“Apology for Absence”

A Prairie Horizon - Saskatchewan, Canada

At a reading I attended at the end of last year, a poet friend (very supportive of my work) asked if I’d retired.

I understood her to be referring to my not having worked the past three years. I was in chemotherapy the last half of 2016, and I’ve been recovering ever since. My vitality and acuity are presently too volatile for me to commit to teaching fifteen weeks at a go. I tried in the fall of 2018, but had to surrender the single class I was teaching mid-November…

I was more than a little disturbed when through my mental fog it appeared to me she hadn’t been asking about my job status but my writing and publication record. (That it took me so long to pick up on her meaning is an index of my state). My last trade publication was March End Prill (Book*Hug, 2011), a long poem that, itself, had been composed almost a decade before it appeared in print.

Lately, I’ve taken to joking I have the creative metabolism of a pop star:  about twelve poems a year, which, were I pop singer, would be enough for a new album. Given that many poetry presses prefer manuscripts of over eighty pages or so, that pace of production would ideally result in a new book every seven years or so. Were it only so simple.

Even for someone with three trade editions under his belt, every new manuscript is a new challenge to get published. Indeed, the last two collections I’ve collated have failed to find a publisher. On the one hand, I’m no networker. On another, the work has always been against the grain. Tellingly, the last editor to turn down my latest manuscript did so on the basis of an understanding of its poetics the opposite of my own.

Moreover, I eschew a practice increasingly common, to compose “a book”. Often a poet will pick up and follow the thread of a theme or as often crank a generative device. Sometimes such efforts are successful, and I can appreciate the urge and sentiment that goes into this approach, when it’s not the result of the pressures of reigning expectations. However, as my earliest mentor once quipped concerning the composition of a collection:  “A book is a box.”

Which brings me to the title of this post. Apology for Absence is the title of John Newlove’s a for aselected poems (Porcupine’s Quill, 1993), a famously laconic poet, known, among other things, for his diminishing productivity over the years. But Newlove holds a more profound importance for me, personally. As I write in a poem from Ladonian Magnitudes:

Because John Newlove the Regina Public Library’s writer-in-residence gave me his Fatman and reading it in the shade on the white picnic table on the patio in our backyard thought “I can do that!” and wrote my first three poems

I like to think that happened when I was fourteen, but a little research proves I must have been a year or two older. At any rate, however much I admire and envy the productivity of a  D. H. Lawrence or Thomas Bernhard, I seem to have followed Newlove’s example in this regard. (It’s a long story). Poetically, there are worse models.

No, I haven’t retired. Nor am I absent, MIA. I’m hard at work, at my own work, going my own direction at my own pace, trusting some will be intrigued if not charmed enough to tarry along.

 

6 comments so far

  1. Ronald Kelley on

    You and I, because of our physical, emotional and spiritual encounter with the netherworld now exist in another time and space that CAN be shared when it evolves or dawns on us just how/when/where it will be.

    • Bryan Sentes on

      Ron, your encounter was far more grave and harrowing than my own. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is, luckily, highly manageable and the treatment far less demanding than many, though, as my oncologist words it, I didn’t tolerate it well.

      That being said, yes, I certainly concur with the sentiment you express!

      • ronkelley1 on

        Bryan, I have been ‘stuckness’ when it comes to creativity that I attribute to the test tube they made of my body. I am gratitude that it continues to work. Rather than create or continue the many ‘projects’ I have lined up, I just add to the list. I want to explode and let it all out, easier said than… There have been a few what I call ‘angels’ that have appeared at odd or pivitol points in my life that have altered my trajectory in the landscape, I suspect/believe your John was one for you
        .

      • Bryan Sentes on

        We would indeed be fools to be ungrateful for still being here, however frustrating (and it is) my shattered vitality, concentration and memory still are. I’ve been culturing patience and general equanimity as best I can, but still. I imagine that out of that stillness creation can come.–Newlove moved me to write poetry (I had been bringing him some skin-crawlingly bad prose) as per the poetic verse I quote, and introduced me to other writers and the warm bosom of the writers’ community embodied by the Saskatchewan Writers Guild.–What’s important for me is the point of the post, the shock I felt when I finally understood my poet friend’s remark, how impossible it is to publish for someone who writes what I do (_always_in abeyance of the manner of the moment) as I do (short, infrequent poems). There have been exceptions in the work, but still…

  2. Gypsy John on

    Excellent perseverance Son; just keep “soldiering on”!


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