An Essay About Being and Becoming a Poetess
Late last night I finished work on another collection of poems, “Thelxiepeia.” This group of poems started out with a different title. When I began editing I knew that many of the poems would not make the final cut. They seemed parts of two books jammed together in a way that didn’t fit and so I opted for a cohesive finished selection and a new title. Thelxiepeia, in Greek mythology, is one of the Sirens, creatures whose seductive songs and music lured sailors to crash their ships. Sirens were often represented as being part woman and part bird. How I happened upon this story of Thelxiepeia was that I was watching an old movie called “Xanadu”, in which a muse, Kira, whose real name is Terpsichore, the muse of the dance, emerges from a mural, and falls in love with a mortal. There are fantastic musical numbers, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, with music by Cliff Richard, The Tubes, and ELO. I’ve mentioned this movie before as it has most everything in it that an adolescent girl in 1981, one seeking some escape from excruciating pain, could require of a movie. I still think it’s a beautiful film, though from a completely different point of view this many years gone now. In watching it again I thought to look up the names of the Nine Muses of Olympus, one of whom is portrayed, though it isn’t a speaking part, by Sandahl Bergman, who is better known for her roles in “Conan the Barbarian”, “All That Jazz”, and “Red Sonja.” This led to looking up the names of the Sirens, and the writing of the poem, “Thelxiepeia.” Thematically overall, the collection has to do with the subject of muses and myths, with the stories we tell ourselves so that we can find a way to tell our stories, and those things that help us along the way in that.
In writing these poems, in watching “Xanadu” whenever it was, these poems were written several years ago, and remembering again that time of my life, I understood again how it is that I became a poetess, a writer, and how much of that, for me, relates to, or has or is entrenched in, films and music in someway. In 1981 I turned thirteen years old. Over the course of exactly one months time, I went from being a normal, healthy kid, to being emaciated and barely able to get out of bed. Five foot eight, at that time, my weight dropped to ninety-six pounds at one point. I couldn’t go to school, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t not sleep, and after months of weeks of grueling visits to doctors, specialists, hospitals, they couldn’t find anything specifically wrong with me that they could diagnose as anything other than Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, since re-diagnosed as an adult as Still’s Disease, which is similar to Lupus. That’s back story, it took a year to recover enough, to be well enough again, to really return to school. Point being that I really couldn’t do much of anything other than watch television during most of that time. I didn’t have the ability to concentrate or focus enough to read books during that time as I was in too much pain, though I’d been an avid reader up to then. Being as I couldn’t really do much of anything else during that time other than watch television, many of the usual restrictions on what I was allowed to watch, were lifted. Nineteen-eighty and eighty-one weren’t bad years for film, though my viewing was limited to whatever cable movie channel it was that we had or whatever was making its “Network Television Premier” and that was usually about a year behind whatever was in the theaters. I’ve spoken before about watching the film “Altered States” and feeling a strange understanding of the transformation of the main character while wondering why in the world anyone would willing put themselves through what he does. ( It’s like “Jaws” in that you find yourself just wanting him to get out of the water.) Along those lines I also watched the other werewolf movies of the day, “An American Werewolf in London” and “Wolfen” and the like. The feeling that I had sometimes was very much that I didn’t want to be that, and that I was nonetheless turning into some inexplicable creature and the world was turning into a strange place that didn’t understand me, anymore than I could understand it.
Most of the time, I couldn’t hold a pen or a pencil, couldn’t do schoolwork, wore Ace bandages and wrist braces and homemade splints. I was in so much pain so constantly, the world slips away when it’s like that, for anyone experiencing anything like that I would guess. The way that everyone else keeps time is meaningless and useless and of no importance. On the better days, I’d wish I was at school, I’d think about all I was missing out on, dances, friends, boyfriends, classes I liked. I couldn’t ride my bicycle or play sports anymore and I’d always been the kid that was outside from sunup until dark, though really it was beyond wallowing. Whatever the future was going to hold for me was forever changed. My mother said, “You know, you could still write. You could try writing poems again.” I’d written poems in grade school, and for school, though I hadn’t considered “writer” or “poetess” as a job option outside of possibly being a journalist, a newswoman. And I thought, “I can’t even hold a pencil.” But she got a couple of small notebooks for me and I remember writing what I still consider to be my first serious poem, titled simply, “Alone”, while I was sitting in bed watching the film, “Private Benjamin.” That movie is a comedy, containing one of my all time favorite movie line exchanges.
“Aunt Kissy: I hope my coat’s gonna be good enough. I had no idea it was gonna be so chilly.
Harriet Benjamin: It’s November here, Kissy.
Teddy Benjamin: It’s November everywhere, genius.”
But the film is ultimately about Judy Benjamin finding her sense of self, and the strength to be her own person, there was something in that that spoke to me beyond the ribald, raunchy, comedy, because in that place, the funniest thing in the world, isn’t quite so funny. In that place of so much pain, the funniest thing in the world seems illogical, senseless, and idiotic, I guess one way to put it would be like how the food fight in the film “Animal House” (1978), might not make you laugh if you’re not from a first world country where even waste is taken for granted, and what I was looking for were things that were hopeful in some way, or strong, resilient. It also may be that it was during that time that any remaining sense of humor I had, took a sardonic, somewhat self-deprecating, turn. I looked at the poem that I’d scribbled in the little notebook and that was the beginning, and I hope I never forget that moment. Additionally, it’s become evident to me that my brain might be hardwired for rhyme to some degree, and some of that comes from listening to music and song lyrics all my life. ( My father was a musician, both my parents could sing, and there was live music in the house for much of my youth.) Eventually I was allowed to use my mother’s electric typewriter sometimes, when my hands were very swollen, as I could often still move my fingers on the keys for a while even if I couldn’t move my wrists or my hands, however much it hurt. I was a writer before that, but after that, I knew that I was, whether I’d claimed it or it had claimed me, and that was that. I’ve since tried not to be a writer a couple of times and that doesn’t ever work out. I used to say that my writing was my “human’s compensation,” like … yeah there’s all of whatever else there is, but then there’s my writing. God willing I’ll be able to keep writing and writing and writing. Human beings are resilient, and strong, courageous.
Finishing this collection of poems, and it isn’t quite as long as some of the others at only fifty-four pages, I could go right into editing another collection of poems but I found that I didn’t want to, I found myself wanting to work on some kind of story again, some fiction. Though really I am taking some time to organize and edit and clear the decks for the end of the year, hopefully do some fun things, spend some time with family. 2017 has gone quickly, hasn’t it? The last several years for me, I’ve realized, have been about finding myself as a writer again, finding my groove with it all, finding balance and self acceptance, allowing myself to be this and to honor it and the gift of it, to appreciate, and accept, and let be, my own muses. “Thelxiepeia”, I think, speaks very much to all of that. I hope to release it sometime next year, in early spring. I’m so grateful for this gift of being able to write, and I do consider it to be a gift. We all find inspiration or ideas in a lot of different things, people, places, it’s important to honor your muse(s), one of mine led me to Thelxiepeia. I’m uncertain in this moment if these poems were a farewell to the girl that I was or an homage, I feel like I can write about her, but I can’t ever again be her. I’m not sad about that, only grateful for having had the chance to be that girl, and to be looking now to the future as this woman. Becoming is ever ongoing.
great song from the film “Xanadu.”