I've been writing now with some seriousness for 29 years. Once in awhile, that strikes me as sort of outrageous number: I go to poetry readings sometimes to see featured poets who weren't alive the first time I did a full set in public. When I started writing, there was precisely one poetry reading in reach to me as a teenager that didn't drive: The venerable Laguna Poets Series, which at the time met at the Laguna Beach Public Library. I was, like many young artists, that ridiculous combination of awkward, insecure and arrogant. I often felt constrained and out of place, and didn't have a lot of options to move past those feelings. In retrospect, I'm amazed at the patience people showed me at Laguna Poets, and looking back from my 40s, I'm eternally grateful.
Young writers now have way more options than teenage poets did in the '80s, and on the whole, I think that's a good thing. It's resulted in support systems and educational opportunities that far surpass anything that had existed earlier, and it's given more young poets a chance to learn and develop far earlier than we could back in the day. Mind, they're still teenagers, and I often sense those same feelings of awkwardness, insecurity and arrogance on them, and I can't help but smile quietly in recognition. Some things never change. No, what I sense missing in young writers today is that sense of constraint. On the one hand, that's a good thing: I like that young writers live in a world where, whatever other failings it has, allows and encourages them to write. On the other hand, there's something to be said for overcoming obstacles. That which is acquired too easily is esteemed too lightly, as someone or other once said.
Ah, but that thought is the arrogance of age, isn't it? I'm as guilty of that one as I was the arrogance of youth. To assume that because the young have opportunities I didn't at their age means that they have it "easier" is a bit silly, especially when you look at the world they're coming of age into, with darkness creeping in from all angles, when gains on race, gender, sexuality and more seem in danger of being ripped away for no better reasons than cultural bitterness and cruelty.
No, the world needs poets right now, and it needs them braver and louder than we've needed them in a long time, and it needs the energy and fresh perspective that's the provenance and folly of youth. On the other hand, the gift of the arrogance of age is patience, of knowing that nothing changes overnight. Sometimes, I feel bitterness and dismissiveness creep into my perspective. They're annoying, because they feel a bit like knowledge, but when I'm honest with myself, I know that they're only half of a truth. That they're just the flipside of patience and hope, and that truth is the synthesis of all those things.
"I'm not optimistic, no," said the Bishop Desmond Tutu, "I'm quite different. I'm hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope."
Here's what I've learned in 45 years of living on this planet: The world changes for the worse in quick flashes, that bad things happen rapidly and spread aggressively like cancer. And the world changes for the better slowly, almost person to person, and almost no amount of trying to escalate that change works well or long. Sometimes, I feel despondent, as if nothing has changed at all or ever will, but then I look back on the world my 16-year-old self faced, and despite everything, the world is better in most ways, but that will only be true so long as our better angels are nurtured, which almost seems absurd in the face of the horror that greets us daily in the news.
"Hope – Hope in the face of difficulty," said Barack Obama, in the speech that began his road to the White House. "Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!"
That hope is often a nuisance buzz in my ear. It disturbs the comfortable wallowing of my fits of depression, which annoys me to no end. Surrendering to that depression would allow me to cease any number of ongoing activities which sometimes seem largely pointless and thankless. Like poetry.
I've barely written any poetry in the past two or three years, and have published less. I have written and published a small amount of fiction in that time, but even that seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the relentlessness with which I published even just a few years ago. That's OK. I know the drought is a function of depression, and recognize that it may mean I need to change some things about how I accommodate the writing into my life. But I also know, against all reason, that it will come back. Part of that knowledge is experience, part is hope. Hope is fundamentally absurd, and poetry is a manifestation of hope. A poem – even a river of poems – changes very little, but I know enough that small changes are the most durable, and enough of them add up, over time, to something substantive. Believing that takes patience, but thankfully, that's something age has given me.