February 10th, 2018
Last week an artist I know via internet, quoted her husband: “You don’t have to justify your life.”
Her husband is a poet, so maybe that is why it is so easy to take this statement completely out of context, without taking it out of context.
I saw Billy Elliot last week, and was cruelly reminded that I was once a “promising” 17 year-old, who believed Ayn Rand was brilliant. Meritocracy slid into my subconscious sideways, all the while me believing I belonged to an anti-Reagan camp. What an odd mixture of undigested ideologies. I look back and think simultaneously: how cute/how insufferable.
Last week I had been hankering for a story. And I got one. Cinderella, and it’s okay to be gay, all under the transparent umbrella that is the caveat: if you are special enough. If you can justify your existence economically. If you can demonstrate that you are of value–not in terms of service to others, but in terms of your own, personal economic power. It is okay to be selfish because the masses are too ignorant to take care of themselves.
How disappointing that I turned out to be one of the masses. A terribly confused reformed Libertarian living happily-ish in a quasi-socialist state.
If I meet someone at a dinner party and they ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a poet.”
Invariably: “Really, can you live off that?”
I have never been discourteous enough to ask them if they had actually meant to ask me about my finances when they asked me what I “do”. Because what I do to earn enough money to pay my bills is not the same thing as what I do to find meaning in my life. What are we really talking about at these dinner parties?
(Full disclosure: I don’t go to many dinner parties. Fuller disclosure: I don’t get invited to many of them. So I always find this game puzzling.)
Ever since my first book was published, and I realized that I was spending half my royalties mailing copies to the U.S., I’ve suffered from impostor syndrome. I quit my day job (which I really like on most days), in an attempt to justify my self-image, my identity, my “life”. But after only a few months, I realized that the cost of telling people I am a poet at dinner parties is actually having a second, unacknowledged (though paid) job of being a marketing expert. A lecturer. A branding whiz. A guru for creativity. All of which can fall comfortably under the umbrella of the title Poet, but had nothing to do with writing poetry. Writing grants, yes.
For a while I believed that if I could just get a job at a university rather than a high school for performing arts, I could use the title Poet with confidence. But after talking with friends who work at universities (and working as an adjunct for an American college a couple of semesters), I discovered that capitalizing on my doctorate wasn’t likely to enrich my life as a poet the way my current day job does.
And it’s true that what I “do” in my day job, that which makes it meaningful, is–technically–not what I’m getting paid for. Don’t get me wrong. I am not working “above and beyond”. I am working sideways to find meaning in what I “do”.
How exactly do the fine arts fit into a capitalist economic structure? How do they fit into this quasi-socialist state where young people are encouraged to follow their dreams, getting guaranteed loans and grants to study abroad, and return with the sense of entitlement to work in their chosen field? When there are four actors on stage, and two people in the audience. When there are 4200 newly published books of poetry, and 40 people who read them (who aren’t playing tit for tat).
I was born in the wrong time period to be a writer. And in the wrong class.
I’m ashamed that I care. Ashamed I would want that.
It seems that one of the most interesting things about the internet economy is how it is has raised the cult of personality to a (lucrative) art form. I have been listening to more than my fair share of podcasts this past year, and am astonished by how conflated the self-help and entrepreneur topics are. The message seems to be, “I’m okay, you’re okay, and you can pay me to teach you how to make money off the fact that you are… okay.” If there were a plethora of prophets at 1 C.E., there is a plethora of secular gurus today. If we are not “leaders”, we are followers.
It really sucks to be a follower, and I am seriously prone to drinking the thought-leader Kool-aid. Surely someone can help me justify my life? I am a poet. The posing kind who sometimes sits at cafes drinking second-rate coffee at a first-rate price because of the experience it affords. In this case, the experience is that of being a posing kind of poet sitting at a cafe trying to find something to photograph and put on an Instragram account that will reflect my status. In this case, the something being an unfiltered bit of a very second-rate example of barista craftsmanship.
Justify my title. Poet. Person of Substance. Thought-leader, not a follower.
I recently joined a Facebook group that was ostensibly a place for women my age to discuss the last of the taboos. The group had been mentioned on a BBC article on menopause. At first it seemed like a group of friends, giving and taking advice, sharing experience: a social network. Then the administrator of the group wrote the long, confessional post of her own experience and offered counseling at a reasonable rate.
How did I not see that coming?
I read this morning about a teenager who has been making 12 million dollars a year posting popular videos on YouTube. From what I gather, they are rather random snippets of his daily life, and things like encouraging people to swallow soap. (No. I’m not going to link to anything).
At a dinner party, when people ask him what he does, I wonder what he answers?
To think what Oscar Wilde would have accomplished had he been able to have a YouTube account? Just think, with all that money, his widow and kid wouldn’t have had to go into hiding. They could have monetized their own Instagram account.
I have thought about putting effort into being popular on the internet. To work at branding myself better. But you know, I never put any effort into being popular in real life.
And I certainly wouldn’t be posting such whining here. I am now going to hand write a poem, and deliver it to the neighbors in a basket of cookies.
I’ll be sure to post it on Instagram.
EDIT: I hope no one thinks I’m ridiculing people who do monetise their blogs or websites. I think that’s fine. I just think that it’s an extra job in and of itself.
Also – I think those people who can foster communities online are amazing! I admire them. For my part, I believe this is largely what my day job is: nurturing other people’s creativity (at least I like to think of it that way) – which is why, every time I catch myself trying to find ways to involve myself in a poetry community, it feels like an extension of my day job, not a way of furthering my personal (a)vocation as a poet.