Vivian Maier and telling the baby why I write

Vivian Maier’s work, first, pulls at how much I miss Chicago. More than that nostalgia, which is admittedly very heavy, Maier’s work reminds me about the reasons I make and the value of participating in art-making.


Over lunch I tell H that I’m not sure why I write poetry.

Sometimes—and those times are increasing since leaving a poetic community, since finding myself in the process of making without many other “makers”—I feel silly about it. I meet other people who say, “I keep a notebook too” or “I used to write poetry in high school.” These aren’t the same things, but they aren’t lesser or not-the-same-exactly either. Screw the high and low distinction. The difference is only in intention: I am not writing it to be private or to “make sense” of my own experiences. In the back of my throat I worry that this is a silly little hobby, that my parents might not be proud, and—in the back of my knees or somewhere else that stuns me—I think about the way it makes me always look at things a bit slower, more careful, and never with an easy smile. (Negative capability?)

Avery has an easy smile. He sees H’s coffee cup, which she lets him hold, and smiles. He sees the sun hit the gourd and leave a white mark, and he smiles. He sees a bird fly into the grocery store, and he smiles. He already knows how to live a poem; I only know how to write one.

I’ve been trying to explain, to Avery, why his mother writes. I want to give him good reasons so that he knows why, when I leave and go off to work or write, I am committed to something else.

Maier’s photographs help. The work makes me think about the way we get to and let things take shape. The work helps me explain the poem as an apparatus, as a kind of machine, that enables me to participate.

At this moment, where a new book of my own comes into the world and I struggle to remember that this isn’t something to blush about, to feel “small” about, and to get red-in-the-face about, Maier’s work matters. She makes me think that the small, inner, and sensory experiences are very full of material. Communicating our material and relating to each other, to our lived world, is what I want Avery to think (hopefully know) I am trying to do.


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