Come See our New Website

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Cluttered Mind: A Poet-Blogger Responds

Sandra Beasley, who blogs at Chicks Dig Poetry, responds to Darren Morris’ “The Taint of Celebrity” post below…

This is being typed from the front-window seat of the Crazy Mocha Coffee Company in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, at the exact same table that I occupied sixteen hours ago. There’s another cup of pecan coffee before me. The difference between then and now—before and after—is that my hair smells like smoke, my voice is hoarse, I’ve got $10 extra in my wallet, and my dwindling supply of Theories of Falling is down by four copies.

What was the transformative event in question? A Dadaist-inspired cabaret evening called “TypewriterGirls Gone Biblical”—featuring burlesque, magic tricks, sacrilegious skits, new fiction from Sherrie Flick, great poetry from Nancy Krygowski, and Exquisite Corpse-ing on a mint green typewriter. Not to mention the dance party.

Is any of this relevant to my essay? Probably not. That’s the nature of blogging, right? We clutter our posts with food, drink, shout-outs, and ephemera. We prove that among poets there is a thin line between expansive observation and batty distraction. We link. We list. We pray that you’ll be gentle, Dear Reader, if you know that at 1 AM last night we were part of an a capella rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” followed by our best Vincent Price cackle as part of a Michael Jackson greatest-hits remix. We need your love. We crave your attention…

…we abuse the first-person plural.

I enjoyed Darren Morris’s post on “The Taint of Celebrity.” It raised some savvy points and appropriately skewered some bad habits among poet-bloggers, myself included. The parallel to viral marketing is uncomfortable but not unfair. I gravitate to C. Dale Young’s monthly Caption Contest for the same reasons that I’m amused by Burger King’s Subservient Chicken: it’s free, it’s fun, it’s fast, and the masterminds know the value of a good breast/thigh combo.

But I do wonder if blogs have truly caused, as Morris puts it, “a shift, major or minor, of the poet’s personality infecting the way we ultimately read their poems.” The debate of whether and how to factor in the author’s life has been around for a long, long time. Does Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism taint “The Cantos”? How intimate was Emily Dickinson’s relationship to her “Master”? Does Edna St. Vincent Millay’s bohemian charm, or Dorothy Parker’s sad acidity, compensate for simplicities in their poetic craft?

Blogs are a lightning rod for this discussion because they are an explicit new medium. Some might say that they are different from diaries or letters because they are intentioned as public documents. I’m not sure that’s a valid divide. Many bright lights of the literary world cultivate egos sizable enough to match their talents. Do you think Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell exchanged letters thinking they were fully and irreversibly private? I don’t. I think that the letters collected in Words in Air, while nourishing the friendship, were also peacock-feather displays of writerly personae.

Of course, Lowell’s self-awareness (and soon enough, Bishop’s) had been justified by positive critical reception. A peculiar delight of poet-blogging is the phenomenon of people who begin blogs in an effort to float their voices amidst what feels like a sea of rejection, only to have the tides turn. From first poem in print to winning a chapbook contest; from chapbook to first book; from first book to second; from second book to NEA fellowship. We tag along and enjoy the ride.

I started my blog in April 2006, when a book felt like a distant dream. Three years and three books later, my insecurities and roadblocks are of a different type. But the blog still serves a critical and evolving purpose: it’s my gathering ground for events, writers, and philosophical questions that otherwise feel scattered too across geographies, aesthetics, and age groups. It’s a place to locate things based purely on their interest to me—and if you’re prone to inductive reasoning, construct a constellation of influences that helps someone understand me as a writer.

Those influences have their own gravitational pull. I’ve received referring traffic on topics as varied as greatness, Legos, and Josh Ritter. If someone Googles “Rusting in Bridgeport,” a song from a musical biography of P.T. Barnum, a comment I made on the poet David Vincenti’s blog comes up. He closed his response to me with “I look forward to learning of your work!” Who knows, maybe he really did.

Is recruiting readership a factor in why we engage the blogosphere? Sure. So is reviewing another poet’s book, or agreeing to be on an AWP panel, or hosting a series, or assembling an anthology. Is building an audience the main motivation for any of these acts? Not unless you’re a lover of maddening inefficiency. But building your artistic community builds your audience. It’s that simple, and I don’t apologize for it.

I doubt Darren Morris truly begrudges our Wyoming snapshots, our nostalgic music picks, our blueberry compote recipes, or even our clumsy marketing attempts. I think he’s just worried that we’re disrupting a fragile balance in a zero-sum game. He calls reading a poem a meditative experience that “opens for us the doorway to a house of language where we can make ourselves at home.” In contrast, “blogs provide us a catalog of a single life begging us to agree.”

A beautiful metaphor, but I’d have reversed it. The blog is the home: cluttered, chambered, dimly lit by the lady-leg lamp from A Christmas Story. The blog has a roast turkey on the table, scotch in the glass, and a welcome mat that reads “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”

It’s the poem that should be the argument: maybe not “begging us to agree,” no, but persuading the reader to shift his or her perception of the world in a focused way.

Perhaps that’s the bias of the poet who is seeking myth and metaphor these days, pushing to write beyond the self. I’m not that worried that the blog will poach or taint my creative material because, frankly, I hope my creative material is on a different plane from my everyday life. Hearing about my road trip to Pittsburgh is not going to help decode a poem written in the voice of an orchid.

The truth is that I’m encouraged by seeing a principled objection to blogs—the same way I’m intrigued to see a firestorm of response to a post from Ron Silliman or Seth Abramson or Reb Livingston, to name a few—because it suggests that, for now, the medium has power. You’re not doing things right unless you’re getting on someone’s nerves. Unless you’re an anesthesiologist.

Enjoy the dialogue while it lasts. Because while Morris claims that “the poet-blogging phenomenon is here to stay,” that doesn’t mean particular blogs are here to stay. I can think of several favorite ones that have shuttered or gone dormant. (Paul Guest, we miss you!) Sooner or later, someone at Norton is going to get on my case about posting drafts, even for only a few hours at a time. We burn out, we fall in love, we have a kid, we move to Nebraska, we move from Nebraska, we disappear into the virtual sunset…

…and in the meantime, we continue to abuse the first-person plural. I am large, after all. I contain multitudes.

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Her first collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she contributes to the Washington Post Magazine and is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown.


jeannine said...

I remember a few years back, before I went back to graduate school, published a book or chapbook and was looking for information about poetry - publishing it, thinking about it, criticizing it...and found so much valuable information in people's blogs. I learned about new poets, I learned where readings were taking place, found new journals and publishers. I felt comforted about my own struggles while reading about others' struggles. These blogs are more than a map to the poet's personality - they reflect the poet's world, a world that many people just starting to write and submit are curious about.

bill said...

I mostly agree with Sandra. Reading her blog has told me surprisingly little about her poems except to confirm that she's smart, witty, and committed to life as a poet. But that doesn't explain how she came up with, e.g., "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks."

Blogs by poets seem to me to be combinations of quirky self-expression, navel-gazing, and low-pressure marketing. I'm sure that poets can turn off potential readers by writing clumsy, weird, or boring blogs, but that risk is more-or-less within the control of the poet.

If, rather than doing the pickle-barrel post that Darren imagined, Frost had done a blog entry about how he liked to hang in the local woodlot, but he was so darned busy with Amy Lowell or Carl Sandburg or whoever, "Stopping By Woods" might have gone viral even more quickly than it did back in 1923.