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Public Poet, Private Life
In 2004, I started a blog, an act that has, to my great surprise and probably against all odds, made me a public poet.
The decision to blog was one of the easiest and most difficult decisions of my life. Easy in terms of the technology available: I went to Blogger, chose a name, signed up, chose a theme, drafted a post, all in less time than it took to finish my cup of coffee. All I had to do was hit “publish.” Which I did: no editors. No editorial apparatus. No assessment—at least not till much later when comments started trickling in.
A few days later I did it again, and then, overcome with that horror—of taking up public space, or speaking out—I left it idle for nearly a year.
The form of the blog was almost too liberating. Too exhilarating. I could do whatever I wanted. Say whatever I wanted. Particularly, at that point, because no one was listening. No one was reading. And there is great freedom in obscurity.
As I wrote in the introduction to Unleashed, a selection of posts from that blog edited by Kate Eichhorn and published by BookThug in 2009, there is nothing difficult about the fundamentals of blogging itself. Nor is there anything inherently difficult about taking up public space.
Except that it is terrifying.
When people—okay, mostly when women—tell me they don’t blog, don’t comment, or otherwise take up public space, the primary reasons they give are variations on the theme of “being changed.” How can we know how sharing our thoughts on a regular basis will change us?
And it’s true. To blog is to change mediums. It’s to change the act, the space, and pace of writing and publication as much as it is speaking out.
Every time we change the way we compose we are changing our relationship to our work. But I would argue that even when we change locations, or projects, never mind mediums, we are also rewiring our brain. It is partly technology, yes; at the time of my initial blog post in 2005 I was still adjusting to the fact of having Wi-Fi access on my laptop, never mind composing “in public.”
There was a time when I refused to compose poems on my little Mac Plus. I could transcribe, I could write “essays,” but not compose poems. And I swore I would never do revisions of essays, or of poems, on a computer because it was too easy: revision amounted to cutting and pasting, not rethinking or “re-envisioning,” which I take to mean starting over on a clean page. I remember all the anxiety about the space of writing. Trying to control what came in, what I saw, what was potentially influencing me.
I saw a vintage ad the other day calling for people to turn off the television and read a book, which reminded me of a quaint time when one could say, I don’t want a television in my house, and take the television out of the house.
There is no longer anywhere away from screens. As Marshall McLuhan predicted, instead of television most of us are glued to our screens, we carry them with us, and we can do everything from listen to the radio, pay bills, shop for shoes, book travel, talk to our friends, visit libraries, watch movies, and television, buy, sell, publish our work, and—sometimes—write our poems.
Now the space of composition has shifted to even more micro and mobile composition modes such as Twitter. Here the form is the sentence, the constraint, 140 characters or less. There are many excellent conceptual projects under way—Nick Montfort’s palindromes, Literary figure accounts such as Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Proust, and poets retweeting whole novels (Vanessa Place @VanessaPlace tweeting Gone With the Wind). There are also people beginning to post original poetry on Twitter (see Martha Jane Canary @CanaryCalamity, Liz Bachinsky @ebachinsky, and Matthew Tierney @hayflick). There are poets who do amazing mash-ups (Kim Kierkegaardashian @kimkiergaard) or astute social commentary (Teju Cole @tejucole).
My latest poems are being composed on Twitter. Now I have a word processing “app” on my iPhone and I write while I walk, which is often the only time I have. I save them to a cloud as I cross the street, taking a photograph of my feet on the curb. Was the Twitter composition a leak or a leap? Is this a public or private mode of composition? Discuss.
I should add that I no longer compose on my blog—Lemon Hound has served me well, but is no longer mine. Well, the old blogger version is, but it’s past tense. The new version, launched while the Public Poetics conference was happening in Sackville, NB, is as a literary journal with reviews, correspondents, and space for curators to work and gather archival materials related to visual art, poetry, and poetics, and will be written and maintained by many. I is finally, truly, a communal I. I is we.
Further, my partner, Danielle Bobker, gave this essay shape when I flagged at the conference deadline. We are rarely the single I. We are two I’s joined by the arms, if you can imagine the small I with its dot as an arm and hand reaching out. IiiI = W as in We.
As Kenny Goldsmith points out in Uncreative Writing, both Yoko Ono & Sol Lewitt suggest that “art should exist only in the mind.” To the extent that art helps shape our thinking, how we interact with the world. We ingest art. We are our thinking. Our thinking is art. Lucy Lippard wrote about this in Artforum: how her practice of social activism is closely aligned with her art practice. The poet Mary Burger is becoming a landscape designer. Many poets have similar folds between practices. For others—Jean Valentine, Kazim Ali—there is a mingling of prayer or meditation in their poetic practice. The performance artist Vito Acconci moved toward architecture because, he says, “something that starts private ends in private.” If one wants a poetry that is “public” one needs to begin in “public.”
We are what we do. Or, as Diana Brydon notes, we are where we think.
“If u don’t share u don’t exist,” Calgary poet derek beaulieu says. To the extent that the Internet can be said to be public, we are writing ourselves in this virtual space.
Not that to be interior is necessarily silent, but to not take part in the public world of poetry is, in effect, remaining silent. The poem is a bowl of silence composed in public.
If you never risk speaking in public, to a public, then you may feel safe in your practice, but you may also feel alone and anonymous and mute. You might also not have a critical voice. It’s like not voting. And if you don’t vote you’re a hypocrite to complain about the outcome. If you don’t like the paucity of women taking up critical public space and you yourself take no risk to speak out, you are part of the problem.
Postscript: Lemon Hound will post its last update sometime in the next two weeks. These excerpts are taken from Sina Queyras’s essay “Public Poet, Private Life: 20 Riffs on the Dream of a Communal Self,” published in Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics, out this month from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.