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How to Make Love, Write Poetry,
and Believe in God
by Nin Andrews

A few weeks ago, I was part of a Hamilton College alumnae poetry reading, and after the reading a woman asked a simple question: “How do you write a poem?” I didn’t have an answer, so I suggested a few books by poets like John Hollander, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins. The woman shook her head and said she had read books like that, but they didn’t help. She wanted something else, like a genuine operating manual—a step by step explanation.

I, too, love instruction manuals, especially those manuals on how to perform magic: write a poem or know God or make love, if only love were something that could be made. Manuals offer such promise. Yes, you, too, can enter the bee-loud glade and the Promised Land and have an orgasm. 
 
I love the idea that my mind could be programmed like a computer to spit out poems on demand—poems with just the right number of lines, syllables, metaphors, meanings, similes, images . . . And with no clichés, no matter how much I love those Tom, Dick and Harry’s with their lovely wives, as fresh as daisies. I can set them in any novel or town in America, and they will have sex twice a week, always before ten at night, never at the eleventh hour, and it will not take long, time being of the essence. 

I love sex manuals, too: those books that suggest our bodies are like cars. If only we could learn to drive them properly, bliss would be a simple matter of inserting a key, mastering the steering wheel, signaling our next moves, knowing the difference between the brakes and the gas pedal, and of course, following the speed limit. 

A depressive person by nature, I am also a fan of how-to books on God, faith, happiness, the soul, books that suggest a divine presence is always here. I just need to find it, or wake up to it, or turn off my doubting brain. That even now, my soul is like a bird in a cage. If I could sit still long enough and listen closely, it might rest on my open palm and sing me a song. 

God, poetry, sex, they offer brief moments of bliss, glimpses of the ineffable, and occasional insights into that which does not translate easily into daily experience, or loses its magic when explained.

In college, I took classes in religion, philosophy and poetry, and I studied sex in my spare time—my first roommate and I staying up late, pondering the pages of The Joy of Sex. As a freshman, I auditioned my way into an advanced poetry writing class by composing the single decent poem I wrote in my college years. The poem, an ode to cottage cheese, came to me in a flash as a vision nestled on a crisp bed of iceberg lettuce. Does cottage cheese nestle? I don’t know, but the professor kept admiring that poem. He said all my other poems paled by comparison.
 
This was in the era of the sexual revolution, long before political correctness and the Me-Too movement. My roommate, obsessed with getting laid, said we women should have been given a compass to navigate the sexual landscape. She liked to complain that she’d had only one orgasm in her entire life, and she wanted another. “What if I am a one-orgasm wonder?” she worried. The subject of orgasms kept us awake, night after night. 

In religion class, my professor told the famous story about Blaise Pascal who had a vision of God that was so profound his life seemed dull and meaningless forever afterwards. He never had another vision. But he had sewn into his jacket an incoherent note to remind him of the singular luminous experience.

The next day in religion class, a student stood up and announced that the professor was wrong—about Pascal, God, everything. The student knew this because he was God’s friend. He even knew His first name, and what God was thinking. The professor smiled sadly, put his arm around the student, and led him out of the classroom, down the steps and into the counselor’s office. When the professor returned, he warned us that if we ever thought we knew God, we should check ourselves into a mental institution. Lots of insane people know God intimately.

But, I wondered, what would God (or the transcendent—or whatever word you might choose for it: the muse, love, the orgasm, the soul, the higher self) think of us?

For example, what would a muse think of a writer trying, begging, praying to enter the creative flow? All writers know it—that moment when inspiration happens. The incredible high. And the opposite, when words cling to the wall of the mind like sticky notes but never make it onto your tongue or the page.
 
What would an orgasm think of all the people seeking it so fervently yet considering it dirty, embarrassing, unmentionable? And then lying about it. “Did you have one?” a man might ask. “Yes,” his lover nods. But every orgasm knows it cannot be had. Or possessed. Or sewn into the lining of a coat. No one “has” an orgasm. At least not for long. 

What did God think of Martin Luther, calling out to him in terror when a lightning bolt struck near his horse, “Help! I’ll become a monk!” And later, when he sought relief from his chronic constipation and gave birth to the Protestant Reformation on the lavatory—a lavatory you can visit today in Wittenberg, Germany.

I don’t want to evaluate Luther’s source of inspiration. But I do want to ponder the question: How do you write a poem? Is there a way to begin?

I think John Ashbery gave away one secret in his poem, “The Instruction Manual:” that it begins with daydreaming. Imagination. And the revelation that the mind contains its own magical city, its own Guadalajara, complete with a public square and bands and parading couples that you can visit this enchanted town for a limited time before you must turn your gaze back to the humdrum world.  
 
But a student of Ashbery’s might cringe at the suggestion that poetry is merely an act of the imagination. In order to master the dance, one must know the steps. And Ashbery was a master. So many of his poems follow a kind of Hegelian progression, traveling from the concrete to the abstract to the absolute. Or what Fichte described as a dialectical movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. Fichte also wrote that consciousness itself has no basis in reality. I wonder if Ashbery would have agreed.

In college I wrote an inane paper, comparing Ashbery’s poetry to a form of philosophical gardening in which the poet arranges the concrete, meaning the plants or words, in such an appealing order that they create the abstract, or the beauty, desired. Thus, the reader experiences the absolute, or a sense of wonder at the creation as the whole thing sways in the wind of her mind. 

Is there a basis in reality for wonder? Or poetry? I asked. Or are we only admiring illusions, the beautiful illusions the poet has created?  How I loved questions like that. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Fichte and Hegel and Ashbery and write mystical and incomprehensible books. I complained to my mother that no matter how hard I tried, I could not compose an actual poem or philosophical treatise—I was trying to write treatises, too. “That’s good,” she said. “Poets and philosophers are too much in their heads, and not enough in the world.” 
 
I didn’t argue with her and tell her that not all poets are like Emily Dickinson. Or say that Socrates was put to death for being too much in the world, for angering the public with his Socratic method of challenging social mores, and earning himself the title, “the gadfly of Athens.”  
 
Instead, I thought, That’s it! If I want to be a poet, I just need to separate my head from the world. Or at least turn off the noise of the world. And seek solitude, as Wordsworth suggested, in order to recollect in tranquility. I imagined myself going on a retreat or living in a cave, studying the shadows on the wall. Letting them speak to me or seduce me or dance with me. 
 
The shadows, I discovered, are not nice guests. Sometimes they kept me awake all night, talking loudly, making rude comments, using all the words I never said aloud. “Hush,” I told them. “No one wants to hear that.” Sometimes they took on the voices of the dead and complained I hadn’t told their stories yet or right. Sometimes they sulked and bossed me about like a maid, asking for a cup of tea, a biscuit, a little brandy, a nap. One nap was never enough. When I obeyed and closed my eyes, they recited the poems I wanted to write down. “You can’t open your eyes until we’re done,” they said, as if poetry were a game of memory, or hide and seek in the mind. Other times they wandered away and down the dirt road of my past, or lay down in the orchard and counted the peaches overhead. Whatever they did or said, I watched and listened.

That’s how I began writing my first real poems. I knew not to disobey the shadows. I knew not to turn my back on them and look towards the light as Plato suggested—Plato who wanted to banish the poets and poetry from his Republic. I knew to not answer the door if the man from Porlock came knocking.
 
To this day I am grateful for the darkness. For the shadows it creates in my mind. It is thanks to them I have written another book, The Last Orgasm, a book whose title might make people cringe. But isn’t that what shadows do? And much of poetry, too? Dwell on topics we are afraid to look at in the light?
 
Nin Andrews’ poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Agni, The Paris Review, and four editions of Best American Poetry. The author of six chapbooks and seven full-length poetry collections, she has won two Ohio individual artist grants, the Pearl Chapbook Contest, the Kent State University chapbook contest, the Gerald Cable Poetry Award, and the Ohioana Prize for Poetry. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the Belgian poet, Henri Michaux, Someone Wants to Steal My Name. She lives on a farm in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, cows, coyotes, and many bears.

New Releases from Etruscan

It is with great joy that we welcome Nin Andrews’ The Last Orgasm to the Etruscan Press Family.
 
The Last Orgasm is a collection of wry and fantastical, spiritual, feminist meditations on sexuality, love, desire, and the end of desire. This collection of poems continues a dialogue between the orgasm and the poet that began in her first collection, The Book of Orgasms.

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Bruce Bond’s Scar.
 
This collection carries its scars within the lines of blank verse sonnets, where Bruce Bond explores trauma, self-alienation and the power of imaginative life to heal, while also exploring the interrelations of poetry, psychology, and creative expression.



 

The 2020 Etruscan Prize


Jason Miller of Lehman, Pa. was awarded the Etruscan Prize during the June Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program online residency. The Etruscan Prize is awarded each year to a member of the Wilkes Creative Writing student community who submits one page of any genre (prose, script, poetry or play) that sings. This was the eleventh consecutive year Etruscan Press awarded a Wilkes University Creative Writing graduate student for their writing excellence.
 
Miller’s submission, “Dream House,” was the prize winner. This was the fourth year the Etruscan Prize was awarded for a work of poetry. Prize recipients from prior years were awarded for works of fiction, memoir, and poetry. Miller is pursuing his M.F.A. in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing. Wilkes University faculty members Gregory Fletcher and Nancy McKinley have served as Miller’s mentors.
 
Etruscan author Dante Di Stefano judged the award. Di Stefano commented about Miller’s submission: “In four and a half quatrains, ‘Dream House’ builds an astonishing structure, moving with the nightmare logic of a waking dream, puncturing nostalgia and engaging the past as a present kind of knowing, even as the poem ends artfully and ambiguously mid-action.
 
“The poem calls upon its readers to challenge national histories and personal narratives (the bloody battlefields we build monuments to, the bungalows that loom like mansions in our memories); in so doing, the poet acknowledges the systemic violence and domestic trauma that underwrite the daily safety and prosperity taken for granted in large swaths of American life. Additionally, the poem critiques the casual animosity of the touristic imaginary driving consumer culture, a culture that breeds disorientation and ends in viciousness (‘…out of sorts, out of place, / but right where we needed to be.’). Reading ‘Dream House’ one can’t help but lament that in the highly partisan political atmosphere of the Trump era, we are invited to participate in public stonings, of one kind or another, every day.
 
“With crystalline but surprising diction (‘pummeled by falling / Space junk’), well-trimmed lines, and a kind of fearful symmetry, ‘Dream House’ recalls the brutality and empathy at the heart of a George Saunders story, the dreadful nuance of a Charles Simic poem, and a coiled razor-wire élan all its own.”
 
Author of Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019), Di Stefano is the author of Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for the Dialogist. Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books, 2018).

Click here to view the 2020 Etruscan Prize Broadside

About Etruscan Press:

Housed at Wilkes University and partnering with Youngstown State University, Etruscan is a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.

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