Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Taking poetry (too?) serioulsy

Poetry group last night brought up a lot of issues in my mind, some unsettling, some just open. Unlike most of our meetings in the past year, last night was all business (which after an almost 45 minute ride there and not being able to find parking, was OK with me, I suppose. . .) but I did miss the nitty-gritty poetry issues that we often discuss before workshopping. They seemed to insert themselves, somewhat, into discussion anyway. The first poem to be workshopped was a whopper, a single spaced prose poem, tight font, which covered an entire page. For me, this is an intimidating and daunting prospect- to read a poem of this magnitude and respond in five minutes or less is outside of my comfort zone. When faced with poems, especially of this magnitude, I need to THINK about them. Let them sink in and experience them. So I suggested that in the future, maybe we could post longer pieces on the blog page I set up for the workshop with a few hours to spare so those of us who are "a little slow" and pensive can have time to ingest it. The poet in question responded by saying that in the spirit of Dan Flavin (an artist who was discussed moments earlier) she was OK with an instantaneous response because the average time a museum-goer spends looking at a piece of art is something like 15 seconds. This is the kind of response she wanted to her poem. So we gave her poem the alloted 15 seconds and moved on Flavin-style through the rest of the night, workshopping 4 poems in about 1 1/2 hours (total actual workshopping time).

The more I think about this approach, the more I realize that I'm not OK with it. Maybe it's the poetry-idealist in me that thinks this art of poetry deserves a serious looking-at, that this is a serious art even if we want to trivialize it as a sort of "statement," aka "I hate Poets, capital 'P.'" I decided a long time ago to dedicate a large portion of my life and energy to this thing that has, in a sense, become my religion (hey, something had to fill the void and I've never been into drugs or heavy drinking. . .). And now, the time I spend with poetry has taken on a whole new meaning-- the time I spend with poetry is time I don't spend with my son, so I can't help but treat it as a serious subject. Maybe I do take it too seriously, but for me, that's the only way to take it. It's the only way I can see myself ever getting some major publications and eventually getting a book out so I can teach somewhere in Colorado close to where we'll be living. So when a poem is put in front of me, I want to take it serioulsy and give it the attention I think it deserves, which is more than 15 seconds.

And by the by, I do think it is possible to give a good response to a poem in 25 minutes or so even if you haven't read it before, but the longer and/or more complicated pieces , in my mind, do require more time.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe nothing any more is sacred in this world of soundbytes and headlines. Maybe the average reader only allots 60 seconds to the reading of a poem. But for me, poetry is a retreat from that quick and flashy synapse-triggering, migrane-inducing clip of the chaotic everyday life. It's a slow-down, a sacred space. And while I prescribe to a lot of post-modern idea(l)s, I hold this as a truth, which may make me a Poet, but I guess I'm OK with that. I'm OK with taking myself and poetry serioulsy, because if I don't take myself seriously, who else is going to take me serioulsy?


Tony said...

Ah. No need to go defensive.

I guess, the problem with taking things out of context is that you remove the context.

I find tautology a useful rhetorical device.

My statement, that "I hate poets, with a capital P" is not an attempt to trivialize "seriousness" in poetry. Anyone who knows me--really knows me, not just peope who read my blog and jump to conclusions--knows that I am more serious about poetry than anything else.

What I object to is poets who let their egos get in the way of poetry. Not just their own poetry, but poetry in general. Poets who don't realize that we don't need to trivialize poetry--our culture has already done that for us. However, we don't need to don a tiara and prance about like we own the fuckin' joint. We don't. If anything, we should be humble.

In the grand scheme of things, allotting a few seconds to someone's poem rather than 25 minutes or more, isn't going to make a difference in anything--if the poet requests a quicker, rather than a more thoughtful response, you should let her have it. What's wrong with respecting one's wishes?

Well, I'll answer that. It might make one appear less-than-serious. I have issues with the word "serious" when it involves keeping up appearances more than meaning something like "a committed interest in X." Or when it means, "somber" or "genteel."

Poetry will survive without us. It's like a glacier. Worrying about "seriousness" in poetry seems to me akin to worrying about glaciers or volcanoes. They exist, they'll be there, and they'll do their work (or lay dormant) no matter what we puny humans think of them.

In conclusion, I say, "Down with poetry!"

Justin Evans said...

My friend and mentor, Dave Lee, has said for as long as I have known him, "Poetry is my religion." Own that phrase. It is certainly within your rights to consider it among the sacred things in your life.

brandijay said...


You guys are really making me feel so much better about myself... I really think of poetry as my religion as well although I've never even come close to saying that out loud... it's so nice to know that other people do think/feel this way! Thanks for being so brutally honest :)

brandijay said...

But also, (I should have said this earlier) I think that maybe it was the suggestion to publish the poems we're workshopping on the group blog that was the problem? That's something that I wouldn't be comfortable with either. Maybe we should suggest e-mailing longer poems as a compromise? Just a thought...

poetzie said...

I guess I'm not being clear, but what else is new. I am happily aligned with the statement "I dislike poetry, capital "P"" because Poetry priveleges things, like an omnipotent, first person narrator who often tries to make statements for the entire world or aggrandize stupid poetic moments usually having to do with fishponds or dead deer. And Tony, you didn't say that- whoever you were conversing with did. I included the link to give context (aka read the conversation for themselves) so as not to take it out of context. . .gotta love the web. I wanted to put the link not because I was accusing you of not being serious but because what that conversation was doing seemed very akin to the situation I was in last night that I still haven't fully come to terms with. There were some other statements about not wanting to think about difficult things but instead drink a lot and dance and just have a good time, which is great in theory, but being a poet for ME has nothing to do with those things. I also recall an earlier blog entry of yours that says something about hating poets who take themselves too seriously and it struck a nerve even then. But knowing what you mean by "serious" helps.

Interestingly enough (and, again, what else is new?) I think we are speaking exactly the same language but using different definitions for the same word. To me, sincerity and seriousness are two very similar if not slightly synonymous things, at least the way I'm using the word serious. I'm embracing the notion of seriousness while you seem to be rejecting a different form of it, the over serious, self riteous, egotistical version, which I agree with.

I'm constantly trying to find the balance between humble and confident, which seems an essential balance to be grounded in the poetry world.

I wonder how much of my reaction to this situation has to do with being a teacher of poetry, not only the appreciation of but the craft/writing of, so I'm not ready to let go of some paradigm that surrounds the "sanctity" of poetry, even though my own poetry constantly seems to be assulting it! I'm not sure. Without Poetry, capital "P", there is nothing in the world for me to do because there is nothing for me to teach. . .maybe that's why I take it so serioulsy. It's a survival mechanism.

poetzie said...

Oh, and I've met David Lee- he is one of the coolest people/poets I've ever met. I met him at a Sigma Tau Delta conference and I started balling at his reading- sitting in the front row, nonetheless. He is the epitome of a wonderful poet who has found an amazing balance between ego and success. He really was an amazing guy. Justin, you're lucky to have him as a mentor!

Tony said...


Thanks for clarifying. I guess I should clarify. I AGREE with the "other person" quoted on my blog. I WOULD rather dance, sing, drink, eat, even run a marathon, than immerse myself in poetry.

But poetry won't leave me alone. I've tried to give it the slip. So I finally gave in.

Poetry, for me anyway, is inseperable from "life." Dancing and drinking and eating and poetry are all parts of life. I don't want to take poetry and rarify it...I want it to be useful to me and others.

The notion that one should treat poetry as a career, and to be "serious" about it in that way is disturbing to me. One should write poetry because one HAS to, not because one wants a job!

But I know it's more complicated than that...


Penultimatina said...

Y'all re: publishing CWPW poems on the blog...I'd proceed with caution. Not because they'll fall into the "poetry black market," but because more and more journals these days are considering that to be the equivalent of journal publication; i.e. magazines may not be able to take the poems. There was a really interesting thread about this on WOMPO recently--you may want to check the archives (there's a link on my blog).

Re: instantaneous response workshopping, there are only a few people whose work I can respond to immediately on an aesthetic level of really getting it. I can respond to most poems as an editor. However, to me the best workshops are ones where you really connect with the poems, and they move you and make you want to write. I've had my best experiences when I learned more about my poems by sharing them with others, and vice versa. There's a big difference between suggesting line breaks and coming to major, earth-shattering conclusions about the characters in your entire oeuvre.

That said, I also really appreciate it when my best poet friends and readers can look at a poem, tell me what's problematic, and then let me deal with it. There are so few people who can give me the bullet AND also understand what the hell the poem is saying.

Mackenzie, I remember that workshop at Erika's last summer, and thinking Holy shit! Mackenzie totally gets this poem, and I totally get her poem, and nobody else really does. Good workshopping reminds us that we are indeed saying something.

Penultimatina said...

Here's a link to that WOMPO thread on blogs/publishing


It's #154, Publishing on a Blog. Interesting questions.

poetzie said...

It occurs to me now that there is a difference between taking POETRY seriously and taking one's SELF as a poet too seriously. A distinction that seems necessary in this conversation, no?