Poet Paul Guest sips a latte from a long straw at a table in the back of Decatur's Dancing Goats coffee shop. Dressed in a plaid shirt, knit cap and seated in a wheelchair, he has a quiet, friendly presence, the humble but self-assured demeanor of a successful writer. Here, in the light of a warm day after teaching a class at Agnes Scott College, the 36-year-old looks comfortably pleased, not exactly what you'd expect from the person who just a few years ago wrote, "Really, what I'm thinking/tonight is there is nothing/in all the flat world which would satisfy me."
But Guest has plenty of reasons to be satisfied. Pulitzer Prize-winning peers such as John Ashbery and Louise Glück have sung his praises, as have the New York Times and Washington Post. His first two books earned awards and he received a prestigious Whiting Writers' Award in 2007, before his third and latest collection of poems, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, was published in 2008.
As the title of that poetry collection suggests, Guest has an "Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge." A bicycle accident at age 12 left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. His 2010 memoir, One More Theory About Happiness, describes the incident and aftermath in honest, unsentimental detail, chronicling the anguish and difficulty of rehabilitation and adjustment, of finding a place for himself in the world.
Guest discovered his poetic voice through the word "melancholia," while idly glancing at an open dictionary. "I was just skimming and I misread the etymology as being 'black hole.' I thought, 'What a perfect definition for depression, for melancholy — falling into this black hole.'
"I ran home to my apartment. It was one of those cases where the poem is just starting to happen in your head, and I felt like I had to get home to write it down." When he arrived home he discovered his error: The etymology for melancholia is "black bile" not "black hole." "I thought at first, 'Well, there goes that poem.' But then I realized, no, the poem is the error, about how those errors are important for creativity."
Guest's story of a poem born from an error resonates with his work. While his injury has been a source of frustration and suffering, his experiences and perspective have also given his poems insights into the relationship between the body and the mind — a subject poets have long explored.
Initially, Guest was reluctant to address his injury explicitly. "When I was in graduate school, I had a professor in a poetry workshop who said to me, 'You might as well write about it because you're always going to be known as the guy in the wheelchair who writes poems. You might as well try to take that on and see if you can do anything interesting with it.'
"I kind of bristled at the idea. I didn't know if I wanted to," he says. "But I've noticed that resistance can be a sign that maybe I should try it, anyway."
The poems in My Index tackle autobiographical subjects with unwavering confidence, energetic lyricism, cynical humor and brutal reflection. Prose poems such as "Travel" sprawl into dizzying riffs of allusion: "I will smile but I'll be thinking of your lupus. Your sister's lupus. Is she pretty? I hope so. I will text her Neruda but claim it's my own. I will seem at last like a genius. Call me Stephen."
His discomforting honesty can feel like a slap to the face: "My arms are mostly cosmetic," begins one poem. "I'm beginning to dream again of my life among/the ornamental, the vaguely functional,/the doorstops and paperweights," begins another.
"It's a book filled with frustration," he says. "I was unemployed at the time, unhappy."
Since publishing the collection and the memoir, Guest's work has moved away from the autobiographical. His latest series of poems, one of which appears in the March issue of Harper's, follows a boy's adventures through a surreal, American landscape.
Guest's life story might be told as an epic struggle, an inspiring tale about overcoming adversity, which it certainly is. But he doesn't seem interested in emphasizing any message. He tells a recent story about heading to work at Agnes Scott and crossing the street, "In the crosswalk, this woman in a minivan just — bap — sideswipes me. Luckily, my wheelchair was lightweight enough, because her car just spun me out of the way. Had it been heavy enough to offer resistance like a car, she would have drove right over my legs. I saw her looking over her shoulder, like 'Oh my god, what was that?' She was on the phone and when she saw she'd hit a guy in a chair, she just sped off.
"I looked myself over, my chair wasn't really damaged. I wasn't hurt. I figured there wasn't really a reason to cancel class. I decided to just go ahead and teach." Like that, Guest keeps moving ahead; keeps making poems out of errors.
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest. Ecco. $23.95. 81 pp.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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