Toodles, Poetry! And Humankind?
Some weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have no place in the world of poetry anymore.
I have spent much of the last year devoted to finishing a first draft of a lengthy historical novel. I have continued to interact with my beloved poetry group, but I cannot say I truly was interacting with my own poetry. When the question “Should you still be writing poetry?” arose from the depths of my subconscious, my first instinct was to tamp it down, and hard, but it just wouldn’t go away.
I’ve taken extended vacations away from “poetry world” before and I’ve also been frustrated at times with all aspects of what we call “poetry,” from writing to revising to submitting to publishing, etc., but this time felt different. So I decided to look that persistent little query in the eye and, behold, I watched as it morphed into, “WHY should you (or ANYONE) continue to write poetry?” Wait. What? Me or ANYONE? Oh, no, I thought. So it’s not, “I have no place in the world of poetry,” it’s “poetry has no place in the world.” Hang it up, Natasha Tretheway. As brilliant and brutally beautiful as your work is, it’s no use. Have I really started to buy into the “Poetry is dead” tripe? Ugh, I thought. Am I nihilist? Has Game of Thrones done this to me? Of course poetry is dead! EVERYone’s dead except the assholes! Damn you, George R.R. Martin!
I needed to understand the origin of my accursed new state of mind. As a reader, I respond to that tradition of writing that reaches something in the human heart that needs to be touched or examined — or changed. Over the course of the year, I was, for better or worse, paying attention to current events. Events that make up any news cycle are mostly negative — but you have to admit the horror show of the last several months has been particularly brutal. Throw in the outrageous tweets, Facebook memes, viral videos, and the rude and crude content that can be found on almost any comment thread attached to any news story, and you’ve got one toxic brew. Not surprisingly then, somewhere along my way, I began to believe that the hearts that need changing cannot be changed. Now, wholesale social change is far too lofty a goal for a poem; poetry is an examination. Change, however, can result from such an examination. So what of the stubborn heart? I asked myself. If it cannot be changed, can it be touched at least? I shook my head. I realized I had reached a place where I no longer thought so. Alas, the dying poet in me gasped melodramatically. The audience for poetry does not exist. Hunh, the living smartass in me disdainfully snorted. Are poets writing for the Anasazi? I knew then not only was I a skinny minute from filling up an industrial size recycling bin with thousands of “dead” poetry zines and hundreds of “dead” poetry chapbooks (full length collections I would donate to a library … or a museum), but I had succumbed to an equally insidious belief: that I’m living in a land full of angry extremists and the divisions among people are tall and wide and impassable. Nobody turns to poetry in such a place.
While doing research for my novel, my immersion into the time period before and during the French Revolution revealed the presence of the same kind of petty meanness that seems to permeate our current politics. Now, as then, such hatefulness gives rise to xenophobic suspicions and eventually makes enemies of fellow countrymen who no longer get the benefit of the doubt merely by being “countrymen.” Demands for proof of purity or “patriotism” become common. Likewise, now, as then, a deliberate corrupting of the language of public speech is undertaken in the service of propaganda and stirring the pot. Now, just as then, there is a vocal element finding pleasure vilifying those who are different from the majority; and not far behind the vocal element is the violent element. When violent history repeats itself, it is because certain circumstances combine with human nature in just the right amounts like a witches’ brew. But is this really where we are right now, I asked myself. Because, if so, poetry ain’t the only thing that’s dead… The internet (and the 24/7 news cycle and the voices the media chooses to highlight) would have us believe, yes, this really is where we are.
Enter the “Sad Puppies.”
I don’t know if you were as fascinated by the Hugo Awards recent controversy as I have been, but I’m betting many of you don’t even know what the Hugo Awards are. They have been called the “Oscars” of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy literary world. To catch up, I suggest you read this reasonably brief article. Following are a couple of helpful excerpts from said article:
But turmoil overtook the awards process this year, as a group of sci-fi writers called the Sad Puppies came forward expressing unhappiness over Hugo selections, charging that they tend to recognize racial and gender diversity rather than sci-fi quality. Sad Puppies member and author Brad Torgersen wrote on his website before nominating began this year, “Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.” …
As a result, Sad Puppies came out with a list of the nominees it hoped to see take home a Hugo in 15 of the 16 award categories. (That list, as Torgersen pointed out, included both female writers and authors of color. Torgersen, who has been married to an African American woman for many years, says that attempts to color him racist are unfair.)
At the same time, another group calling themselves the Rabid Puppies, led by author Theodore Beale (also known as Vox Day), came forward with its own suggested Hugo Awards winners. Beale, who has been accused of making sexist and racist comments in interviews, has further stirred controversy.
That’s just the bare bones. Everyone, including some well known right-leaning and left-leaning political pundits, has weighed in on this thing, so you can get all the background you want. For my purposes, I’m skipping ahead to the actual awards themselves. I followed the story closely because I saw the whole controversy as a microcosm of the larger culture war that’s taking place all around us currently, with the loudest and most vicious skirmish appearing to be on the political battlefield. Everywhere you look, the status quo is shifting, and that makes some people who have been at the top of the pyramid uncomfortable, or fearful, or just plain mean. It also makes some people who traditionally have been on the outside looking in understandably defensive, and asking “Who owns the right to judge what is ‘good?’ But more interesting to me is the question, “Who thinks they own the right to judge what is good?”
Bear with me. I promise I’ll bring this back around to poetry.
The Hugo Awards took place on August 22. As a reaction to the finagled slate of nominees pushed forward by a few people, the fans who vote on the awards opted to vote No Award in a number of categories. I’m sure the reasons for so voting varied from individual to individual, but there’s no question it in large part was in protest over how the nominees had been chosen.
Shortly thereafter, I came across this article by Arthur Chu, who has written about this controversy since the beginning. He attended WorldCon in person for the first time in years and here is what he found:
My experience talking about social issues in geeky fandom online is one of constant attacks and sniping and arguing and “controversy”. If you clicked on the #HugoAwards hashtag Saturday night you could see a steady stream of 4chan-style obscenities, slurs and assorted nastiness from people not present.
But in person? To paraphrase the great Bill Hicks, I saw a lot of division among convention attendees about the Sad Puppies “movement”; people who viewed the movement with frustrated rage and people who viewed the movement with bemused pity.
There were, to be sure, plenty of personal beefs and political differences. I met many people I’d argued with online about various topics. Plenty of people had negative things to say about the response to the Sad Puppies, saying that other people had been too harsh or too hostile or too unhelpful in tone.
But defending the Puppies’ actions? Not a single person I met took that stance. The “controversy” didn’t exist outside the Internet.
[links in original article not included here]
Here it is, my “AHA!” moment. The realization that virtual reality isn’t reality — duh. It isn’t the reality I experience when I am in the presence of REAL people. It isn’t a true picture of what your neighbors think about you or what you are thinking about your neighbors. And while social media can be a vehicle for positive change, it can be toxic and mind-numbing, promoting the worst we have to offer. It can be, if we let it, a gateway into a world where we lose the important parts of our humanity without ever knowing it. It is the newest incubator for growing “the stubborn heart.” Pick a side, and there are only two: Mine and wrong! Full disclosure: I used to write political blog posts often in response to other online political blog posts and “news” stories, so, you know, I know what I’m talking about!
Not that “real” reality is devoid of stubborn hearts and people who do terrible things to other people. These are the events that make headlines, and they must be addressed. Conversation is a good way to address problems and differences. While the internet gives us the ability to have larger discussions in terms of numbers of people, I regret to inform you that in many cases it leads to “smaller” discussions in terms of actual ideas. And in terms of actual understanding. In “real” reality, however, it has been my experience that when bad things happen, good people respond, and you may be surprised to learn that most of us still recognize a bad thing when we see it. No one plays the role of spokesperson for any of us; not across the board.
And Now Back to “poetry”…
In the days since I began this post, “poetry” has experienced a Hugo-like controversy itself. A white male poet submitted a poem to the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology under a Chinese pseudonym. The poem in question had been submitted and rejected, according to the poet, more than 40 times under his real name. I shan’t go into the multi-level shittiness associated with this story; maybe another time. Ultimately, Poetry with a capital P doesn’t care what I think about this “controversy” because the controversy doesn’t matter.
Years ago, I attended a poetry workshop and one of the other attendees — one of the few males enrolled — said, “I don’t call myself a ‘poet.’ I leave that for other people to decide.” His tone left no doubt that he wasn’t worried. How nice for him. I still smile when I think about it, given, historically, which people had been doing most of the deciding about who among us were poets up until then. When I identify as a poet, I’m not being presumptuous. “Poet” is who I am. I am also a white woman in her 50’s who grew up lower middle class in a small town in North Carolina with deep family roots in rural North Carolina and rural Tennessee who, as a child, saw things no child should see (insert a half a century of life here), and whose experiences and observations are no more or no less fit subjects for poetry than those of anyone else. Know how I know that? Because I am a poet; I have written poems.
Poetry with a capital P doesn’t care who the poet is, as long as the poet is a willing vessel. It’s really only ever about “the poem.” One poem. The poem being written. The poem that is trying to be born and to live. Others don’t get to decide for me what is appropriate subject matter for my one poem, nor am I entitled to know all the ways a poem lives in the world once I create it and let it go. The poem knows for whom it wants to live, even if I do not. So let me say again, Poetry doesn’t care who the poet is. Publishers might care; editors might care; literary critics and academics might care. Do we have a history of overlooking strong and deserving poetic voices? You better believe it. We can and should talk about all the ways “past racial, social, cultural, and aesthetic injustices” can be addressed, but with all due respect to Sherman Alexie, not in the “poetry world,” but in the world of publishers, editors, literary critics, and academics. In Poetry world, where poems actually are being written by poets covering the range of labels we can’t get away from placing on one another, the only injustice is the one committed when the poet refuses to take up the pen. And the only reader who matters is the reader the poem was seeking out in the first place. Poetry world is full of poems that can be labeled as “good” or as “bad,” and I’ve seen both kinds, in my opinion, enjoy publication and adulation. So what?
Should I Still be Writing Poetry? Yes, for Two Reasons
First, instead of committing the injustice of never writing another poem, should one show up, I’ve decided to remember it’s none of my business where the finished poem wants to go, or what it gets to do. My only brief is to do the work with integrity, emotional honesty, and authenticity. Take up the pen and don’t worry about the stubborn hearts, the status quo, the critics, the manufactured controversies, the Twitter fights, the comments thread, or any of that other bullshit. It’s about that one poem. Always.
Secondly, I’m Poetry’s mule until she says otherwise. That’s just how it is.