Thursday, August 2, 2012

Not Cakes, Not Cookies, But Something Else


A month ago I sent my poems into the world. I've been writing for years but not publishing. It was time to go bigger, so I gathered the best poems, revised, and gave them to eight friends and family members to read and rate.

One poem's journey fascinates me. "Not Cakes, But Cookies" is one of my favorites, but not one reader likes it. Not one. I was shocked.

Tuesday, in therapy, I mentioned this. I wanted to understand how I had seen the piece so differently. I described it to my therapist, but before I tell you that, here is the poem as I sent it out:

Not Cakes, But Cookies

In the dream, is how these things begin. Then the nonsense and mystery that follow make at least dream-sense. But this happened. I swear. I went to the millionaire's house. His guests stared at me. I apologized for my informal dress. I hadn't expected a dinner party. I was only there to sell him a Nissan truck. Used. Cheap. I said, I'm so sorry. He told me to forget it. He sat on a pull-out bed without a couch. In the kitchen. He was very tan. Freckled. The moles on his head worried me. He stroked his face. He said, I need a shave. He really did. His beard was awful. He was reading the newspaper. Look here, he said, talking to the others in the room. They listened. Each one held a martini. He read from the paper.  It says here that a young man should make cakes at Disney World. He laughed. As did my brother-in-law who stood next to the millionaire. Cakes! said the millionaire. He laughed. Big and loud. Everyone laughed with him. My brother-in-law. The owner of the truck dealership. The other millionaires. Three young women dressed as French maids. The pull-out bed laughed. And suddenly I understood what was funny. Not cakes, but cookies. And with that I lay down on the pull-out bed to sleep. I dreamed of writing a poem to make sense of it all. But there were no words.

I explained it to my therapist this way: it's a dream I don't understand but which isn't frivolous. There is something I'm supposed to get. In the dream I'm out of place in a world where only the millionaire is so comfortable that he doesn't care about how I'm dressed. Then he tells a joke and everyone else understands (or seems to), but I'm baffled. I told her that the poem ends with me feeling that there is too much in the world that I will never understand and panicked that everyone else knows how to play the game.

"Was all that in the poem?" she asked.

Well, no, it's not. I've mistaken the poem on the page for one I've been writing and reciting in my head most of my life. No wonder no one liked my poem: I hadn't written it.

Today I went back and reshaped it. It's not finished but the poem now says this:

Not Cakes, But Cookies

In dreams these things make sense. But this keeps happening in and out of my dreams. I swear. It’s the theme of my life. I go to the millionaire's house. His guests stare at me. I apologize for my informal dress. I hadn't expected a dinner party. I’m only there to sell him a red Nissan truck. Used. Cheap. I say, I'm so sorry. He says, forget it and waves his hand. He takes no offense. He sits on a pull-out bed. In the kitchen. He is so tan. A mole on his head worries me. He strokes his face. Says, I need a shave. He really does. So do I. He reads the newspaper. Look here, he says, talking to me. The others listen in. Each holds a martini. He reads: It says here that a young man should make cookies at Disney World. He laughs. Cookies! says the millionaire. His laugh is gigantic. It engulfs me. Everyone laughs with him. The guests. The mole on his head. Three French maids. The pull-out bed laughs. And I laugh too. But I don’t get it. The millionaire can tell. He says, not cakes, but cookies. Everyone stares at me. Waiting. I rub my face with both hands. Close my eyes. They leave me in the kitchen. Drive away piled into the red Nissan truck. I lie down on the pull-out bed. I dream of writing the poem to make sense of it all. But there are no words.

With the original draft, I kept waiting for a reader to get it but I was really after an answer. Writing the original poem was one way toward finding an answer. Talking with my therapist is another. Rewriting the poem is yet another. And so is talking with the friends who so kindly read all my work.

But of course, for me, the real way toward answers is, of course, to write on.