I have this tic where anytime I see a glass set too close to the edge, I must move it to the center. And I always do, quickly and surreptitiously, so the gesture escapes notice or mention. Once a friend did notice though, and I explained to him how it causes me great anxiety to see something that precarious. I tried to describe the concentration of panic I feel, how seeing anything (which would shatter spectacularly were it to fall) so close to the edge, is the experience of its crash and spill. A perspiring glass poised just at the lip of high bar table, in a sensory flash, becomes the mess of anything sharply broken. And it’s a hi-def, surround-sound, super-saturated, and violent kind of mess.
I just imagined it right now and flinched.
I have been thinking a lot about poetry lately, but not in any good or nourishing way. AWP, by the time you read this post, will have just happened, although it’s happening right now. It is a writers’ conference that draws many from far and wide to convene in a city for panels, readings, a gargantuan bookfair, and—at least to those who frequent these things—a kind of yearly reunion of friends. I skipped it this year, and in those years I do, I inevitably feel like a grounded teenager, missing out on the most amazing party imaginable. The fact is, attending has often left me a hungover and exhausted mass of frayed nerves. And, while my mind teems with exciting new ideas after an especially great panel or reading, it remains shackled to an ego newly bruised and tender with fresh disillusionments and insecurities.
In spite of all this, nostalgia persists. I even get nostalgic for the feeling of loneliness unique to these kind of large-scale social events. With a book-heavy tote cutting into my shoulder, wandering those miles of carpet and weaving through crowds, my heart would swell and I’d think—these are my people! Then, not long after, I’d think—altogether, we are each other’s hell. I don’t know, but sometimes it’s that kind of alienation that primes me for writing.
When I say that lately I’ve been having bad thoughts about poetry, I mean, sometimes I hate poetry. Sometimes I hate it because it cruelly eludes me. Sometimes, re-awakened to injustices, I hate poetry for the nothing it does. There are days I hate poetry because it can only pretend to diagnose, enact, or heal—that it is not a doctor, a lawmaker, or drugs. Most writers experience some form of this hate, not just once in their career, but seasonally, like allergies. In the end, it’s absurd and misery-making to task poetry with duty or utility. You’d be wiser to gnaw on plastic fruit to stave off hunger. Allow me, at this moment, to direct you here for a more productive approach on how to deal with this minor crisis of faith. Skinner’s post is an excellent example of how returning to the work you love can shock you out of this kind of thinking.
My way, however, is to re-read a classic like this essay by poet and satirist Jim Behrle. It is hilarious, and pointed, and scathing. Behrle, I think, gets closer to the root of my ‘hate’ or frustration with poetry. I find comfort in his anger (not to be confused with snark, which is contempt for the sake of being contemptuous) (or smarm, which is some congealed and vaguely nauseating substance, like vegemite or spam). So, I read this, and delight in it, and perhaps indulge in a little sulk and some brooding. Once I find my way out from under the downy warmth of this personal gloom-cloud, the questions come slowly into focus.
What is my relationship to this thing called poetry? What is yours?
As a way to get out of my own head, I conducted a mock-interview with my boyfriend, asking him about how he came to poetry, what made him decide that this was worthy of serious pursuit. In what he shared, I found a story of losing one faith to gain another, a choice made explicit when, as an undergrad, he changed his major from religious studies to creative writing. It’s both humbling and mildly disturbing to think of how my own coming to poetry was bound up, not with any kind of spiritual seeking, or a desire for order and beauty, but with notions of identity and self worth. But then again, maybe these are different facets of the same stone? In any case, I thought of those who, with varying degrees of comfort, call themselves poet, and how their individual journeys shape and shade their frustrations with the art form. Through some accident of experiential association, language and love doomed me to mistake one for the other, so that in any self-analysis, among my worse thoughts is the question of whether I ever valued poetry or if I’ve come to believe poetry is how I am of any value. It’s a little melodramatic, I know, and after some soul-searching and poetry-avoiding, I see how that thought is derived from a set of separate ideas which have somehow muddled into one big ugly bad.
There is the idea of contingency—of relatedness that invites comparison and false equivalencies. There is the idea of community and network, which make of camraderie and usefulness uncomfortable bedfellows. Ideas of authenticity and professionalism. Of talent, and skill. There are the ideas of branding and identity, of business, career, and ambition. Are the ambitions of art the same ambitions of the artist? And maybe I’m just throwing way too many abstractions into the cauldron, but to place the word poetry behind any of these, to modify them thus: poetry business, poetry career, poetry network—is to stir in me a very old and dark petulance that was once a fearsome and beautiful thing, before it became naïve and simplistic.
I remember being sixteen and discovering e.e. cummings at a Chapters (the Canadian version of Barnes and Nobles), feeling something in my mind spark, then click into place, and in that summer, filling notebooks with verse—words that I could not write fast enough, nor fill enough pages with to exhaust. I made a decision that this was what I wanted to do, to read and write and make, for the rest of my life. We are only ever as good as how our worst poems made us, and while I am relieved to find what I wrote quite awful (as the percieved awfulness measures, in time, some acquired skill or taste), I feel correspondingly timid and cautious. The farther away I get from her, the more difficult it is to isolate that sense of pure being—a present-ness, a falling endlessly inward while remaining connected to everything living—that poetry, its reading and its writing, conjures. I know that at sixteen, how prolific I was, or my own confidence/arrogance, came at the expense of other things (editing, a sense of audience, discipline) which have made me a more thoughtful, and competent writer today. Still, there is much in daily tedium that feeds fearfulness, and every year farther, I have to find new ways of being brave, of ressurecting her, making her new. I must find ways to rouse her petulance, that girl who would set all the glasses on edge, and in one breath, send each crashing into a glorious din of smithereens.