In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.
I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.
Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.
My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.
When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.
I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.
To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.
Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.
Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.
I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be. The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.
Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.