Containing a special guest and some lessons on writing.


The sun had temporarily abandoned the protection of the clouds once again, and Oregonians were making the most of it. The cafe across from Portlandia even had outdoor tables set up to take advantage of the sun's guest appearance, however brief it might be. The forecast wasn't bright, but the customer was being kept satisfied. Sweaters were necessary, but tables were full.

One of the tables was occupied by Mercy and me and a group of potential poets, with special guest Deborah Dobell. We were a little unclear on the pertinence of the subject to the other actions we were taking, but compared to Lily's seminar on tarot cards and female symbolism, it wasn't that far-fetched. Everyone was giving what they had. On the weekend I would be heading a discussion group, "Exploits of a Lone Female: Strategies for Survival While Traveling Solo," and Mercy had already led a workshop on marriage, "Killing the Angel in the House"; it was so popular, she was planning another. Our gathering had been billed as an exercise in female self-expression and the avoidance of stereotypes. Now we were not so sure. Several women had already read rather sappy exercises in self-pity when Deborah took over.

As Deborah read her epic poem to the gathering, Portlandia presiding like an indifferent deity, a few of the potential poets were obviously puzzled, stares so blank, they looked like they'd never even been erased before.

"So who's next?" Deborah asked with great good will, although her patience seemed to be running out.

After a little hesitation, another one of the potential poets volunteered. She had thick brown braids and small oval glasses. She introduced herself as Gail.

"This poem is called 'Diana'," Gail announced, and Mercy and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and surprised grins. Gail proceeded to read: "In this rage / murder would be an easy thing. / Turn the arrows that pierced me / back on those / who injured in haste, / to make them repent at leisure / the threat to my privacy, / my peace, / my freedom...."

Deborah was playing devil's advocate. "It's pretty close to home, isn't it?" she said when Gail was done. "A lot of personal feelings in there?"

"That's the kind of poetry I write," Gail said. "That's what poetry is all about."

"True enough," Deborah admitted. "At least in the time and place we are now. The last decades of the twentieth century have put a premium on subjectivity and personal self-expression."

Gail, though emotional, was not dim-witted. "And you don't approve," she said. "So what do you think is good poetry? What you just read to us?"

Deborah laughed, disarming the potential poet completely. "Oh, no! That was just fun and games!"

"It'll be published, though," I put in.

"Yes, Lyssa will take care of that," Deborah agreed with a smile. "If you already have a name, you can publish nearly anything."

Turning back to Gail, Deborah asked, "Is that really what you want to write? Poetry?"

"Well, no."

"I thought so," Deborah murmured, only audible enough for Mercy and me next to her to hear. "Do you like to read poetry?"

"Not really."

"Then why do you write it?"

"Self-expression. That's what we came here for today, didn't we?"

"If that's all we came for, then I'm in the wrong place. Do you think self-expression is good for self-expression's sake?"

"I think poetry has to be authentic, fresh, straight from the heart--not necessarily literary," Gail said, intensity darkening her soft brown eyes, of a hue with her thick braids. "I really don't think I have to read poetry to write it!" she concluded triumphantly.

"Well, you're in agreement with a lot of hobby poets on that point," Deborah said. "But if you don't even like to read poetry, why do you think anyone might read yours?"

"No one has to," the potential poet said in a huff and got up, looking at her watch. "I've got to go. It was nice to meet you, Ms. Dobell." She didn't seem to be particularly sincere about it, but she extended her hand to Deborah anyway.

"Deborah," Deborah said, taking the hand and bestowing her charming, blockbuster blue gaze on the confused woman. "I'm sorry if I offended you. I think the problem is that you came for the first half of the agenda and I came for the second half. Misunderstandings were bound to occur."

Gail nodded and released Deborah's hand, leaving with a much better impression than she'd had two minutes before.

When Gail's retreat was complete, Deborah turned to Mercy. "Oh, dear, I'm sorry. I seem to have chased her away," she said with an impish smile. "I think you got yourselves the wrong guest."

"You're probably the only one we could get on such short notice," one of the more daring souls contributed.

Deborah laughed. "True enough," she admitted. "I have committed myself to throwing my weight around in these strike activities." She leaned back and was silent for a moment. "For what it's worth--and I really don't know what it's worth for poetry, not being an expert--I want to tell all of you one thing I always tell beginning writers who bother to listen to me. Don't write what you know. At least not exclusively."

"But that's exactly what we're told to do in writing classes!" one of the potential poets protested.

Deborah nodded. "That's why I say it. Nowadays, there's a shortage of imagination. Autobiographical works are generally long on self-indulgence and short on understanding." Deborah cocked a knowing eyebrow at Mercy. I was glad she didn't know about my writing plans.

I looked at Deborah quizzically. "But everyone writes what they know."

"Not everyone, but too many. Ever since Hemingway gave the order, generations of recruits have been following the call. Now we are inundated with novels of initiation, novels of emancipation, novels of broken marriages--mostly set at universities because the vast majority of writers are either students or professors. Like you, Mercy." The way Deborah grinned as she said it, it took the sting out of the words.

"What are we supposed to write about then?" a potential poet asked.

"What you imagine. Your dreams. Your fantasies." As Deborah spoke, I could see my picaresque tale of an adventurous female bumming her way around the world sneaking out of my reach. I would have to store it away in the bottom drawer of memory until I figured out what I wanted to do with it. But maybe that was better than an unpublished novel in the bottom drawer of my desk.

"I don't have time to dream up a coherent world," Mercy said.

"Do you think this one's coherent?"

The women laughed. "No," Mercy replied, shaking her head and smiling.

"I realize many people think it's easier to write about their own life," Deborah said. "But hasn't it ever occurred to you that what you know might be boring?"

"Actually, it has," Mercy said.

"Well then, why do you think it would make a good novel?"

"I don't think mine would be boring," I said daringly.

Deborah transferred her stunning smile to me and nodded. "Yes. I think a jog around the world might well provide you with a few adventures to relate. But you would still have the other basic problem of writing your own life--putting it in perspective. Something that has happened to you is too close to home for fiction, even if it did happen on the other side of the world." Deborah definitely had a point. I thought about the story of the strike and wondered if that would be too close to home too. Obviously, it was closer, but it wasn't my story.

"I'm starting to get the impression that nearly all of you would rather write novels than poetry," Deborah said. "Is that true?"

The women who nodded and shrugged in agreement were in the majority.

"And you all want to tell your own stories," Deborah continued fatalistically. We nodded obediently.

"Why?"

"Women continue to be socially disadvantaged, and that needs to be pointed out," one woman said. "Isn't that what we're trying to do with this strike, with all these events surrounding it?"

"Certainly. But the story of the disadvantaged woman was told a hundred years ago, and it has hardly changed since. My great-grandmother was a painter, but she got married and had children and that was the end of that. A hundred years ago there was no room for both love and career in a woman's life, and women are still complaining about it today."

"Because we're still being forced into the role of cook and housekeeper," Mercy insisted.

"Exactly!" Deborah agreed. "And that's why we need to create new stories. We have enough narratives of promising, talented women overwhelmed by the demands of family life, enough annals of victimization to identify with. What we don't have are stories of women who avoid getting trapped in the role of cook, housekeeper and nanny, women who don't spend all their energy looking for love under every bedsheet. We should be beyond sob stories. Our next job is to change the myths."

"I think I've heard that one before," Mercy murmured in an aside to me. Deborah gave Mercy a grin.

"But you can't just choose not to be a victim!" one participant protested.

"Maybe not, but I think you can influence it," Deborah insisted. "And you can certainly choose not to write about it."

"The truth needs to be told, though."

"That's a job for journalists, not artists. Telling the 'truth' only reinforces the stereotypes we want to avoid."

"Why?"

"Because we see with those stereotypes. We have to make an extra effort to see through them, and that extra effort is the effort of imagination." Deborah looked at her watch and up at the sky. Clouds were starting to gather, a dark grey backdrop to the pastel gaudiness of the Portland Building. "I've got to get going. Maybe I'll see you at the office soon?" she said to Mercy. Mercy nodded.

Deborah preferred to say things with stories, but she had none to tell. Her guest appearance was over. "Now I know why I don't teach creative writing courses," Deborah whispered as she hugged Mercy goodbye.

Once Deborah and her charm were gone, it hit the potential poets full force that she had not been particularly encouraging. She had even implied that they suffered from collective conceit.

"She was quite interesting," one woman contributed lamely.

"We didn't even really get a chance to talk about our poetry, though."

"Be grateful for small favors. Look what happened to Gail."

"Maybe we could have gotten Gary Snyder," a young woman said wistfully.

"But he's male," another woman said.

"Hasn't he expatriated to the Orient?"

"Maybe he's dead."

"But at least he's a poet."

"Yeah. Deborah's a novelist. She doesn't know anything about poetry." I distinctly remembered the woman who made the last comment nodded when Deborah asked us if we wanted to write novels.

Despite their mild complaints, once Deborah departed, there was little reason for the rest of us to remain, and the meeting of potential poets disintegrated. It was her they had come to see. So with their convenient excuses for Deborah's lack of enthusiasm, the women began to take their leave. And finally the clouds made good their threat and it started to rain, dampening us the way our creative hopes had been dampened. Everyone at the outside tables scattered, taking refuge inside the cafe or just plain leaving.

"Who is Gary Snyder anyway?" one woman asked her companion as she shook open her umbrella.

"Some hippie poet from Oregon," the other woman answered.

"I wonder whatever happened to Gary Snyder?" Mercy asked reflectively as we too left. "He used to be one of George's favorite poets."

"George likes poetry?" I asked in shock.

Mercy shrugged. "He used to. He wanted to be a writer too, you know."

"No, I didn't know."

"That's one of the things that drew me to him. I'd never met a guy who wrote poetry."

"George wrote poetry?" I could hardly believe my ears.

"He idolized Delmore Schwartz and Dylan Thomas and wrote me unfinished, impressionistic poems. No one had ever written poetry for me before."

"You sucker."

Mercy grinned.


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