This is no. 103 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I want a poem to be useful. Like a lemon or a hairbrush. Like a cup of coffee in the middle of the day. “Well, you should have been a hairbrush maker,” my friend who’s not a poet told me. I love being friends with people who don’t write. Sometimes they’re more in the world. They just get it. They have no time for bullshit or theory.
Most of being a writer is trying to figure out what to do with the twenty-three hours of the day when you’re not writing. Most of being a writer is fighting being stuck. Being in relationships seems easy in comparison. You just break up! You move along to the next person, the next thing. But what am I going to do, break up with myself? I would have done it years ago when I realized I can’t boil an egg.
Okay, so things I do to avoid being stuck. One summer, by the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, I read Proust out loud, very slowly (but if you do this, you have to make sure no one is around). His sentences drive me insane. They’re so long and meandering. I like a short sentence! I’d take James Salter over Proust any day! But the thing about being stuck is, you can’t go to your obsessions. You have to try something you’re bad at. This is also how desire works. We want what we resist, what we are kind of repulsed by. Now, I don’t hate Proust. Are you kidding? I even have a photograph in Paris spread out on his grave wearing red Ray-Bans and cutoffs (I don’t know! I was twenty-five once!). But slipping into his sentences gives me anxiety. An anxiety that ends up being quite useful for my brain. Proust is the opposite of my sentence aesthetic. And I like opposites. I don’t like to relate.
Another thing I like to do is give myself the assignment of composing a line while I’m running or swimming. Mostly I’m running. I had a good month in L.A. where I swam every day but believe it or not I felt depressed! And depression being good for writing is a total myth and something people who don’t really write (or write well) romanticize. You have to feel some sort of way about life! A flat or downward motion does nothing. (Now the other thing I want to say is that L.A. is not a good city for depressed people. You really need New York for that. Being in a car is only exciting if someone else is driving you around.)
Anyway, when I’m running the reservoir in the park I turn one line over and over the entire run. Sometimes I don’t even get to composing the line. Instead, I’ll take a line I already know isn’t working, in something I’m revising, and flip it around. What you don’t have time for when you’re running is bullshit. I know when I’m lying to myself about something real quick. It’s sort of like when Didion says she used to edit with a drink before dinner. Things got hazy enough to see when she was bluffing. When I’m running everything around me gets hazy. But there’s this deep clarity in the center, where you can feel your breathing. And then you remember the poetic line is just that. Breath. Breath fused with language. Aesthetics. A surface. Who cares about meaning! Make it beautiful first.
This last trick doesn’t involve the park. Let’s get out of there. As you might have noticed, staying creative has something to do with confusing yourself. With becoming strange again. (You have to admit you don’t know what you’re doing! That maybe you never did actually!) For that, I like to send some part of a poem as a text to a friend. Though you have to make it pass. The goal is for them to feel like they’re not reading a poem. The goal is to get them a little jolted, a little excited, a little what the fuck about whatever it is. Just a weird text message! Just something you said.
I did this with so many poems in my new book, Love and Other Poems. I’d text people stanzas out of context because I wanted the entire thing to feel like I was talking to them at a bar. And when it didn’t work, I knew it. I got double question marks or “are you ok” or no response really. And I hate no responses! I’d rather be insulted to my face than stood up. Though when it did work, it felt so close to life. The poem and life were one thing. Just for a moment. There was no separation and I love that. I don’t want to be in life if it has nothing to do with art. So I trick myself. The way to avoid being stuck is to make something beautiful. The way to avoid being stuck is to make something beautiful and quite useless, too.
Alex Dimitrov is the author of three books of poems, including Love and Other Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), as well as the chapbook American Boys (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2012). His work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Poetry. He was previously the senior content editor at the Academy of American Poets, where he edited the Poem-a-Day series and American Poets. He has taught creative writing at Princeton University, Columbia University, and New York University, among other institutions. With Dorothea Lasky, he is the coauthor of Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac (Flatiron Books, 2019). Dimitrov lives in New York City.