The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet

     Jill's a good kid who's had some tough luck. But that's 
another story. It's a day when the smell of fish from Tib's hash 
house is so strong you could build a garage on it. We are sit-
ting in Izzy's where Carl has just built us a couple of solid 
highballs. He's okay, Carl is, if you don't count his Roamin' 
Hands and Rushin' Fingers. Then again, that should be the 
only trouble we have in this life. Anyway, Jill says, "Why 
don't you tell about it? Nobody ever gets the poet's point of 
view." I don't know, maybe she's right. Jill's just a kid, but 
she's been around; she knows what's what.
     So, I tell Jill, we are at Izzy's just like now when he 
comes in. And the first thing I notice is his hair, which has 
been Vitalis-ed into submission. But, honey, it won't work, 
and it gives him a kind of rumpled your-boudoir-or-mine look. 
I don't know why I noticed that before I noticed his face. 
Maybe it was just the highballs doing the looking. Anyway, 
then I see his face, and I'm telling you—I'm telling Jill—this is 
a masterpiece of a face.
     But—and this is the god's own truth—I'm tired of
beauty. Really. I know, given all that happened, this must 
sound kind of funny, but it made me tired just to look at him. 
That's how beautiful he was, and how much he spelled T-R-
O-U-B-L-E. So I threw him back. I mean, I didn't say it, I say 
to Jill, with my mouth. But I said it with my eyes and my 
shoulders. I said it with my heart. I said, Honey, I'm throwing 
you back. And looking back, that was the worst, I mean, the 
worst thing—bar none—that I could have done, because it
drew him like horseshit draws flies. I mean, he didn't walk
over and say, "Hello, girls; hey, you with the dark hair, your
indifference draws me like horseshit draws flies."
     But he said it with his eyes. And then he smiled. And
that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying
as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn't one of
them. And here is where I say to Jill, "I just can't go on." I
mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all
happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep-
tual storyteller. In fact, I'm a conceptual liver. I prefer the
cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That's why I 
write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the 
reader and say, "Reader, you go on from here." And what I like
about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I 
mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They 
pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in 
a dark alley, I'd want it to be a poetry reader. They're not like
some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, "Put this
foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button
your coat, wipe your nose."
     So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I 
feel, deserve something better than they're used to getting. I 
do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself, 
who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some-
body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every-
thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange, 
are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something.
And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the 
form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the 
average reader likes ideas.
     "A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross." I 
said this to the poet Mark Strand. I said, "I could not stand to
write prose; I could not stand to have to write things like 'the 
draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown.'" And 
he said, "You could do it if that's all you did, if that was the 
beginning and the end of your novel." So please, don't ask me 
for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the 
bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, al-
though you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the 
very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for
the rest of it.
     I don't think many people do. But, like me, they're either 
too afraid or too polite to say so. That's why the movies are 
such a disaster. Now there's a form of popular culture that 
doesn't have a clue. Movies should be five minutes long. You 
should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange 
draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, "I'm having a 
hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the eleva-
tor." And, bang, that's the end. The lights come on, everybody 
walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experi-
ence. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get 
Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had 
to do boring, dogged work. Everyone has lived a life that 
seems to inflict every vivid moment the smears, finger-
ings, and pawings of plot and feeling. Everyone has lived un-
der this oppression. In other words, everyone has had to eat 
shit—day after day, the endless meals they didn't want, those 
dark, half-gelatinous lakes of gravy that lay on the plate like 
an ugly rug and that wrinkled clump of reddish-orange roast 
beef that looks like it was dropped onto your plate from a 
great height. God what a horror: getting Raoul into the ele-
     And that's why I write poetry. In poetry, you don't do 
that kind of work.

From Then, Suddenly— by Lynn Emanuel. Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.