ABCs of Poetry: J is for Joypopping

Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: J is for Joypopping

When it comes to poetry, this slang word for recreational drug use that does not become addictive means to stand at the threshold of chaos. To keep a healthy distance from all our own darkness and depression, but to evoke it authentically and compassionately on the page. To describe the flames while not being consumed. It’s a difficult place to find, but absolutely essential to the work of poetry.

My most valuable lessons in poetry have come from R—an initial for a name she doesn’t use any more. I don’t have her permission to tell this story but I want to credit her all the same.

R and I were marooned in central New Jersey, a place where poetry does not thrive, for a few overlapping years. We’d grown up one town apart but hadn’t met until we’d faced some serious setbacks. I was back living with my parents because student debt and an abusive relationship had made financial independence impossible at 26 years old. She was living with her parents while working her way out of credit card debt and finding better strategies to manage mental health and medication. We’d both lived independently and in more exciting places than highway-choked suburbia, and yet, here we were.

No one was hungrier for words and harder working than R. She couch-surfed so she could attend writers’ conferences. She taught yoga sessions as her registration payment at writers’ retreats. She was the first person I’d met who’d ever been to The Strand bookstore in real life, and brought me to free poetry readings at Columbia University. (We were only 35 miles away from Manhattan but it took me weeks to save up for the bus fare. It was worth every penny.)

On the Summer Solstice that year, I picked R up for a long walk at a county park. We talked, among other things, about her policy of not dating other poets. I told her I extended this policy to all artists, really. I had been thinking about Sylvia Plath and Frida Kahlo, women married to other artists. I said I didn’t think their lives were happy on the day-to-day, but my God, did they make good art.

It was a choice artists must make: be happy with a small life, or suer like no other and create something terrifyingly good.

I was looking to be martyred for my art. I begged the muses and the universe to be torment me for the greater good. R saw this, recognized its futility, but was gentle with me.

She said we agreed that many straight masc artists are vampires, or have been historically. I had read biographies of Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda, who were rather unabashedly looking for mommy figures to support them. At the expense of their own ambitions, naturally.

I screamed to no one in particular along that wooded trail: I WON’T BE THAT. I WILL NEVER BE THAT TO ANYONE.

But she also told me about The Chaos. She had a poetry teacher who had written biographies of John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and others. So many poets self-destruct; there’s a lot of suicide, a lot of caving in to demons. And many of them believed that the only way to write well was to get lost in the chaos–alcoholism, drugs, orgies, homelessness, whatever, pick your void.

But the truth is, no one is producing any work when they are lost to the Chaos. When we come back (if we do) and find peace—only then can we write.

It’s a myth that chaos is where the great work comes from, R told me. In fact, there may have been more great work from these artists if they hadn’t wasted so much time in the abyss.

I so desperately wanted it to be true. For her. Me, I would suffer. I deserved it. There could be no peaceful, productive future for me. R was wise and clear-eyed and talented beyond measure. I was broken and hopeless and needed to be refined by agony.

R said there was a way forward: We must stand at the Threshold of Chaos. We do not jump in. But we do not keep too much of a distance. We do not simply write about it while broadcasting our own insularity.

From there, R said we had one goal: Do not let any lover steal our light. Find partners who do not diminish us, but enhance us.

To me this was an impossible task. I was dating someone who showed at my workplace unannounced with gifts and wanted to meet my parents but also said he couldn’t be in a relationship. If I took too long to text him back he’d invite an ex over to his apartment to hang out, then text me all the details of their conversations. The Chaos was romancing me, and I was surrendering to the drama and distraction. R knew it, but never chastised me.

I was journaling at least, stalled out while working on a novel, and drowning in chaos. Smoking so much I developed sleep apnea, waking up gasping in the middle of the night. Working 16-hour days but feeling unable to wind down unless I met up with a friend to make out with at the bar, sometimes drinking so much I had to sleep in my car instead of risking a drive home.

It was a Tale of Two Equinoxes: She was basking in the light, the fruits of her labor, and I was staying awake too long, never resting, to avoid the darkness.

R had inhabited the chaos and worked her way out. She assembled a portfolio and applied only to fully-funded MFA programs. So nervous about rejection, she deactivated Facebook so she wouldn’t see her friends accepted and come to resent them. But I knew she would get in. Of course she got in. It brought her six-hundred miles away from our gas-guzzling commuter enclave, so she could again escape the post-industrial wasteland we knew as home.

It was getting to be old news: a luminary left the pizzeria-and-nail-salon landscape we’d grown up in to work alongside likeminded individuals in a walkable-bikeable-farmers market-and-café-city. I was happy for R but still sad to see her go.

It wasn’t her responsibility to keep me out of The Chaos. It was mine. Still, I shirked this responsibility and dove in.

A year later we caught up over the phone for two hours and I told her of the ugly ways I’d been wasting away: a partner who controlled how I ate and dressed, who gave me no privacy nor room to write. I didn’t have great works as consolation—I barely had my sanity. Misery did not refine me.

That conversation was a bright moment in a late spring full of weekly therapy sessions, nights at the gym, reconnecting with friends I’d neglected, and otherwise returning to myself after that break-up with The Chaos.

It was time to leave the abyss. R taught me my place was at the threshold instead.

Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal. Visit her here.