Writing While Old

A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now

1-1I’m not supposed to write the Poetry Squawk. Other poets are supposed to write the Poetry Squawk. But I’ve failed to line up a Poetry Squawk for today. So I’m writing the Poetry Squawk.

And I’ve decided to write about Writing While Old. Which I am. Old. And writing. While old.

Indolent Books—whose guiding tenets include diversity, inclusion, innovation, provocation, and risk—started as a home for poets over 50 who did not have a first book. That mission expanded; but Indolent remains a press on the lookout for poets over 50 who write worthily but have managed, despite their best efforts or because of them, to stay under the publication radar.

But this post is not about me being an old fart publisher, or Indolent books having an eye out for old fart poets. This post is about Writing While Old.

Writing While Old is a thing. Because Everything While Old is a thing. The other night on Better Things, the quirky and wonderful and wonderfully quirky new sitcom by Pamela Adlon (who just turned 50 ), Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, asks her gynecologist after a routine exam, “Have I shut down down there? Am I a man yet?” She has not, as it turns out; in fact, her gynecologist tells her, she has “the reproductive system of a 16 year-old.” So the episode turns out to be about Sam’s dealing not with aging out of reproductivity, but with the persistence of fertility, much to her surprise, and even to her chagrin, as she expresses a fervent desire to be done with fertility: “Please tell me I’m close to being a man,” she says, “no more periods.”

It’s fascinating to me that Adlon’s character (written by Adlon) talks about menopause in terms of becoming a man. Aging out of womanhood and into manhood by becoming infertile and non-reproductive (or as a virologist might say of a virus, replication-incompetent). Interesting, too, that this episode of the series is called “Period.” A term of punctuation, yes. Also, though (here comes my inner classicist), a Greek rhetorical term that means “the way around,” from the prepositional prefix peri– (around) plus the noun hodos (road).

While period is etymologically a Greek term, the notion of periodicity was probably more crucial to Latin rhetoric. The Roman statesman and orator Cicero may be said to have perfected the periodic sentence (from the Latin noun sententia: thought, idea, or opinion), which is sort of like the blade on your food processor, with two curved, wedge-shaped wings that meet at a central hub. The classical Latin periodic sentence starts, be it with a shout or a whisper, incomplete, tantalizing, arresting, like Gypsy Rose Lee peeling off one glove. Clause by clause it unfolds, blossoms, such that maybe you know where it’s going, or you think you know where it’s going, or you hope it’s going where you think it’s going. It appears to be opening outward, but in fact its force is centripetal—seeking the center. Then it hits the hub, comes to a pause, a bare momentary standstill, like a ball you toss up, at that infinitesimal moment of stasis before it comes back down. But it’s not coming straight back down; it’s rolling down the side of a mountain, gathering momentum, speed and force. As it hurtles towards its conclusion, the sharp point on the other side of the rotary blade, the Latin period resolves all its syntactic cliffhangers, ticking them off one by one in reverse order, so you comprehend the hub of the sentence first, then each wedge of this verbal color wheel gets its complementary opposite—red its green, yellow its violet, blue its orange, until it reaches it rhetorical climax, its Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? moment.

Older age can feel like a period in the punctuation sense, an end, the end of fertility, aging out of replication competence, drying up, fading, withering. As young poets, we bear every verse like a child, we conceive it, gestate it, give it birth, and rear it. And that seems to make sense to us when we are young poets, when we are in our reproductive years, when we are having our period, or as Adlon’s character puts it later in the episode, giving an impromptu speech at a women and girls empowerment program at her daughter’s school, when we are “bleeding.” As older poets, we may have stopped bleeding, or we may have atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, slow, sluggish blood. Just as we saw our youth as a metaphor for our poetry, we may come to see our older age as a metaphor, too, and our poetry may suffer, our sense of being poets, our sense of being competent to write poems. I know I struggle with that seemingly inexorable paradigm creep, that the aging and increasingly infirm state of my body, and even of my mind, may become, may already be one with the decrepit state of my creativity, my poetry.

So what do we do? What’s the secret to Writing While Old? I dunno. I don’t know where this is going. I hope it’s not going where I sometimes, where I often fear it is going. This is probably not a one Squawk topic. This is probably just the initial throat clearing of a much larger, longer, louder, more plaintive and wailing squawk.

But I can offer a few suggestions. Some pretty self evident so I hesitate even to make them. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keeping submitting work to journals. Keep working on manuscripts and imagining them growing up and getting out of the house and moving into their own homes on printed pages between two covers in people’s hands. Go to readings. Read in open mics. Socialize with younger poets, so you know what direction they are taking poetry in; and socialize with older poets, poets your own age, poets who share your concerns about aging, and poets with whom—don’t underestimate the importance of this—you can bitch about younger poets: about how they are (sometimes?) getting valued for their youth and beauty, their taut bodies and their robust and regular menstrual periods, as much as for the accomplishment of their poetry.

And one last thing: read Plato’s Symposium. It’s about a lot of things, but in part it’s about philosophy as a creative and reproductive process. In the speech of Socrates, this philosophical creativity is posited as homosexual and opposed to heterosexual biological reproduction. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But you can also apply what Socrates is saying to other realms, to other binary opposites. You can apply it to age versus youth, for example, instead of (or in addition to) homosexual versus heterosexual. And you can apply it to poetry instead of (or in addition to) philosophy. In fact, for the ancient Greeks, poetry and philosophy were never far apart. The Greek word sophia, wisdom, was often applied specifically to the wisdom of poets, as we see for example in the odes of Pindar. Once we are willing or able to view wisdom as an aspect of poetry, it’s not a huge leap to conclude that old age, which allows for the possibility of accumulated wisdom if not its certainty, may in fact be a very ripe environment for the ongoing creation of poetry. And that the period at the end of our youth, the age at the end of our period, may be the point at which our poetry has just reached its centripetal hub, the point at which it begins to spin out towards it periodic conclusion, gathering force, resolving its syntactic cliffhangers.

At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Perhaps not, in the sense of decency as standards of propriety and literary decorum. Perhaps, as older writers, we are finished with that. And perhaps that’s a good thing. For poetry. For Writing While Old. When the universe shuts down one period, perhaps it opens another.

Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.