“because love too is like a county fair/ in that it’s at its best in the dark/ next to someone you just met.”- Keegan Lester
Keegan Lester’s debut poetry collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Books Prize, possesses a haunted urgency that, as one careens through its poems like a semi navigating mountain roads, suspends one between what we cannot know about being human and what we cling to as gospel. Gospel’s an accurate word for Lester’s verse. He explores language, love, grief, and Lester’s adopted home state of West Virginia.
The collection, however, is not coal-dusted or steeped in stereotype, but instead luminous with the acknowledged humanity of Appalachians. This is summed up neatly toward the book’s end in “You Appalachian Re-appropriating Asshole Poets,” in which Lester writes, “i don’t write about killing deer… my great uncle pitched/ for the yankees. He also killed deer/ he never wrote a single poem.”
There is an impossibility in both capturing the places we have lived, how they must necessarily change in our actions and through the echo of our memories. In the first “half” of the book (although this part accounts for the majority of the book), Lester weaves together disparate poems into a singular “ghost note,” which is like an elegy. Or prayer. Or the scribbled final thoughts of the dying. Or the dead.
In early 2017, I had the opportunity to see Keegan Lester perform his poems. He reads with both the New York Poetry Brothel and the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue. I use the word perform because Lester affects the posture of a backwoods preacher. The words travel through him, rather than from him as if transfused through the mother-lode vein of a word mine.
I picked up the book this morning for a long car ride and tore through the book for the third time. Perhaps it took some time to compose proper thoughts on the collection, but there must be a reason I keep returning. This book is itself a return, a home town not yours but nevertheless intimately familiar.
“Keegan Lester is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. This is his first book.” – Found on Publisher’s Website
Arrives around midnight, an itch on the inside of the skull. A nag– a voice of a friend or professor, perhaps editor if you’re lucky. “You should be writing.”
So you drag your sorry corpse from the sheets and sit before a blank screen, fingers poised. Wait, you need to drink something, not anything too caffeinated. You still must work tomorrow, the “real work,” whatever that means; you feel less as if you’re producing anything there than spinning your wheels, making enough money to rent an apartment where you may write. Where you may store the books you buy and never read, neglected friends forlorn on the shelf. But of course it is past midnight, and the story or the novel or the poem remains unfinished. An aching empty, a white space suggesting brilliance but yielding nothing.
David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” (Wallace interview here)
You worry about what it really is. Just words, your words even. A sad attempt at magic. You keep pulling rabbits from the hat, but they come out limp, dead. You envy the authors who make these tricks appear so easy, how they talk of their work as something natural. In their wizard presence, you’re a squib. But Ira Glass said something very similar about this terrible self-expectation.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
This sort of thinking lends me hope. When I was a younger, I was too stupid to question the validity of my work: of course I was a writer, destined to be a writer. I wrote a novel every year since the age of eleven, and while writing each manuscript, I never doubted it would be published. Now that I have my first novel published and some poems in journals, I am immobilized by the fear of not being good enough. My expectations for myself have drastically changed because I have the ability to perceive the gap between where I am and where I wish to be.
Sometimes the excuses come easy. I worked five months as a busboy in a fine dining restaurant following college graduation. I worked more than forty hours a week, often returning home exhausted. I would sit at the bottom of the shower, rubbing lotion on my calloused feet at one in the morning after working sixteen hour shifts, then wake up early again for another double. While I imagined this fast-pace life might have conjured stories, I became bloated with self-doubt. I didn’t write. I began and halted a few pieces. I gave up all summer revising my second novel, its direction unknown, the genre flip-flopping between magic realism and literary drama. I spent my days off in the library, typing at a school computer. I wrote first drafts for six or seven different stories over the summer, but still I could not forgive myself for not pushing myself further. After all, I had only become a busboy to create free time to write, to produce a schedule that would give me mornings to myself. And yet I found myself so often sleeping in, shirking all responsibilities.
When I quit being a busboy and began instead working at a used bookstore, I still didn’t use the free time wisely. Unlike in a typical job or even while at college, there were no concrete deadlines dangling over my head. It feels awful to be unable to recapture the productivity I embodied as a teenager or while I was in university; but I am learning too to forgive myself.
I am reading again. Mostly short stories. Returning to stories that shocked or changed me, stories that dug under my skin and remained with me. I sought out novels that had done the same. I have been spending entire afternoons on the Edge of America at Folly Beach, reading poems aloud to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I have spent entire days discovering discographies of jazz musicians to whom I’ve never before listened. I am unwrapping the world, and I can’t get it all down. Not all at once.
But I’m still trying. I have found a good new direction for revising my second novel and needed time away from it to figure out what to do. I am piecing together a poetry collection, which my publisher is currently reviewing. And I’m writing. Not always something I consider good or brilliant. I close my eyes and conjure something incredible in my head that never translates to the page. But I forgive myself for what I could not do, for what I could not write when I could not write. I forgive myself for waking late and sitting too long before blank pages before going to wash the dishes. Because it comes in the middle of the night.
I climb out of bed, something bouncing in the back of my skull. Insistent. An idea. A notion of where to take the story next. I sit down, and I write.
In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.
So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.
After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.
But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).
So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.
I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.
Sunday morning brings a brief reprieve, a misty gray sunshine illuminating the still-flooded streets. As I walk to the coffee shop, jonesing for a rush of caffeine that might inspire my research and writing, I witness a small sports car marooned on smith street. Murky brown water reaches its window. The car has been long abandoned. It has become an island of rust and possible regret. The coffee shop is entirely empty, closing early for the day; we expect further rains to come later, and the barista must drive his bike through the cross-town where his daughters wait at home. As I walk back toward my house, Americano in hand, rain falls lightly.
But not rain like the hurricane has brought, great sheets of rain, waves crashing violently against the Battery. The pictures on the Internet are foreboding—streets become rivulets, gushing with sewage water. Trucks have become submerged in an aquatic traffic jam. Trees fell due to wicked winds. Overly irrigated front yards float. Enough rain to bring buried corpses to the surface. Worse still the news coming from the governor and president—a state of emergency! Enough fear to put your teeth on edge.
The rain will come again, tonight maybe. But for now I’m locked up inside. Day Four of lounging, reading, and listening to music.
I spent a good part of this afternoon lying in bed and listening to an album by the German composer Max Ricther called The Blue Notebook. The music is both classical and surprisingly subterranean. A melody that enraptures and envelops the body and mind.
I don’t mind the quiet. Friday night I attended a small get-together at a friend’s house, but last night, the rain proved too ferocious to bother. I stayed up until 3am, alternating between poetry books I want to re-read and episodes of Adventure Time. There is something calming, I think, about a storm. The hurricane forces one to stay inside, not fearing that some Apocalypse will arrive, that God will tear open the skies and snatch up the few believers yet. No, something else.
This is a makeshift baptism at best. The apocalypse will come later, maybe tonight, who cares? For now, I am learning to be alone, to be content with a pen and paper. To read more deeply. To listen more closely. Isolation both maddens and inspires. Outside, the rain slams against dirt, quenching its thirst beyond need; what gives life may also take life away. Inside I am lying in bed, enjoying exquisite absence, learning to hold no one’s body, learning to be in my own body and not outside of it. Learning to listen, to open the windows, to watch the skies split up and wonder what got God so angry in the first place.
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.