the summer is drive the excessively large Toyota my mother keeps as a farm truck down Old Cameron Highway (it has a real name with numbers and everything, but no one uses it), where there are wildflowers and cattle and blue mountains in the background. This was the road we took to church every Sunday. It’s not faster than the highway that runs straight from my house to the Poteau bypass, but that’s not the point. I flick through preset radio buttons until I find a station not on commercial. My Spotify subscription is wasted here.

My second favorite thing to do is practice my accent. When I worked at a restaurant in high school, customers always asked where I was from, saying, “You don’t sound like folks around here.” My college roommate swore I had a slight accent, but she was from Illinois and denied having a midwestern accent herself (she totally did). Normally, comments on my neutral dialect felt like a compliment. After a long day and night in semi-formal for a gala, softened by exhaustion and one or two shots, the twang slipped out. A friend said, “You finally sound like you’re from the south.” I grinned.

I don’t consider myself a country mouse or city mouse. I’ve lived in both and they felt like home. But there’s a reason the story isn’t about their cousin, suburban mouse. He’s a banker with twenty baby mice kids and a house identical to his neighbors’ and if he visited his kin in the city or country, he’d never go home. He doesn’t particularly favor one over the other, but either would be it for him.

At a pub last week, I sat next to a woman at the bar. She met her friend, who had apparently been out of town for a few years. He was amazed at how different Fort Smith is now from his childhood. “Now it’s a place people come back to,” the woman next to me said.

When I was in college, it was very vogue to complain about everything Fort Smith lacked. It’s especially better if they’ve never lived anywhere else. I took it as a personal offense. Now it’s easier to find people who love it like I do, who aren’t stuck but stay willingly. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten out, yet I come back. Maybe you love your town if you can leave it.

Lamenting old cities is a worn out tune for me. I’m very ready to write about something else. Eventually it won’t be the only thing I think about.

An online journal is publishing one of my prose pieces in July. It’s about last summer when I came home, part fiction but completely true. The editors suggested I change the title to something that made more sense (I’m horrible at titles, ask every workshop I’ve been in). I only considered revisions that included Rock Island, my true hometown, simply so it could have a spot on some small map for a moment.

The table next to me is filled with people talking about bringing arts to Poteau. I can’t figure out yet what they’re planning, if it’s even concrete ideas or just idle wishes. There’s a place for it here I didn’t see before. I take back what I said years ago: I can find a life here doing what I want, it wouldn’t be settling. But not yet.

Not a Photographer

I got a refurbished Nikon CoolPix L840 for my birthday a few years ago. It’s small and user-friendly and perfect for travel, which is really the only time I’m particularly inspired to take photos. It’s easy to go for the tourist-y photo ops when you’re an actual tourist.

In Denver, I wanted to go out and take photos every weekend, but I really only did twice. I was trying very hard to look like I lived there and wasn’t another transplant (though that’s exactly what I was) taking tourist photos with my point-and-shoot while beanie-wearing Coloradans with trendy tattoos stood next to me with their DSLRs, two different tripods, and a designer leather backpack full of lenses. I was intimidated.

I’m not a photographer. I don’t want to be. I like taking photos, but I have no real talent for it and no intention to improve.

Once the weather in Ohio became sunny and above 30 degrees, I got that old urge to pull out the camera. It’s become synonymous with the desire to hike and be outside that surfaces every spring. I put on a hat and was at the Clifton Gorge trailhead less than an hour after making this decision.

There is an interview with Bill Hayes in advance of his new book of photography How New York Breaks Your Heart that talks about his love affair with the city and the people in it. His previous book Insomniac City describes this relationship as though NYC is a living being worthy of affection. I guard this book closely for how it accurately describes my feelings of Denver, though I was there under a year and Hayes has been in New York since 2009. Some places take your heart just like people can. I don’t miss it like home, but I am homesick for both.

I’ve always liked hiking alone (I like doing most things alone, honestly), and the camera makes me slow down in different ways. I’m not just looking around me; I’m looking specifically for a good shot, and for the things I can’t catch in a photo. I can photograph the gorge next to me, but not the different sounds it makes at different points on the trail. I can zoom closely on the dead leaves still clinging to branches, but can do nothing at the exact moment the breeze catches them.

I saw several other photographers on the trail. One man stationed deep in the gorge, off the trail behind the flood warnings that urge people to not pass the trail markers. Another was walking along the trail like me, a large gear bag strapped to his back and walking sticks around his wrists. Mostly, though, it was hikers pulling out their phones at the overlooks.

When you look for the things worth photographing, they’re suddenly abundant. It’s no secret I’m struggling to love Ohio still. But as I look for more photo subjects, I see better how other peole can love it here, just like Hayes looks for the ways others love New York.

I was defensive of Fort Smith when anyone said there wasn’t anything there. I want to feel the same for Dayton.

Still no interest in being a better photographer. But I do want to love where I am better than I do.