Saturday, March 13, 2010

weekender

NOTE: It is perhaps unsurprising that I originally drafted the following post LAST weekend and am just finishing and posting it now.

I haven't posted here in awhile (again). Mostly it's because I've been doing other things, but there is always the shadow of blogger's block. I still don't know what it's about, exactly. Partly it's the same as regular writer's block, but the other part of it is the public nature of blogging. I have a link to my blog on my email signature, it's on my facebook page, it's the first thing that comes up if someone googles my name. So there's no way I can really hide here, unless I have some "restricted" posts, and I don't really see the sense of that. If I have something to say that's private, for a small group, I either just write in my notebook or send an email to a couple of friends.

Anyway, lately I've been remembering the words of Dave Smith, who with Claudia Emerson led the workshop in which I was a fellow at Sewanee last summer. Dave really held my feet to the fire, but it was something I needed. I'd submitted a manuscript of work-in-progress (something that most of the fellows don't do, for some reason, but I thought I'd take advantage of having a thorough reading by some experts, free of charge). After my hour-long conference, I read the three-page single-spaced letter Dave had written--it was more like an essay directed to me individually, engaged, elegantly-written, and incisive. At the end, I broke down and cried because he had hit the nail on the head--not so much about the poems themselves (although his comments were useful and on-target) as about my commitment to poetry.

I think the "serious" poet is not competing against stand-up comics but against the great poems in our language. To bear that burden of competition is a killer weight, but if a poet is not trying to do the best possible work, how is he/she different from the literary week-ender?

That, dear reader, is the question, and underlying that is another series of questions: am I destined to be a "week-ender"? what would I have to do to be "serious" about poetry? something's gotta give, but what?

At the end of the letter, Dave wrote:

I think you can be a very entertaining poet, especially reading to small crowds who have every reason to like not being challenged; or you can be both entertaining and much better, the kind of poet whose language has resonance and durability.

He went on to name some poets (all women, of course) he considered "non-week-enders" and the list included some of my personal heroes and one of my close personal friends. That was when I cried. Yes, I want to do what these writers have done. What has been stopping me? Why, if I consider my writing so central to my life, do I always give other work, the work that is for pay, more legitimacy and thus more of my energy? How can I change this?

If I don't get a handle on this I'll never have a second book. I'll never finish the memoir. I'll always be a might-have-been, an also-ran, a "but she had so much potential." I'm working on finding another way.

2 comments:

BigLittleWolf said...

Two opinions, for what they are worth (and a clear opinion on the PR aspects of contemporary poetry, as we head into "Poetry Month" - case in point??)-

(1) This:
I think the "serious" poet is not competing against stand-up comics but against the great poems in our language. To bear that burden of competition is a killer weight, but if a poet is not trying to do the best possible work, how is he/she different from the literary week-ender?


I couldn't agree more. What an incredible perspective. To stand up against the great poems in our language.

(2) However:
The concept of "entertaining" and reading to a small group.

Did the great poets have to stand up and perform their poetry? Isn't this somewhat of a contradiction with the preceding statement about not being stand-up comics? As for great poets, do we not judge the writing because the language, on the page, its music and meaning as we hear and interpret it, in our heads, stands on its own?

Why must we require poets to be performers? Spoken word is not (in my opinion) to be compared to Adrienne Rich, or Mary Oliver or Sylvia Plath or Neruda or Paz or Baudelaire or, Amy Lemmon
.

Reading (a.k.a. performing) poetry may be essential to PR around an all too undervalued art, but ultimately the words work on the page or not. I heartily disagree with the assessment made on this second point.

Amy said...

Thanks for the kind words, BLF...to be fair to DS, the "standup comic" comment was taken a little out of context. Here are the previous couple of sentences:
"...your taste for frolic in words may be your strength of strengths. It comes in a real talent for humor, as wit, as pun, as whimsy. This is not something to be taken lightly but it is something to be used in a proportionate way with other tones or modalities. To be only a comic poet is to be condemned as of lesser value, whether fair or not."

Interestingly, I remember another poet I took a workshop with--Mark Jarman--commenting on a line in one of my poems that it used a "Jerry Seinfeld" strategy. Ba dump bump. :)