There’s No Frigate Like a Book (Thoughts on Writing by a recent MFA Graduate)


Emily Dickinson wrote: There’s no frigate like a book.  William Shakespeare said, For nimble thought can jump both sea and land.  I think the sea is an apt metaphor for our endeavor—our art.  Each time we sit down to write, we embark on a journey. We often times do not know what our destination will be. We go with the flow, the current, through the fog, seeing glimpses of what lie ahead—explorers, if you will, as Walter Mosley describes us—writers.  But we must remember the words of Henry David Thoreau who said: How vain it is to sit and write when you have not stood up to live.  

As artists—poets—we live in the world.  We see the darkness of this world and we are compelled by some force, a force we didn’t ask for, to share this thing that lives inside us.  Because, as James Baldwin said, it is ultimately the artist, the poet, who can tell us—that is, anybody that has made it to this planet—what it is to be us; what it is like to love, what it is like to die or to see someone die; what it is like to fear; what it is like to love. And this thing that lives inside us, the thing we didn’t ask for, is not a negotiation—as Baldwin says—at the bargain store counter. It is to risk everything you are, everything you think you are. And if you are honest about it, if you don’t cheat, if you hold that mirror up to humanity in humility and truth then you are, as Baldwin asserts—our only hope.  

The only way to have it is to risk losing it. You can only have it if you’re willing to lose it all. I think of the sea and of Langston Hughes, on the deck of the SS Malone. He was a young poet who’d been taken by books at an early age. His mother introduced him to reading during trips to the public library.  He’d purchased a collection of books and held them in a bag on the deck of the ship that was to embark on a trip to Africa. He looked out at the expanse of the sea off Sandy Hook and dumped all of his books into the blackness of the waters. He wrote that he’d begun to believe more in books than in people and that—somehow—this was wrong. 

Hughes set out to sea and met the people, saw the places, experienced the hurt, the absurdity, the laughter, the tragedy, the redemption that would inspire a people, a nation—a world.  Again, we listen to Thoreau who was so thorough when he reminds us: How vain it is to sit and write when you haven’t stood up to live.  We search for our unique voice as we navigate the waters of the world, a world that is oftentimes indifferent to our efforts. We leap overboard into the waters of poetry, of writing, coming up against the rough currents, trying to find our way until we know those waters, those rivers.

I often use boxing analogies when talking about writing. Both endeavors are similar. The great boxing trainer Teddy Atlas says that there are 2 types of people—landscapers and excavators. The landscaper is good on the surface of things; the kind that is satisfied with the surface, satisfied in doing just enough to get by. Atlas reminds us that landscapers are nice and that there are many well-paid landscapers. But to be an excavator is to be unafraid of resistance. An excavator meets resistance head-on. He or she does so because they have to know. They dig deep because that is what is required; they are not satisfied with just getting by.  They go into those caves, those unknown areas not knowing what they’ll find and if they hit rock in the process, they break out a sledgehammer and pulverize the rock—going deeper into those caves, into the unknown because they have to know what’s down there. Going deeper, like Langston, whose soul grew deep like rivers.

Continuing our boxing analogy; our advisors are our Chief Seconds—that is, our corner men and corner women. They tell us what’s working and what isn’t in our work. More exposition, more dialogue, more specificity or back story they urge—which is the equivalent of, “Use your jab, move, then come over the top with the right hand.” Our advisors can help us develop our craft—they give us the knowledge that they have gleaned over time, through trial and error. But our advisors can’t teach you how to fight, they can’t teach you heart. You can only get it when faced with resistance; when you’re up against an opponent who is going to make it hard for you—those demons, those little voices that tell us we can’t or that we’re frauds. 

But as James Baldwin says, if you do it, if you don’t cheat, if you do it with truth, you are our only hope. And think of the millions who never read Langston, or Baldwin. Think of the multitudes who will never read what you’ve written. Yet there’s one person out there who perhaps will. And we need to give that one person the best, the same respect we’d give to 100, 1000, or one million people. I leave you with a quote from my late uncle, poet Al Robles.

Our poetry is the best part of our struggle

Our struggle is the best part of our poetry

The waters are deep and the journey is rough but it’s a beautiful journey. As Emily Dickinson wrote:, There’s no frigate like a book.  Don’t frigate (forget) it. 

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