David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Trying To Find The Familiar In The Unfamiliar

August 13, 2019

My poem from August 1, 2019, "In An Unfamiliar Place," is meant to be vaguely obscure.  As I have discussed before in the rare moments I attempt to explain poetry, the vagueness is intended, allowing readers to see whatever they want in the writing.  I was an advocate of "reader response" literary theory when I was in graduate school, especially when forced to align myself with some theory.  Even now, when I really don't care, I still believe a work's value is ultimately in how the reader interprets it. As a result, the writer should really just shut up and let readers make a case for meaning.

However, "In An Unfamiliar Place" became a case study for seeing too much into a poem.  I wrote the poem in the days leading up to its posting on August 1, 2019; then when on August 6, SMC's president, and my boss, announced his retirement, a few people believed I was alluding to that decision.  It's a great theory -- if I had known of his announcement before August 5th!  They sought something familiar and thought they'd discovered it.  But I didn't know anything about it at the time of the poem's creation.  I like to think I can be a great predictor, especially of academia, but I'm not that good.

So, this seems like a good opportunity to break a poem down and provide a little more insight into what I wrote and why.  Maybe it will save me in the future when some poem is attached to some other random event.  I don't have many life/world theories at this point in my life, much like I don't have the need for a literary theory, but randomness and chaos theory come close.

"In An Unfamiliar Place" starts, I am almost embarrassed to admit, from a good round of golf.  I have never been good at golf and most of the time don't feel particularly comfortable with my approach (philosophically if not actually).  Then last year I joined a golf league that requires me to play more regularly. This year, exactly two weeks ago, I played a round of golf where I truly felt that I knew what I was doing.  I could approach each shot (both philosophically and actually) and have a general confidence in what I had to do.  I didn't always do it (and my final score certainly suggested no better play), but I believed I just needed to appreciate some nuances more and not have to address my general play.

Hence, "now I know how to manage in a fair way" is that nod to my comfort level on the golf course, and the linchpin to a larger point.

I don't know if it was the golf, but the day after the league, I noted that I felt strangely good as I walked around campus.  I may not show it much, but I carry a significant amount of angst and frustration as I try to do my job.  It just comes with the territory.  However, that day, and let's face it, it was a reallllllllly quiet day on campus, I felt none of that burden.  If the tee box was the immediate "unfamiliar" place that precipitated the poem, the broader work environment was the "unfamiliar" place I was focusing on.  

What I also came to realize is that nothing had really changed at work.  The things that caused my anxiety and frustration hadn't gone away.  I just wasn't (on that day at least) processing them the same negative ways.  Hence my reference to "still defined by restricted space" (the last two words referencing my dissertation title).  Meanwhile if the environment hadn't really changed, then something within me must have really changed.  The most obvious difference: my Friday, July 26, procedure to have two more stents put in (the "incisions" I needed to evolve).  

In the case of that procedure, I didn't feel initially obviously better as I anticipated, but by these work days a few days later, I started to appreciate that perhaps some "pressure" in my chest, whether physically induced or psychologically induced, had gone away.  

Seeing that 2 years after my cardiac event and first stent, I ended up back requiring more stents, I use the third stanza to plead to others to try and help me maintain the lifestyle and environment that can eventually make the unfamiliar familiar by repetition.  

In the long run, none of this really matters.  Tonight in my golf league, after 4 holes of decent golf, things went south quickly. You would've thought I had never swung a club in my life.  It's official: I am back in a familiar place.