Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confession Tuesday - The Monkey House Edition

Dear Reader,

It's been 7 new poems and many revisions since the last time I wrote.  I confess I've been obsessed.  Obsessed with my work and my manuscript.  I confess it's harder to be obsessed with poetry when there is celebrity news and commercials for Snuggies.  Those things take me to a different level, make me forget what's important while transitioning back into "real life" - in quotes because there's no such thing.  

So let's get going.  To the confessional--

I confess I said this to my roommates so many times during the writing residency, "I am so excited about what I'm writing, but I'm afraid I'm in the monkey house."

If you watched Project Runway a few seasons ago, you'll know I'm referring to my favorite Tim Gunn quote of all time.   I've mentioned the Monkey House before, here, when dealing with titling my manuscript.

But if you don't know the Monkey House story, here it is--

Basically, Tim Gunn goes to visit Chris (one of my favorite designers on that season, btw) and sees that Chris has decided to adorn his clothes with human hair.

Here is Tim Gunn's response:

Tim Gunn (politely gagging): 

I have this refrain about the monkey house at the zoo. When you first enter into the monkey house, you think, ‘Oh my god this place stinks!’ 

And then after you’re there for 20 minutes you think, ‘it’s not so bad’ and after you’re there for an hour it doesn’t smell at all. And anyone entering the monkey house freshly thinks, ‘this stinks!’ 

You've been living in the monkey house.


(Can I just confess right now that I *love* Tim Gunn?  I do.)

Anyway, back to the Monkey House.  

So what happens to me is that when I'm writing and obsessing, I get into this place--and don't get me wrong, it's a good productive place that is ridiculously happy, euphoric even--where I'm so highly focused on my manuscript I lose myself.  It's almost as if I've become part of the manuscript, there's no other way to explain this--everything is making sense, I'm seeing the bigger picture, I'm in extreme research mode, I'm reading and filling my brain with content, with themes, with what I need to write these poems. 

There is no NPR news, no internet (except my iPad for research when I need it), no phone (literally), my cellphone is turned off, there is no TV, no radio, nothing except other writers who are working on their work, poetry, and books.

And I begin to write what I think are the best poems in the world (and they might be)…or I might be in the Monkey House.

I confess I will not know if I was in the Monkey House until some time has passed.

It’s sort of like looking at a photograph of yourself a few years later, when you look back and say, “What the heck was I doing with that hairstyle?”  or “Oh my gawd, I was so thin and beautiful.” 

Sometimes we can’t see what’s in front of us because our perception is skewed.  This happens a lot with young women and their bodies.  They are fed all sort of garbagey, airbrushed images from the culture around them that they don’t see their own beauty.

And it happens with poems.  

A friend of mine will write a start to a poem and not like it.  I’ll say that I like it and hold onto it, maybe something will come from it.  And many times, it does.

I write a poem and think, “Fantastic!”  (How I love my newest babies best.)  Then a week will pass and I’ll say, “Holy doggerel, Batman, what was I thinking?  This needs so much work.”

I confess there is no one way to be a poet or artist in the world, but for me, I find I most love this life when I am obsessed with my work, finding a good balance between writing and family, and keeping my circle of friends tight.  Airtight.  Meaning—only staying close to my favorite friends and the GE people (good energy people).

I confess I recently had a friend tell me she’d be devastated if a certain neighbor didn’t like her (she lives in a Wisteria Lane type neighborhood filled with kids and families and everyone in everyone else’s business).  I told her that if she is living authentically and following her own values, not everyone should like her.  

Basically if everyone likes you, you’re not being yourself.

I confess this is all part of the “retreat mind” I try to stay in after I return from a writing residency.  To remember to be who I am.  

It's hard coming back because there is a large part of me that wants to still be in Apt. D writing.  I don’t want to know what I missed. I don’t want to know who is sleeping with whom.  I don’t want to know the details of who wronged who, who is no longer friends, who who who.  My small town is village of owls, sometimes. 

I'm in the Monkey House and my village is owls.  Really, I'm saying, Life is a zoo.

But I confess what I really want to know is – what are you working on?  What has inspired you lately?  What are you struggling with or the challenges in your art?   

Life is funny, the way it pulls us in and out of art, of our writing.  Sometimes things that aren't important take the place of what’s important to us.    It's life, it happens.

Though I confess, there's a game I play with myself —how can I not be part of the trivial?  How can I disappear?  How can I exist in a way where I’m still part of the community but not?  How can I make sure that my moments are filled with the people and projects I love? 

A game with no ending, I guess. 

Or maybe, it’s making sure I’ve chosen not to participate in the things that take my time or bring me down.  Not to partake in too much Facebook.  Not to read the entertainment section of HuffPost.  Not to allow myself to be sucked into what doesn’t matter.  It’s like that quote from War Games: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

How about a nice game of chess?


Or a nice dose of the arts?



  1. I've been living in the monkey house with my entire second manuscript. I have no earthly idea whether it's any good. It's so far out of my usual voice.

    I'm afraid to find out on so many levels.

  2. Justin--

    I think whenever we risk in our work, we fear this. I know this is my mss, I'm doing/trying new things.

    And you know, I'm believing more and more that maybe we'll never know if we're in the monkey house until it's finished. And I think that's okay. It has to be.

    Welcome to the Monkey House. Serving bananas at noon. ;-) We can have banana daiquiris together.


  3. I confess to being wildly in love with my new manuscript which is already two years old and consists of 28 poems but I love all of them.

    I confess that Confession Tuesday is my favorite day here.


  4. God, I love Tim Gunn. I aspire to be like him as a teacher--all the time, I think about his approach--so kind and smart, yet very honest and wanting to help.

    Hoohooheehee (that's the sound of the monkey house).

  5. Wittycomment was eaten by blogger :(

  6. Tim Gunn is wonderful!
    I confess I am working on submitting more--not sure what is holding me back. I have poems...
    In general, I confess I am struggling with putting together a first chapbook.
    In specific, I confess I am struggling with conquering the ghazal form, which is deceptively difficult to do well.
    And, I confess, your blog helps light the way.

  7. Just within the past month I finished a poem manuscript that I've been working on since 1984. The main part of it is a loosely narrative series of two dozen poems that come from traveling (many years ago) with a poet friend for several days on the west coast (from Los Angeles to Port Townsend, Washington). The maniscript also includes a few other poems that are outside the main narrative section, more or less as bookends at the beginning and end.

    I say "finished," and that's basically true, though I'm going to go through it and check for things, probably fix little stuff, etc. But the main work on it is done.

    During the past couple of years I put together a New and Selected Poems manuscript, which will be published (possibly sometime this year) by the publisher who has done several previous books of mine.

    In compiling the New and Selected Poems manuscript, I raided several other unpublished manuscripts (some completed, some in progress) for poems to include. One of the incidental results of this is that I now have a bunch of poems that are to some extent "orphans," no longer part of a complete manuscript. So I've been slowly sorting through the unattached poems to see what possible new manuscripts I can piece together with them. This project is still in progress, though I seem to be making headway.

    I work full-time (sitting in a cubicle in a large office in a large corporation, talking on the phone and typing on a computer). I need to be fairly determined and disciplined to make time to write in the nooks and crannies of each day. Generally I manage to.

  8. Rebecca-- Thank you. I'm glad you enjoy Confession T!

    Hannah, Tim is incredible. Yes, I love his gentle, but honest touch.

    Jessie! Oh no! I'm pretending you are being witty right now.

    Margo-- I'm working on submitting again! And funny thing, I just wrote a ghazal about 2 weeks ago first time in years.

    Lyle-- I appreciate hearing that you've been working on something for such a long time. I like hearing poems with past lives have a chance to live.


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