A "poetry blog" post that is actually about "poetry." (Mostly)

Today, on my way to the gym where I would be visualizing myself chased by brain-hungry zombies in order to run two miles, I tuned in to NPR for my brief drive. Amanda Hesser, author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century was the guest on The Diane Rehm Show discussing the process she went through to edit and compile her cookbook.

It was an interesting lens through which to consider poetic accessibility, I thought, and my brain immediately starting noodling around in those concepts as they spoke.

Possibly we’ve talked accessibility to death. I get that. I feel that in a lot of ways. But I want to follow this thread and see where I end up when using this cooking ideology as a crutch.

Hesser describes her cookbook as “not like an academic book in any way; it’s really a useful cookbook.” (Italics mine) Here is the beginning of a values divide. On one side, we have utility; on the other side, academe. Since the cookbook is unlike an academic book in any way, we can also phrase this by saying academic books are not useful.

Is poetry useful? Yes. As many of us know, Americans gravitate toward poetry at specific times: to commemorate an event, to celebrate an experience, to understand their emotions. The most popular form of poetry is the greeting card. This is also the most commercial and best selling form. It is entirely accessible; in fact, it’s only goal is to transmit meaning. The desire to be artful is often secondary, or even less important than that; perhaps we’d say the desire to be visually artful would be a primary or secondary goal.

But we don’t really consider greeting cards to be poetry. Perhaps they are simply “poetic.”

When I tuned in, Ms. Hesser was discussing the idea of “accessibility” in her cookbook. Hesser noted that the New York Times has sought to publish and promote recipes that are “accessible” to American cooks of all stripes. A listener had just called in to take her to task on this concept, citing recipes in the New York Times that required exotic ingredients unlikely to be found in various non-New York cities around the country.

This, the listener claimed, was not accessibility, but a means to limit participation in the cooking.

Does inaccessible (or, perhaps, “differently accessible”) poetry divide and conquer American readers in a similar way? Does it ask us for things—knowledge of specialized facts, familiarity with artistic traditions or methods, literary expertise—that the general public either don’t have or can’t get?

Do our readers in Indianapolis struggle to understand the purpose of syllabics? Do Kentuckians shrug their shoulders over prosody? Does alliteration make Alaskans altogether up-in-arms?

The idea of there being an exotic ingredient that is both essential and unavailable is such an interesting concept to me. It also brings up the question of what the purpose of this art form is. The obvious purpose of cooking is nutrition—let’s consider that to be like poetry’s ability to communicate information through language, which the brain digests as the body digests ingredients.

But anyone who’s eaten well knows that food has an emotional component as well—“comfort food” can transport us through time (like the lyric?) and build both physical and emotional sensations in us. I think we agree that good poetry (not all poetry) does this as well. Some poetry simply nourishes us; other poetry builds a response on an additional level.

We obviously don’t need cooking to survive. Many foods can be eaten in a raw or unchanged state. But it wouldn’t be enjoyable that way. Langauge, too, needs no poetry, but we appreciate poetry because it uses language in a way that pleases us emotionally and aesthetically while fulfilling our basic human needs.

Aesthetically, cooking takes into account taste and smell, certainly, but also the concepts of presentation, plating, portion. As these are fairly external concepts that don’t directly contribute to the purpose of cooking (to the nutritional value), but that are essential to the overall impact and meaning of the dish. Perhaps this is like form—how much poetry we serve to our readers, what adornments we give it.

Accessible cooking probably relies on common ingredients—the onion, for example, is probably the most accessible ingredient in cooking. There’s very little you can cook (aside from deserts…which are light verse?) without the onion. It is required of the cook to build flavors in most cuisines and dishes. And because language has common phrases, words (clichés?), it too relies on the accessible aspects of it to build basic meaning.

Exotic ingredients….? I’m back to that. Ingredients available to some, not to others. I face this problem often when I cook, since all DC grocery stores are one step up from a dollar store. I often can’t engage with dishes I want to cook because I don’t have access to the necessary ingredients and can’t make an appropriate substitution. Suddenly, those dishes—those flavors, those processes—are kept from me.

The early Modernists were a lot like gourmet cooks. Their ingredients were facts, figures, quotes, mythological allusions, etc. Their purposes was to build a poetry that encased the world’s great knowledge in artful garments. If you were an informed reader, this was amazeballs. If you were a gas station attendant with an 8th-grade education, you probably weren’t reading a lot of Eliot and, if you were, you weren’t enjoying all the flavors of the dish.

But then again, I’m not sure Pound et al were very concerned about having a wide reach for their work. They were more interested in cooking for their choir, to mix metaphors.

Accessibility relies on shared resources. But how do we draw lines between using highly shared resources (like cliché) and highly specialized resources (like invented syntax, grammar, obscure or non-narrativity)? One democratizes the art form; the other reserves it. One widens the readership; the other narrows it.

Of course, not all poetry is inaccessible. Accessible poetry certainly takes care of itself and finds its own widening audience without much effort. It’s the other kind, the narrowed kind, that needs our help. How can we help these other traditions? How can we put delicious but strange poems in front of readers (eaters?) so that they will at least take a bite, see if they like it, stay for the whole meal?


On Evil, Or Bullies Do Not Know What They Are.

A couple weeks ago, I used a somewhat risky pedagogical tool to get my students thinking about political rhetoric and assignations of "good" and "evil" identities.

They were reading an essay by Edward Said that criticized another essay written in the wake of September 11 that divided the world into two spheres: "The West" and "Islam." Islam, the essayist wrote, was a war-mongering culture of extremists whose sole purpose in life was to destroy Western ideals of free enterprise, democracy, and blah blah blah. The West, it stood to reason, was a kind of Utopian ideal in which everyone was always happy and nobody was oppressed or harmed. I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

On the board, we made two lists: "The West" and "Islam." I asked the students to define qualities of The West--where it is, who it is, what kind of government it has, what kind of economy it has, and what its primary ideals were. Then I had them brainstorm the same ideas about Islam. Which they couldn't do, of course, because Islam is not a place; it is everywhere. It is American. It is elsewhere. It is us and not us. It is democratic and restrictive; it is oppressive and freeing. It cannot be limited to one facet of its being, just as the idea of "The West" really can't either.

At the end, I asked them to determine which was good and which was evil.

"The West is good," they said. "Islam is evil."

I was struck by how easily they a) participated in my false binary and b) decided an entire religion was evil. We talked about why Islam was considered evil by The West.

I explained to them how my colleague Jaime once shared an acting tenet with me that I've never forgotten. She said no character is truly evil, that all characters' actions are borne out of justification. I was reminded of a quote on a friend's Facebook page: "We judge others by actions and ourselves by intent."

It is easy to characterize actions as evil and we would like to believe that people who commit those acts are also evil. But it just isn't the case. No one--aside from, perhaps, a few psychotics, seek to commit evil. They commit acts of good--their justifications for their actions are never evil. Even Jack the Ripper was certain he was furthering the evolution of society by murdering prostitutes.

I said to the class, "So we can all agree that killing is always evil, right?" Yes, they said. Except one student who shook his head. "It's not evil when you're protecting yourself or your family," he said.

"When you've justified it," I said.

"Yes, but it's not evil then," he said.

And he was right. The act of protection is not evil, even if the act of killing is. Yet it is so difficult for us to assign this binary to the real world. Our enemies are always evil; our allies are always good. Even when our allies charge into countries and kill unarmed civilians, the act is not evil because the intent is not evil.

We are talking a lot about bullies these days, people whose actions are inspiring children to commit suicide out of fear and self-loathing. We understand the result of the bullying is something evil. We also insist that the bullying is not an act of good but an act of evil.

I doubt we have a generation of children running around finding joy in committing acts of evil, though. Don't they believe they are simply reinforcing the "good" in our society by bullying children who don't conform or fit in? Isn't this essentially a mechanism we would otherwise call "peer pressure" that encourages peers to just shut up and fit in?

When we call bullying evil, we aren't solving the problem. Bullies don't self-identify as such because they don't consider themselves to be doing anything wrong. It is very, very difficult for the human animal to subvert all its years of social conditioning, moral education, and legal understanding to commit an act of evil because it is evil.

We cannot address bullies as bullies. They do not know who they are.

They believe we are speaking to someone else.

And so, the bullying continues.

It is true that if we took a long, hard look at ourselves, we would all recognize the bully in us. We are all responsible for someone else's misery. We have all inflicted pain, misery, and shame on other people--usually without intending to do so, or without intending to do so much harm. We are simply reinforcing the order to which we ourselves conform. And one thing we truly do not value is difference.

We cannot stop bullying by decrying the bullies. We must change our relationship to the value of difference. We must teach our children to be self-reflective, but also to love themselves first.

We must teach all of our children.


Artistic Temperance

If you've stopped by this blog frequently enough, or perhaps even just once, you'll know that I have what I consider to be a healthy and lively obsession with Project Runway. This is somewhat odd because while I am a homosexual and therefore innately/magically sartorially gifted, I am also colorblind, pattern-averse, difficult to fit off the rack, and, above all else, cheap. However, none of these personal failings detract from my enjoyment of the weekly competition, and I look forward to its annual launch as eagerly as some men regard football or basketball season. I even have my own fantasy team! I am also so in tune with the judges' values that I'm able to predict, 95% of the time, who will be eliminated based solely on their critiques. (Their issues are, in order of decreasing seriousness, poor construction, lack of taste, misguided styling.)

I'm thinking a lot right now, both in my life and in regard to the show, about artistic temperaments. I'm looking at Gretchen with some intensity right now because this week Heidi chided her for her reluctance to accept criticism--a trait previously seen in some memorable finalists, including Kenley Collins, Santino Rice, Christian Siriano, and Jeffrey Sebelia.

It's not a ticket to Bryant Park/Lincoln Center, but it does seem to serve the contestants, that wall they have up. If you remember, Kenley flat out argued with Heidi and Michael Kors during her critiques, especially when it came to the yellow feathered wedding dress she brought to Fashion Week. Later, she threw a cat at her boyfriend. I don't think anyone was shocked. Except perhaps the boyfriend. And I guess that says a lot about him.

Each of those contestants was wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of self-importance, bordering on self-righteousness. In the competitive atmosphere of the show, that cocoon buffered them from the aspirations and competing interests of the other designers. It protected them from the fracturing feedback of the judges, which can reduce some designers to confused/unfocused blobs of fashion roadkill (Valerie, Christopher, Ivy). The feedback can, along with the sour grapes of other designers, cause the "weaker" contestants to second guess themselves, thereby diluting their artistic output.

I'll work this over to poetry in a minute. Just stay with me. The only person I know for sure is still reading is Suzanne Frischkorn.

The Kenelys, Santinos, and Gretchens are fortunate because their artistic vision is so resilient it cannot be diluted. They are, at the end of the day, cursed with their own selfhood. They cannot escape their point of view, and, in the two former cases, it's both what got them to Fashion Week and ascertained their loss. (Am I the only one who thought Santino's "Auf Wiedersehen" panties were waaaay off base?)

Several of the winners--exclusive of Jay, Irina, Christian and Jeffrey, who I'd categorize with those above--also have a commonality. Many of them were working for something external of the artform itself. Chloe, for example, owned a clothing store already and was a successful businessperson, but needed the win to take her business and her clientele to the next level. Leanne, otherwise mousy and quiet but extensively brilliant, was working both with fashion as an object and fashion as a theory--nearly every one of her outfits was based in a kind of object theory or object lesson. And Seth Aaron had his family, his commitment to them, pulling him through.

Chloe, Leanne, and Seth Aaron were all grounded artists, tethered back to a reality outside of fashion, while my earlier examples were all riddled with a bizarre selfishness and self-importance that allowed them to live fully, absolutely, inside their art. They had no context for fashion because they were only fashion.

The only true commonality, though, is that all of these designers are immensely talented. Just, some of them are less palatable people.

I've been thinking a lot about the poetry world in the last few months, partly spurred by my departure from my job, and partly due to interactions I've "witnessed" (or "overheard"?) on Facebook and blogs and the like. The poetry world no longer exists somewhere else, like at an AWP conference or on a campus. It comes into my living room as often as I allow it and, oftentimes, makes me feel sad.

I had a colleague who used to tell me, when I was bummed out about interpersonal drama in the workplace, to "zip into [my] thick skin." This always used to irk me to no end. But I'm an artist, I thought. Wearing my thick skin will take away the part of me that creates art. To some extent, I still believe this is true, but I also believe that I am the kind of person who, for whatever reason, will never really fit into a thick skin. I can pretend to wear it, and that I've done exceptionally well my entire life. But I will never really wear it. That is, it will never become a part of me.

I remind myself now, with the poetry world just a click away, how essential it is to ground myself in another world.

During grad school, my "other world" was the gay community. I was fortunate enough to have beautiful friends outside of my program to whom I could turn and not be a poet. They are still close to my heart, as are many of the writers I met during that time. But I was never fully dependent on either. I had a foot in either world, and this kept me grounded on either side.

I wonder now where my other place is. Certainly Beau keeps me grounded. Just this year alone, he's earned a sash full of merit badges for all the poetry events he's sat through. He may be able to recite most of my book from memory now. And my new teaching gigs are outside of that world, working with people who, in varying ways, are outside poetry looking in. That viewpoint is refreshing, revitalizing. It's a reminder that, away from the politicking and backbiting and simple mean-spiritedness, people still love this art. People still believe in this art. People still do this because they want to be closer to art. Not because they care about prizes or fellowships or residencies or reviews. Because poetry matters.

Maybe now the connection to the fashion industry isn't so oblique. If you want to know how catty fashionistas are, just ask Tim Gunn about Isaac Mizrahi. Or spend a while listening to Andre Leon Talley on America's Next Top Model. Or pop in The Devil Wears Prada.

I'm grateful, now and always, to the kind and supportive poets who keep my faith.

To the rest? All I can say is, in poetry, you're in one day and out the next.

It's only a matter of time.


Why Wonder

To all the people feeling shock and anger over the five suicides by bullied gay youth, I ask, "What took you so long?"

I also wonder where you have been. You've been thinking about other things. The media hasn't reported on suicides like this before, but that doesn't mean they haven't been happening. Talk to a well-adjusted adult gay person and you're probably talking to someone who, at some point in their adolescence, considered suicide. Perhaps he or she didn't act on the thoughts. Perhaps he or she made attempts, gestures, warnings. Perhaps he or she had close friends, trusted family members in whom he or she could confide these thoughts, fears, feelings. Likely not.

It seems like it should have been more likely in another decade. In the 1960s, when gay people appeared in a film, they experienced only torture and anguish until they, too, took their own lives. This didn't really change until Making Love appeared in the early 80s. But by then we had HIV/AIDS and everyone had new reasons to hate gay people, to want them quarantined in camps or simply exterminated.

Even as a (fairly) well-adjusted adult, it's unnerving to sit in my living room, zip onto the Internet, and encounter major news outlets engaging in debate over whether or not I deserve the same rights and privileges as people who are otherwise just like me.

Once, when I was about 13, my dad told a really offensive gay joke at dinner. A debate ensued in which he claimed homosexuality was wrong and that it said so in the Bible. I had never before seen my dad even glance at a religious text, much less read the Bible. And even then I knew that something about me was different. I let that night convince me that difference was wrong. Years later, my father would no longer resemble that man at dinner. He has blossomed into an amazing parent of a gay child.

Only because I afforded him that opportunity. Which I nearly didn't.

Now that I've reconnected with 90% of my high school on Facebook, I realize that the majority of people who knew me then have no idea the impact the constant bullying and teasing I suffered had on me. In fact, probably no one knew.

I spent my entire freshman year of high school looking for a place where people wouldn't find me. Every day when I sat in band, the kids behind me taunted me and taunted me to no end. I used to pray they would skip class. I used to pray no one else would point out it was happening. I had to ensure--every single day--that I was never alone, because as soon as I was cut off from everyone else, they would descend upon me and I knew I would be pushed deeper and deeper into hating myself. It was like being the captain of the Titanic, running around, trying to convince everyone else a disaster was certainly not afoot.

For a long time I resented everyone I grew up with. But I realized, after quite a long time, that nobody really knew the impact they were having on me. They were all going through their own shit, probably hoping nobody was seeing them suffer. I don't know what they were going through because I was hiding amid my own fear and shame.

Ask yourself now how many teenage suicides might be linked to this problem. Last month, more than five teenagers killed themselves because they were afraid they were gay or, worse, afraid someone would find out. America is doing this to its own children. And while the majority of Americans--I'm looking at you 50 Cent and Andrew Shervill--who hate gay people really only hate gay adults, we certainly can't bring ourselves to hate our gay children.

The funny thing is, you can't get to being me until you've been him.