What I Learned This Semester

A few weeks ago I completed my end-of-semester self-evaluation. Although I turned it in on deadline, I’m still thinking a lot about what I learned. None of it is new, or even new to me—I’m apparently a slow learner—but I think it’s worth saying as many times as it takes to grind it into my inexplicably resistant brain.

About halfway through the semester, I wrote a poem that what I think may be my best so far. (Note that I’m not saying it’s a great poem, just an improvement on my previous output.) Like a lot of my poems, it was written very quickly, but only after it rattled around in my brain for a couple of months. The way in which it finally came together together is a case study for what I learned this semester.

At the last residency I attended a student lecture on surrealism. As the audience was gathering, the speaker showed the short surrealist silent film, Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.1 The film features a famous scene in which a woman’s eye is apparently sliced through with a straight razor. Buñuel told people at the time that the scene was accomplished using an elderly, blind dog, and that that’s how the film got its name. I saw it in a French class in college and was suitably horrified. This time, I turned away before the scene came on the screen.

Even after I got home from the residency, I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. I’d find myself dreaming about it as I was falling asleep or stuck in traffic or making dinner. I wanted to write a poem about it, but I resisted. What did I have to say—”Boy, I sure hated that film”? I pushed the thought aside and got to work on my semester.

Reading for my first packet included The Selected Levis, and I fell hard Larry Levis. In my very first critical essay, I examined the way Levis handled time and narrative in “Slow Child with a Book of Birds.” Because I was supposed to relate the subject of the essay to my own work, I concluded with some ideas about how I might push my writing towards a more sophisticated intertwining of the lyric and the narrative.

And then I kept writing the same old stuff in the same old way.

Two months passed and I had exhausted my backlog of ideas for poems. Luis and Salvador wouldn’t leave me alone. I sat down at the dining room table on a Monday morning at 6:00 AM, opened my notebook, and wrote: “Once is enough for the chien andalou….”

I kept writing for an hour. I got to the point that I now think of as the hinge of the poem and had to put my pen down because I was shocked to discover the reason that image would not let me be. I wrote a little more, and when I was done I had written a poem about time, about love, about memory. I had written my best poem yet.

Here’s what I learned this semester:

  1. Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.
  2. Write the terrible poem that wants to be written.
  3. Never underestimate the power of giving voice to your aspirations.

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