The Right Words at the Right Time

I only vaguely remember pointing to the moon with Jim Lovell

Last weekend, while Leyna was sitting on my couch plucking silver cat hairs out of her mouth and eyes, I was in Florida.

I was in Florida to meet the subjects of many of my poems: astronauts. I flew across the country to stare at a room full of old men.
There were over thirty astronauts in attendance, all sitting behind tables waiting for people to shove photographs or model Saturn V’s in their faces to be signed.
It was the most unnatural and uncomfortable way to meet someone. It was like being at a zoo. At a very expensive zoo. With freakishly smart and unnervingly famous animals.

When you’ve had a crush on someone from afar, a first interaction might be intimidating.
When you’ve had a crush on someone for over fourteen years, have researched them and placed them in your poetry, a first interaction is almost pointless. Why? Because you’re blacked out for the majority of the experience.
What did I say to Jim Lovell? I don’t really know.

There is a certain level of pressure on writers to be good with their words. It’s the one way people expect me to display talent. I was once signing a wedding guest book and announced I didn’t know what to say. The group around me scoffed and several people said things like “You’re a poet, write a poem.”
Duh. You’re a writer. Write. Do it. Now. On cue. Write a damn poem.

I find myself, like most people, repeating past conversations in my head. Picking apart how I handled the situation, second guessing what I said, analyzing how poorly I expressed what I actually felt. I think it’s rare, especially in emotionally charged situations, for people to clearly communicate thoughts.
When you are  upset with someone, or miss someone or love someone, do we ever really know what to say? And don’t even get me started on apologies.

I wanted to express my admiration, respect, and loyalty to Jim Lovell. I wanted to express how much of a fan I’ve been all these years, but to also lean over and whisper out of the side of my mouth “but I’m not creepy and obsessive like the rest of these goons here.”
But, like the goon I am, I didn’t say any of these things. I think I simply asked how his day was and we joked about not letting my father know how much I was spending on autographs. I know I asked him to point to the moon with me, but only because I have photographic evidence.

This is why I write poetry. So I can choose the exact words. In the privacy of my own home. In the comfort of my own pajamas. Put me on the spot and I have no idea what to say. Put me in an empty room with nobody knowing I’m writing a poem and I can fine-tune what I want to say about the world around me.

And while meeting Jim Lovell is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally overwhelming and genuinely special moments of my life, I remember the conversation I held with Shuttle astronaut Mike McCulley and Mercury nurse Dee O’Hara with more clarity.  I wasn’t trying to force those moments, they just happened by chance.

This is how poetry should be – nothing should be expected or demanded of it. Because then there is too much pressure.

In the words of David Sedaris:

“I wanted to force a moment out of it. The operative word here, the source of the problem, is force. Because it never works that way. In trying to be memorable, you wind up sounding unspeakably queer, which may be remembered but never the way you’d hoped.”




  • Melissa says:

    This is such a fantastic post, Cathie. I like the recognition that it was special and exciting, even if it was kind of a blur, while at the same time recognizing how difficult it is to live up to our own expectations of these big moments. Also, I love the section that begins: “I find myself, like most people, repeating past conversations in my head. Picking apart how I handled the situation, second guessing what I said, analyzing how poorly I expressed what I actually felt.” I think you’re right that everyone does that. But I think as writers, we’re especially obsessed with it, because immediately, we think of the 1.4 million ways we could have said it better, had we taken a minute or two to edit ourselves. I spent my drive to work yesterday morning obsessing over something arrogant I said this weekend, so that struck a chord. I also think this post has a cool relationship to KMac’s post about not rushing her poetry or her bowling.

  • Leyna Krow says:

    Great post. I too have the sneaking suspicion that I write, first and foremost, because I’ve never been entirely comfortable talking. I always flounder when put on the spot. Everything about communication needs to be slowed down for me to feel like I get it right, or even close to right. Hence the whole sitting alone for hours and hours in front of a word document hobby.

  • Monet says:

    This seems to be a counter-argument for writing a poem-a-day because in a way, we are forcing something (anything) down on paper. But at the same time, I see forcing things in poetry, as forcing emotions and forcing images, with the assumption that your readers won’t get what you’re trying to say. Hmm. I think I just lost my train of thought. But, yeah, thanks for this post, Smathie.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      No, I get what you’re saying! The Sedaris quote was more about trying to force memorable moments. Earlier I just say poetry shouldn’t have high expectations on poetry-a-day! It doesn’t have to be polished gold.

  • Katrina says:

    Word, Cathie. Great post. I know exactly what you mean. I never know what to say until after the fact. Even then, I find myself worrying about what I’ve come up with, what I would have said, would have been appropriate, even though the moment is long gone. It makes sense that we’re writers because we can agonize on what we should have said in a productive way. Thank God for speculation in nonfiction. Thank God there are outlets for awkwardness and obsessive worrying.

  • Great post Cathie. I love everything about the space program, have done since I was a kid.

    Did you go see Mary Roach when she was in town a few weeks ago? I love her books, but I especially love PACKING FOR MARCH because she asks all the questions about space exploration that I want to know but would be too chicken and starstruck to ask an astronaut. Like, how do you use the bathroom in space when there’s not gravity?

    Since I teach physics, it was easy to convince the school that I needed to take my students to see Ms. Roach. Usually the students don’t really show up to these things, maybe half the class will show if it’s an off campus event. I told them they would learn how to poop in space if they came. All but one kid who had the flu showed up.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      Haha that is so amazing. I can definitely see why that worked :) I want to sit in your physics class!

      And, for a reason I already can’t remember, didn’t make it to her reading. I’m kicking myself over it since I’ve heard nothing but good things.

  • Ericka Taylor says:

    Awesome post, Cathie. The fact that I just deleted everything I originally wrote in this response speaks to (pun!) my obsessiveness with how I convey myself in written form. I feel like there’s an expectation for coherence that I’ve all but given up trying for in speech. The downside is that I spend an inordinate amount of time reconsidering every line in the most insignificant email or text or blog post response. (Not that responding to your blog is at all insignificant.) (See?) At least with talking, I can argue, hey, I’m a writer — I never pretended I could speak.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      Hahaha Ericka I like the mental image of you sitting in an airport sweating over a simple text message.

      You’re in good company :)

  • Rosie says:

    OMG I didn’t know that the Florida moon trip had already happened! Awesome, man.

    Duh. You’re a writer. Write. Do it. Now. On cue. Write a damn poem.

    HAHA! I love it when people act like that, and then get all smug when you can’t deliver some Pulitzer prize worthy sonnet on the spot.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      Right? I think since creative writing is so foreign to some people it scares them (hence writers historically getting thrown in jail) so they revel in the possibility that we might actually be clueless.
      Thanks for readin’ Rosie!

  • Carol Harrington says:

    Houston, we have a poet…great post Smath-meister!

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