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How I Wrote Certain of My Books, by Daniel Borzutzky


How I Wrote Certain of My Books

I met the poet before he disappeared

The timeline of events doesn’t make sense

I don’t think you are lying but I suspect there are gaps     elisions     important details you
are not disclosing

You have a way of speaking that doesn’t allow me to ask questions

Are you like this with everyone?

You keep the people who love you most at a distance    drawing them in when they talk about themselves yet holding back when they want to know more about you

I met the poet in a writing workshop he offered out of his home

I was one of four students in the class

There was one student who never spoke and never turned in any writing and the poet loved her because the silent student understood that the ultimate form of poetry was silence and we all saw something sublime in her refusal to acknowledge even the most basic forms of communal norms and discourse

Another student was a father of three kids

He owned a small business and was “doing something for himself for a change”

Austerity measures have forced me to abandon aesthetic or narrative unity

I work too much and I don’t have time to write anymore and it limits my creativity and coherence

I cut my budg by twenty-five perc and now I can’t eve finis a

The poet’s preferred way of signing books was    Greetings from the land of anti-value

Like all good poets the poet hated his own poetry

I loved his first book but he thought all the poems were cheap imitations of René Char and Gertrude Stein

All poets should hate their own poetry      said the poet

You should never be able to look at your own poetry without feeling utterly repulsed

If you are proud of your own poetry or enjoy reading your own poetry then you need to figure out how to write poems that will offend yourself just a little bit more “robustly”

The father of three who was doing something for himself for a change wrote epic poems about his childhood

The poet referred to the father of three’s poems as sociopathic imitations of Frank O’Hara   only more interesting

They were horror stories      and none of us knew how to respond to them

The poet loved that we didn’t know how to respond to the father of three’s poems

He thought the best response to a poem was to feel like what the fuck did I just read I don’t have a fucking idea what I just read what did I just read do you understand remotely what I just read what the fuck am I reading

And it appeared that the father of three met this standard of what-the-fuckery in his epic poem about a man (now a poet of course) who watched his mother kill his father when he was a child

Did the father of three’s mother actually kill his father?

(Fuck you said the father of three I’m not telling)

Probably not but every once in a while his poems would contain the kind of detail    a line from a coroner’s report or a snippet from a newspaper article that led us to think that something along those lines must have happened to him

The father of three was kind and cheerful and always showed up to the workshop with wine or cookies or cake

The poet would give advice like      fuck doing new things     you’re a writer not an Iphone

You don’t need a constant update

You don’t need to keep changing your algorithm

The other student in the workshop was an attorney and she was about to retire

Her favorite poets were H. D. and Sylvia Plath and she knew almost every detail of Greek and Roman mythology which often served as tropes in her poems

She wrote poems that possessed what the poet once called “a subtle hint of bureaucratic eroticism”

She was terrified of retiring and was “pursuing” poetry because she wanted to make sure she had plenty of activities to keep her mind from atrophying in her retirement and so she designed complex mazes of poems that were impossible to work their ways out of and the poet would ask her questions like

What does this poem hate? What does this poem love? How can you make this poem hate more lovingly and love more hatefully?

I was the other student in the workshop and I hated writing poems that looked like poems so the poet thought I had the right attitude about poetry even if my poems were didactic or bland or facile

It’s not that I’m a bad writer    the critic wrote about my last book    rather I appear to be writing as a “bad” writer on purpose

I never thought of myself as being a bad writer on purpose but as soon as the critic said this a light bulb went off      I must think of myself as being a bad writer on purpose and then everything changed     I wrote a bad book on purpose and it was the best book I ever wrote and I won a big prize and I was invited to give a reading at Harvard

I am flexible and I mold my so-called aesthetic choices to satisfy the criteria of the basest members of my audience

The poet didn’t know if being a poet meant being the best/worst version of himself or the best/worst version of someone else

He had a personal joke with himself that his favorite poem was the one about the boot that kept kicking his own teeth

The object of a poem     he used to say    is to try to put every possible thing into the poem so that the poem is not so much a poem but a container for the entire world and in this way there might eventually be no distinction between living and writing and art and life and art and death and the world as we know it and the world we desire and the world we despise

Americans are obsessed with privacy    Is that your chocolate in my peanut butter?

Every line I’ve ever written is a version of another line I’ve ever written and sometimes I write the same lines over and over again to see if they sound different in a different context

As a child I spent fourteen hours a day watching television

Is that your chocolate in my peanut butter?

They say the poet went crazy but it was just back spasms that triggered a series of medications and hallucinations which led to him being admitted into a psychiatric hospital named after a nineteenth century war criminal

Sometimes it’s appropriate to conclude an email with twenty or thirty smiley face emojis and to invite your correspondent to stare dreamily into their creepy emoji eyes as they wink into the fuzzy blue light of the computer

Is a bear catholic?

Does the pope shit in the woods?

He classified my poem as a bad imitation of Vincente Huidobro’s “Monumento al Mar”       but in reality it was nothing like Huidobro or perhaps it was a bit like Huidobro if Huidobro wrote about psychoanalysis     death metal    the television show Twin Peaks     a device to detect drugs hidden in the gastrointestinal tracts of border crossers     the unspoken relationship between Moses and his more talkative brother Aaron    Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” and getting your cell phone stolen while stepping out of the metro in downtown Santiago on your way to lunch at a restaurant which used to be in the house where Vicente Huidobro lived as a child

I recognize that some readers will feel alienated by the reference to a poem they haven’t read by a writer they haven’t read but I’m not choosy or pretentious and mostly I believe that words and names are interchangeable

I like the flow of your poem but I have no idea what any of it actually means

He classified my poem as a bad of imitation of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers” yet he told me I did such a good job of writing a bad imitation that he could not forego giving me the highest possible marks on the assignment

A phrase as simple as “I hate your fucking guts” can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people

It was the end of a long evening and the poet was feeling generous so he gave me a thumb drive with decades worth of unpublished writing    a memoir    a novel    three or four collections of poems     and told me to do whatever I want with them

I’m dying frankly and I think it would be great for your career if you put your name on some of the better poems and send them out for publication

According to brittanica.com there is a form of torture called “Crushed by Elephant”   which is when a prisoner is placed on the ground in front of an elephant and crushed by it

But I’m warning you    if you google “Crushed by Elephant”     you will feel as if the entire internet already knows that people have been crushed by elephants for centuries     and it might be more beneficial to search for scaphism     the ancient practice of a sealing a victim between two boats    feeding him milk and honey   covering his face with milk and honey so that flies swarm around his face        and then     as the victim defecates inside the boat     flies and maggots “grow up inside” and slowly begin to devour his flesh

Now that the country is “teetering on dictatorship” the poets have come to believe that the subjectivity of subjective experience has a responsibility to be as ugly as the objectivity of objective experience

Awkward sentence bro

Time for another revision


  • Daniel Borzutzky is a poet and translator. His books include Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018, Lake Michigan, a finalist for the 2018 Griffin International Poetry Prize; and The Performance of Becoming Human, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia won the 2017 National Translation Award. He has also translated books by Raúl Zurita and Jaime Luis Huenún. He teaches in the English and Latin American and Latino Studies Departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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