Swing first

The first time I fought, I wrapped myself like an astronaut in someone else’s oversized gear, because the fencing school didn’t keep equipment in anything smaller than a medium.

The mask slid perpetually up, the thick neck guard covered my mouth, and my hair hung over my eyes. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, but I marched into the gym holding the largest weapon they had: a longsword, the sword for two hands. Across the ring, my opponent loomed six inches taller, in gear that fit.

Breath deafening in the mask, acutely conscious of the room watching, I swung first.

They tell us to strike with intention. Don’t aim for the sword. Aim for the head. Seize the center line or take a chunk of steel to the ribs trying.

It is the farthest thing from poetry, and therefore the very substance of it.

The farther I get away from anything like an organized classroom, the more I learn that my work will never be defined by what someone assigns to me. I will always write out of what I have lived. Every tenuous relationship, every mile run, and every ten-hour shift at the burrito joint: those are the things that built my work. When I parry, when I fight with the weight of a sword not meant for the length of my arms, when I miss entirely and am chunked in the head: those things are hard, and so they are worth doing.

As a poet, I write about powerful women, the bitterness of love and faith, and a deeply southern type of violence. As a person, I look to understand the human experience grappling with different types of emotional, physical, and spiritual turmoil through language. In compiling my work, I can trace my own story of stubborn anger, heart-headed passion, and salient grief, chased in some measure by the solace offered through poetic expression.

As a writer, I look to understand the world through art. Art illuminates. Art makes clear and gives language to gelatinous experience. And, like so many of my favorite things, art is hard.

This love affair with “hard” does not come without consequence. In the memoir Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch discusses his fascination with the damage on his own body. A marine, an actor, an artist, a father, and a farm kid, he went to war and came back again. When, at thirty-five, he needs both knees replaced, he wonders “how anyone else’s knees were any better. Hadn’t they also gone forth to wear themselves against the world?”

That attitude of Busch’s hit me like a tuning fork then, and I have carried the words with me for years now. Through dirt, bone, ash, and metal, he remains the man who sought out challenge, who put the heaviest weight on his back and stood up with it, and who did not put down the sword when he took up the pen.

I, too, have gone forth to wear myself against the world.