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Sometimes it is Just Boring
Here is, I think, what might be a hard truth: Some people are more interesting than other people. I think poets understand this. It is why we extol the value of craft. We propose that the genius of a great poet is to turn the ordinary (meaning the dull, mundane and frankly uninteresting) into something quite interesting through the genius use of language–craft. I tell workshop attendees this all the time. What I am trying to tell them is that if they learn to master the craft, no matter how dull and uninteresting they are, they can write poems that we will all be interested in. While I am saying these things, I genuinely believe them, but sometimes, like now, I have to admit that dull lives often produce dull poetry. And, the argument goes, interesting lives often produce interesting poetry. Here is the problem with this proposition.
In a secular world in which we are appalled by the very notion that fate or some accident of existence can determine who we are; in a world in which we are affronted by the thought that it may be possible that we are doomed to dullness simply because of when we were born and who brought us into the world, this thought that perhaps some people have just been blessed with having something interesting to say because of their circumstances seems deeply unfair. Not just unfair, but something we must resist. You know what I am talking about. How often have you said of some poet or writer, “Yeah, they are getting all that attention because they have seen some horrible tragedy in their life, has nothing to do with the writing.”? And, perhaps some of us have wished we were adopted by chipmunks so we could write about the trauma of that experience. If a reader of your work–some professor type–has said to you, “You know, what you need to do is live, travel, experience live and then you will have something to write about,” you know what they are saying to you, right? They are saying you are boring. They are saying your work is very, very boring. You see, in this highly democratic world of entitlement, we have been convinced that everyone is interesting and that everyone has a memoir in them. How terrible would it be to suggest that the reason why eighty to ninety percent of MFA graduates do not go on to have what one might call careers as writers is because they are people who have had dull lives? Not just unfair, but simply un-American. But even worse, that statement would suggest that subject matter and the personal experience of the writer is as critical to the work produced as person’s capacity to “write well”. So I won’t say that.
I won’t say that because I suspect I don’t fully believe that. Here is what I do believe. I believe that if you are boring and dull, you better see things in a not so boring and dull way. You better have the capacity to process and retell experience in a way that is strange, odd, and fresh. Essentially, you have to have the uncanny capacity to seem like someone who is actually fascinating (even if you are not). This skill has everything to do with the imagination. But it has a lot to do with how you see the world. I believe that writing is about seeing into things, as my friend Colin Channer likes to say. But those people who have to do a lot of seeing into stuff to be interesting are compensating, we must admit, for not having actually seen stuff. Of course, there is another route to being interesting which we have all attempted at some point, and it is by lying. Well, I mean making up stuff. That too is a great compensation and it is one that works really well. It works better for fiction and non-fiction writers than for poets, but it can be handy for poets as well. But again, we have to understand that what liars are doing is compensating for not having interesting lives. Those who have seen stuff are at some advantage. And even though folks in the writing world tend to not want to admit this, the rest of the world accepts this fully.
So here I will say something that we don’t like to say out loud. A lot of the poetry we are reading in new books, new journals, and on line, is dead boring. It is boring because the folks are writing about things that really are not interesting. I mean really interesting–stuff that makes us say, “Wow, I am being changed by what I am reading here!” Now as genuine and committed readers of verse, we have long practice of finding something interesting to think about even the most boring work in the world. That is the value of an undergraduate degree in English Literature (or even just a few courses in the subject). And I say this out of fatigue from trying to see into this work, something interesting or engaging. If this is all true, I don’t think the solution is that dull people who lack a capacity to lie or see into things should stop writing. In fact, I don’t think there should be a solution, because I don’t think this is a problem. Not at all. I just think it may be a good thing to be able to say that sometimes people who have lived interesting lives will produce interesting work because of it. And yes, while it is true that most interesting people who have lived fascinating lives can’t write about it (do I really have to explain that truism?), I think we are being a tad disingenuous when we snob the works of writers simply because they have had interesting lives.
There is no substitute for good writing. And by good writing, I mean craft–the capacity to translate thought, observation, emotion, and all of that into language that is compelling and engaging. As Charles Poore writing about V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street in 1960 wrote in the New York Times after testing out a few comparison in an attempt to lock down Miguel Street (he tried Twain’s tales and then Porgy and Bess unsuccessfully), he simply concluded: “What is true and, if you will, significant about Mr. Naipaul’s book is that it presents a world of its own excellently.” (The New York Times, May 5, 1960). Good writing, no question about it, is what makes the work standout. But having a rich life, having complex and challenging experiences, and having something to say about the world, these things count for a great a deal. Too much of what I am encountering is just plain old stuff, dull, boring and largely uninteresting. At some point, that kind of observation should be allowed in reviews and commentaries, shouldn’t it? I am just saying.
By the way, thanks to all those folks who pushed their faces in my face–really close (ahhhh! minty fresh) to say hello at AWP to compensate for my poor eyesight. And Wanda, only after reading your blog did I realize that it was you that i was seeing everywhere at AWP. I wish I had known that all along. Now I am sure that that zooming dreadlocked woman was you–hips and all.