What a Year of Happy Hour Writing Has Taught Me

by Andrea Avey

If a writer is simply someone who writes, then I guess I am a writer. You probably are too. I would like to be a “real” one sometime, but for now I’ll settle for being an unreal one. But how do you transition from unreality to actuality?

Since early last summer, a good friend and I have been meeting on Monday evenings at various places downtown (usually in pursuit of half-price bottles of wine) to write, share our work, and struggle together. I’m not certain how this began, but it’s been almost a year of setting aside a few hours a week to write and review work, and I’ve learned some things, which I’ll share below. Yes, there is much better advice out there from bona fide writers, but here’s some from me. You can decide how real it is.

  1. Don’t qualify what you create.

My friend and I share one particular trait (so, too, do most writers, I think): we are critical, acutely aware of our own weaknesses, the vulnerable spots in our work. Often, we’ve found that we unload a list of disclaimers before sharing a piece. When we’re feeling insecure or judgmental about a piece, we’ve begun to say, simply, “Get a load of this.” It helps.

  1. Do the work. Practice.

The antidote to inaction is action. Thinking and dreaming, imagining and pining. These are my predators, and I am their prey. I get so trapped by these states of being—wishing I could make something of myself, hoping someone would publish my work, longing to live in a cocoon composed only of books and pens and pages and words—that I tend never to take steps toward making them a reality. The way to stop doing this is to do the opposite. The more you practice, the more you produce. Sometimes what I write isn’t very good. But sometimes there’s a great line or two, or something that feels really special, and it never would’ve existed if I hadn’t acted.

  1. Examine your motives.

When we show up on Monday nights, it’s important for me to remember that I am there in service of my friend’s writing and of mine. The writing is not in service of me. The meeting is not a ruse by which we posture for accolades or praise (we’re only getting them from each other, after all). It is not an excuse to fish for compliments or build up an army of darlings and let them live forever, benign but unimpressive. When I feel myself bristling, I have to ask: What is the purpose here? Is the purpose to get better and draw closer to the life you feel you must live, or is the purpose to have your ego stroked, your feelings spared, and your work left intact, not one comma critiqued? It absolutely must be the former.

  1. Honor the effort.

Every week, I write something new. It may not be great, but it’s there. I choose to be soft with myself and find pride in the sacrifice I made to show up, have a drink (a real hardship), put my pen to paper, and show someone else what I made. I’ve got to remove expectations from myself and my work. The writing calls the shots anyway. It is my duty to sit down, with discipline, and explore what I’m keeping inside that needs to be let out. It must be freed in whatever form it wants to take (the wine helps with this). Polish can come later when there’s time, but raw material is just that: raw.

So, right now, I suppose you could say that my work and I are in the revision process. I’m no longer a first attempt. I’m definitely not in final-draft form, but I think I’m solidly in the middle stages—somewhere between the second and third draft, caught on a comma somewhere, waiting for the right person to say, “You’re ready.”

Maybe that person is me.

Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.

Every Poem Is a Poem About Loss: A Realization of Grief

by Colin Pope

In 2010 my ex, Jennie, killed herself, and I responded by writing about that loss. It wasn’t until I seriously undertook the writing of grief poetry that I realized all poems were grief poems. To be honest, when I began writing about Jennie’s suicide I didn’t have any firm plan to turn it into a book. I think this is how most people begin to cope with grief; they lash out, scribbling or drawing or, in some cases, burning and shattering their realities. That my grieving took the shape of a book was almost accidental. Similarly, the understanding that every poem contains the emotional, physical, or psychological tenor of grief came via dumb luck.

We generally forget about grief during our reading and writing of poetry. I think we forget this out of necessity, since constantly reminding oneself of the specter of loss can grow a little taxing on the nerves. We compartmentalize when we come to lyric or narrative poetry. But all poetry deals in some type of loss, and it’s good to remember this, if only to keep lucid what poetry means to us.

One thing I recall is how more than one of my poetry teachers explained that “most poets spend their entire lives trying to write a single poem.” It’s a fairly common poetry saying, and it’s terribly sad. Every poet has a blind spot in their comprehension of the universe, and they are chasing single, perfect, unachievable poems to offer them lasting, glittering insight into themselves. This blind spot could be a gap between the semiotic capabilities of language and emotion, or simply an inner conflict that will never find resolution; the poet will write about this topic or conflict or theme over and over, even after they know it’s unsolvable. Think about Robert Frost’s obsession with choice and fate, or Wallace Stevens’s burrowing into the workings of the imagination, or Sylvia Plath’s emotional mythologization of the pastoral and domestic. Poetic obsessions like these stem from a longing for meaning, especially at the points where it continually slips from the poet’s grasp. This is grief: a perpetual loss that will never find closure.

In terms of poetics, even the usage of lineation addresses grief. Poets and critics seem perpetually to ask, “How do we define the line?” I know I was called to address this question in many a class. The most common response is that a line of free verse is measured in breath; line breaks are pauses in either thought or speech. There’s a “visual breath” that occurs in poems; it’s how poets lineate their ideas to catch in readers’ minds. So, if breath is implicit in lineation, then the poem is a figure of exhalation. A poem’s reading literally occurs while the body is emptying itself of life force. One poet I know is fond of citing the physiological occurrences within the body in relation to breath: when we inhale, the blood fills with oxygen, the muscle tissue heals, and the bones grow denser, and when we exhale, we do the opposite. Poetry occurs on the dying breath. Each line uttered or written is a line that shortens life while searching for life’s meaning.

Through a lyric poem’s attempt at permanence (it’s written in ink, after all), I find myself reminded of the impermanence that exists in my life. The poet’s cataloguing of their thoughts and feelings is a figuration that serves to affirm intellectual existence; I am here, at this moment, alive. This is also where poetry differs from fiction and other forms of prose. Rather than a narrative that adheres to something like Freytag’s pyramid, concluding with characters experiencing a denouement, poems point their writers and readers to the psyche, to the place where meaning attaches to mortality rather than resolution. (Take even William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for instance; the realization that “so much depends” upon this wheelbarrow is a sad one when one thinks about making meaning of a life. Or why care about the utility of the object at all if not for its greater, impermanent meaning within that life?) This is not to say that prose writers are immune. I’ve heard a number of fiction writers allude to the idea that writing “lasts forever”; implicit, then, is that writers do not.

This type of thinking used to make me sad. It’s too existential in some ways, too forlorn and depressive. Why write or read poems at all, then? First, let’s not neglect the other half of grief, which is love. Writing about Jennie’s death allowed me to love her—to tell her I loved her and I missed her—in many ways I didn’t while I was alive. In the same way, when I write about more “normal” things now, I’m telling myself I love this moment or this perception, and there’s a lot of earnest virtue in this. But another reason to read and write poems rests inside that old Platonic saw about “the unexamined life.” I suspect—without any real proof, mind you—that poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations to discover if their lives are “worth living.”

Both the reading and the writing of such thoughts provides what Socrates himself claimed to be the only important pursuit in life: wisdom. If the knowledge of our own mortality is the initial loss that separates children from adults, then the lifelong grieving for this loss—the certainty that we will, someday, end—must be the catalyst for poetic obsessions. I find this inspiring. It’s easier to write with purpose when I accept the irrevocability of this loss. Grief is inherent in a mortal world; joy, surprise, and humor are not, and each can make welcome additions to a poem.

If you find this circular reasoning confusing, you’re not alone. I still struggle, poetically, with how death lives in the breath and permanence means impermanence and everything is its opposite, and I feel like a pretend mystic when I talk to people about why all poems are grief poems.

But then, sometimes, it helps to clarify if I look at the whole philosophical mess in reverse. Imagine a world where nobody ever died. Imagine yourself in that world. And then ask yourself: what reason would anyone have to write a poem?

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.