You are a writer because you write

This is a dangerous assertion.   A political statement that “staggers” and “shuffles” and “dislocates,” just as do the poems of Doug Kearney, who asserted this truism about writing and writers at PSA’s Red, White, and Blue : Poets on Politics panel at the Hammer Museum.

Yes, says my writer self who feels guilty for not doing more than just writing (like this).  And, hell no, says my other writer self who knows how writing is not just writing, but work (like foregoing summer travel to hunker down and get the manuscript done).

Either way, it is a transformation, as Kearney, Prageeta Sharma, and Matthew Zapruder noted in their discussion of poetics and politics.

Poetry transforms the writer and the audience, even if that audience is just the writer.  So it is not just writing, but writing something that surprises you, the writer, surrendering to something other than LISTEN TO WHAT I WANT TO SAY.

For Kearney it’s a stagger and a shuffle, a throwing the audience off-balance, that achieves this transformation.

For Sharma, surprise comes through mocking the authoritative voice of the canon, of the paradox of creativity supported by the institution of academia.

It is not just politics and poetry, but the politics of poetry.

For Zapruder it is inescapable.  Poetry.  Politics.  It is Sappho writing the first lyric poems under a moon reflecting, on paper, her own thoughts and feelings (Zapruder’s image, not mine).

Poetry.  Confessions. Politics.

The poem as the only place where they could be themselves (Sharma and Zapruder).

But how can we be ourselves in the institution of academia and politics, in the public?

Particularly when the poetic self is so often not the self the institution hired or the public will like:  the anxiety, as Kearney pointed out, of autobiographical interpretation of each poem.

Is this what people will think of me?

Versus the poem as our own imaginative “danger room” where we can crash and fail and flail and be ourselves and not ourselves, as we need, to find that transformation.

Sharma, in talking about art in the institution of academia, called the poem a product that proves success.  More specifically, the public poem, the published poem, the poem published in the right journal.

If I am not being published (by the ‘right’ journals) or validated by an institution, can I continue to call myself a writer?  What do writers do besides write and teach writing?   If I leave behind teaching and the pursuit of teaching college, will I still be a writer?

I simply want the lightness and time to slip into that poetry mind more often, the space of Keats’ “negative capability” where paradox and contradiction exist, where I can stagger and shuffle and go into the danger room of thought.

Reentering that room after a long absence is scary:  did I lose my edge?  how out of shape am I? where to start training to regain ground?  and how, poetically, does one measure the regaining of ground?

Suddenly, the striving for a title or position that seems to fit the writer persona, the proper resume with the right publications seems secondary to the writing and the living.   I enter the danger room, pick up a word, and start with one rep, then two, then three . . .

Suddenly, I am a little be closer to being a Poet & Writer.

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The Footnote Reading

Today I gave my first speech for Toastmasters.

I kind of cheated.  I wrote a speech in the form of a poem that contained a poem.

The assigned speech was the “icebreaker” speech.  Everyone said it is the easiest as you just talk about yourself.  As any poet knows, this is the most difficult thing to do directly.  The self, when presented to the public and through words, requires crafting and revision.

The poem, “Sunday School Lessons in Four Part (dis)Harmony,” is one of my more lengthy poems with three languages and extensive footnotes.   Since it was a speech and not a poetry reading (and I was already cheating), I did not fret over how to read the footnotes:  I simply didn’t, except for the epigraph, which I explained before I started reading the poem.

The footnotes pertain mostly to biblical references and lines in other languages.  The other languages, in the written version, have footnotes as the ‘sound’ may be lost on the reader so I thought some explanation would be appreciated.  However, I never translate in the footnotes, only site the references.  This would be disruptive and strange in the reading.  Instead, read aloud, they serve to give music and atmosphere to the loose narrative and the intended emotion or experience of the poem attempts to convey.

To add to this, I added back in lines from Hungarian folksongs.  Unlike the Latin and Spanish, the Hungarian is not as familiar and the pronunciations would be unmusical by non-Hungarian speakers, so I took them out (though a few Hungarian words remain in the poem).  However, while rehearsing the poem, I spontaneously sang these songs from my childhood as they were referenced.   I kept that in tonight’s presentation of the speech to my club.

Often I have discussed with poets about how, for instance, would one read aloud a poem like “The Waste Land” or one of the many footnoted poems in Sherman Alexie’s Face.  Today, being the poet and having the ‘authority’ to aurally present my footnotes (or in this case not) as I like, I found that I have two poems:  the page poem where the footnotes are needed to guide readers through the unfamiliar and the aural poem that may dwell in the universality of the music of language outside of literal comprehension.