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Writing What You Don’t Know: Poetry and the Arcane

By Tony Trigilio


It’s early-autumn 1993 and I’ve just sat down for an office-hour appointment with my Northeastern University graduate school mentor, the scholar and poet Guy Rotella. After some small talk, Guy asks me what I’ve been reading for my upcoming Ph.D. exams in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. I take out the list of specialized scholarly monographs and poetry collections I had prepared with him the previous semester. I tell him that I’m reading Carey Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945, and that I just returned to David Perkins’s A History of Modern Poetry, Volume II: Modernism and After. As for poets, I’m reading John Ashbery’s Flow Chart and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and I just finished Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems in preparation a reading Creeley was giving at Northeastern later that quarter.

As an afterthought, I say that I just devoured Charles E. Shepard’s Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry, a 1989 exposé on the sex scandals that brought down Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club televangelist empire.

“That’s right,” Guy says, “I forgot you are drawn to arcana.”

At the time, I was startled by how deeply Guy’s remark revealed my own emerging poetics to myself. It could’ve seemed like a backhanded dismissal, but I understood his remark as one of the highest compliments I could receive, an acknowledgment of my wide range of reading influence, from the literary (Creeley) to the arcane (Bakker). No other mentor has exerted the kind of impact on my writing that Guy has; he recognized my eclecticism as a reader and writer even before I did—that my interests often veer so far from the center of official verse culture that they could rightly be categorized as eccentric or arcane. This is what our best mentors do, take it upon themselves to help us discover our aesthetic—in this case, my desire to fuse the center and the margins, the authorized and the arcane—before we even know what it is. I still treasure this moment of visibility as a writer and artist.

Like most writers, I try to read more than I think I need to—then, crucially, to read even more—and to read widely, not just in literary genres outside of poetry, but also in what otherwise might seem peculiar or even crackpot. I find the most exciting and original source material often resides in liminal texts that thrive outside the so-called literary center—the mysterious, the eccentric, the trashy. Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry was gossipy and scandalous, and this alone was enough for it to serve as an early muse. I had been waiting for something to topple the Bakkers’ Ozymandius-like empire ever since I realized in high school that my mother was secretly donating money to the Bakkers’ fundraising drive to build a religious-based theme park.

Shephard’s detailed history of the PTL Club provided important background material years later for the poem “Bibles for Vietnam,” an account of my high school years watching The PTL Club with my mother that appeared in my first collection of poems, The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles Press, 2006). I am a high school senior in the poem, watching The PTL Club with my mother before school. That day’s episode features a Vietnam veteran describing for Bakker his harrowing battlefield religious conversion, a redemption tale that the poem deliberately entangles with the narrative of my growing suspicion (later proved to be true) about my mother’s secret PTL donations. “She gave to his theme park,” my teenage self discovers at the end of the poem, “committed us in monthly payments, / clandestine phone calls from the kitchen // when Tammy Faye sang ‘We’re Blessed’ / at the end of every broadcast.”

My attraction to the arcane has deepened over the years into a poetics that more closely reflects the historical roots of the word “arcane” itself—specifically, its original association with the mysterious and obscure, derived in part from language once used to describe the esoteric practices of early modern European alchemists. My second book of poetry, Historic Diary (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), a collection of documentary poems on the myths and texts of the John F. Kennedy assassination, incorporates archival materials ranging from government documents to books and essays that reside on the plausible margins of conspiracy research. For my ongoing multivolume experiment in autobiography, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood)—the third volume published in 2019 by BlazeVOX, and the fourth in progress—I am watching every episode of a low-budget 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows, and incorporating arcana, in the form of gossipy daytime soap kitsch and vampire lore, into long-form, hybrid poetry/prose.

My most recent volume of poetry, Proof Something Happened (Marsh Hawk Press, 2021), is inspired by a different kind of arcana: the post-World War II flying saucer phenomenon. The book, also a collection of documentary poems, explores the alleged UFO abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in 1961. Proof Something Happened does not attempt to solve whether something physically happened to the Hills that evening. The poems take no stand on the possibility of extraterrestrial life and alien abduction. The collection presumes only that the three hours of “missing time” the Hills experienced in the White Mountains truly did happen psychologically, whether caused by an alien abduction or something else on the fringes of the known. As the poems explore the aftermath of that evening in 1961, they emphasize the Hills’ struggle to understand their terrifying dreams and disjunctive flashbacks, a situation worsened by the traumas of racism. The Hills were an interracial couple, doubly marginalized in their effort to be taken seriously as they went public with their experience: their attempt to prove something happened was met with resistance by a white supremacist culture that also was skeptical about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

Rather than render the arcane as a mode of transcendental escapism, the book is an effort to understand ordinary, quotidian states of consciousness by exploring unsettling extremes on the margins of consciousness. My interest in the margins of vision—in this case, my interest in a phantasmic alien encounter—is actually an effort to re-envision the center.

One of the poems in the book, “The Orb,” dramatizes my brief, first-hand encounter with the arcane—a strange light in the sky, perhaps a UFO, that I saw as I returned from a failed attempt to visit the Hills’ abduction site. I was staying at a hotel in Durham, New Hampshire, and over the course of four consecutive days, I tried to drive to the White Mountains for research that could help me capture the mood and tone of the abduction site for the book. The idea was inspired by a trip to Dallas I made in 2006, visiting the Texas School Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll as research for Historic Diary. As I did in Dallas, I wanted to write from the tactile experience of the historical landscape itself, absorbing the psychological and sensory detail around me so that I could imagine what the physical environment of the area felt like to the Hills. But while the trip to Dallas was relatively easy, a flight from Chicago and then a cab to Dealey Plaza, my efforts to drive to the Hills’ abduction site were thwarted by an unfortunate stroke of bad luck: I was visiting New Hampshire during a week of incessant thunderstorms. Each time I tried to drive into the White Mountains, extreme weather caused me to turn back around and return to Durham.

My fifth attempt, the night of “The Orb,” seemed different at first—overcast skies, but no hint of rain. The weather changed dramatically just a few miles into the mountains, when a flash storm struck. The pounding rain eventually made visibility nearly impossible, and I had to turn back around. As I drove back to my hotel, I resigned myself that I would not, after all, write a poem about visiting the Hills’ alleged abduction site. I decided instead to write about trying and failing to drive there.

Little did I know the strange turn my poem idea would take as I neared Durham, driving on Route 108 as the latest thunderstorm cleared. Just a few miles from my hotel, I saw a bright dollop of light above me, a white orb, an oddly bulbous image—the likes of which I’d never seen in the sky before—flying from right to left in my field of vision. In the moment it took for the orb to move across the sky, I tried to rationalize it as an identifiably terrestrial object. Probably a helicopter, though I saw no tail outline or taillight. I didn’t have time to think much further about it, though—as I gazed at the sky through my car’s windshield, I nearly drove myself off the road. When I looked up again, the orb was gone from my field of vision. In my rearview mirror, I took note of the ditch I’d nearly driven myself into, a moment I dramatized in a parenthetical aside in “The Orb,” emphasizing the danger of watching a luminous object in the sky while driving an automobile: “(now I know why / Barney Hill pulled their car into a picnic area).”

I don’t care whether I saw an extraterrestrial craft that night, or whether it was instead an earthbound aircraft or an explainable trick of the light in the nighttime sky. Of course, I’d love to know if the truth really is out there, as the old X-Files tagline goes. When it comes to UFO sightings, however, I take the lead of journalist Leslie Kean and describe myself as an agnostic. I wish I knew, definitively, what I saw that night in the sky outside Durham, but I can’t know for sure. In the absence of trustworthy proof that something happened, I have no other option but to abide in agnosticism.

I’m more interested in what the experience felt like, and how this mysterious occurrence generated a psychological and emotional foundation for the poem. In that instant, watching something mysterious flying above me, a shape and movement I’d never seen before in the sky, my frame of reference suddenly lapsed into a dizzying groundlessness. This conceptual vertigo recalled for me one of the most uncanny incidents in the Hills’ abduction narrative—when their captors pulled down a star map from the wall of their ship that traced their expeditions and trade routes. Betty was shocked, bewildered, that she could not find Earth on the map. It must’ve felt like she was looking at a map of our world with North America missing. Earth was nowhere; her home planet no longer her central frame of reference. Betty could not reclaim the center until the aliens returned the Hills to their car—but by then the center had been transformed irrevocably by her strange experience on the spaceship. Despite the evidence of our senses, most of us, myself included, psychologically process our day-to-day experiences as if the ultimate frame of reference is always already our individual consciousness. The collapse of this illusion is frightening, of course, but it also can be inspiring as it deconstructs our preconceived boundaries of the known. The resulting disorientation can trigger a productive reconfiguration of our ways of seeing.

“The Orb” demonstrates the limitation of the familiar writing workshop dictum, “Write what you know.” I find it more valuable to write with an eye toward what I don’t know. To proceed from unknowing is unsettling and potentially destabilizing because it invariably leads to feelings of groundlessness and conceptual vertigo. But inhabiting an “I-don’t-know-mind” or “beginner’s mind,” as it is often described in Zen Buddhism, prepares me to recognize moments of self-discovery when they arise in my writing. What to do when you look to the sky and see something that violates your foundational understanding of who you are, of who others are—of what should be up there in the sky and what is literally alien? Write about it. If I compose from what I already know, I’m preparing myself only to reconfirm the known. Instead, I’d rather confront the questions that arise, and the potential discoveries to be made, when my writing welcomes, in all its conceptual messiness, the mysterious and the arcane.

I’m not the only poet who’s ever been drawn to arcana, or to a literally out-of-this-world muse. Two poems by Craig Raine and Robert Hayden come to mind as models for how extraterrestrial subject matter can deepen our commitment to earthbound realism and history. Exactly as its title suggests, Raine’s 1979 poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” unfolds from the perspective of a Martian visitor to our planet describing the bizarre life practices of his inscrutable earthling subjects for the extraterrestrial folks back home. (“Model T is a room with the lock inside— /  a key is turned to free the world // for movement,” Raine’s Martian explains in one of my favorite moments in the poem.) “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” was a staple in my writing classes as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s. In my early years as an instructor, I also turned to it frequently as a writing prompt for my students. Write a poem describing your commute to class today, began one of these early assignments, but tell the story from the perspective of a Martian persona writing a dispatch to his home planet. As a prompt grounded in the allure of the arcane, it is an exercise in vision, encouraging students to defamiliarize their environment in order to see the ordinary world from strange new frames of reference.

Hayden’s 1978 “[American Journal]” demonstrates how the arcane can produce an even more politically urgent heightening of everyday lived experience. Hayden’s poem is written from the perspective of an alien anthropologist reporting back to his superiors—“The Counselors,” as they’re called—an effort, like that of Raine’s speaker, to make sense of the strange earthling subjects of his study. Raine’s exercise in vision and perspective becomes, in Hayden’s poem, a vital critique of American racism—perhaps more incisive precisely because it is seen from the perspective of an interstellar stranger, a curious extraterrestrial ethnographer who, in disguise, observes the traumatic effects of racism from a vantage that lies beyond our earthbound subjectivity: “the imprecise and strangering / distinctions by which they live        by which they / justify their cruelties to one another.” Hayden’s speaker comes to us from a “strangering” beyond, so far outside our frame of reference that the drama of the poem pivots on its ability to disrupt its readers (Hayden’s use of the graphic design of the page, the caesuras he creates with blank spaces in the middle of lines, contributes to this disruption). Hayden crafts an urgent call for social change from this defamilarized space beyond our Earth-centered frame of reference—a “strangering” we usually encounter in science fiction extrapolation. “[C]rowds gathering in the streets today for some / reason obscure to me,” Hayden’s extraterrestrial writes of a street protest and ensuing police riot: “noise and violent motion / repulsive physical contact        sentinels        pigs / i heard them called        with flailing clubs        rage.” The arcane inhabits a speculative realm that is actually an extrapolation of our real historical moment. It is a space for an intensified realism, even though on the surface it might seem like transcendental fabulism (UFO phenomena) or non-literary trash (the rise and fall of the PTL empire).

Any discussion of the poetics of the arcane would be incomplete without a look at Jack Spicer, who famously declared in his June 13, 1965, Vancouver Lecture that his writing was the dictated product of “Martian” dispatches from outer space. Spicer was speaking of a figurative muse-like voice—he did not truly believe that literal Martians were talking to him. As committed as he might be to making the world strange in his body of work, his poems speak to us from clearly demarcated terrestrial boundaries. Spicer’s “Martians,” instead, are a metaphor for poetry’s necessary encounter with what he calls “the Outside”—the margins of rote day-to-day thought and vision, a liminal space where we have an opportunity see the world more completely, without the editorializing interference of a conscious mind that would domesticate the mysteries of vision in order to make them less unsettling. Spicer claims that poetry emerges from a range of Outside sources, in forms he variously describes as anonymous radio transmissions, ghostly visitations, invasive parasites, and “Martians,” to name a few.

Embracing the enigmatic and esoteric can feel like summoning the supernatural, insofar as it requires the poet to be a vessel for a mysterious force that can destabilize our familiar, often stale, habits of vision and speech. But I would argue that the arcane only seems otherworldly because it so dramatically disrupts our conventional ways of seeing; that is, the arcane occupies such an uncanny space in our consciousness that we cannot find adequate language to describe it—beyond loosely approximating it as “strange” or “alien.” The star map that Betty Hill allegedly was shown on board the saucer is literally out of this world, but as a metaphor for vision, it is no different than any other moment when our seemingly stable frame of reference is disoriented by its presence in foreign terrain: we are temporarily othered in the presence of the arcane, and this can feel like an invasion of our consciousness. However, the imagination is not a passive process. As Spicer says in the June 13 lecture, “You have to, as much as possible, empty yourself for this.” To actively prepare the body to hear what the parasitic muse is actually trying to say, you must “empty yourself” of the conditioning voice that otherwise would garble the ghostly “Martian” transmission. Spicer’s disruptive voices from the mysterious Outside can evade our consciousness unless we attune ourselves to the proper frequency of Outside speech. “You have to interfere with yourself,” Spicer states in the same 1965 lecture, a reminder that we need to create an environment for re-envisioning our conventional ways of seeing before we can even hear the muse-like voices of the Outside.

Spicer’s poetics of the Outside was on my mind during the drafting and revising of Proof Something Happened, perhaps most of all when I composed “The UFO Incident,” a sestina inspired by a 1975 made-for-television movie about the Hills’ experience. As I researched the cast of the film, I discovered that veteran character actor Barnard Hughes, the Hills’ psychiatrist in the movie, also played the role of a nervous con man named Jack Spicer in a 1971 episode of the television detective series Cannon. The sestina was an early-draft mess until I found the Cannon episode in Hughes’s Internet Movie Database (IMDB) television filmography. At that point, I knew that Hughes’s 1971 Jack Spicer had to appear in the poem, as a nod to Spicer, the poet for whom “Martians” were among the voices central to his writing process. Was my research discovery an example of the Outside communication that Spicer emphasized was crucial to his writing process? Seeing Jack Spicer in Hughes’s filmography startled me. But it could’ve been nothing more than a strange coincidence had I not been open and vulnerable to this arcane detail as I drafted the poem. I had permitted the Outside to “interfere” with me, to inject Spicer’s Martian poetics explicitly in the work, and this created the conditions for my composition of the poem. Eventually, I built the entire sestina around an opening stanza in which Spicer, the television con man, evokes Spicer, the poet indebted to metaphorical Martians.

(Here’s another arcane moment, another occult-like incident that possibly “emptied” me so that I could be receptive to the Hughes/Cannon moment in the poem. It was summer 1985. I was nineteen and on the verge of a breakdown after a psychologically brutal year. One night, as I walked upstairs in a house I shared with two other students, I suddenly heard the voice of actor William Conrad, the man who played Detective Frank Cannon in the television series, calling my name. It’s the only time in my life I’ve heard voices—a consequence, I imagine, of the daily anxiety attacks of that period in my life, the constant stream of the stress hormone cortisol. I don’t claim with certainty that Conrad’s voice came to me from Spicer’s Outside. But I wonder if this auditory vision momentarily prepared me—“emptied” me, as Spicer would say—so that I actually would be able to hear Conrad and Spicer speaking from the esoteric margins three decades later as I wrote “The UFO Incident.”)

As I mention earlier, the advice to “Write what you know” reaches its limit in the presence of the arcane. To be sure, writing what you know can be empowering as a validation of the truth and wisdom of your experience. But I would suggest instead that the most productive work comes from those moments when we write what we don’t know—when, to channel Spicer again, we “interfere” with the boundaries of the known and attune our ears to what is being spoken to us from the arcane “Outside.”

More specifically, these are moments in which we interfere with the part of ourselves that doesn’t want to step out of the boundaries of common sense, that fears getting lost in the dark wood of unknowing. On the surface, it might seem counter-intuitive to welcome an alien frame of reference, a strange and destabilizing angle of vision, as we sit in front of the blank screen ready to write. But if we are to discover new ways of seeing the world, as good writing can help us do, then we might need to loosen our grip on the most familiar, ordinary parts of our everyday consciousness: “You have to, as much as possible, empty yourself for this,” Spicer says. The arcane doesn’t have to reside in outer space. Instead, it can be found among us, planted firmly on planet Earth—in gossip, scandal, and soap opera kitsch, to name a few possibilities—an affirmation of the wisdom and insight we can find when we celebrate, rather than domesticate, our most eccentric curiosities.

Or, to put it another way, more personally: my writing takes shape in the abandoned televangelist theme park of the imagination, my mother on the phone, secretly donating what little money we had, believing in an otherworldly, redemptive spirit that Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker channeled from beyond the same dull round of what we already know. When I sit down to write, I try not to anticipate what I’ll find in this theme park, just as I had no idea I’d see an orb in the sky outside Durham after another failed attempt to reach the Hills’ abduction site. My work begins with a desire to write myself out of what I know—to immerse myself in a vulnerable, arcane unknowing.


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