Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ars Poetica

Ars what? Ars who? Ars you kidding? It’s right there on the syllabus under Course Requirements: Ars Poetica (3 Pages). Fifteen percent of the total grade. When we get to this section of the syllabus our professor, a lithe, pretty, published woman with a PhD and an easy smile, mentions that we must write an Ars Poetica in addition to two “new pieces” along with one revised work, each piece being at least fifteen to twenty pages. I am silent. My chest is heavy with panic. Does this woman realize that I do not reside at a writer’s colony?  Sure, I'd love to be as prolific as Alexandre Dumas or Joyce Carol Oates but my production, given my real life situation, has its limitations. I’m going to need to establish the habits of Honoré de Balzac and write from midnight to dawn, pretend that sleep is not a daily essential.

I stay focused on her as she continues to rattle on about class participation. She asks if there are any questions. I appeal with parched lips whether our pieces must be a minimum of fifteen pages, what if they’re a little less? Uh oh, I think immediately, the dumb question. I asked the dumb question. “Well,” she responds, “if the story can be told, told well, in a little less than fifteen then that’s acceptable.” I sigh a bit and nod thankfully. I’m wishing I hadn’t forgotten my bottled water in the car. I could use a swig right now. I'm wondering if I'm the only one in the class who doesn't know what Ars Poetica is.

It’s a small class—only four students, including myself, and three of them are in the Master’s program, they are young, two are completing their theses, one is about to begin (I find out) teaching my daughter sixth grade Literature. I am the only student not in the Master’s program, but I am thinking about it, I say, at the beginning of the class during introductions. Considering. Thinking. I also say that I read quite a bit but I didn’t get as much summer reading done as I had hoped. I have two middle-school aged children, I mention, sort of as an excuse. So I have just confessed that I am old (which is self-evident), and that I am a mom and a slacker. Now I know what they’re all thinking: a soccer-mom-slacker; a suburban-soccer-mom-slacker; oh right, this will be an interesting addition to the program. I didn’t confess to the suburban-soccer-mom part but I’m sure that this is also self-evident, even though I have worn long boot-cut jeans (on a very hot day when I ordinarily would have worn a skirt) and a funky t-shirt to class. I am not purposely attempting to appear as a not-too-old-to-go-back-to-school-non-soccer-mom, or bohemian, Generation Y, or Gen-Xer—which I couldn’t possibly pull off anyway—but rather to look just cool enough to mask any connection to suburbia, and maybe the soccer mom thing(which might draw one to include that I'm a bored suburban mom in need of a "new thing"), or an SUV or any idiosyncrasy approximating eighties yuppiedom and conservative white-bread (not that I am either), yet I betray myself by way of introduction. And I suppose denying my baby-boomer conventional suburban lifestyle would be dishonest, even if it doesn’t truly represent my inner rebel, beatnik, free spirit (or is this just how I’d like to view myself?).

And this, I reason, is why I am back in school for creative writing. This is how I rebel mid-life. At nearly fifty years old, it’s time to follow my true passion, time to step beyond the evening adult-ed writing classes, time for some moxie, see if I have any real skill, finesse, artistry. It’s why I still have that letter my fifth grade teacher sent to me the summer after that school year, after Holy Family closed, after the coolest hippie-teacher ever—Mr. Sawyer—returned to New York in his shiny, baby-blue, white-capped VW bus. “Keep writing, Jayne,” Mr. Sawyer wrote, “keep it up, follow your heart.”  It’s why I am collecting dusty, esoteric books on writing and literature. I have a lot of catch-up to do. I have to look up Ars Poetica.

I jot down notes: get Lydia Peelle—Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Pick up Virginia WoolfTo the Lighthouse. Wait a minute, don’t I already have the Woolf book? I’ve already read it, haven’t I? I strike through the note. I look at my young, cagey classmates. What do these kids know about flax and prunes and Metamucil and perimenopause? Could they craft a literary work of art out of prunes and purgatives? Bloated peri-prune prose? I’ll bet not one of them has ever scrambled down the laxative aisle at CVS. Why am I thinking about this?  Probably because I’m sure they can write circles around me just as easily as my children can (with knees straight) touch their fingers to their toes. See? Like it’s the sort of thing anyone can do anytime. I’m just not that limber—of leg or locution. I’m the only one who can’t write down one damned word in my notebook when our professor tells us to quickly scribble our thoughts on what a story is. What is a story? Hmmm. What is a story? Hmmm again. Everyone is writing but me. Blank, nothing going on here. I’m just the kid who’s going to ask all the dumb questions which is exactly why I refrained from asking what should have been my first query: if the professor could please clarify the meaning of an Ars Poetica. No, I refuse to expose myself as this student—yet I know I’ve already made the fatal error. I start to write choppy sentences about story, from a reader’s point of view, and maybe from a writer’s, but since I am not a writer (not really) I feel no authority. And then, what I fear most happens: she asks us to read what we wrote. The young students, the ones who haven’t had a twenty-eight year hiatus between semesters, write full lyrical sentences about what they think a story is. I read mine, the last choppy-sentenced paragraph: tell with honesty, humility. Sustained suspension of disbelief (duh, I can’t believe I just read that, isn’t that Story 101?). Theme should deliver message of hope… must contain substance, relevance, heart… so its audience may be captured by its spirit, transformed by its message. “Oh, a tall order,” says the professor, “story as transformative…”  I respond saying that I do believe that writers have a certain “responsibility” and we discuss this for a moment, thankfully just a moment, because I want to run my  philosophy right off the road as it’s launched from my lips, realizing that I have once again undeniably dated myself by the use of one term: responsibility.

Funny thing about writing is that I am so engrossed with the craft, honing technique, words and phrases constantly running around my brain, the need to jot everything down as soon as the thought springs, that I have become an irresponsible mother. I am the mother who is late to pick up her kids, who forgets to buy blue knee socks, pick up a gallon of milk, even make dinner sometimes. I’m inarticulate for fear of cognitus interruptus, my kids ask me questions and I’m mute, mind full of words, fractured sentences pogoing in my head. Completely irresponsible. Ars Poetica irresponsible.

The professor passes out a reading selection to be discussed at our next meeting, and asks us to bring in an author’s piece to review next week. The dumb question leaps from my mouth again, a conical dunce cap, it asks, “Contemporary?”  Yes, contemporary confirms the professor, Faulkner and Hemingway will not do. Remember?—relevance? —that is what I wrote/said isn’t it? The professor wraps up the class an hour before it is due to end. The young ones seem happy to go. But wait—an hour? I have a sitter until 7:00pm! I can’t go home now. I get in my car and decide drive over to Barnes and Noble and look for Lydia Peelle. They don’t have her, so I look at other literature, I browse the new hard covers, I look at the “how to” books, books about writing, and grammar. I buy Lorrie Moore’s new book—A Gate at the Stairs; and, Mystery and Manners—a book that I hadn’t before seen which contains select Flannery O’Connor (a favorite of mine whom I don't believe would be considered "contemporary") writings. I’m near the one hour mark now and should really go home, so I make my purchase and head outside, into falling darkness, for the car.

When I get in, my husband is in the kitchen and our sitter has left. He has prepared dinner for the kids and I am grateful, I’m still working through the student-to-mom transition, not yet ready to dive into household minutiae. I ask him—my clever, bookish husband—if he by any chance knows the meaning of Ars Poetica. “Know, I don’t,” he says simply. And mon dieu, I am encouraged, I am plumb delighted! My husband, the one with the English/Creative Writing degree, does not know (or, at the least, does not remember) a thing about Ars Poetica! Does this mean there is hope for me? I race to my laptop, plug "ars poetica" into Google and find that it is a term meaning: the art of poetry. What that translates to is essentially writing poems about poetry, literary poems, like those of the greats—Aristotle and Horace—not geometric shaped limericks, haiku, sestinas and cinquains. This does not bode well for me, as I am not terribly excited by poetry, I am too pragmatic for poetry, I am about as poetic as a rock. For me, poetry is to literature as scrapple is to gourmand, the entrails of both frightening to me. But perhaps that’s because I never quite flushed out the proper seasoning.

So I’ve got my work cut out for me. I have serious fear factor to confront. Tonight though, I think I’ll start decompressing by making school lunches, ironing clothes, washing dishes. I’m welcoming the distraction. I will listen to my children, I will answer their questions, I will tuck them in at a reasonable hour. After which I’ll review my favorites—a little O’Connor, some Capote for smiles, and maybe doze off with Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which has been perched bedside for some time now. I always keep it by me for inspiration and courage. I wonder if Ms. Lamott has ever written an Ars Poetica.

1 comment:

  1. this made me laugh.

    so... did you write it? an ars poetica?