Bartender Wisdom 2
Originally Published in FlagLive April 2, 2015.
“Put your problem in your poem,” said Robert Hass, the United States Poet
Laureate, award-winning translator and legendary teacher of poetry. He said this during his lecture up at Flathead Lake in Montana in the late 1990s. I squatted in the back of the lecture hall, which was a scientific research building being used by the Flathead Writers Conference. I couldn’t pay, so in the back I listened. They’d had an open to the public reading at some point in the week, but I wasn’t at that. I’d heard Hass was at Flathead and hoped to catch some of his lecture or his reading or to just hear his voice a little before security got wise. I had time with which to gamble.
In some ways, I was putting my problem in my poem, figuratively anyway. A few weeks before I’d shown up in Missoula, about an hour’s drive south of Flathead. I was going to be a student at the University of Montana’s writing program, and I was a month early. I’d picked up a job as a bouncer at Buck’s Bar, a joint that served a beer and a burger for a buck. It was hard to say if the beer was worse or the burger. For a buck for both, it wasn’t worth it. Like much of Missoula, Buck’s was a blue-collar bar. Garage bands played something like punk, something like metal. The clientele sat on the stools, leaned into the bar or the walls, nodding their heads to the noise coming from the blown out speakers. Like this, they waited for a reason to punch someone in the face. The reasons, as it turns out, were numerous and arrived regularly. At that point, for $3.50/hour, I pushed the punchers out into the parking lot. They could finish it off out there, if they still preferred to do so. Most of the time they didn’t, and they either left or asked to be let back in, if they behaved. The head bouncer, Diamond Chuck, made those calls. He’d been there a couple of months, longer than anyone else. That put him squarely in charge.
I was living out of my ’88 Ford truck, so my financial needs and obligations werenext to nothing. In a world of no money, the cash paid to me at the end of the night was enough for beer, food, and gas. Being broke, on one hand, seemed to be a problem, at least if I had to pay the twenty dollars (almost a night’s worth of breaking up fights) to get into a writing conference. But mainly I had time, so I drove up north on the highway that worked through the Mission Mountains, through glacier formed peaks and valleys and watersheds. I imagined my bouncer literary equivalent, working the conference and heaving me out into the parking lot once I got there. However no such beast existed, and I took my notes and heard the Poet Laureate of the United States talk poetry.
Literally, what Hass meant by put your problem in your poem was that you
should write and write, following out the details of an image or metaphor or sound until you don’t know what to do with it. At which point, you can write in your poem: Now what did I mean by that? Or, Where is this going? Or, some such thing. Later, you can cut your question, your problem, out of the poem, if you choose. The key is momentum. Ask yourself as honest a question as you can muster and don’t be afraid to get yourself stuck. This will actually move you into surprising and potentially interesting places. That’s what I gathered, at least.
That night, I’d park at the KOA on the lake and shower and think. Later, I’d visit the Missoula Public Library and check out a couple of Hass books, Sun Under Wood, and a collection of translations of Japanese haiku. I would quit Buck’s Bar and leave Diamond Chuck to his next protégé in his never-ending line of protégés. I’d head into the school year, get a job at a bookstore, and only have a handful of change to my name, but be fully primed to get to the business of writing poems. Still much later (over a decade) when the problem switched from having little time but enough money, I’d mail a check and make a donation to the Flathead Writer’s Conference and the Library, along with buying all of Hass’ books new. It seems like we can have either time or we can have money, as they
say. Not really both. Regardless of which you have, Hass taught me to work with what you got: make the problem your solution. Also, don’t eat the burgers at Buck’s. Slainte.