Thursday, November 1, 2012

What You Can Learn From Real Poets

The Academy of American Poets hosts an annual Poets Forum that presents contemporary poets discussing poetry in all its forms and avenues.  I trekked to The New School in the rain via a one block walk from Penn Station to Penn Station and then the subway since the wind turned my umbrella inside out. 

The first panel was Poetry In The Age of Social Media presented by Ben Mirov, Timothy Donnelly, and Randall Mann.  What does that sound like to you?  To me, it meant poets would discuss in detail how the specific social media they use in their lives coincides with their writing lives.  Instead, this is what happened:

The first poet began to discuss overheard language and ephemera, which was quite interesting.  Then he explained how he knew a writer who could memorize lines in his own mind and how he himself had a hard time remembering more than one line and then spent the rest of his presentation discussing this act of depositing lines into your mind except for a few seconds at the end when he explained that Twitter and Facebook were good for this, too. 

Helpful?  No.  The last few seconds should have probably been the focus here.

The second poet gave a long story about how he was reading about bees.  He offered interesting facts about bees.  Then he explained that he found these facts--which were actually really cool facts--from reading the side bar of a magazine page from his child's magazine.  He explained that he knew this magazine was print media, but the same can be said for the internet.  He was basically saying that the internet is filled with information we can use for poetry.  This from the poet who rarely uses Facebook and does not have Twitter or Tumblr.  In fact, they all said, oh yeah we don't know Tumblr that well.

Helpful?  No.  We all know the internet offers information in the same way that, oh, let's say, every type of media does, and also, the internet is not social media.  Only parts of the internet are social media.

The third poet mentioned D. A. Powell's "Panic In The Year Zero" and discussed how some poetry blurs the lines of media because the poem mentions twitter, not Twitter, but using the word evokes two kinds of things.
Helpful?  Well, more than the other two, but really, no.

Thankfully, when the three of them were finished with their "presentations," they talked to each other, asked each other questions, and finally, some ideas about social media and poetry emerged.  They discussed how Twitter offers formal restriction to force relatively succinct thoughts and how you can follow different Twitterers to find new poems by old poets you know and new poets.  They discussed how writers, especially very young ones, begin to manage a personal brand through Twitter--and sometimes Facebook--and some create an ever-evolving online persona.  One then offered a list of people who were pretty cool to follow, includings a robo-Tweeter called ehorsebooks.  I followed the list and so far have unfollowed only one because he has a serious spelling issue--not the kind of spelling that is inventive for Twitter but the kind that says "I never took a typing class, never passed a spelling quiz, and I just don't care." 

Then came the Q&A.  That's when I spotted my writer friend from Jersey, LS, sitting in the front row.  I basically stared at  her the whole time during the Q&A because this is our favorite part of poetry events.  The Q&A is usually more like theatre of the absurd with very few questions and mostly awkward comments that confuse the presenters and poets, much to our delight.  However, since she was in the front row and she's not an asshole, I knew she would not be able to make the face and say the comments she would be hell bent on doing because everyone would see her do it.  I saw the twitching--I knew she wanted to as soon as the first woman approached the mic and started asking the poets--and I'm not kidding--about how to use the Promote This button that is new on FB.  So instead of asking about poetry and social media, she was asking them how to use Facebook.  Then she asked them to spell some of the names they had mentioned.  Then she asked again because she could not understand the names.  That meant the poets on the panel were sitting there for a good minute and a half slowly spelling out names since this woman was positive everyone in the audience needed this information and she was brave enough to ask.

Then, to top it off, she then went into how she was a poet for the environment and ranted about, well, I stopped listening because it was just really ridiculous and had nothing to do with anything.  She ended with something like What's a poet to do?  The men sat at their table and then one asked, That was rhetorical, right?  Because the Academy is not paying us enough to answer questions like that.

Then I thought--they got paid to do this?  Really?

After snarking back and forth with LS and catching up since we hadn't seen each other in almost two years, we geared up for the second panel: Anxiety of Audience: Who We Write For, Real and Imagined presented by Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins, and Brenda Shaughnessy.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this panel, but the title intrigued me.  I rarely think about audience when I write, so anything they said should have been new and interesting.  Thankfully, it was.

The first poet discussed Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence from which the panel title took its name.  Poets find themselves in a difficult spot needing to please and not be disdained by audience.  However, the audience doesn't really know what it's looking for until it finds what it wants so poets can't predict that.  She went on to discuss how poets say "I write for myself" and the "myself" is like an avatar (which has three meanings--one about a Hindu goddess and one about an alien-human hybrid!) and the avatar is a persona, not the poet, in the same way that the speaker is not the poet.  Not that the audience differentiates.  (I teach my 102 students that the poet and speaker are separate, but then the write papers that say William says as in William Carlos Williams, because, you know, they're on a first name basis).

The second poet discussed how the audience is a bunch of strangers and some poets like to road test their poems for different strangers to see what works and what doesn't as part of the writing process.  Two quotes arose: "I write for myself and for strangers" from Gertrude Stein, and "Praise to the face is open disgrace" from Hemingway.  (Incidentally, I just watched Midnight In Paris yesterday and now I'm in love with these quotes once more).  The poet went on to say that the best poets you know are your best audience.  Also, we should consider always who are we leaving out of the poem since every poem will not reach every person.  Language, culture, and poetry always exclude; variation leaves room for more inclusion.

The third poet discussed the need for feedback to see ourselves through the eyes of others.  She then said something that I've probably known subconsciously and was happy to hear someone say aloud: You become a different kind of writer when your parents die; you learn to shrug off the opinions of strangers.  That transitioned into a quick discussion of how all poems are love poems in which love is a life force; they carry the electricity of love and love becomes all verbs at once.  Now that's poetry.

Then came the bigger discussion that got even more interesting.  They discussed the tension between self-disclosure (like the confessional poets -- Plath, Sexton) and veiling through language wherein the veiling creates a type of persona.  Persona poems allow a veil to say thing things you want to say without it being the poet saying it because the persona poem shows that there is indeed a specific speaker at work other than the poet (even though some still don't recognize the two different entities).  Even ekphrastic poetry offers a veil because the artwork acts as a muse, so the thoughts come from some other place.

Mary Jo Bang then said this: Poetry is a kind of egomania.  Everyone has thoughts but poets write them down and want people to buy them.  Thank you, Mary Jo Bang; you are my new best friend.

They then went into a discussion about students of poetry.  They mistake obscurity for mystery which they think is good poetry.  Instead, we want intensity of a working mind and we should own our preoccupations and obsessions.  Ah, that made me feel so much better, allowing me to own my awkward.

Then there was a very technical poetic discussion of metaphor.  Poets don't need to put all the particulars into a poem, no need to open up secrets and traumas all at once.  The function of a metaphor is to bridge the gap between the writer and the reader.  Staying in abstraction is like keeping things hidden.  Metaphor creates a world of something to look at while the speaker talks.  Words themselves are metaphors; poems are metaphors, one-sided conversations.  The more senses we use in metaphors, the more of a chance we catch a connection with each other.

There was very little snarking between me and LS after that.  She informed me that she got a free book because she was a member of the academy.  Oooh, that sounds like something I should look into.  By that time, the tea and coffee had run out as had the complimentary cookies.  Then it was time for the final panel.

Elizabeth Alexander is the fourth poet in American history who was given an inaugural poem.  She was giving the Blarney Lecture entitled, Reconsidering Lucille Clifton.  I'm not a huge fan of Clifton mostly because I'm not very familiar with all her work.  I've read some of her collections and I teach a few of her poems.  This lecture made me want to revisit her work.  Fun fact: Clifton was at Howard at the same time as Morrison and Baraka.  How's that for a poetic powerhouse? 

The day ended with a long walk back to Penn since the rain had stopped.  I'd opted to leave before the awards ceremony because the break was too long and I'd learned enough.  The walk back was fun since I challenged myself with "How Can I Take Off My Sweater Without Taking Off My Coat?" and then "How Long Can I Keep My Coat On Before I Pass Out?"  When the rain left, the heat rose in the city and after the walk, I was pretty hot.  I got to the station just in time to get my train and head home all the while reviewing my notes and pumped to write again.  What I found in my scrap notes for possible poetic assembly: the enlarged heart; canticle; because there's a slit in my boot.  Now that's poetry.

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