Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Old Journals 2

When I moved from my parents' house to my own house, about a year and a half ago, I put all my old journals into a plastic bin, to gather them all in one place, preserved. Someday, I plan to go back through some of those old journals to find poem fragments that I can recall leaving unfinished, which I want to work with at some point. There are also ideas for musical compositions, and some sketches in there. Like most journals, a lot of my old journals' pages are devoted to boring personal rants and ravings that no-one should care about, ranging from the incoherent to the near-essay.

I don't really want to get too far into the project of going through all these old journals right now, to mine their content, as that's too big of a Pandora's Box to get into while the weather is still good, and I want to be outdoors making photographs, or in the garage teaching myself woodcarving, or writing more new music. Perhaps over the winter, I'll get into the mining, since there are several months here where being outdoors is a cold prospect at best, an impossible one at worst. It will be an occasional process, most likely, mixed in with other projects. Better to go slow, and not be drowned by the tides of the past.

In recent weeks, though, I've been looking through the old journals for one specific set of writings. When I was in my mid-teens, just beginning to explore my sexual identity, in secret, in private, I naturally turned to writing out some of my thoughts and feelings as poems. I kept those journals very carefully hidden. Had digital cameras existed back then, no doubt I would have explored that creative option, as well. I've been thinking about my first typewriter lately, and having re-discovered a big binder full of old poem juvenilia, I'm thinking about looking into the origins of some of my poetry, which for many years began in my journals. I am going to be looking more closely into this set of writings sooner rather than later, because I'm at a point in looking back through my own family history and memories where this material has risen in importance.

I began keeping a journal—as distinct from a diary, which is usually daily entries about daily personal events and thoughts about them, which I have never done—in my early college years, probably at age 19 or 20. Most of what I wrote was no doubt crappy self-exploration, the things adolescents write through in their journals, to figure out the world and themselves. But I also began the habit, from the beginning, of sketching ideas and poem drafts in my journals, which has become a lifelong practice. The poems that were worth preserving, I eventually typed into my computer(s), adding to the folders full of poem drafts over the years. That practice has continued to the present day. Nonetheless, in the turbulence of recent years, some poems have never been transcribed, or not completely.

At the moment, I find myself too easily spraining a mental ankle, if I try to talk about what I'm going through right now in words, either in journal entries or in poetry. So, I'm still taking a break from writing poems and essays—in some ways, a renewal against expectations of my practice to never go looking for a poem, but to let it find me, when it's ready. So I'm writing a lot less at the moment than I used to. At the moment, mired in some difficult life experiences, I am very aware of how limited words can be to convey what I feel, and how easily words can betray the reality by being all too easy, all too facile, all to cheap.

The first journals were spiral bound notebooks from one of the bookstores that catered to students at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Ulrich's Bookstore was on the corner of East University and South University, just across from the main campus square. I bought a lot of supplies there over the years, from notebooks to drawing pens to musical materials and textbooks. The one or two English courses that I took in my early college years were writing courses, and I used spiral notebooks from Ulrich's as my coursework notebooks. So it was not much a leap to use these same sort of spiral notebooks for my personal journals, as well.

When I was living in Surakarta, Central java, on a Fulbright, I changed to lined bound school notebooks that one could buy extremely cheaply at the school supply stores. I began to use those books there, and bought several to bring home with me, which I used for several. I liked the size of these books, as they neatly fit into a backpack or shoulder bag.

These days I use unlined artist's sketchbooks. They're larger, and better bound, and I like the unlined pages now because I draw and do calligraphy in these books now, not just write in them.

Here are two spreads from my 1993-94 journal, in one of the lined journal books brought home from Java. They show my initial writing of a poem, one of the Sutras. Specifically, Whitman Sutra (linked to in a later, more finished version).

Click on images to see larger versions

Sometimes it's interesting to look at drafts of finished poems, to see what was changed in the writing and revision processes, and what remains from the original, first draft. As I said, many if not most of my poems have begun in this way, as dated entries from one of my journals. When I type them into the computer, I tend to revise them at that point; perhaps later revisions will happen, but all on the computer, with its easy cut-and-paste editing capabilities.

In looking at the first draft of this poem, I can see where changes were made before I ever typed them into the computer. Sections were moved around, and lines and words altered. It's the beginning of a series of poems about Whitman, written over several years, as well as part of the series of Sutras still being worked on.

One reason I have been looking back through these journals, to find these poems written during my sexual awakening, is because I have been thinking Walt Whitman, his poetry and life, for almost a year now; thinking about how his poetry and homoerotic life have influenced my own, among many other gay men who happen to be artists, poets, and/or musicians. So it was interesting to find this first version of Whitman Sutra as part of this looking for the homoerotic poetry I was writing at that time. The search is ongoing, and interesting bits of my own past have been coming back to mind during this process. More on that later, as it develops.

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