Now Comes the Hard Part

When first invited to contribute to this blog, it took me a month or two to hit upon my topic: the town of Oberlin, Ohio, and more specifically, my brief but rich history with it. About one hundred and fifty words into the endeavor, I hit a wall. I simply had nothing more than a paragraph to say about the subject, and even that didn’t seem of worth to any reader other than me. Sad, considering the fitting epigraph I’d unearthed from W.S. Merwin: “Home is a place that does not exist, about which your opinions are irrelevant.” Those words of course rang even truer after abandoning that piece, tentatively titled “Home along the Way.”

A month later, I convinced my father to stop at a house out in the country with a sign—BIG BOOK SALE—scrawled in sloppy red letters at the end of the drive. There I found a twelve volume set of the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, replete with all kinds of articles, drawings, diagrams, statistics, etc.—for free. They were giving it away: an illustrated study of the diets of various hawks; an anatomical diagram of a cricket; an in-depth history of chestnut blight; a gorgeous pen and ink rendering of birds navigating by starlight, the Earth below them crowned with the first sharp rays of morning. Surely this was the answer: write about the serendipity that is bound to occur when one is a dedicated book snoop. This particular idea didn’t even make it to the drafting stage. No provisional title, no tantalizing epigraph.

It took another month, but my real topic presented itself: why can’t a poet, with one book published, a second book in the wings, and two manuscripts on their way to being ready for submission, sit down and write prose? More pressingly, why can’t an instructor of English composition with four years of experience in the classroom and hundreds and hundreds of student essays under his belt write some halfway meaningful prose about a subject of his own choosing? After being approached this year to write two essays, one on service learning and creative writing, another on bird dogs (and agreeing to write both), I realized I’d better figure something out. Fast. As a poet who religiously composes by hand in seventy page, college ruled notebooks, I realized my problem: the space for my work has always been more or less defined by the factors of writing with a pen and using the bottom of the page (with the exception of roughly a dozen longer poems I’ve written) as the self-imposed limitations of my art. I’ve always favored compression, vividness, and celerity, due perhaps to my short attention span as both reader and writer. I’ve also always pushed myself to “get it right” on the first try. This naturally has never happened, but good things have happened because of it: words and rhythms that would’ve otherwise gone unwritten came my way because of this particular self-applied pressure. Trying to approach a 4,000 word essay in this fashion, however, is not in my abilities. Every attempt has led to one frustrating bout of silence after another.

The final factor in my development of favoring poetry to prose is that I never allowed my prose to mature alongside my poetry. My years as a graduate student in the MFA program at Bowling Green State University had me going along at a good chop as a prose writer: papers, book reviews, an annotated bibliography, a statement of purpose for my creative thesis, and even a few short stories when I opted to temporarily hop genres during a summer workshop. Degree in hand, I ceased to write prose longer than a few hundred words and turned my attention fully to poetry. The truth is that I’ve never liked my prose writing, especially when compared to my poems. I’ve always taken what has come easier. I am naturally drawn to breaking the line, to testing my own awareness of metaphor and image, to going straight at the unsayable and haloing it with what I hope is beauty, and almost always within the space of thirty blue lines and a Zebra F-402 in my hand. For five years this process defined me as a writer, and while I feel it may continue to serve me well as a poet, it has led to a serious blockage as a writer of prose. I’ve set up my materials and routines to enable me to hand draw schematics for small vegetable gardens and backyard sheds. Now I find myself trying to use the same means to design an entire city block. Just this minute, after finishing the above sentence, I’ve been struck with the sensation of having nothing to say. The wall appears once more in the lessening distance. The appeal of opening a new way to write and communicate is too strong to draw back from. It may very well be that it’s time to get over myself. My comfort zone may be a place that does or does not exist. Certainly my opinion about it is irrelevant. The present pressures remain and the wall is very close now, its brick handholds cool and sturdy beneath my fingers as I begin to climb.

F. Daniel Rzicznek’s poetry collections include Divination Machine (Parlor Press, forthcoming in late 2009), Neck of the World (Utah State University Press, 2007) and Cloud Tablets (Kent State University Press, 2006). He is also co-editor with Gary L. McDowell of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in 2010. Rzicznek teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His poems "Untitled" and "Antidote" appeared in HFR #43. See his author profile on GoodReads here.