Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lowell, and Next-Up

Have you read Robert Lowell? In my undergrad years, when I still imagined I was going to be the world’s first billionaire poet, Lowell was a towering influence on my writing. And to be fair, he is a towering influence on 20th century poetry as well. His book Life Studies, I think, belongs in every library. He began as a traditionalist, converted mid-life to Roman Catholicism (as his wife at the time claimed, “for the imagery”), and ultimately helped pioneer the so-called “confessional” school of poetry. Two of his students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, went on to become Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Going back and rereading him, I am surprised how in his shadow I have unconsciously remained.From “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:

All you recovered from Poseidon died

With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine

Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,

Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,

Nantucket’s westward haven.

NB: I relish the fact that, at the end of my street, there is a Quaker graveyard, in which is buried one of Lowell’s closest friends, the incredible poet and critic Randall Jarrell. More on him in the future …

My two favorite Lowell poems, and certainly two of his most famous, are “Memories of West Street and Lepke” and “Skunk Hour.” “Memories …” revisits the short stint Lowell did in jail as a young man. He was as conscientious objector during WWII, and was sentenced to the same prison as the gangster Louis Lepke. About the celebrated death row inmate:

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair –

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections …

“Skunk Hour” was written for Lowell’s colleague, friend, and great love Elizabeth Bishop (a fantastic Village Voice article about their lifelong correspondence can be found here), and remains for me an example of the great heights and terrific intensity of free verse poetry:

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town …

My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love ….” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat …

I myself am hell;

nobody's here –

Only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air –

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

But enough about Lowell for now. Let's talk about the present ...


When I first started writing plays, the process would go something like this: I’d take a premise (something I used to believe was the most important thing in the world, a viewpoint I no longer fully subscribe to … more about that later, perhaps), allow myself to wander through that idea at a rate of 5 pages per day, no more, no less, until I’d come to the end of a first draft. Then I’d let it sit for a while, come back to it, do a script analysis of it (one of my favorite things to do), determine what changes I might like to see happen, and revise it at a rate of 8 pages per day, no more no less, until I’d come to the end of a second draft. Then I’d let it sit for a while, come back to it, give it a shine and a polish, and then congratulate myself for being so unbelievably brilliant.I’m sorry, what I meant to say was flagellate myself for being so unbelievably horrible. Wait, one more time: both are true.


The point is, the raison d’être for each of these plays was always the same. I wrote it because I wanted to write something, had either stumbled upon or found myself stumbled upon by an idea, and that was that. Now things have become a little more complicated. I attended an extraordinary play last night called Neat, or I Swear to God I Didn’t See Franz Kafka, written and directed by the great Bill Lewis. The play itself was stunning, as was its performance, and I wish the point of my mentioning this was that the experience of this play alone inspired me to rush home and write. Instead, it was opening the program and seeing this:

I had somehow gotten it into my head that GTCC would be world-premiering (snickering at myself here) my play The Immersibles in Spring 2011. No, it goes up November 17, which means that they will likely go into rehearsal in late September.

I haven’t yet written this play. I’m not really even sure what it’s about. I just know what it’s called.

Don’t get me wrong, I will not be writing entirely blind. The title has remained with me for some time now, and though I don’t have a precise idea of the story or its characters, certainly not of anything so solid as plot, I have – for lack of a better term – felt this play intensely. It is not a premise (something I used to believe was the most important thing in the world, a viewpoint I no longer fully subscribe to … did I mention this already?) but a state of being. In a way, I feel that for some time I have been collecting and organizing myself, in a semi-conscious way, in light of this ephemeral concept, and all that remains is excitement about the process of discovery.This method of writing, heretical to me five years ago, now seems exciting, honest, and very right. Part of it is gaining confidence in my work and my processes, gaining experience and comfort, and part of it is simply the revelation (corny, probably, but if it isn’t true it should be) that we aren’t separate entities from our works. That it is okay to relinquish control and instead learn to trust. This statement is meant neither to overstate art nor to understate the person behind it. It’s just … well, trust.

As to premise, I’m not being entirely fair. I do still believe that premise is the great organizing principle behind dramatic works. I’m just not convinced that it comes first. I have known too many would-be artists who wait forever for the grand idea to come before they start working. Maybe that's the right path, I don't know. I think it’s worth considering that premise is a second-draft consideration.

So, I’m in the last days of Wake-Walking, and then I will plunge into The Immersibles –whatever the heck it turns out to be. Wish me luck. Here be its coffee-scented beginnings:


  1. Break a leg! Perhaps literally, as being tied to a chair in front of a computer might be a really good idea for getting the play done in time. Truly, good luck! I am so glad I don't have a deadline for the one I'm working on now.

    And hey, don't you have to work on the October horror plays in the middle of that time period, too?


  2. Thanks, Bill! Yes, I do. But at least with the horror plays I'll have help ... and break a leg with your play as well!