My Mayflower Compact:
On Committing to Poetry
It was the summer of 2011. As our suitcases clattered across the boarding dock in Provincetown Harbor, the captain emerged from our ferry and raised his voice ominously above the gale winds. “If there is any way you can avoid getting on this boat,” he advised, “do it. This will be one rough crossing.”
My husband and I looked at each other. There were no more boats scheduled to leave after this one, and our flight back to Milwaukee departed from Boston that evening. We had no choice. We had to board the doomed vessel.
I dutifully swallowed two Dramamine and claimed a seat with a clear view out the window. Soothed by the classical music trickling through my earbuds, I stared straight ahead at the turbulent, blue-grey horizon. Experience had taught me that keeping one’s eyes on a stable point in the distance was the best way to avoid getting seasick.
As the ferry puttered out of the bay and toward the open sea, it began to sway back and forth precipitously, like a teenager surfing the cement dunes of a skateboard park. A nervous drowsiness settled over me. I maintained focus on whatever patch of sky I could make out through the blur of soapy waves, while memories of our trip floated through my mind—dredging up still deeper memories from earlier times. I hesitate to attribute these visions to the proverbial brush with mortality, but for someone unaccustomed to taking risks (not to mention double doses of anti-emetics) such a voyage was bound to strike a chord. And sure enough, at some unrecoverable point during the two-hour phantasmagoria, a truth flashed through me like a bolt from the blue.
You have to write!
On the face of it, there was nothing surprising about this epiphany. I had grown up anticipating that I would be a writer one day. I’d won a few prizes for it in high school, studied fiction writing in college, even completed a novel and a half (never published) in my early thirties. But once I’d begun to earn a living from teaching, creative writing became more of an intermittent hobby—something I did, say, after a break-up or while on vacation. I found it increasingly difficult to free up the mental space required for longer fiction; and poetry, while enjoyable, had never been my ambition. Although my conscience was sometimes troubled by the thought that I was giving up on a dream and letting my talent go to waste, the occasional pang of regret did not prove a sufficient motivator. At age 43, I assumed that any writing I published thenceforth would be strictly academic.
Only when clutching fearfully at the armrest in my storm-tossed ferry did I begin to question my vocational drift. I felt a sudden empathy with the passengers of the Mayflower—those 101 Puritan souls bound for Virginia but blown far off course to Cape Cod—who sought to preserve the integrity of their New-World mission by drafting and signing the Mayflower Compact. We had visited the monument commemorating their act of self-determination while in Provincetown, where the signing occurred on a stopover prior to the landing at Plymouth. That bronze list of English names, which had seemed so historically remote at the time, now throbbed with life—as though my own name were on it. What else, I wondered, could keep one’s soul intact as it hurtles through a wild, windy universe of chance and change, if not the promises it makes in good faith? It may be that such promises eventually succumb to forces beyond our control—including, perhaps, forces in our own nature. But only by committing to our best intentions do we ever achieve anything of lasting value.
So went my reasoning, as I confessed inwardly that above all else I was a writer—and that if I didn’t start living this truth, the most vital, essential part of me would die unrecognized. I drew encouragement from the close-knit community of artists I had observed in Provincetown: the painters, poets, potters, and performers who enriched the local scene by inspiring each other’s imaginative activity. Walking among their canvases—so saturated with lustrous cape light and regional character—I realized the importance of living an expressive life, regardless of whatever profit or social acceptance it might bring. One of the obstacles I had faced while trying to write fiction was not wanting to be “ghettoized” as a gay author. In a dogged effort to appeal to the broadest audience, I effectively suppressed my own best material. In Provincetown I saw gay artists embracing their identity unapologetically, and the obvious fulfillment this brought them made a lasting impression.
Having survived my soul-searching passage to Boston and subsequent return to the Midwest, I immediately sat down to write. I started with a poem about the ferry ride and my rededication to writing, because this seemed an appropriate subject for lyric treatment. My intention was for this poem to serve as pump-priming for the resuscitation of my second novel. But while writing the poem, an idea for a second came to me, then a third . . . and before I knew it, I had a notebook filled with ideas for poems, ranging from stray phrases to stanzas to entire drafts. The further I tumbled down the rabbit hole of poetry, the more I realized (ridiculous as this sounds) that I was a poet! Lyricism, metaphor, and wordplay had always been my strengths as a writer, whereas the plotter’s instinct—that total immersion in the mystery of what-happens-next—had eluded me. I’d wanted so badly to be a novelist that I failed to see my truer inclination. Just as, in my youth, I’d wanted so badly to be straight that I couldn’t enjoy being who I was.
Like any artist, a poet sees the world in terms of unrealized possibilities: not only within the formal language he shares with others, but within his own psyche. The act of writing simultaneously brings into existence a new cultural artifact (the poem) and, less visible to the public, a feeling of achievement—a heightened awareness of being—in the poet. Perhaps because we humans evolved to adapt quickly and interactively to new environments, our minds are flickering furnaces of choice and rejection, the fumes of which sometimes cloud our internal mirrors. Poetry and the other arts help us to vent these fumes and see more clearly who we are, even as our identity mutates under the pressures of circumstance.
For me, committing to poetry has meant continually sticking my hands back into the fires of creation no matter what they bring forth. Only in the strange, smoking guise of poems can I relish my capacity for creation—giving form to the formless potential that is me before it vanishes from the earth.
Here, in closing, is the document that served as my covenant with poetry.
In Provincetown, the liberating home
of hippies, artisans, and lesbians,
a traveler hears the call of possibility.
Drag queens glisten on Commercial Street
as they hawk the evening shows; tourists gawk
at pinks and blues commingling in the sky
as wildly as in gallery watercolors;
and hairy-legged men, in leather chaps
and beaded underwear, trade recipes
their darling aunts inscribed on index cards.
How frightening possibility must have seemed
to those who congregated on these shores
for the first time: the buckled, bonneted ones
blown from green Virginia further north
than any dreamed their God would let them go.
Signing their names, they made a covenant
never to swerve from His eternal laws—
as if, in time, they might incline to do so.
I understand that contract only now,
on board a ferry reeling Bostonward
despite the captain’s warning of “rough seas,”
as she rises to a peak, then dips and slams
against a wave, her windows filling up
with spume, with sky, with spume, with sky—no rest
from her emetic rock-a-bye. A smell
of rancid vinegar ensues, a qualm
I tried to swallow with my Dramamine
returns, and, like my pilgrim forefathers,
unmoored from any steady, certain ground
in white-capped undulations and riptide,
I mumble to myself some anchoring words
to stabilize and orient my mind:
The lure of possibility is fine
for those who know by instinct where they stand,
but those like me—unsteady in their souls
and coasting far from anywhere they’d planned—
must constantly remember to look back
at what they’ve left, think why, and with their hand
set down the steadfast traces of their will,
before the impulse casually subsides
or founders in a wave of seasickness.
I, the undersigned, do swear to this.
Listen to David read his poem:
Recipient of the Council for Wisconsin Writers 2017 Lorine Niedecker Award and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets 2017 Muse Prize, David Southward has published in The Lyric, Measure, Unsplendid, Stoneboat, and elsewhere. Since 1998 he has taught literature, film, and comics in the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently at work on his first collection, David looks forward to fulfilling his poetic contract.