My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is poet Jayne Benjulian, author of Five Sextillion Atoms. About the collection, Daniel Tobin wrote, “Diamond edged, fiercely honest, Benjulian’s work pulses with lyric intensity.” David Wojahn called it ”a highly distinctive and gripping book notable for the ways in which it combines the stories of family history with larger matters of public history ....Benjulian has terrific skills as a portraitist and satirist.” Benjulian served as chief speechwriter at Apple; Teaching Fellow at Emory; Visiting Professor in the Graduate Theater Program at San Francisco State University; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; and Ossabaw Island Project Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary and performance journals. For more about Jayne and her work, visit her website.
My First Editor
My first editor’s name was John. Bless his heart: he was a patient soul and young, though I was younger still. It was his second job. He had just arrived at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Magazine from The Chicago Reader. I proposed an essay on modern dance. I don’t remember what samples I showed him, no doubt several pieces from a now-defunct magazine called Brown’s Guide to Georgia, where I had envisioned writing travel articles as literary essays. My last assignment for Brown’s Guide had been a piece on Southern photographers for which I had driven around Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina identifying little-known photographers and characterizing each one in an epigraph followed by a paragraph and examples of each photographer’s work. In every house in which I’ve lived since, I hang in my work space a black-and-white portrait of me with my feet up on my graduate school desk taken by one of those photographers. A viewer can see a window behind me, a bookshelf, dictionary, back of a desk lamp, notebooks—hard edges framing the curves of my arches and waves in my hair. That photographer disappeared without a trace—I thought—until I Googled him and found that old article posted on his website.
My strategy for examining modern dance was to interview my friends, who danced with me a in a small troupe called The Dance Group, also now defunct. I had a theory, which was that dance in Atlanta was primitive compared to dance in New York because it was held back by the dominance of the Atlanta Ballet and a conservative attitude toward arts in the city. I urged audiences to support daring work and choreographers to take risks with bodies and space the way I had witnessed choreographers like Trisha Brown doing in New York. Under John’s guidance, I re-wrote the entire piece at least four times. He must have seen something in me to make it worth his effort. Perhaps he decided if I was the kind of writer who would stay with the process of revision no matter how arduous, I was worth the investment. Why else would he have tortured himself? When the essay was published, he handed me five copies and told me what terrific work I had done. Now I want to call him and say, you did incredible work: thank you. I remember him, his red hair and freckles, but I can’t recall his last name.
I stashed my magazine copies in a trunk—I was close enough to my college experience to still have a trunk—and I didn’t look at the essay for a decade. The truth is, the gap between the glorious prose I had imagined and the essay I wrote made me sick. I had read Joan Didion, Martin Duberman and Henry James on American culture, and I had fallen short.
And thus it has been ever since. Once I publish a piece, I see that it has not lived up to my vision of what it might be, and I vow to make a leap in my next work. If I have matured as a writer, it is largely owing first to dissatisfaction with everything I write; and second, to accepting that the drive to approach closer and closer in execution to the work as it is imagined is the preoccupation of art.
The turning point in my thinking about creative dissatisfaction arrived much later in the form of Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, a little book given to me by a painter. In that work, I read that the leap from one project to the next is precisely the space in which artists learn their craft. Making leaps in art is not so much about perfecting the painting/poem/book on which you are working but learning what you can carry into the next project, take apart, drill down into, blow up. Art and Fear saved my life.
When I am tearing myself apart for not accomplishing more in my first book, it is a gift to remember what I have learned while writing it. What if Picasso had been satisfied with his “blue” or “rose” period paintings? When we speak of artists, we are speaking of people who keep pushing against the boundaries of their own capabilities as distinct from those who find a formula that sells and are motivated to polish and repeat it.
In “Education of the Poet,” Louise Glück illuminates the necessary place of dissatisfaction, uncertainty and fear in creation:
My father wanted to be a writer. But he lacked certain qualities: lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting, the discrepancy, which even the great writers live with (unless, possibly, they attain great age) between the dream and the evidence.The poet and scholar Daniel Tobin told me that Yeats, among the most musical of poets, composed his first drafts in prose. The fact that Yeats began so far from where he ended is sustaining. I dream that I will feel the snap of recognition and discover in the closing lines of a poem something I did not know in the moment I wrote the opening lines. I dream that in the writing of my next book images murky and distant—events I hadn’t remembered, connections I hadn’t made—will reveal themselves...that subsequent books will unmask life the poet of Five Sextillion Atoms did not see. Some of these dreams will come true. Some won’t. I will wrestle with each new venture, and that wrestling will charge my brain in a way that public recognition does not. My first editor was a formative force for the editor that developed within me, the one obsessed with the orchestration of thought and feeling she will never achieve. It is not a great trait for making friends or winning over students who want their own work to be realized by workshop’s end, but it is an important quality for making an art that is fragile at the level of the word and line.
I did Google John + Atlanta Journal + Chicago Reader and found John Fleming. After leaving The Atlanta Journal, he worked as performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times. “Dance is,” he wrote in one of his articles, “probably the most abstract and therefore hardest performance to write about.” I understood then, why he had worked with me so fiercely: he had admired what I was trying and failing and trying again to say.