Against Contrivance

Foreword

About once a month, a group I really adore called Subcontinental Drift Boston puts on an open mic. Last (October? September?) year, I started making a regular appearance, reading my poetry at their open mics. It’s become, above all, a way to engage with the South Asian community in the Greater Boston Area. Every meet feels like a little homecoming. Somewhat less importantly, it’s become a great exercise in writing poetry to a bit of a schedule. I’m self-learning discipline as regards writing poetry, but I’m also unlearning a lot of my own behaviors around obligation and the commodification of artistic spaces and artistic output.

This essay is the result of realizing that discipline is an active endeavor. Discipline is not muscle memory. I made the mistake of thinking it could become muscle memory. I wrote this essay the night before I was due to perform at the open mic. I planned on reading this in lieu of a poem. Then the Christchurch mosque attack happened. I found myself processing my desperate sadness through a poem I wrote the same day I was slated to perform. This essay was not relevant anymore; but I wanted to publish it here as a reminder to myself that contrivance is the downfall of art.

**

March 14, 2019

I’ve been taking liberties with my own fonts of inspiration. Usually, when I haven’t written a poem in a while, I feel the loss of it in my body like hunger. I find myself looking around at the world aimlessly, hollow-eyed, a child who hasn’t fully grasped the meaning of Ramadan.

I think I’m misrepresenting that loss; the loss isn’t hunger, it’s just forgetting you’re fasting. In going without, you understand what it means to have. When I do finally come upon a poem, it’s like sinking my teeth into a date. In my house, we break our fasts with dates smothered in freshly whipped heavy cream. The first taste is that of coolness. The second taste is that of the date, but it’s the coolness that always stays with me, the way I feel it first in the back of my eyes, spreading out to my stomach, soothing the heat I didn’t know I had there.

I have not been so graceful in my asceticism lately. On the contrary, I’ve flaunted my hunger, my loss. I’ve worn it like a badge of honor, lifting up my shirt to showcase the hollows of my ribs, like a monk on a soapbox. Cocky enough to mix metaphors – cocky enough to call irony into my life.

It’s not nazar. As much as I like invoking nazar for every minor inconvenience, I know when the universe is just trying to knock me down a peg. “Look at me, look at my misfortune, look at this hunger – I will pull a poem out of this hunger, a miracle out of the dark, a bunny out of a hat. I am without now, but I know there is inspiration beneath the surface.” Enter: irony.

Still, I’m sure infuriatingly to anyone watching, I have always been able to pull off writing a poem in the nick of time. I have rarely had a reason to believe otherwise. I always find poems, lurking around corners. It’s just a matter of finding the right time to initiate the hunt.

At some point last week, though, I realized I was in trouble. I realized I was in trouble two days ago, when I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin. Something she wrote stirred the hunger in me, and I put the words to paper. After a stanza, I was stumped. I reread what I wrote: there was no rhythm, no instinctive meter, no reason to keep writing.

“That’s okay,” I thought. “I’ve had a lot of duds before,” I thought. “Maybe this one wasn’t meant to be,” I thought.

A couple of weeks before that, I had had another idea. I put it to paper. I have forgotten about it since, and it has been relegated to my Google Drive folder as “Untitled, February 28, 2019.”

I’ve collected two more “Untitleds,” since then. “Untitled, March 13, 2019,” was the one I wrote after Ursula K. LeGuin. The third Untitled, “Untitled, March 14, 2019,” seemed promising. But, while I was trying on glasses at Warby Parker, I got the sinking feeling that I was in trouble once again. I had been nursing an emotional breakdown over an album I’d been relistening to. I was convinced: if not Ursula, this album would do justice to my monkhood. I would write in a fury. I was near tears – what’s the point of crying over a song if you’re not going to write a GD poem after it?

Friends, I’m here to tell you today: there has been no GD poem after any song. I had relegated myself to thinking, “Well, if not a poem-poem, maybe a prose-poem?” After all, where is there more freedom than in unstructure?

Apparently at a Warby Parker, because between writing that paragraph and putting money down on a pair of cherry blossom Madeleines (medium-framed), I had completely lost any interest in “Untitled March 14, 2019.” When I tried to read that poem again, I was taken aback by my own hubris. I couldn’t recognize the voice in the spaces between that poem as my own. The contrivance seemed even more vivid in unstructure, and trust me, I have no pretensions about my own pretensions when it comes to my poetry. Again: what’s the point of feeling a song so deeply that you cry every time you listen to it if it’s not going to inspire you to write a GD poem after it?

I felt betrayed. I’ve come to realize that I made up the loss I felt – I’m not hungry, so much as a little peckish. I want a snack. Munchies. I don’t need the food, I just want it. And therein lies the arrogance, the mistake: when I write a poem, it’s out of a need. There’s a twisting in my stomach so ferociously painful that if I don’t write down the meter in my head, I will carry that pain for the rest of my life.

Here, there’s no such primal desire. Here, there is no hunger. There is only an assumption of deserving: I need to write a poem so I can read it at Subdrift. That’s why there was so much contrivance in every poem I tried to write. There was no authenticity or engagement – just expectation.

The danger of a stage, a platform, is that you lose yourself to that platform. I parsed away a part of myself to the Subdrift stage every time I read a poem there. The feeling is electric. Every time I’ve come off that stage, I’ve felt freshly exorcised. I find myself going to the adjoining kitchen to shake in silence. Each poem is a possession; a commitment, an oath made in blood, and the stage comes to collect. I love that feeling more than I can say, and perhaps more than is responsible. I love expectation; I rise to it. But I cannot write poetry to Pavlov. There is nothing in writing poetry that needs to be conditioned, just nurtured when the opportunity offers itself. The hunger comes and goes as it pleases. My job is to wait; feel the twisting; breathe in the possession; and, as quickly as it comes upon me, release it. Beyond that, I have no control over the matter. It’s time to stop pretending that I do.