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Shame and the Shape of the I

By Julie Carr

Maybe Rachel Zucker and Rodrigo Toscano are right. Maybe there are types of poets: those with powers (Bhanu Kapil and her divinations?) and those with weapons (Vanessa Place, reputed to have “killed” poetry?). The fuck-me poets (O’Hara in his tight pants?), and the fuck-you poets (no names). Perhaps, following my “Manifesto on Consensual Poetry,” we should add to Rodrigo’s list the “wanna fuck?” poets, and also those who, rather than opening all the doors to the house or living out of a warehouse, more or less cruise the streets. But all this talking of fucking and poetry begins to sound a bit Beat, a bit sleazy, shameful even, which brings me to the topic of this post.


Eve Sedgwick, drawing on the work of Sylvan Tompkins and Michael Franz Basch, argued that, “shame makes identity.” Shame, she explains, rather than being a product of advanced social awareness or moral/ethical reasoning, is in fact a primary, even primitive emotion, one we can detect in an infant as young as three months. Its physical expression includes head down, gaze cast away, and it is thought to result from rejection. The infant, on not finding the loving eyes of its caregiver, feels shame in the face of its unmet need, of itself as need. And yet, Sedgwick explains, such shame is not an entirely “negative” affect. Rather, it helps the infant to experience her or himself as distinct from that caregiver, it helps, thereby, establish an identity. It helps the infant know that she is an “I,” distinct, even if regretfully so, from others. And at the same time it informs us of our need for social contact, and so it (painfully) instigates the process of rebuilding the social bridge.

When I was in elementary school, a Quaker school in Cambridge, we were taught not to compete. The principal (who kept little stones in his pockets to rub, stones he called “feelies”) didn’t believe that competition was good for children. And so, inevitably, we lost at soccer, at softball, and at hockey in every instance I can remember. Running for the soccer ball, my ten-year-old determination making dust fly, I kicked the ball with all my might, and missed. Standing at bat, giving the pitcher my best evil eye, the other team behind me hissing “easy out!” I swung at air. Then (and this was not the principal’s fault) the mean girls, let’s call them S, M, and K (Facebook friends now, all) invited me over (to my delight!), only to give me “walking, talking, and dressing school”—a particularly humiliating tutelage that I nonetheless submitted to.

These are mild moments of shaming (and there are others far more poignant, still too sharp to narrate), and yet they serve as example enough of how moments of failure and its accompanying embarrassment, moments of rejection from a social sphere (athletes, cool girls), helped me to form some kind of “shape”—defensive for sure, but firm-ish for that reason.

Edwin Torres writes of “skirting around a traumatic event that occurred in [his] life recently, and then wondering if it’s worth discussing in an open forum like this,” asking “how to bring that personal narrative from out of the shadows into an abstract portrayal that writes your life while living it? How to hide the details while mining the impact?” His post, which is moving without being specific (perhaps more moving for that), reminds me of the strictures against the revealing of the self that (in some realms of poetry) have not yet been lifted, that continue to be re-inscribed. The effacement of the I: is it an ethics or a sham? Or a result of shame?

And yet, in acknowledging the desire to “hide” and “mine” at once, Edwin points (I think) to the productive nature of shame. Wincing with embarrassment, we find a “way out,” and that way out is, I believe, the making of an art, a structure, a style.

Tomorrow in Boulder 31 scholars, writers, and other artists will be converging to talk about, perform, argue over the “Shape of the I,” which is the name of the conference I am organizing with my colleague John-Michael Rivera, as well as the title of the double volume of ELN (English Language Notes) that we edited. Poets who will soon be participating: Andy Fitch, Noah Eli Gordon, Bhanu Kapil, Karla Kelsey, Petra Kuppers, Danielle Pafunda, Vanessa Place, Margaret Ronda, Mathias Svalina, Brian Teare (for a list of other participants, see the schedule here).

While we were writing our introduction to the first volume I began to think that the title of the whole thing was wrong—that the I has no shape, for it is a movement, an energy, a directionality, or a zone. But when I think about shame, which Sedgwick called “the affect that most defines the space where a sense of self will develop,” I think how the need to protect the self (against attacks or rejections real or imagined) creates boundaries, helps us to distinguish (as Sedgwick puts it) between figure and ground.

And so, dear Rachel, dear Rodrigo, perhaps I was wrong to say I didn’t believe in types. For perhaps the type of poet we choose to become (or have no way of not becoming), that performance, that stance, is finally a courageous, positive, and even powerful response to shame.

More on the Shape of the I conference next week.

Image by Lisa Ciccarello

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 12th, 2012 by Julie Carr.