by Jim Danger Coppoc
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it
“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”
-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry
I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.
This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems
See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.
Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.
So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.
Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.
This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.
Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom
What kind is your mom?
My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”
My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both
I don’t remember
“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.
Jim Coppoc makes his living through some murky but evolving balance of poetry, nonfiction, pedagogy, playwriting, music and performance. In addition to his long history on spoken word and musical stages, Coppoc has recently been getting a lot of good attention from the literary world, with 4 Pushcart nominations for both poetry and nonfiction. Among other projects, Coppoc teaches Film, Literature and American Indian Studies at Iowa State University; plays bass in the Gatehouse Saints and guitar/keys/vocals in Love Rhino; blogs for Coal Hill Review; and lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife and two sons.