I said I was finished writing poetry well over a year ago. Not for any specific reason. Nothing happened. There was no great assault or some tragic thing. And then I learned an old photographer friend — Alvin Richburg, Jr. – died from complications associated with self-detox from alcohol which he used to self-medicate a bipolar disorder. The news made me want to write little poems all over the house, I didn’t, but it was my first inclination. That I didn’t, confirmed I was finished with poetry.
This is an amicable split — poetry didn’t cheat, lie, or steal; poetry didn’t strike my child or spoil the mortgage payment at the casino — we just grew apart. It happens. We’re going to remain friends, split everything 50/50: the vinyl collection, the books, even the out-of-print ones. And then I got cancer right in the middle of our breakup. But wait, before you jump to conclusions, I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to write cancer poems upon diagnosis. Not at all. I was sitting in the radiology waiting room five days after diagnosis drinking a horrible off-white chalky substance in preparation for a CT scan to determine whether my tumor had spread. You’d think my mind would be 100% on all those tiny little lymph nodes in my body remaining clear from the squamous cell carcinoma. Instead I was holding my nose trying to keep from vomiting the dye drink and thinking of the folder of bad, rejected, and unfinished poems sitting in my drawer at home.
After the scan, a gaggle of lab tests, and learning that contrast dye solution goes right through you — no one, not one person in the radiology or oncology departments clued me in to this unfortunate reality so imagine my dismay squatting for an hour in the restroom in a crowded hospital clinic lobby shitting my world away (see this is something a better poet would convey with panache, I am not that person so fuck it) — I came home afterwards and unearthed the little bitches.
I started taking them with me to the cancer center. After the blood tests, multiple sets of doctor hands invading my undercarriage to “feel” the tumor, and a PET scan where I suffered a tear-filled episode of claustrophobia and was radioactive for a few hours, I took my red Moleskine full of fucked-up poetry with me to the oncologist and started striking through line after line and scribbling between each character little notes while he told me about my tumor’s stage. You have to understand I was angry upon receiving my diagnosis. I was hostile. I didn’t want to hear anything the doctors had to say. I refused to allow them to tell me the stage of my tumor. I didn’t even want a prognosis. Well, that changed, of course, and now my anger has been eclipsed by sadness and gentle confusion, but at the time of the initial staging conversation, my medical oncologist, not to be confused with my radiation oncologist who upon meeting me shook my hand and said he was going to be coordinating the frying of my taint for 6 long weeks, assumed I was taking adept notes about the treatment. I was not. I was rewriting a poem about how ugly I would look without hair once chemo began.
This brings us to today. That poem I revised during those first oncology visits was recently published. It is by sheer coincidence it is a cancer-related poem; really it is a poem about vanity and rage. Just so you know, I have no plan or desire to write cancer poems. I’m not a disciplined enough writer to craft good poems about this experience. And cancer is not unique and poems should be unique and special. Cancer happening to me as the measure of its specialness is narcissistic and douche-baggy. I don’t hold the language required to elevate a poem about cancer. I don’t carry around that kind of insight in my back pocket. I know my limitations.
For now, I am going to try to fix some of my old broken poems and send them out into the world, but I’m not writing any new poetry because as I said at the beginning of this write, I am no longer writing poetry. Even as I say it here, it feels funny on my tongue though we should consider my taste buds have not fully recovered from chemotherapy.