BUILDING BOATS, WRITING POEMS
A Craft Essay by James Diaz
When building boats, we try to craft something that will hold us aloft, a durable vessel that can bear and balance the weight, and hold out against the waves. Some boats are perhaps more beautiful than others. Some just do the job. When you’re in a jam and need to cross whatever inner seas need crossing, you work with whatever you have to work with. It’s important to write against the grain, it’s important to fuck up, fall flat, rip your pages apart, regroup, keep dreaming into the agony. Writing is agonizing. Organizing agony, categorizing wounds, sorting old stories, finding new insights buried beneath the familiar ways of seeing our life.
How did I become the writer that I am today? Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. Sitting in a room with another person who holds your story and then returns it to you in a different way. It might sound strange but give me a moment to explain. For most of my writing life, I had no voice that I could truly call my own. I was always writing because I knew if I didn’t something bad would happen. Bad things happened anyway, most of them self-inflicted. Quite simply: I wrote to not die. I wrote because it was all I had. Mostly, it had me. I had no idea what to do with it. When I read old pages from my twenties I wince at how little I really knew. And then I think: how beautiful, kid. You did what you could and you didn’t stop there.
I’ve always heard that we write what we know, we write from experience. Well, what do you do when you’re somewhat cut off from your own experience? It can be dangerous to know where you’re really at sometimes. So, you disassociate, separate rooms for different emotions. The right poems never find each other. Sometimes they put cups to doors and listen in. Sometimes they catch a glimpse. It’s a frozen wasteland for a while.
I don’t know why, but I always believed in the power of psychoanalysis. It wasn’t enough for me to be diagnosed and medicated, I needed to know what the deeper story was, because maybe, just maybe, if I could find it, I could retell it. I didn’t have access to it for a long time. But I had access to the rooms of 12-step recovery fellowships. And what I heard there were stories, so many stories. Us addicts can tell a good story. At some point, I began to realize that healing and narrative were kindred forms. The books I loved most were all about people just trying to heal. Like we all are, I suppose. But are we all writers? Maybe. I don’t know. Joyce Carol Oates says that everyone has at least one good story in them. I’d like to think that’s true. I’d hate to think it weren’t. What I do know is the people I’ve known needed it to be true. They needed to be able to tell their story. If you think not everyone has a good one in them, I think you should check out an open 12-step meeting sometime.
By the time I found myself in a psychotherapist’s office at the tail end of my twenties, I was at a place in my life where I just knew that if I didn’t learn what my deeper story was, I wasn’t going to make it. I got lucky, I guess. I found the right person. Someone who sat for years with my numb and frozen states, my painful unknowing, until eventually the ice began to crack. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But when you’re sitting in a room with someone every week who is listening for all of the things you don’t say, who gives you time to find what those things are, and to speak them aloud for the first time, in your one and only true voice, there is a poem in that that just sort of happens.
What we all do is we tell stories. “My childhood went like this. My father was explosive, my mother was cold. This person said that and then I felt this way. I’m scared. I’m angry. I don’t know what I’m feeling. I don’t want to talk about feelings today. I just want to sit here. Is that okay?” And you do. You sit there and most of the time you can’t even hear yourself talking. You talk and talk until one day you hear parts of yourself getting through. You hear and feel someone hand you back parts of what you’ve just said in a different way. You become curious. You become open. All those doors you locked emotion behind, they too begin to unlock. The more I knew about myself the more I was able to enter into a poem in a real and embodied way.
“Where are you feeling what you’re telling me right now? Is it in your chest, in your gut, in your head? How do you locate your words in your body?” It’s terrifying to get inside of yourself like that. Over time, my body and my words began to meet at a kind of crossroads. “Listen here,” they’d say to each other, “we’re in this thing together or not at all.” Write the body, and the poem really begins to sing. Maybe the only way we become anything at all is by letting other people into our story. We’re changed by others, they’re changed by us. Any therapist will tell you, their patients made them better therapists. Therapy made me, not a better poet, but an open one. Open to the song I don’t always know all the words to, but I’ll sing it anyway. Ugly boat, beautiful boat. Sometimes you just have to build a boat.
I’d imagine there are many ways to find our deeper story. And if everyone has at least one good one in them, I think it’d be a shame not to share yours with someone, somewhere, at some point. Who knows, you might just find you’ve a few more in you somewhere. Where are you feeling it? Head, chest, gut, heart? That is art, location. Compass. Honing in. It takes time to find what kind of state you’re in. But once you do, there is a kind of basic rhythm that begins to take shape. We each have our flavor, our emotional psychic taste buds.
How do we become better at our craft? For me, personally, it was by getting to know myself better. Getting to know myself better through others. Listening to myself through them. Sharing out who I was to get to who I am. A good friend can do that for you as well. Or a fellowship of recovering addicts. Any place where people come together to try and make sense of who they are is an opportunity for, and invitation to, a kind of poetry. All I know is you have to start at the place you’re at. And that place does not always offer you the best harvest. There are seasons and there are seasons. You just have to walk through the not-knowing until you do. Some days you have nothing to say, some days you have too much to say. The good poem, if such a thing exists, is probably somewhere in between. Like they say in the rooms: more will be revealed. Don’t give up five minutes before the poem happens.
In a world so often low on kindness, James Diaz is trying to refill the tank. Poetry is his imperfect medium. Author of two full-length poetry collections, This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and All Things Beautiful Are Bent (Alien Buddha, 2021), Diaz is the founding editor of the online journal Anti-Heroin Chic. He currently resides in upstate New York.