Follow Harriet on Twitter
Stories I Like To Tell
There are a few stories that I like to tell about writing. Here is one:
I tell the story of the poets who tell me that they don’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. I ask them what do they want from me. They tell me they want me to read their work. I call them evil. They ask me why I would say that. I ask them if they know I write poetry. They say yes. I ask them if they would like me to succeed as a poet. They say yes. So I ask them why they want me to read their work and risk being influenced by them. It gets a good laugh.
The truth, though, is that I kind of understand what these poets are saying. They are saying that they are afraid that they will be overwhelmed by the poets they admire. They don’t want to be constantly intimidated by those poets. They are often just starting and are being asked to read poets who have been at it for a long. Invariably, they fear, they will compare themselves to these writers and they will feel wholly inadequate. Better not get into that kind of debilitating mess. Ignorance, it turns out, is bliss.
Of course originality is relative to what we know. If we know nothing, then every thought we have will be completely original. Haven’t we all feared reading the work of poets who belong to our “sub-tribe”, whose work has come close to the subjects we are interested in? And we are afraid to read their work for fear that they will have written something brilliant about a subject that we have always wanted to write something brilliant on. So we avoid them. We can pretend that we are originating everything.
Kamau Brathwaite tells a story. He says that in Barbados in the1960s when he had returned after many years in Europe and Africa, he began to lament at the realization that Derek Walcott (who had stayed) had written all the great poems about the Caribbean–the sea, the landscape, the art, the people. Brathwaite may have preferred not to know. And perhaps he pretended not to know as he embarked on his new work, trying to gain the confidence that he is not simply retracing the paths already marked by Walcott. But I still tell the story, because it is funny, and there is a gem of truth there. It is really a story about the arrogance of the artist, of the poet. Generally, I force the poets who come to me reasoning in that manner, to read the work of other people.
There is another story I like to tell. This is how it goes. So a poet comes to me and asks me to read her poetry. I ask why. She tells me that she wants me to give her some feedback. I ask her if she thinks her work is great. She says, of course she does. I ask her what would she think if I told her I hated her work. She pauses. She asks me to repeat what I said. I say again, “What would your reaction be and what would you do if I told you I disliked your work”. She thinks about it a minute and then says, “I like to hear what people say, but it wouldn’t make me think less of my work. It won’t stop me from writing.” Then I say, “So what you want from me is validation, just to tell you that the work is, as you suspect, quite good, and you must keep at it. In other words, you have come here for me to discover you, so to speak.” She rarely has an answer for this, as it is not much of a question. She simply smiles. So I say, “Hey, your work is great, I don’t have to read it to tell you that.” She does not know what to say or how to respond. It is an unfair thing to do to her. And yet it is quite necessary and healthy.
There is yet another story I like to tell. It is not as funny because the punch line, for what it is worth, happens too quickly. There is not much of a build up, and the effect is to leave people only slightly stunned. They chuckle. Here is how it goes. A poet comes to me and asks me to look at his poems. I ask why. (There is a pattern, as you can tell by now). He says he wants some feedback. Fair enough. So I ask what poets he likes to read. He says, I don’t like to read poetry. I feign being flabbergasted, as if I have never heard something like this before. “What?” “Yeah, I don’t really like to read poetry, you know?” But you want others to read your work, I offer. “Yeah.” He does not see the irony at all.
So I call him evil. I go on to explain.
At the core of this diatribe that I give is the notion that for a poet not to like reading poetry but just writing it, something is decidedly wrong. Not just wrong, but actually quite sick. And this is so especially if the poet’s aversion is not prompted by a intensely discriminating taste, by simply by the feeling that poetry is just not interesting to read. There is a narcissism inherent in this declaration.
And so when I tell this story, it gets a really good laugh, especially when the listeners are fellow writers or writing students.
Here is the thing, though. Is it that absurd? I mean, aren’t many of us going around pretending to like reading poetry because it is the right thing to do? Could it be that many of us really dislike poetry, especially the poetry that we are expected to like? Few of us would want to admit it, but I suspect that the reasons we read poetry often have very little to do with the pleasures we may derive from reading such.
The list of reasons would include, 1) we are scouting the territory to see who is writing what so we can compete with them; 2) We are checking journals to see what is published and to determine whether we can get published there, or to find out how we could have been rejected; 3) Someone has told us that a certain poem or book of poems is really good and we have to be able to honestly say we have read it; and 4) We are looking to rip off stuff from the poets we are going to read–we are reading to push us to write.
Now these are all legitimate reasons to read poetry, but we certainly don’t want these to be the reasons why others read our work. Most of what we preach is that we read poetry for the pleasures it gives us. I am afraid that those motives for reading poetry have to cultivated carefully especially by people who are essentially professional poets. And if it is true that those four are some of the reasons that many professional poets read other poets then the guy we were laughing at earlier is actually not such a clown after all. indeed, unlike us, he is honest, and ultimately, what he is saying may well be what we would all say if we could afford to say so: “So much of what I read out there is just boring and uninteresting.” Maybe instead of telling poets that they should read other poets if they want to write great poems, we should tell poets that they should read other poets to enjoy them and to learn what it is like to simply enjoy a poem. I should say, “learn again” because I honestly believe that we have all been there at some point in our lives.
So here is my confession. These days I have to make time to read poems for the pure pleasure of the act. And I don’t do this a great deal. I read poems to judge them I read poems to select from them a winner, I read poems to give feed back to poets. I read poems to write blurbs on the back of books, I read poems to write book reviews, I read poems to edit them. I am now about to enter a new world of intense editing during which I will be reading for all the reasons that have nothing to do with the pleasure of reason. I have decided to commit myself to a very specific and hopefully simple task. To read with the desire to enjoy, and to make my decisions based on the extent of my pleasure in a poem or a story. This is a grand ambition, and even as I have written it, I have doubted its possibility. But we shall see.
In the spirit of Rigoberto, let me offer four poetry collections that I believe you might some pleasure in. The first is a familiar one that many would have read. Jane Hirshfield’s translation of Japanese ancient poetry by women Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, The Ink Dark Moon. It is still one of my greatest pleasure books. beautiful stuff. The second is a freshly minted collection of verse by fellow South Carolinian, Ray McMannus. The book is called Red Dirt Jesus. Tough, funny, unsettling, and tender verse. Next, new collection by South Carolina based poet, Ed Madden, titled Prodigal Variations. This collection gives me such pleasure because I have watched it take shape over years and I am am still surprised by it. Finally, I am not sure how many of you have caught wind of Nikky Finney’s new book, Head Off & Split–it is a marvelous moment, audacious, vulnerable and manages to teach me things I did not know at all.
Here is another story. I am full of stories. Most of them pretend to offer some unassailable truth. Most of them are deeply flawed. But most get a laugh, and at the end of the day, that is not such a bad thing.