“I love any writer who’s serious about getting to the deep heart core but is loving enough to want you to get there, too.” My friend shared this quote by Jeff Nunokawa (who specializes in English Literature at Princeton University) with me last week as we wrote together. What impressed me most about Nunokawa’s quotes about writing and literature was that they read like poems. Nunokawa’s experience as a reader seemed to be a spiritual one, which got me thinking about how I read, who I write for and why.
Pleasure first. Maybe that’s not the best way to approach all of life, but it’s how I start my day and it’s still how I read. I start every day by making coffee and reading a poem. They each provide a different kind of wakefulness. Coffee kick-starts my body, and the poem starts up my brain, reminding me to notice the world, both the details and the language I use. Is this a spiritual practice? I don’t know if my 7AM daily poem gets close to Nunokawa’s profundity or rapture in his reading, but I do know I get to that ecstatic experience some days—days when a poem gets my heart, brain and ear whirring at the same speed. It’s what I always hope for, those writers who get to the heart’s core and are loving enough to bring me along with them.
Which begs the question: do I love the audience? I’ve heard the question “who’s your audience?” dozens of times, and I always find the question frustrating. I’m in the first row of the audience and sometimes its only member. Of course I write poems I want to read, because most likely I will read that poem more times than anyone else and, as with many poems, the only one who will ever read it. In those cases, yes, I love my audience, and I want to tell myself something honest and hopefully beautiful, even if I fail at it.
Sometimes I have a specific person in mind when I write a poem and that person is often someone I wish I could give some consolation to or heal in whatever way words can. Often it’s a person I can’t talk to, or a person I wish I could be honest with, but can’t. Sometimes that person is me. In her book of essays The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says: “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Faced with this quote, I wonder if I’ve ever written anything that passes muster.
Both Dillard and Nunokawa give me something to live up to. I hope my poems do not enrage by their triviality. I hope there’s enough truth in them that they are worth a dying audience’s time. I hope my poems are written with enough compassion that a reader can get to the deep heart’s core with me.
Dear audience, I love you, whoever you are.