Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers, my fortnightly newsletter on wriggling through a creative life. If today’s issue resonates with you, please consider becoming a paying subscriber for $5/month or $30/year. This newsletter wouldn’t be possible without reader support.
Henri Cole (b. 1956)
I ended a recent issue of this newsletter by wondering, not for the first time, whether my continual feeling of frustration with the writing process is pointless and counterproductive—some have argued as much—or if all my flailing about is actually informing the work at some core level and making it better. I hope and suspect that the latter is true, and I received some welcome confirmation of this hunch recently via Henri Cole’s 2018 book Orphic Paris, which I impulse-purchased at my favorite used bookstore a couple weeks ago.
Cole is an American poet, but Orphic Paris is a work of prose, riffing on the sights and sounds of the City of Light and their rich literary and personal associations for the author. It’s the kind of book that can include digressions on friendship, solitude, beekeeping, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke, dogs vs. cats, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, taxidermy, and Impressionism and still feel like a unified whole (a feat that I would like to learn how to pull off in my own work).
The confirmation that I was craving came on the heels of a passage about friendship and how it’s sustained Cole as a writer. Next he pivots to the opposite of friendship:
About my enemies, I have little to say. William Butler Yeats famously observed that “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So if there are enemies, perhaps they reside within and are, paradoxically, a gift to the poet. Sometimes, when I read a poem, if I sense no conflicted self—insolent, prating, hurt—I’m left thinking, Is that all?
Yes, exactly! I feel the same way about prose. If the work doesn’t feel like it is rooted in the writer’s own inner doubt and conflict then I, too, am often left thinking, Is that all? So when projects are taking much longer than hoped, and require many more false starts and dead ends and crises of confidence than I would have ever imagined—is all of that strife ultimately, at some level, a gift?
I think so. As Cole writes at another point: “Uncertainty is a virtue, and the tolerance of uncertainty.” And right before that, another useful reminder: “Continuing to write means I have learned to not quit.”
COMPASSION, SACRIFICE, ENDURANCE
Another passage in Orphic Paris that really resonated with me is this one:
I’ve always believed that poetry exists in part to reveal the soul’s capacity for compassion, sacrifice, and endurance. For some of us, this satisfies a basic human need, like air or water, but a poem must also have music, imagery, and form. Because there is a kind of nakedness or authenticity in poetry that is associated with truth, on many days I haven’t the guts for it, and I fail. But when I succeed, there is nothing in life—except love—that equally verifies my existence.
At the end of the day, I think this is why I read—to find the books, or the portions of books, that “verify my existence.” And I think that I write in order to participate in this exchange, or try to, though it’s possible that I really write merely to give myself cover for reading endlessly.
On a lighter note: Over the weekend, I made an appearance in the newsletter Semi-Important Things with Jessica Murnane, recommending four things I’ve been into lately. Click through to read my picks for a contemporary singer-songwriter, a contemporary salsa, a contemporary coffee thermos, and a series of conversations with contemporary poets.
Finally: Last week, I realized that my first book came out ten years ago?!
If you haven’t read it yet… maybe check it out? Bookshop is the best way I know to order books online and still support independent bookstores. Or you can get it directly from my publisher here. (UK readers can find a list of retailers here.)
To everyone who has bought a copy, borrowed it from the library, given it as a gift, recommended it to friend, shared it online, sent me a kind note, and otherwise encouraged my work: A million thanks, I’m truly grateful for your support! 🙏 ❤️
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So true! I continue to grapple with 'what's the point' of making art. But I think it's important to remember that it's also about the process - what's discovered on the way. If we didn't take part, we wouldn't discover those things are only hidden in the depths of the creative process itself. Your timely post also coincides with a daily blogging challenge I've started for May, which as visual artist makes me feel wholly uncomfortable and out of my depth. A 31 day writing challenge. It's day 1, and it's excruciating, feels pointless and I'm asking why because I'm not a writer? But the curiosity of what will be discovered in those pointless musings are enough to keep me coming back to my keyboard ;)
Agree! Well timed. I usually star important newsletters for later so I can focus on my work but I am getting in the habit of reading these first thing, with my tea. They so often give me heart. Today: “Uncertainty is a virtue, and the tolerance of uncertainty.” And: “when I succeed, there is nothing in life—except love—that equally verifies my existence” I would substitute “celebrates” for “verifies”