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Whacked Out: A Case for the Advocacy of the Unlisted
[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Amy King’s “Wings of Desire” appears in the January 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]
I’ve loved poetry since I discovered Gertrude Stein in my first year of college. I didn’t know the poetry world would be such a hotbed of politics. I couldn’t predict that being a poet would make the list of most competitive jobs, ranked at the top with athletes and choreographers. I only initially experienced the pleasure of having the top of my head taken off whenever I read aloud from A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein to my friends on the phone to annoy them. Until one day I finally admitted that I was infatuated with her words gone wrong and was spreading that love with the gusto of a convert. I had found god, and she was literary.
While I thought I was confounding my friends with Stein’s poems and portraits, it was her disruptive influence on every certainty I knew, on the very foundation of a language that purported to be the bedrock of reality that won me. Her work betrayed that reality to be malleable, constructed by each speaker; I realized that I could make my own speakers who say things apart from what I’d been taught. Stein was a wrecking ball. I wanted my world undone in the worst way, and she brought the tools for the job.
Don’t get me wrong, I was formally introduced to poetry in high school but wrote short stories. I even won a Baltimore Artscape contest judged by Lucille Clifton. Though I was intrigued, that still didn’t turn me to poetry. After Stein, I was in. I proceeded through my college career reading many of the American greats, but found myself mostly uncharged, a scholar, into my studies with a few of the Language poets during my SUNY Buffalo grad days. It wasn’t until later Brooklyn College days when I encountered poets like Wislawa Szymborska, César Vallejo, Tomaž Šalamun, Unica Zurn, among others, that my first sparks from Stein began to flame on. In their work, I discovered multivalence, the irregularity of life’s rhythms, plurality, and content I had not ever considered poetic. In short, I met the place where art and life converge and began to feel—not just intellectually consider—the potential burn poetry could bring to a person’s entirety, psyche included. This “foreign” poetry was about living, conceiving, and feeling in invigorating and consciousness-inducing ways with words that wreaked havoc on my drive for first-world securities and manufactured defenses against mortality. Only upon those introductions did I begin to understand just how nationalistic and provincial my formal poetry perch had been. I began to hunger. I’m still starving. I worry about the diets of my fellow poets and students now, too.
Most of us, I think, are exposed to smalls swaths cut from the vastness of poetry, focused on our own shores, but that is a betrayal created by a myopic education system and the mentality of “best of” lists and ranking systems we’re expected to fight through for recognition. When I see “Best of” in a title, I ask, “Best for what?” On the surface, ours is a misguided view of what poetry can be, what it can do. There is an American poetry spectrum that seems to be pinned on either end by notions of “accessibility” and “obscurity” or “mainstream” and “avant-garde.” Even our two major critics, Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, are considered coach-advocates for those camps. Such western concepts mislead with their dichotomous proclivities and really only serve the business end of poetry relegated to the creation of anthologies, book promotion and sales, distribution of reading funds and platforms, academic job descriptions and canon-making syllabi. They obscure what poetry does in the world, to and for people, and how poetry broadens and deepens perspectives as lenses we are born to, craft from, and process through.
Let me simplify further. Poetry can do the mundane as easily as math can perform basic calculations. But math only really gets interesting–gets called a language–when it reaches levels of complexity through exploration of and into uncertainties. The speed bump of accessibility in poetry promises simplicity and promotes a standstill. Just as I tell my students to find and read literature that has nothing to do with themselves, especially the work they think they can’t “relate” to, I want poetry to carry me far beyond the roots and limits of my vision, views and concepts my current American comfort and circumstance prohibit. Mine is not a singular call for a political poetry that mobilizes and moves the masses to action—though that has its place—but is a hope for access to and advocacy of poetries off the map of our imaginary spectrum. As Stein had her way with me, poetry can dislodge us from the ruts that the mainstream or popular media numb us into and can even persuade us against striving for capitalist rewards as a means to identity and security. More specifically, poets speaking in ways we are unaccustomed to might jolt us from our media conditioned neural pathways and cause us to think in an uncomfortably fresh fashion—even just an image or idea beyond our scope can jar us. With enough jolts and jumps, perhaps we poets might topple the American-centric applecart we ride to our deaths.
Why else might we look elsewhere? What is it about our current economic and political climate that compels me to look outside of the familiar poetry I could easily relax in for the remainder of my life? Partly, adhering to America’s status quo mentality seems to be a restrictive mindset that resembles clinging to the railings of a sinking ship because we think some part of it still might rise again into buoyant prosperity and save us. Sure I could read and write verse that I’ve been taught to process in all the proper elegiac and epiphanic ways, but to what effect? The more work I find that does not reflect standards of normalcy, of comfortable conformity and similar pursuits, the more undone from it I can become. I don’t think limiting myself to the “best of” American poets lists or touting the latest anthology inclusion will provide the exposure I need to dislodge and disturb a lifetime of status quo conditioning. And in a country that values so much inequality and greed without accountability, I desperately need to dislodge.
Further, in a climate that undermines at every turn the work of women through the conventional status quo gimmicks, how can I envision otherwise as a feminist if I don’t look elsewhere for unusual poetry that conceives beyond our conventions? That is, even in the so-called marginal world of poetry, women poets, including all stripes and vocalities, continue to be marketed through the reductive feminine, invited according to looks or spoken of in terms of motherhood status or quarantined by gender. Poetry written from foreign perspectives may offer clues on how to combat and see otherwise apart from this trend. It may not give me a reactive formula, but it may be the wedge that will inform my own work to act as a fulcrum and move that world ever so slightly off its axis. For example, Vallejo knew what it was to have his body threatened, to live under threat and escape persecution in Peru to impoverishment in Paris and depression. His poetry has informed me immensely about the connectivity of the body to the political, of love to lament, and on the ways in which syntax and attention to minutiae can destabilize notions of grandeur and what’s to be given primacy in life. For starters. I owe this poet of not great repute in this country immense gratitude. What poets of “other” status have not made their way onto U.S. syllabi and “best of” reading lists? Who have I not read? What other poets of the world are missing and why?
NOTES TO SELF
- Stop giving a shit that other poets aren’t writing poems the way you prefer and are more popular for it (unless they’re shitting on you and others in the process; then feel free to call attention to their abuse). Attention will not make you a great poet. Whitman, Dickinson, and Stein knew obscurity well. Also notice how value is often closely aligned and spoken of in terms of capitalist rhetoric. Avoid the pitfalls of shooting for “most popular poet” vis-à-vis most votes for and “best of” lists. We’re not in high school anymore.
- Bear in mind that poetry isn’t a law-abiding endeavor like driving, reliant on communal adherence to prevent accidents. As my students say, “You do you” and freely disobey any ground rules. Write the poetry you want to write, no matter who decrees the going rate of poetry exchange.
- Consider the limitations of the page and explore various mediums of dissemination at your disposal if you have the inclination and time. We have ways of getting the word out now that we didn’t have before the advent of the Internet (i.e. print on demand, memes, videos, social media networks, etc).
- “Death be not proud.” We’re dying daily; accept each opportunity to share your work. I was once invited to be one of two poets at a mostly musical act benefit in a little town in Massachusetts with a couple hundred locals in attendance. I thought my poetry, which has never been accused of being accessible (see “Wings of Desire” in this month’s issue of Poetry) would freak their freak, and I’d meet a wall of silence at least. At the after party, many recited my own lines back to me and wanted more. I had undone something in productive ways; they were actively engaged because of the unexpected I brought.
- The lens we each look and process through is a subjective one constructed by our own histories, experiences, and traditions. Seek poets from other countries, including those who have lived under some sort of regime; this may shed light on our own downward spiral into economic depravity and what that might mean.
Let’s write a poetry that surprises locals and disseminate it broadly. You never know when you might be Gertrude Stein or César Vallejo to that twenty-something college kid or the eavesdropping interloper at a bar who only knows poetry as a high school reading of “The Road Not Taken.” Give them the underpass, a side road, the skyway instead, whether through your own work or as the rogue inclusion on an Intro to Literature syllabus. The unlisted Other is the limit, if we look hard enough.