Poet Jenny Sampirisi describes the grueling nights of labour that went into “How to Cohere”
Recent Puritan author Jenny Sampirisi discusses her long poem, “How to Cohere,” from Issue 24: Winter 2014.
For the past two years I’ve been in some kind of quiet crisis with poetry. You read that awful advice all the time that says you have to keep writing, even when nothing good is coming of it. Treat it like a job. Go to work every day even if you don’t want to. For a long time I thought that was total bunk. Most writers I know go through periods where they don’t write at all. Their mental life continues in the interim and I think that’s just as valuable. And there’s the ongoing argument that says there are enough books and poems out there already and we should all take a bit more time in that mental interim. But at a certain point I started to worry that my mental life was going to pot without the writing. So, I took the advice. I went to work.
I began staying up all night with a project I was calling the Possum Play. I’d sit on my deck with my laptop and my music and my voice memos, and by morning I’d have another poem. I was being productive. But when the next night came and I opened the file again, whatever I’d done the night before, either in writing or editing, seemed to have undone the whole of it. I had an idea but that idea didn’t want to stay put. It fell apart repeatedly and was replaced by new ones. I kept writing the phrase “stay still” in every poem as though it would listen.
This continued. I opened new files and copied and pasted what I thought had survived the latest revelation. When that file collapsed, I’d open another one and try to build a new structure from the collapsed material. It reached a point where there were so many files with so many variations (some only a few pages, some nearing 80) that I couldn’t keep track. But I couldn’t delete any of them, dead as they were, because I had no idea which version I might need to revisit in that wonderful future where my mental life and my written words would meet halfway. Every line might be the one that finally pulled it all together.
I had a poem called “How to Cohere” among the pieces that kept making it into next versions. It was very short and just told the story of a cat and a bird. The idea behind it came from the grim scene of my actual cat catching a bird by the head. Face first into the cat’s mouth. For weeks afterward I kept reliving the horrible noise the bird made inside my cat’s mouth before it finally died. Awful as it was, that seemed to me to be the representative act of cohering. To come into contact with another and to absorb some of them into you. In that seemingly long moment they became a single creature. I know it sounds like such a nothing event, but while it was happening my environment seemed hyper-real. Not only had the two animals “cohered” with each other, but some part of me had cohered with the event.
That poem was a problem for me though. I read into everything, looking for connections between the natural world and myself, but it’s possible I don’t believe that things do cohere naturally. Right now anyway, I think that the little conversations we have in our heads about who we are and who we want to be and the meaning of things is in constant flux, read as we want to read them from our momentary vantage point. To cohere means to come together in a meaningful way. To gel. To be coherent has positive connotations and means to make sense. To be incoherent has negative connotations and means to make no sense. In Croak, the ideas of “coming together” and “making sense” were the central problems that the Frogs and Girls faced. They wanted to cohere and yet they resisted it, and when they got it, it was staged and grotesque and it turns out they didn’t want it after all.
The next bit is going to seem like a tangent, but stay with me here.
I’m a big silent film fan. In Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse the plot begins with Keaton falling asleep. We enter his dream. He arrives late to buy a ticket to a cabaret show already in-progress. Once inside the theatre he takes a seat and we, with him, watch the conductor take the stage. The camera pans on the buffoonish orchestra, cuts to various men, women, and children in the audience, scans the workers backstage, and the performers lining up. They all look the same, with variations of costume and demeanour. We catch on that Keaton is playing every part. Cut to the playbill. Every character is listed as Keaton.
There is only one real Keaton, referred to as “Asleep in the Deep” on the playbill. The trick of this is that Keaton does cohere when he wakes up. But inside that singular sleeping self is a multitude. The sleeping Keaton is metonymic in that he is the figure standing in place of the teeming contradictions and the variations of self that exist within him. He is both “bored and joyed” with himself. He is simultaneously audience and performer. He is the stagehand pulling the curtain and the rich couple in the balcony seats.
I thought of Toronto and the CN Tower as the icon that stands for and over the whole city. It is Keaton’s Asleep in the Deep. I thought of Pound’s Cantos and their refusal to cohere, their messiness, and all those frustrated critics. I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his connection to nature as a way of resolving the self (played with wildly in the film Upstream Color). I reread Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Image-Music-Text. I started each day with Alice Notley’s “At Night the States” and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I researched the history of film, all the way back to the zoopraxiscope that lined up stills of horses and spun them so they appeared to gallop. It seemed to me that the expectation of coherence leads us to prescribe it, as I did with the cat and the bird, but really, it’s hard to come by and doesn’t stay long even when you think you’ve found it.
I looked over my mess of files, opened a new one, and placed “How to Cohere” at the top. I accepted that it wouldn’t cohere. At least I gave up wanting it to. Either it would appear to cohere or it would reveal that the idea of being a singular self without contradictions and confusions—multitudes—is constructed. The Possum Play has become something else, currently titled What It Resembles Is Slightly Too Marvellous. “How to Cohere” has become the piece that is driving the rest, acting as both the whole and the component parts.
Jenny Sampirisi is the author of Croak (Coach House Books) and is/was (Insomniac Press). She’s the recipient of the 2011 KM Hunter Artist Award for Literature. She teaches English Literature at Ryerson University. You can find her online at www.jennysampirisi.com.