About twice a year I manage to have a few free hours which happen to coincide with the monthly meeting of a local poetry workshop group. So I run off a extra copies of something I’m working on, take a shower even though it’s Saturday, and make the trek into town.
Let me go back a step. I am well into my 30’s and have been, we’ll say, a “practicing” poet for the majority of the last 20 years. In that 20 years I’ve had many opportunities to participate in events, publishing endeavors, readings, open-mics, writer’s groups, etc. I’ve also had a lot of time to, well, keep practicing. I’m official 10-something years passed the age I should have given up being a young poet and 20-something years too young to be a retiree filling idle afternoons.
Which brings me back to my local poet’s group. The average age is easily twice mine. And some of them are mean. We’re talking pinch-my-cheeks, comment on my “outfit,” condescendingly voicing worries about the future of poetry without young people, and rudely voicing “when I was your age” edicts. These women don’t know me. At all. They don’t know that I grew up with a coal furnace and an outhouse. They don’t know that I only look 22.
There. I said it. By some strange magic I look young for my age. Young enough to regularly get sent friend requests from 25 year-olds who want to ask me out. Until they discover that I’m old and boring and a writer to boot; that I like to go to bed early, don’t engage in Facebook-sex, and have a tweenager in my house and eating my food.
So this weekend I gave it another chance, hoping the worst of them would have wandered off looking for her teeth and gotten lost. To be fair, some of them are perfectly fine people who take their craft seriously and provide useful feedback. It can be useful to have someone listen to you read and note any places you deviate from the written draft, to get a set of eyes for typos, to hear what other people hear when they hear my work. Also, I like to read and preform. But no, she was still hanging out, insisting poetry has to be “poetic,” whatever that means. And a large portion of the group is always too shocked by my subject matter to notice details or provide much feedback. Yeah. Because this month I brought one of my bastard-pantoums which happens to be about having been a sexually active high-school student in the 90’s. Because I happen to think that poetry is not “too good” for any topic. Because I read Rilke and Bukowski in equal measure in my early years.
Thank God I cruised down my reader tonight and found this little reminder of Rilke. (Go check out my friend-I’ve-never-met’s blog over there when you have a minute. He posts some great words.) Ah, yes, Rilke. The perfect reminder of why workshops and critics aren’t my cup of tea. He says, “a work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.” He also recommends ignoring critics and being comfortable with working alone. I’m really glad that a younger me never ran into a group like this. All I would have gotten from it is bitter. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t run into plenty of nay-sayers and toxic critic-types, just that I was exceptionally lucky to have had helpful and supportive teachers who understood that what I needed was a venue and a red-pen and a budget rather than comments on my age and outfit.
So, again in the name of fairness, there are some good writers here. Even in rough drafts for a workshop I’ve heard some achingly honest and beautiful poems. I am old enough to “take what I need and leave the rest” and so I have found good ideas and inspiration. OK, maybe some of the inspiration has come from rebellion against the ridiculous standards some women will apply to each other. And I have heard some poetry I found terrible and trite and trivial and inauthentic and a contrived exercise in trying to avoid actually saying anything. (I can be a wicked, nasty critic myself and I once edited an undergrad literary arts magazine which was supported by student fees and so had to try to publish everybody. I’ve seen some really terrible writing. I also used to organize open-mics for high-school students. We’ll get back to this later.)
If I listened to the shock at my subject matter I’d give up and never try again. Because I write the words I need to write and not the words that will comfort or please a select audience. Admittedly I’ve written, and even published, some sad excuses for poems. I do get a lot more site hits than “likes.” Oh well. Most of my subjects aren’t really “likable” and that’s why I need to write them. Someone has to write about “all these things of the world” (Rilke again, If you didn’t read the poem, here’s another chance) and they aren’t all pretty, “poetic” or likable. I may not be any good and maybe no one cares and maybe my work will never earn one single penny, but here I am, a 30-something who still writes poetry and didn’t outgrow it and shows no signs of stopping. I still take advantage of every opportunity I can and still make the effort to create new opportunities and contribute to my community.
This runs back into editing student publications and making venues for kids. I was a kid when I first started. My 9th grade history teacher put me to work doing something useful outside of school. He introduced me to the owners of a local coffee shop and gave me a tiny push to get me going and on my way. I was 13. I kept a dozen kids (including myself) out of trouble and engaged in creative writing once a week. I also got valuable experience in the idea that I could make something happen. It wasn’t about perfect art or becoming famous. It was all about community and friendship and sharing, about learning and giving something of ourselves. I met many great people who are still friends. (And a few assholes who are still friends-of-friends.) I had a purpose and a place. By college I was much more professional and had learned how to preform and organize and pack a joint and collect a cover-charge and book a band. I had also learned how to get quotes from publishers on color ink and discounts on bulk orders and how to circumvent the bureaucracy of a purchasing office.
While I would like to, someday, actually assemble and submit a book for traditional publishing I am quite comfortable with the do-it-myself approach of internet publishing. Here I have complete freedom to be my own editor and publish my own shit-poetry and be part of a community and link to other folks’ blogs. Here the only real occupational hazards are being endlessly broke, the off-chance someone takes exception to something I write, and a longing to read out loud more often. In the world of workshops the hazards extend to competitive back-biting, wasted afternoons, and bitter old women.
When she listens she likes to offer loud opinions on poetry needing to rhyme. When she reads she prefaces with how she doesn’t care what anybody thinks. This brings up two critical points. 1) If she doesn’t care about her work, why should anyone else? If she doesn’t care about feedback, why should she share in a workshop? 2) Whenever someone is antagonistic about not caring it’s a huge billboard screaming insecurity and caring terribly much what people think. Most of us care very much about our craft. We put time and effort, heart and soul, into the fruits of our vocation. She comments on how she’s never going to learn more technical terms about form and and little details of craft and she doesn’t care. So I said you start learning one piece at a time, reading one paragraph at a time, that I read all of Don Quixote by keeping it on the back of the toilet tank. It did take me most of year.
I am reminded of something a friend likes to say about how “talking about poetry is like dancing about architecture.” In general I disagree. Dancing can be a great way of expressing joy and architecture can be joyful. I see no reason to constrain one’s response to any form of art. But I also understand where the sentiment comes from. Too much talk and too little writing is a top vocational hazard. It’s right up there with writing books (or worse, reading them!) on how to write. It’s really not that hard. Learn some basic grammar and language skills, apply bottom to chair, and to it. And then do it again. And again. Like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. It’s about practice.
This is why I call myself a “practicing” poet. It is something I do rather than something I am. But sitting in workshops talking about poetry with people who “don’t care” is great way to avoid actually writing anything. Just like spending three hours lamenting the lack of young people in writing workshops is a great way to keep young people from going to workshops. It would be way to logical to actually think about where all the other 30-something poets are. Like me, they have families and jobs, houses and pets, and the internet. We’re here. We just lack the time to regularly blow entire Saturdays listening to people who don’t care about poetry talk about poetry. We’d rather spend the time writing, or posting pithy micro-poems to Twitter, or actually living life so that we have something to write about. We lack the disposable time and income for endless work-shopping. We’ve watched the digital revolution unfold and see poetry more in light of hip-hop and revolution, spoken-word and Audre Lorde and less as a hobby of the elite and endowed, of the establishment and tradition. We are as worried about having something to say as about how we say it. We turn out in droves for slams, we love poetry on YouTube, we use our smartphones to read more poetry than any generation before. We retweet and like and comment and share and follow. We’ve broken poetry out of the prison of respectability. We write about rape and racism, about consumerism and Christ, about struggle and survival.
I don’t know much about the famed Millennial Generation. I’m a tad too old to claim membership myself. I’m on the cusp between. My older cousins are firmly Gen X and my younger siblings and cousins are decidedly Millennials. But I do know this. They aren’t starry-eyed, entitled, spoiled brats. They know exactly how broken the world is and how little they can expect to inherit from it. They also know how to use poetry on Twitter and Facebook and to start a revolution and topple a government. I love to see the bravery and courage of younger poets going viral on the internet with their performance poetry giving voice to the world’s wounds. And I hope they don’t run into bad workshops and people who refuse to see them and erase their existence. Because that’s what happens when we lament the lack of young people in the arts. It isn’t that they aren’t there, it’s that we are choosing to ignore them. It’s not that they don’t participate, it’s that we are claiming our form of participation is the only one that matters. But they know better. This is exactly that they are rebelling against. Kids these days give me hope. Kids these days know the power of social exclusion. They know that what really happens in a bad workshop is called bullying. They aren’t so thin-skinned as we imagine. They aren’t easier to offend. They just have a sense of justice the world badly needs.
Writing is fraught with vocational hazards that aren’t paper-cuts. Useful feedback provides a writer with insight as to what works and what doesn’t, what needs improved and what is already amazing. Useless feedback comments on the writer’s outfit, age, day-job, family situation, gender, etc. And then there’s the soul-crushing feedback. The kind of thing that inspired me to post and enforce a comment policy. Name calling and power-grabbing. It’s a subset of useless feedback but has more venom and froth behind it. And this is what so many young people are so rightfully offended by. This is the other half of the reason why people my age aren’t in workshops. Not only to we have real lives and really demanding lives but a great many of reject the competitive and controlling mindset of our ancestors. It’s an ethic of community and cooperation we value and when people are subtly excluded based on assumptions about their age and a swarm of micro- (and not-so micro-) aggression are used to police the borders of a group we go in search of a better group. Or we create our own. We do dangerous jobs but we wear our safety gear.
A poet’s safety gear are the same tools she uses for the trade. Our notebooks are our hardhats and our pens are our fresh air conduits. And when all else fails our words heal us as we write them and give us the strength to turn our wounds into wisdom.
Poetry is a dangerous profession. People have been exiled from their homelands, issued death threats, burned on stakes, hung up on crosses for daring to write the wounds of the world and question the power structures that cause suffering. It’s not all semi-humorous hazards of bad workshops and cats sleeping (or puking) on drafts. There’s the harmless poetry I hear at the workshop, pieces about imagined sex, ghost boyfriends, my own teenage sexuality. But there’s also far more dangerous poetry. There’s the poetry of revolutions and the oppressed. There’s the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Job and the Song of Deborah. There are places in the real world today where poets disappear if they don’t seek asylum fast enough. America may be a terribly flawed place but every writer’s dream here is to have a book banned. Nothing makes Americans read like being told they shouldn’t.
In my own writing adventures the most painful moments certainly aren’t having a jealous old shrew pick apart my wardrobe because she’s too spineless to talk about my work. No, it has been the reactions I’ve had from (some) family and friends. I’ve been blessed to have many great, encouraging people in my life. And I’ve also got many people who just don’t get it or even look for reasons to be offended by my words. There was a “friend” who objected to a word I used because he gave it very different connotations than I do (the word was “threat”) and said some thoroughly nasty things. My first husband insisted that all writers are liars and love drama. (WTH did he ask me to marry him in the first place if that’s how he felt!?) It’s been the little, and not so little, things from people close to me that have been truly disheartening.
I get it that this isn’t a “respected” vocation in the American Imagination. It is a rejection of the American Dream and seen as a symptom of insanity. We assume poets are mad and impoverished and subversive. And in doing so we cheapen their work and erase their humanity. We turn a few favorites into fetishes so they can be easily kept in their graves. We don’t exile or murder our poets, we try to silence them with stereotypes about their sociability and sanity. It’s the American Way. Unless they happen to write comfortably rhymed lines that fit comfortably in Hallmark cards or go well with inspirational posters. We love those. We just ignore the people who write them. Unless they also write dis-comforting verses. Then we wait till they find an untimely death before buying their books. We read dead poets but not living poets.
This is the world of my fellow work-shoppers. It insures that only the independently wealthy, the retired, and the teenaged can afford to write poetry. It confirms that a 30-something mother who doesn’t write “mommy poetry” must be insane, or at least can’t be expected to dress herself, if she dares to write.
(Do you want to know, really want to know, how I have the time and inspiration to keep at it? I don’t own a TV. That’s right, I watch no television. Maybe a few hours of documentaries online over the course of a year. I did go see The Force Awakens with my daughter. It was the first time I’d been to the theater since 2012. And I suppose by the standards of my culture not watching TV puts me firmly in the insane category.)
But I don’t live in the same world they live in. I live in the world of micro-blogs and easy-to-customize templates (Thanks WordPress!) and ebooks and entire YouTube channels devoted to poetry.
I try to make light of the characters of a bad workshop but it isn’t really funny. It shows a world ruled by the traditions and power structures which still try to silence poets and enforce gate-keeping. In some cultures poets are loved and honored. Paradoxically many of those are the same which will kill or exile a poet who speaks dangerous words. The hazards of writing decrease with the respect accorded to writers. Here, in my semi-charmed American life the direct hazards are small. Heck, here it’s even common for one writer to back-bite another. We can hardly look for respect in our wider culture while we pick each other apart on the basis of under-handed “compliments” about cute outfits.
I’ve never heard of a young-ish male writer being judged by anyone on how well his clothes match. If anything, it is assumed and supported that he may be disheveled and uncombed. There’s a required uniform for non-male writers. We must have a long skirt, wrinkled and flowy blouse, and scarves. Not nice warm winter scarves or scarves that might actually keep our heads warm and un-sunburned, scarves that exist to decorate our necks and double as the hangman’s noose. Our hair should be long and loose and a bit on the neglected side of pretty. We should wear make-up but it shouldn’t be well-done. We should avoid color and wear browns and grays from top to bottom. Except the scarf. The scarf can be some silly print. And maybe gaudy earrings or costume jewelry. The more we look like we just came from a Victorian seance the better. We definitely should not wear track pants and a university hoodie and running shoes. Especially if we are too old to be allowed to look young or too young to be allowed to be comfortable.
Poetry-as-vocation is so thoroughly discredited that some critics no longer even discuss a poet’s work and rather discuss her clothes. It’s a very effective method of neutralizing the potential power of words to upset a prevailing order. Rights of free speech mean that we can’t execute a too-popular writer over politics. No, we just slowly bleed to death people who actually have something to say and/or possess the courage to bring difficult topics out of dark closets. We accuse poets of using metaphor to maintain “plausible deniability” (a phrase I once had hurled at me along with some curse words) because we don’t want to go to the effort of understanding metaphor.
The underclass will always be able to decode the metaphors of those above them. It’s a survival skill. Women must understand men’s emotions, people of color must be able to read white people, queer people must be able to soothe straight people. It’s basic survival. But straight white men have no need of understanding the poetry of The Other. They can just dismiss us. They can pretend our metaphors are illogical or our use of a word is not suitable or that our work is all lies to start with. They can even convince some of us that we don’t care about our own work and that it is legitimate to judge one another on the quality of our outfits rather than the merits of our metaphors.
Thus we have workshops entirely composed of straight, middle-class, retired white women.Who quite admirably reproduce the status quo and police each other and diligently work not on their own craft but on making sure the group remains homogeneous and placidly nonthreatening. The “real” poets, the men, are placed firmly above work-shopping so the group maintains it’s own privilege by using covert bullying to make sure anyone who doesn’t match doesn’t come back. I happen to know that there are many fine, young-ish Native American writers in my community. But I don’t see them showing up for these opportunities to be bullied and talked-over, tokenized and trivialized.
The old woman is right to worry about the future of the arts as she knows them. She’s right that there won’t be another generation to support how it has always been done. But she’s dead wrong that poetry is going to be extinct when her generation dies. The poetry of the middle-class, the cultured and coiffed, mannered and manicured poetry of leisure may well die as the middle-class itself shrinks. But the poetry of the working class, the Twitter and restroom-wall poetry, the spoken-word and jotted on the fly poetry of resistance shows no signs of going anywhere. There never has been a traditional publishing market for the songs of slaves, the wails of women, the poetry of anti-power. And there never will be.
Poetry takes two tracks. There’s the academic and cultured poetry. It takes time and resources to either read or write this poetry. One needs a room of one’s own and a hefty book budget. There is also the poetry of the field hand, the farmer, the floor mopper. This is the poetry written on napkins and scraps of paper. This poetry that is the only accessible medium for the poor and powerless. It doesn’t require the time to write a novel, the education to write an essay, the studio to sculpt or paint, the lessons to learn music or dance. It can be written while waiting for the bus and published instantly to Twitter. It can be jotted down without need to worry about the privilege of learning proper grammar. This poetry knows that literature must follow the rules while poetry can exist to break the rules. This poetry doesn’t spend an entire Saturday afternoon in a work shop worrying about the exact syllable stresses of two words. This poetry knows that Rilke is right to write about these things of the world and wrong in thinking that writing and solitude must go hand-in-hand. Poetry can be incredibly social and for the millions without homes, much less rooms, of their own it has to be. To seek solitude is to claim incredible privilege and power over the mass of humanity.
I love having my own house and ample quiet time most days to spend as I wish. It means I can write essays like this. But it is an advantage I am well aware of. I have not always lived like this. I’ve often shared my bedroom and my computer with other people. I grew up with siblings and a snoopy mother who liked to dig my rough drafts out of the trash can to “prove” what a bad kid I was. I haven’t even always been able to claim one single notebook as mine and only mine and just for me to write poems in. I wrote on the back of my waitress-pad and rolled poems into little pocket-sized tubes. I memorized lines to save them for later.
It is no coincidence that the oldest literature in most civilizations is poetry. Before we learned to write we learned to memorize poems. Creation stories are nearly always poetry. Battle songs and memorials and hymns survive because they are a poetry of resistance. It’s the poetry that gives hope and meaning and connection that is both most durable and most hazardous to propagate. Just ask that guy who talked about the meek inheriting the earth the planks in our eyes. If those arn’t beautiful poems I don’t know what is.