Wednesday, February 11, 2004


Two lifetimes ago, when I was writing poems out of the journals of Lewis & Clark, I had Clark ask the question: "Lewis, why do we do this?" It is a line I have used often ever since.

It is bad enough that I have no visible (and few invisible) means of support, bad enough that I depend on the hard work of my wife to make my Vagabond project possible, but now I have taken to spending one morning a week helping an 80-year-old friend in Milwaukee get his life story on paper. From where I sit today, I don't see any money in that. Then for another day a week I have been going to the Dwight Foster Library in Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, to thumb though books that had belonged to Wisconsin's foremost poet, Lorine Niedecker, to see what marginalia she might have left in them. As you can imagine, there is no money in this either, though there might be a little prestige: Lorine Niedecker is a world class poet, put in the same rank as Sappho and Emily Dickinson by Cid Corman, who said LN is one of three best women poets ever.

I will be able to make some presentations about what I've found in LN's books to those interested in Niedecker's life and work, yes: once for sure on June 4th at the Wisconsin Writers Conference (see my Schedule), then again possibly at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee sometime in fall. There is not much money in this kind of presentation, it is a labor of love. I have already spent 65 hours paging through her books (and still I think every time I open one of the books from her library I fall in love with her all over again).

"So," I say, "Lewis, why do we do this?"

I think one part of the answer lies in my need to give back something to the muses for what the muses have given me. Over the past four or five years, I have been immensely blessed; I cannot begin to remember what "writer's block" feels like. I have been productive as hell. Gratitude is one reason.

Second, I believe that you get what you give. Life is not something done to you, it is something you do. The world is not anything more than what we can see when we look at ourselves in the mirror. "I sweep my walk," Basho says, "and the whole world is clean." What goes around comes around; the great wheel turns. I think I am making my karma.

Third, to make wine, you have to squeeze the grapes. I find that I write the best and most when I am being squeezed, really squeezed. Put a few more tasks on the To Do list, and I will get even more done.

The fourth reason, and perhaps it should be first, is my sense of duty. Someday not far off I intended to write a little essay about middle western duty. If you aren't born with it, you soon develop it. That's why people from the middle west generally don't have a hard time find jobs when they go to Texas or New Jersey, Seattle or Atlanta: "You're from the midwest? You're hired. You people know how to work." What we don't know how to do, sometimes, is how to stop working.

So, Lewis, I suppose that's why we do this. That's where I'll be the next couple of days if you don't find me here.

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