Voices and Visions: The Writer’s Sense of Self

My sister hears voices. They call her godawful names. She also has visions of Jesus in the TV. As a poet, using the same word we associate with madness to describe an essential quality, is, well, freaky.

Barry Hannah said voice is the most unteachable quality of writing. And yet voice is central to the writer’s quest, to the existential, Who am I? question. Which leads to, Why do I do this?

Voice, comes the answer from the abyss, To satisfy the need to hear our voice. Voice is as vague as what Kim Addonizio calls “an unmistakable something.” Or as Barry Hannah called “magic, a sort of music in the head.” Or what Amy Hempel calls conversational speech told at a slant. Write your poems how you write your emails, Jon Anderson once told Steve Orlen, both poets who’d taught in the MFA program at the University of Arizona.

That’s sort of what I did when I found mine, late, at thirty-six. My writing had stalled. My first book had for years been a finalist but never a bride. My son was young and I was tired. I had hit my rock bottom. And then I heard it. I was trying to explain meaning to my students. But in my boredom with academic jargon, said, When you go on a date, the girl’s not going to say she wants to “do it.” She’s going to talk softly, or tilt her head, or lower her eyes. Which means that she’s going to infer, to imply through chosen gestures that all point in the same direction to her singular, underlying motivation intended for you the audience to decipher, and through the process of deciphering, become seduced. Bingo.

Now, I’m the crazy lady hearing voices. I read headlines of kids in bloody body bags, see images of mothers wailing over them, and I ask myself, How would I tell that story, in the cadence, diction, rhythm of my voice? I decorate the Christmas tree for my son, wondering that as a Jew maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, and I hear a line directed by the music of my voice. Some student almost runs me over trying to steer her bike while texting. My revenge? I toss my indignation to my imagination like sand into an oyster, and out comes a line in my voice.

As poets, we don’t write for the glitz and glamour of fame. We don’t write to be cool or sexy. God knows we don’t write for money. We write to experience, with unrealistic hope, that today may be the day that while driving or showering or spreading mayonnaise on a sandwich, we may hear the one thing that transcends our fear that somewhere down the line we’re no longer going to be here or ourselves any longer—that utterly individual, wholly human and yet somehow cosmic gift of our voice delivering a line to the next poem, and the next.

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