It’s been two months since posting, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by a coterie of my fans who frequent the Valero gas station near my gym. They’re all like Hey baby! Nice shake! Also, I really enjoy your feminist take on the inevitable descent into middle age! Watchu think bout this male gaze? Etc.
I have a penpal in Brooklyn who I’m bad at getting back to and so begin every email with a quick rendering of how busy I’ve been, which is really just a windy way of saying sorry, a word that flies out of my mouth with a kind of humiliating frequency and which I’m trying to eliminate, even when I am actually sorry. I have no doubt there are men, some of whom I’m related to, who have never said the word outside of quoting some Goodfellas scene where someone says it, and probably then only mocking someone they’re about to kill who’s all I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t know she was your broad or whatever they say. I have, of course, seen Goodfellas, but only in the company of Men I Was Kind of Dating, such as one fellow who put it on nearly every night of our two-week relationship and then proceeded to put the moves on me. This is not the weirdest thing that, back in my roving days, men used to put on as the background to awkward seduction, a list which includes but is not limited to: Nine Inch Nails, Carl Sagan PBS specials, Eraserhead, covers of Bob Marley songs by white women, and Rain Man. Guh. Which is all to say I’m trying to embrace the obstinate cluelessness of the modern American male (straight Gen-X version, at least) and neither apologize nor explain what I’ve been up to instead of writing here.
Instead, what I want to talk about is how we find ways to keep doing what we love when no one we love gives a shit about it. For me, that is obviously both poetry and fast food worker cosplay. You can check out my work on the latter on the blog FrenchFryFetishist, so for this blog, I’ll talk about the former: poetry.
Wait! Come back! You won’t have to read any poetry, I swear.
I get it, the not getting it. I understand the panic induced in most Americans when someone brings up “poetry” in conversation. What I most often notice is a stiffening of the limbs and a total stoppage in blinking, as if by going camouflage and pretending to be a tree, they will have tricked the speaker into thinking Huh, I could have sworn Pedro was just here but all I see is this tree so I guess I’ll stop talking about poetry. This is what my mother does. She’ll ask what I’ve been doing and so I mention I’ve got some poems in a journal, and upon hearing the word poems, she goes catatonic, refusing to breathe or make eye contact until I change the subject.
Again–I get that poetry infuses many people with the feeling of having to take a pop quiz, probably because most of our exposure to poetry is in school and is usually taught in such a way as to make us hate poetry. As a college prof who has a lot of education majors in her literature class, I know now that one of the reasons for this is that a healthy number of those teaching English in middle/high schools are afraid of poetry, and they pass this on to their students, focusing on identifying rhyme schemes and teaching symbolism as an equation, wherein reading a poem becomes breaking a code, when if you do it right, everything clicks into place and there are no more questions. Of course, this is not all teachers, and maybe it’s changed since my generation was in school diagramming sentences and using a spell check called a fucking dictionary, but it does seem that, outside of poets, no one I know likes poetry.
I’m raising more questions than I will answer now because at this point I don’t want to talk about the nature of poetry or the American readership–I just want to talk about me. My first real exposure to poetry (outside of memorizing “Casey at the Bat” in the fifth grade) was decoding Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” in Mrs. Smith’s eighth grade honors English class. She used an overhead projector and spent two full class periods asking us to decipher the poem’s techniques, with no discussion of how we connected to or understood the poem’s themes of mortality and self-destruction which, given our age, we maybe didn’t have much to say about anyway. It was this experience, burned into my brain for almost 30 years, that made me realize poetry, with its rigid structures and refusal to say the thing it wants to say, was the fucking worst.
Years of high school and college did nothing to counter that conclusion. I did not grow up in a place or in a community where there were poetry readings or really just reading, and so unlike many poets who declare that they knew at age 11 what they were meant to do, it wasn’t until I was 21 that I understood poetry to be a thing that made life better. I was an English major and “got” poetry in the sense that I was assigned poems by dead people to write about and I did and got an “A,” but I did not get poetry. It wasn’t until, cliche though it may sound, I took a semester-long graduate seminar on Sylvia Plath that a poem crawled into my brain and whispered this is the thing you’ve been searching for how to say. Though it would be another 17 years until I could take myself seriously as a poet, that’s when the seed was planted: by the lyrical genius of Plath, one of the greatest, and most misunderstood, American poets in history.
That I left college at all with a passion for poetry was a lucky confluence of scheduling and intellectual readiness, and I’m beginning to understand how much an appreciation of poetry has to do with privilege, particularly class, educational, and geographic privilege. How can you know if you’re supposed to be a poet if no one you’ve ever known talks about, reads, thinks about poetry? Certainly there are some rare geniuses who find a collection of Emily Dickinson in the school library and are thunderstruck into self-realization, but for most of us, it’s not possible to imagine a life if we haven’t seen it lived by someone else. At least, it wasn’t for me, and a life of poetry is not really imaginable to anyone I love, and I’m too early in my professional career as a poet (who just made a sweet $67 from publishing two poems in Boulevard, y’all!) to make it seem real to them.
What this means in a practical sense is that it’s often hard to keep pushing through all the rejections and hard work of writing (which often looks like staring out the window but is in fact me deleting scores of bad lines and images in my brain). I think it’s hard for any writer, but if you write fiction or nonfiction, there’s a good chance your loved ones understand what a novel or a memoir are. When someone asks you what your book’s about, you can give them an answer like It’s about a woman who finds a fish in her purse that turns out to be her husband in a former life and they open a detective agency and they will nod their heads and get it. But when a non-poetry reader asks a poet what her book is about and she says It’s a rumination on the development of a female/woman self in reaction and resistance to 20th century America’s enforcement of gender roles, exploring these ideas through narrative lyrics on childbirth, postpartum depression, abuse, and poverty then NO ONE WILL EVER ASK YOU AGAIN ABOUT ANY WRITING, EVER. So you say: poems. And they say: oh.
Which, again, I get. I’m even a little grossed out by how to talk about poems. Poets can be a bit much.
I’m hoping this isn’t whinging (which is British for either whining or fucking a crumpet) but rather a way of asking a genuine question: what to do when the Venn circles of What You Love and Whom You Love don’t overlap? When What You Love isn’t just a hobby (see: middle-aged softball leagues) but one of the primary ways in which you identify yourself. So if how you see yourself is by being X, and the people who love you don’t want to talk about X, where do you go?
Traditionally people go to a community of like-minded souls outside of their families for this support. The sticky point here is that the small city where I live (rhymes with Schmalbuquerque) isn’t a big town for poets. No–let me refine that: it is a YUGE town for slam poets. If you are a slam poet, stop driving and pull up some dirt, cuz this here is your open mic oasis. But if you are a poet (and I’m using that to refer to someone who uses the limitations of the page and not performance to drive and develop meaning), then this is not such a great place. There are no reading serieses (series? seriei?), and most events feature approximately the same four slam poets, with no real demand to change that formula.
I’m truly glad there’s a place for these writers here, for those stories and perceptions and performances to be shared, but I want that for the rest of us, too. I want events that diversify and complicate people’s expectations and understanding of the power of poetry. I want a place to go to in order to hear kickass writers that’s worth getting a babysitter for the evening.
So, this is all a long way of saying that I, along with the fabulously talented poet Rebecca Aronson, am starting something we hope will do this: the Bad Mouth Reading Series, and I will tell you more about it later. But in our minds, there is wine and high quality literary shit and some music and it’s for grownups who have a bunch of shit to do and so will not fuck around with amateur hour. We’ll highlight women (yay!) and also whoever’s not a woman (that’s cool too!) and people from diverse backgrounds and outlooks. And maybe, because it’s Burque and this place makes everything hard, we’ll have to give up in six months, but GODDAMNIT LET’S TRY!
And maybe I will get my mom to go. Maybe I can get her to like it.
(Stay tuned for Bad Mouth–more info later in May!)