An Essay by Alan Catlin

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Where Do the Words Come From?

Where do the words come from?

Poetry for me is something that happens deep inside; an inexplicable 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 college degrees that was supposed to make life easier. Simpler. But like most things, it didn't work out that way.

Poetry became something I studied. Loved, yes but it was still 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 Expenses paid vacation touring 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 that, otherwise  inevitable end, moving from one city to another, one college to another, leaving a complicated paper trail behind that the draft board was taking forever to unravel. Intellectual history taught me one thing: bureaucracies are what government is all about; manage the bureaucracy and you can manage the government. By the time the draft board got around to giving me a physical, I had two children, a below poverty level income, and a full course load to contend with. ( their definition of a hardship deferment). It became a tossup which was worse, living in fear of the draft, or maintaining a below poverty level life style. Not that I had much choice. 

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 graduate school course work required roughly forty hours of reading per week plus fifteen hours of in class participation, leaving little or no time for sleep. It’s all a blur now, was a blur then, but who knew?

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 papers on ”Literature Into Film.” (You have  to be in grad school to write a paper on that subject, that tries to emulate the style of one of my favorite writers of the time, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and his screenplay, made into a film by Alain Resnais, the avant garde classic, “Last Year at Marienbad”.) Nothing That original would ever be acceptable.

But it was what I wanted to do. Write. I mean, Really Write.  Novels.  Big novels like Joyce maybe.  It’s always Joyce when you are in graduate school.  It takes a long time for a writer to realize there is only one James Joyce and maybe the one was enough.  Some people never realize that and they end up never becoming writers.  Frustrated writers, yes, published writers, no.  But, I digress.

I muddled through well over a  year of living fearfully, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, 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.

Previously, 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, on all those flimsy pieces of paper, much of it almost unreadable, wet running ink, now dried and smeared on the tissue thin paper.

Now it was the Unchosen (as I would call my job) bartending profession that was as demanding as the other, academic one had been. It supplied all the alcohol I could consume, led 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 are left to write your way out.

But there were still words trying to find shape into something on the edges of life.  Writing anything longer than a poem was impossible due to a grueling night schedule and child care.  A few years of sleep deprivation, some bizarre health problems( Toxoplasmosis anyone?) and a five page story seemed as unthinkable as writing “Ulysses” on  bev naps. 

Short stories were shelved, a much talked about novel, stuffed in a file drawer, no more than sheaves of ideas and pencil jottings on red wine stained sheets of paper.  It was worse than limbo; dead silence: ten years of not being able to write a story, odd poems written in haste, not considered a serious form of expression, by me, not with so many Big Ideas waiting to be realized.  I was desperate to be an artist but I couldn’t write. What I could do was drink, so I did.

Then some odd poems got accepted.  Kind words were said about some sequences written, embarrassing to think back on how terribly earnest they were.  And how badly written.  But it was better than nothing.  And I was discovering poetry was something I could do. That writing about life, as it was lived, whether it be my mad mother in an asylum and my relationship to her/madness, or life in bars, made sense. My years living an extended portrait of the artist as a young man were nearing an end, thankfully.  Finally sense was being beaten, sometimes literally, into me. I quit my job in hotel and restaurant management, never to return, wrote the obligatory unpublished novel and began to live. As a poet.