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Public musings: balancing the role of the poet

By Sina Queyras

On my mind today: Ron Silliman’s blog, its demise, Kenneth Goldsmith’s post on Ron Silliman, a response I had to a public proposal for a new poetry venture from a fellow Canadian poet, and a recent post I made here regarding the line. There is, in all of this diversity, an illustration of how complicated the public role of the poet can be. How to grapple with the onslaught of information, how to process it all so quickly, how to comment, how to support, how to honor one’s visceral response to a situation, how to not take it too personally, how to state what one feels the need to state even if it means risking the possibility that one will be misunderstood…or worse, that one is wrong, and how to do this all in a flash, remaining clear, and direct. We are all of us, grappling with this it seems.

On the one hand there is the matter of the exhaustion brought on by constant, daily, public commenting, such as that offered to us for years by people such as Ron Silliman. Then there’s the further matter of doing this commenting entirely one one’s own. As Goldsmith points out, the dailiness and the lack of editorial leadership take their toll. Out in the blogosphere, one can travel far into one’s own idea of things. And feel compelled to comment on every given situation, and after a while, feel obligated to. It’s exhausting, as many point out. To marshal my own energies, I have found myself having to say no more often, decline to respond, or bow out of taking part in excellent projects. One has to have limits but, at the same time, to say no can be perceived as negation.

How to balance one’s participation in poetry? Ron Silliman may offer a cautionary tale for poets, as Goldsmith says, but I want to say how impressive his accomplishments have been. To turn on one’s computer and know that you have to post something to because there are poets turning up at your virtual doorstep every morning is unbelievable pressure. I have no idea how Silliman managed that, let alone managing comment streams. Let alone producing work.

One of the downsides to the speed of the social network, or of self-authored blogs, is surely that: the sheer strain of constantly thinking in public, the lack of time to reflect. This, coupled with the absence of the editor, or an editorial process, is now the norm. This has a great impact on our thinking, and of course, our writing.

But back to this editing, or lack of. We on Harriet aren’t edited. We self-edit, which is difficult even for the most seasoned writer. This is perhaps partly why my post that asked what we are talking about when we talk about the line was murky, and seemed to conflate “you” being addressed with the response to Gillian Conoley’s excellent question regarding the line. The “you” became many things and moved far away from Gillian’s concerns without making that leap clear. Mea Culpa. I want to thank Gillian for her supple musings and generous response to my confusing post. Her thoughts are certainly worth revisiting, and I hope to do that in a future post. Meanwhile, you can read Gillian here.

I think that calling something that seems unclear, or problematic, into public discourse is a good thing. Even if it makes all those involved uncomfortable. Hopefully it’s a brief discomfort. Air the misgivings; let the glide path be smoothed. Recently on Twitter I witnessed a bunch of young women speaking out about something they felt problematic, and the author of the piece responded, engaged, considered, and then retracted his statement. It was an elegant handling of the affair.

For my part, I’m genuinely sorry I ruffled some feathers. But I can’t regret writing, or speaking out. I want to live in a world where people can air their misgivings and not be ostracized for them. Where all of us can make mistakes in this rapid public sphere, and clarify those mistakes as generously as possible, and move on.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 11th, 2011 by Sina Queyras.