The Inner Life in the Age of Social Media
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, June 1st, 2016. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Inner Life in the Age of Social Media. Jennifer Moxley is the author of several collections of poetry, and she teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine. Recently on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, several poets contributed to a series about how poets make money. Jennifer Moxley wrote about prize money for poets. I recently spoke to her about it, and then we got into some of her poems and a conversation about poets, privacy and competing social obligations. Jennifer, pretend for just one moment that we’ve never met and I don’t know anything about you, and I ask you, “So, what do you do?”
Jennifer Moxley: It depends on the circumstance. On an airplane, let’s say, I’d probably say “I’m a professor”.
Curtis Fox: So why don’t you say straight up that you’re a poet.
Jennifer Moxley: Well, depending on who you say that to, you’re inviting a series of questions that will follow that that are fairly predictable, and a lot of it is whether you’re willing to take that on, what kind of mood you’re in, if you feel like engaging. I think it’s partly because there’s so much social baggage around the word “poet”. Often the next question will be, “Do you publish?”
Curtis Fox: And you say, “Of course I publish”. Then do they ask about how do you make your money?
Jennifer Moxley: Sometimes, yeah. Also, there’s an assumption that’s commonly held that publishing connects to money. That assumption is patently false in poetry, and in much other literature. Very few people actually make money form published books, a tiny percentage. So that does come up, “How do you make your money?”, definitely.
Curtis Fox: As you wrote in your essay, your book, The Open Secret, was recently a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts prize, and it’s a $100,000 prize which is pretty big in the poetry world. And you didn’t win it, unfortunately, but before you knew that you didn’t win, you write that it made you very unhappy. Why did it make you unhappy, the fact that you were possibly going to win $100,000.
Jennifer Moxley: Well, what made me unhappy wasn’t the idea of the money but the idea of not getting the money once it was proposed that you might get it (LAUGHING). The sense that it became a possibility out of the blue that was so far from anything I ever thought would happen. It’s more the sense that someone proposes something and creates a desire in you that you didn’t have, and you feel manipulated by that creation. If you meet someone that is attractive and you might want to go out on a date with, and they say “I might call you”, that’s going to make you feel more miserable than if they just ignore you.
Curtis Fox: But you came out of the experience after you learned that you didn’t win feeling settled about it. Tell us about that.
Jennifer Moxley: Once it was over I just felt such a relief. The stress dissipated. I realized I was under such an enormous amount of stress waiting to hear, so it was so great when it was over and I can just feel like, thank god I can go back to the way I was before and just thinking about priorities that are more important for the artist, which is not the big chunk of money but what’s the next poem going to address, and how can I make the next poem embody the integrity that I feel all my poems should put forth.
Curtis Fox: Let’s get to the real reason for why you do what you do. It’s not the money. We have a handful of your poems up on the poetryfoudantion.org, I wanted to ask you to read “The Atrophy of the Private Life”. It’s a prose poem. Is there anything else that would be helpful to know about it before we hear it?
Jennifer Moxley: It’s part of a book called The Line which is a book of prose poems, and in some ways they are interconnected, so it’s always been a little strange that this one’s been pulled out as a separate object.
Curtis Fox: Well it works! Let’s hear it as a separate object. Here’s Jennifer Moxley reading “The Atrophy of Private Life”.
In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word “money,” but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as “meaning.” Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
Awareness, always awareness. Don’t you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for the eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.
Curtis Fox: Jennifer, the ending of that poem reminds me some how of Rilke’s poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” which ends “you must change your life”. Did that ever occur to you while you were writing this?
Jennifer Moxley: Yes.
Curtis Fox: It did, okay good. (LAUGHING) I wasn’t out to lunch.
Jennifer Moxley: It’s a conscious echo.
Curtis Fox: Wonderful. But it’s making a very interesting argument, I think this is the argument, that to write poetry, to cultivate that single new thought, you have to live in a way that cultivates a real interior life. Is that a fair way to summarize your argument there?
Jennifer Moxley: Yes, that’s a very eloquent way to summarize it.
Curtis Fox: The most telling line to me is saying that “It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line”. For a poet, the missing line would be the next line that one has to write. What is it for the rest of us?
Jennifer Moxley: The missing line?
Curtis Fox: Yes.
Jennifer Moxley: In this case, the line has two meanings in this book. One of them is the poetic line. The other one is a sense that there is a continuity between thoughts and between bodies, and that if we create too much static, we lose the sense of that continuity. There’s sort of a more metaphysical concept of the line. This is very much a book talking about poetry, but not exclusively. I think it also could be, at the risk of damaging the way the poem is thinking, the missing line could be the sense of purpose or meaning. The larger whole, the thing we’re reaching for in order to make sense of our lives.
Curtis Fox: I believe you wrote this poem probably before smartphones and social media completely took over our lives. What do you think? Do you think private life has been even further atrophied?
Jennifer Moxley: That would be a strong statement to make. I can say for me personally it’s been more of a challenge to keep some of the behaviours that I felt cultivated my private life alive. For example, I have a very rich correspondence through snail mail, and since social media, that’s become less frequent, more difficult for me to sit down and write a personal letter to people who I’m getting updates hourly as to their lives. Also, journal writing is another one that I’ve done since I was 12, and that’s very much a space of cultivating the interior for me. Again, business and the distractions of the way social life has become so much more present. I live in a very rural area that’s very isolated. So in between moving here and the advent of all that social media, there was this period of what felt like incredible isolation, which was great for cultivating the interior life. I worry about it, I think it takes a different set of strategies to make sure the interior life can be cultivated. I’ve noticed that some of the younger people who I engage with as a teacher, when we talk about where they get their ideas for poems, they’ll often refer to moments when they’re in the shower.
Curtis Fox: The one place where you can’t bring a smartphone.
Jennifer Moxley: Exactly, so I’m like, it’s still a good place to think because they haven’t made these waterproof yet. Although I just saw an add for a Samsung phone where someone was pouring a bottle of champagne on it because it’s waterproof. So maybe you will be able to check your Facebook in the shower and you won’t be able to think of a poem.
Curtis Fox: And it’s coming the subways in New York City too, internet access.
Jennifer Moxley: That’s right, that’s right.
Curtis Fox: It seems to me that there’s an important role for poetry here, because poetry can remind people that they do have an inner life that must be protected and cultivated in some way. Do you think poetry can provide something of a model for how to do that? Or help somebody create an interior life if they’re struggling with it?
Jennifer Moxley: Yes, absolutely. I completely agree with that statement. I actually think that’s one of poetry’s most vital roles right now in our culture. Others would argue that poetry still needs to have an outward looking voice, a politicized voice, I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I do think there are other ways to have an outward facing politicized voice; through journalism, pop music. Other forms of media can capture that voice. But the interior life, poetry is uniquely qualified to help maintain. So I do think it’s one of the things that poetry could do now that other forms of expression aren’t as good at.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear another poem of yours that’s up on poetryfoundation.org. This one is called “Dividend of the Social Opt Out”, and similar thematically I think. I don’t think this one needs an introduction, but is there something you’d like us to know about it before we read it?
Jennifer Moxley: No, I think I’ll just read it.
Curtis Fox: Go ahead.
Jennifer Moxley: Dividend of the Social Opt Out
How lovely it is not to go. To suddenly take ill.
Not seriously ill, just a little under the weather.
To feel slightly peaked, indisposed. Plagued by
a vague ache, or a slight inexplicable chill.
Perhaps such pleasures are denied
to those who never feel obliged. If there are such.
How pleasant to convey your regrets. To feel sincerely
sorry, but secretly pleased to send them on their way
without you. To entrust your good wishes to others.
To spare the equivocal its inevitable rise.
How nice not to hope that something will happen,
but to lie on the couch with a book, hoping that
nothing will. To hear the wood creak and to think.
It is lovely to stay without wanting to leave.
How delicious not to care how you look,
clean and uncombed in the sheets. To sip
brisk mineral water, to take small bites
off crisp Saltines. To leave some on the plate.
To fear no repercussions. Nor dodge
the unkind person you bug.
Even the caretaker has gone to the party.
If you want something you will have to
get it yourself. The blue of the room seduces.
The cars of the occupied sound the wet road.
You indulge in a moment of sadness, make
a frown at the notion you won't be missed.
This is what it is. You have opted to be
forgotten so that your thoughts might live.
Curtis Fox: So again Jennifer, this is a poem about protecting a private space from a social space in order to have a richer inner life.
Jennifer Moxley: That’s true, I hadn’t thought of those two poems together but they’re very thematically connected.
Curtis Fox: They really are. This is a different kind of assault, it’s not the assault of the media and magazines but it’s the assault of a social engagement that you kind of want to go to but not that much.
Jennifer Moxley: Right, and this poem I have gotten so much feedback from people.
Curtis Fox: Really?
Jennifer Moxley: I think more people have spoken to me out of the blue about this poem than any poem I’ve ever written.
Curtis Fox: Why do you suppose? Because they can totally identify with that?
Jennifer Moxley: Exactly. They feel completely connected to the desire. Especially women I have to say, older women who have obligations and children have come up to me and said that they very much connect to the poem. People have actually written me out of the blue.
Curtis Fox: That’s great. I feel very much connected with that poem when I think about when my family goes away with my children and I’m home alone and don’t have any obligations. It’s just unbelievably great. I’ll have to cut that out I think. There’s great pathos at the end of the poem. You’ve opted to be forgotten so that your thoughts might live. There’s pangs of regret, you kind of want to be in the mix, but you don’t in order to preserve your own private life.
Jennifer Moxley: Yes, that’s very much true personally, but there’s a way in which professionally and vocationally there’s a sense that if you’re not constantly putting yourself out there, you’ll be forgotten. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but that’s definitely a message of our time.
Curtis Fox: It feels like social media puts a special pressure on us that way. I think within professional networks as well, if you’re not out there constantly on the hustings promoting yourself, you can feel forgotten as well. Do you remember what you were skipping out on? Is this based on a real experience? Can you reveal?
Jennifer Moxley:(LAUGHING) Do I remember what I was skipping out on? It could’ve been any number of things. I know it was based on a real experience because I’ve had this experience many times. I think for me the line where it says “those who never feel obliged” is very meaningful, because it’s hard for me to say, “This doesn’t interest me, I’m not going to go”. If I’ve been invited, I feel an obligation to go and show up and be present. I think that’s a gendered feeling as well.
Curtis Fox: You think men blow things off more cavalierly?
Jennifer Moxley: I do. Not all men. But I think they are better socialized to say, “My work is more important than this dinner engagement”, and everyone will understand that. I think that’s something that I’ve struggled with sometimes to make space for your own writing and your own work, and say to the people that you love, “I don’t have time for you”. It feels like a social challenge for me, it has been over the years. I’m getting better at it.
Curtis Fox: To me it sounds like you bowed out of a faculty picnic or something.
Jennifer Moxley:(LAUGHING) It could be.
Curtis Fox: Jennifer Moxley, thanks so much.
Jennifer Moxley: Thank you Curtis.
Curtis Fox: Jennifer’s essay on poetry and money and other essays on the subject by other poets are up on poetryfoundation.org in the Harriet blog. You can also read more poems by Jennifer Moxley on our website or in one of her books. Her latest is Open Secret from Flood Editions. Let us know what you think of this podcast, where our motto is
Jennifer Moxley: … How lovely it is, not to go.
Curtis Fox: Email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.