Alan Catlin

Link to home pageLink to current issueLink to back issuesLink to information about the magazineLink to submission guidelinesSend email to

Artwork by Gene McCormick

Where Do the Words Come From?

Where do the words come from?

Poetry for me is something that happens deep inside; an explicable sense, of music, of sound, a jazz improvisation, counterpoints and deep resonances that try to explain the unexplainable. But it wasn't that simple, getting to the words.  All sorts of stuff got in the way, most if it having to do with Life.  And one of those things was getting the requisite degrees that was supposed to make Life easier. Simpler. But like most things, it didn't work out that way.

Poetry became something I had to study.  A means to an end, the end being teaching.

At 21, I was unemployable, had a BA in English, long hair, a child, a wife and a very low number in the draft lottery.  Winner of that particular lottery got an all expense paid vacation to tour the jungles of South East Asia. But they weren't taking students out of classes once a semester began.  Higher education was infinitely preferable to humping through a hostile jungle environment, getting shot at by an aggressive, relentless enemy. I was determined, if nothing else, to stay in school for as long as was necessary.

I managed to put off the inevitable in this way, transferring from one city to another, one college to another leaving a complicated paper trail behind that the draft board was taking forever to unravel.  By the time they actually got around to giving me a physical, I had two children, a below poverty level income and a full course load to contend with.  It became almost a tossup which would be more onerous.

The part time job as a proof checker in a bar a friend from college had gotten me gradually evolved into a full time one.  The course work required roughly forty hours of reading per week leaving little or no time for sleep.  And then there were the words, the words that refused to let go.

It was all getting to be too much.  The course work seemed like so much bullshit.  I was getting papers back with comments like, "Brilliant but we don't write that way in Graduate School."  I didn't need to ask why. The answer was simple, no creative thinking, no fooling around with the critical form, no making short stories out of literature into film papers.  Nothing really original would be acceptable.

I muddled through the year until my temporary deferment became permanent and the job became something like a profession.  I was now the barman and soon, the manager, of the busiest college bar in town.  I dropped out of the MA program after completing all the course work in order to support the family.

In my spare time checking proof, I had been writing the beginnings (and sometimes even finishing) short stories on the back of cocktail napkins. I had a couple of years of fragments, beginnings, words trying to become whole amid all that almost unreadable, wet running ink now dried and smeared on tissue thin paper.

Now it was the Unchosen profession that was as demanding as the other, academic one. It supplied all the alcohol I could consume, lead me to temptations I could not resist and, gradually, I became a Big Man in the revolving circuit of bars and restaurants.  It felt good to be respected and have money to spend.  Too good.  Most of all, it was socially acceptable to drink, to be lulled into a different kind of sleep, the sleep of the dead where all dreams end and no words left to write your way out.