It was my first semester, in my first year of grad school, and I had been up till almost four in the morning, burning through book after book of poetry. If I recall, that night it was Matthea Harvey, Darcie Dennigan, Karen Volkman, and Alice Fulton. The last of these, Fulton, was fast becoming one of ‘my poets’, someone whose books I never left home without. Those that wouldn’t quite fit in my backpack occupied the prime real-estate of my bedroom bookshelf. I had already fallen head over heels for Sensual Math and Palladium, and in the heady twilight hours I was moving my way very pleasurably through Powers of Congress, checked out of the library just earlier that day. By the time I came upon the poem, “Point of Purchase”, I was fully immersed in Fulton’s language, and as I was about to luxuriate in the textures of the poem’s lines, a block of text—marginalia—intruded upon the page. I skimmed it over, dismissed its smugness and pretension, and moved on. A few pages later, another, in a different hand, albeit the same thick, insolent black ink—even my most argumentative marginalia I have the humility to scribble in pencil—broke through my reading. Though less easily than the first, I ignored this interrupting text too. After the third interruption, I flipped forward and saw that almost every page of the poem had been marked up. And worse, the graffiti was not banal enough to be ignored; the scribblers were dissenting, or irreverent, hostile, or disengaged, and altogether obnoxiously loud. I found I could no longer tolerate the experience of reading this poem, in whose borders these other thoughts squatted. Their noise offended me. I was determined to read the poem in its intended, original, and pristine state—so—instead of willing the encroaching texts into my blurry periphery, I decided to be rid of them.
I had one of those fancy white-out pens that made for very precise erasures. You pushed down on its fine needle tip, pressed its little bulge of liquid eraser, and the design allowed one to very neatly trace over any offending mark into oblivion. Four am turned to five, then to six, as my hand cramped up shaking and squeezing the last out of that white out pen, obliterating every single written-in thing I felt oughtn’t have been there. By the time I was done, the poetry high and caffeine had worn off, and I took in a few more stanzas before crashing into sleep.
It wasn’t until days later, in a blog post wherein I was patting myself on the back for the good deed I’d done of sparing future readers from such distracting and vaguely misogynistic marginalia, that a stranger’s drive-by comment alerted me to my own accidental defacement. The marginalia was part of the poem, it claimed. In an interview with scholar Cristanne Miller, Fulton said of her decision:
In my book Powers of Congress, there’s a poem called “Point of Purchase” that includes handwritten marginalia. It was an attempt to create polyphony, a fugue of voices that argue with the central text and undermine its authority.
In theory, I’d have abided the spirit and gesture of her experiment. I’ve always felt myself not only sympathetic to, but aggressively championing, all things in art which mean to trouble, disorient, and mindfully provoke. I wear my avant-garde on my sleeve, and drop names like Place, Bök, and Goldsmith, into casual conversation like it ain’t no thing. Had I read this interview or known about the poem prior to my reading, I imagine I would have nodded, solemnly and admiringly, upon seeing all that text sprawled in the poem’s margins.
And there’s the rub. Those conventions and rules I insist be problematized (or broken), and the abstract authority that is ‘traditional’ poetry I wish questioned (or overthrown), require my own narrow and unquestioning faith in, and obedient submission to, the artist. I want to believe the space of a poem—or, really, any literature that is experimental in nature—shapes one’s attention in such a way that reifies one’s very personhood. By which I mean, you don’t ‘lose’ yourself in a challenging work, so much as you become more acutely aware of your Self, your perfect inadequacy, your human-ness. Even though it takes a kind of willed naiveté to aesthetically perceive and apprehend, it still disturbed me to realize how whole-heartedly I defer to the authority of a poet. I consider that created space of a poem, sacrosanct. I am reverent when it comes to poets whose work has earned my trust and won my heart. There are, for any serious reader, a handful of writers whom we feel speak directly to our soul, those writers we lay claim to as ours; any threat to this bond is not taken lightly. They become our untouchables.
As it is for love, so it goes for literature, and I’ve since learned that I am a very jealous, possessive, and overbearing reader. When I feared these other voices would spoil my experience, smothering the poem with their patronizing and completely self-involved thoughts, I responded with a kind of tyranny.
Besides the small horror of my own rank sentimentalism, the reading experience played upon another fear of mine: complicity with the oppressor. Perhaps, for all my talk, in the end, I’m a literary conservative—a traditionalist! The marginalia challenged not only a poem by a poet I loved, but my idea of what a particular kind of poem should be or do. That I can even boast a shelf of untouchables speaks as much to my lack of objectivity and openness than to the writers’ obvious talent. By my gesture, I was inadvertently defending principles like totality and completeness, the purity of the poem, textual autonomy, and art’s impunity. Are willingness, wonder, and negative capability things a reader nurtures, or a writer earns? If I believe great poets can use a poem to challenge or achieve anything, why should it follow that their process, aim, and execution remain above suspicion? What literary embarrassments and thwarted expectations have exposed your worst convictions, your inner despot? What other public property might I mistakenly deface for the next lesson to sink in?