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Reading Writers

By Camille Dungy

In which I sing of praise and pardons, plasticity, and possession


I have been rapt this month by the 21 Love Poems for Adrienne Rich posted daily by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. What is striking me in these posts is the manner in which so many of us had relationships with Rich that Rich may never have known about. I’m thinking a lot about what that means. When we create relationships with writers we love they are often built on fantasy, not on anything that could or did happen in the real world. I think that is beautiful, but it is also a little bit terrifying. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that some people are put off by the idea of literature and art. In order to really live in the world of literature and art you have to unfetter yourself from “reality.” You have to be willing to live in a lie. For those of us who really love literature and art, these lies feed us. These new realities help to make us who we are. But at what cost?

I keep thinking about this as I read the posts in which different women writers write about why Rich was so fundamental to helping them become the women and writers they are. Whether or not we were lucky enough to cross paths with Rich in some chance or actual encounter, our posts make clear that we had known her in a very deep way. We had known her in ways that shaped us as writers, as readers, as teachers, as people. Though, in all honesty, for most of us, what we knew was a figment of our own imagination. What we knew about Adrienne Rich had more to do with ourselves and our own needs than it did with that late, great woman who had given so much of her selves to us.

One of the reasons I love to read is that I feel like I come to know the people whose work I read. I read their poems, their letters, their essays, biographies of their lives, and all of these can feel like the chance to share a cup of tea and a chat. Reading is an intimate act, just as writing is, and one of the reasons I love to read is that I am fed by the communion that happens between me and the authors I encounter. But I must be ever cautious. I must try to bear in mind that what I am getting to know is the paper on which the words live, not actually the person who wrote the work on that paper. I am getting to know what is born of the union between a figment of a writer’s imagination and a figment of my own.

This is one of the reasons that writing can be so terribly frightening once you realize what’s at stake. What happens if the figments of my imagination go off into the world and hurt someone? What happens if the figments of my imagination misspeak? What if a figment of my imagination wanders off and gets itself into trouble? When I get the facts wrong trying to get at the truth, what happens if the details I land on don’t sit right with others? It will happen. And then what will I do?

I’ll have to apologize. Let me apologize now. Let this be a specific apology to stand for the general. It seems that in my last post here on Harriet a figment of my imagination wandered off and got itself into a bit of trouble. I’ve had a word crush on Daisy Fried for many years and I took the chance to say so in a public forum, but in the process I made her sound mean, which wasn’t my point at all. And also, I seem to have penned an alternate space/time reality, which I hadn’t been actively aiming to do. I was mostly wrapped up in thinking about how much I wished I’d been able to call the names of two of her fantastic poems when I ran into her sometime somewhere. It turns out that my memory of when and where that encounter was doesn’t coincide with when and where Daisy knew herself to be at the time. Either I got my dates and places wrong, or I made the whole encounter up. (Let us not get into the irony of the fact that one of the poems whose title I was trying to recall is “Moving Her Around.”) It is writing, so anything could be true. In the process of trying to articulate some truths about the power of poetry for redemption (poetry really has saved my spirit more times than I can count) I ended up making Daisy sound dismissive, which, based on what I know, couldn’t be farther from the truth. I got some facts wrong trying to get at the truth, and now I have to deal with the consequences.

I started all of this thinking about a series of homages to Adrienne Rich. I started by saying that when we create relationships with writers whose work we love they are often not built on anything that could or did happen in the real world. I think that is beautiful, but it is also a little bit terrifying. When we develop fixations on writers, fixations which usually have nothing to do with the person herself, what we tend to be doing is revealing some part of ourselves we needed to see. Response papers for a visiting writers class I am teaching this spring are filled with students saying things like, “I connected with this writer because his writing reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my own grandfather. I’ve never seen someone write about those things before and it made me think maybe I should write some of the stories my grandfather told me. This is my favorite writer this term.” Quickly in the analysis of the work the visiting writer disappears and the student is seeing only herself and what she wants to become. This is one of the reasons we read other people’s writing. It can reveal who we might become. In order to metabolize the lessons of the work, sometimes the original writers (and sometimes even the original intentions of the writing) disappear.

This seems to have happened in the “faux Fried” scenario I described in my last post. While I was busy thinking about myself and what it meant to feel sort of goofy and inarticulate in front of a writer I admired, there was a real woman at the other end of the story. I did a thing that is all too easy to do when we write our own lives, I made the other figures around me act more as mannequins than as humans. Their positions and expressions were adjustable to my will. I think this is true with all people, but it might be particularly true for writers whose work we have studied and whose lives we can pretend, while we’re reading, we know. When I read Elizabeth Bishop I think of her as I need her to be in the moment of my reading. Her age changes, her country of residence shifts. Is she alive? Is she dead? How does she treat her gardener? The facts I fill in depend on what I need from her at the moment of my reading.

What kind of special hell would be rendered if the only actions we were allowed would be those granted by those who conjured us in their imaginations? This is the reality of the power writing gives a reader. That is terrifying. But it could be beautiful, too.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 26th, 2012 by Camille Dungy.