February 19th, 2018

The lamps along the trail were out this morning, and the light from the torch strapped onto my forehead caught the fog of every exhalation – obscuring my view of the path. I reminded myself to lift my knees to clear the roots I couldn’t see. I reminded myself to trust the few feet of trail visible in the tiny spill of light, and to ignore every opening in the darkness that looked like a new possibility.

 

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.

February 4th, 2018

I think one of the advantages of teaching the same subject every year is the prompt to revisit my own attitudes. Surprisingly, my definition of art has changed very little. Instead, it narrows and becomes clearer for me — on the personal level.

Not theoretical.

Every year I struggle to teach the theories I find silly — or “unsound” — without bias. (For the record, I think I do okay.)

One of the disadvantages to living in a small town is having to deal with the question, “What did you think?” from colleagues or students. The inevitable sense of loss I feel when I know that I have to answer flatly. On the other hand, it’s a comfort to know that no one really wants to know what I think, anyway. And there is such a thing as social decorum, after all. I get that.

Theoretically.

This past Friday was the first time I experienced a post-dramatic theater piece without feeling defensive or reactionary in my dislike of the form. Today, post-dramatic is entrenched in tradition, no longer brave or edgy in any sense. And I feel fine saying it really isn’t for me. I don’t even feel “old” when I say it.

I came home from the post-dramatic performance, and before bed I read a script that had come in the mail that day: Bird, by Katherine Chandler. I sighed with relief. This kind of work is still out there. This kind of art.

I have two banal problems with “The Post-Dramatic”: 1. How is Hamlet Machine truly post-dramatic in essence when it presupposes you know who and what Hamlet is? Isn’t the post-dramatic art form merely derivative work? Marginalia and commentary as an art form? It doesn’t actually abandon a narrative, it presupposes it, in the best case. In the worst case, it disingenuously disavows it, or throws it up — with a cowardly grab at significance — to say it is “whatever the viewer makes of it”. The artist becomes nothing more than the spinner for a game of Twister. (I admit though, it’s nice when the craftsmen are technically skilled. I do find pleasure in what talent can produce, if not a space to formulate private meaning, a springboard for my own creativity.)

The second is personal — and is rooted in my personal understanding of the purpose and definition of art itself: the communication of the experience of being human. The key work being communication. The sense of connection, the intentional exchange and understanding of perspective. I know it is an old-fashioned, but I believe that it is ennobling to move beyond our own subjectivity. And that art is partially defined by this. 

No matter high tightly I am backed into a bathroom to watch a piece of post-dramatic theater, I feel isolated. My experience, ultimately isolating. If there is conversation afterward, it is the sharing of individual interpretations of personal perspectives. Like comparing Rorschach interpretations with friends at a dinner party. Art that makes the artist irrelevent (or artist as tarot reader). Art that is without intention. “Art” that is a stimuli for an essentially individualistic experience that demands personal agency, and results in a sense self-importance and private significance*.

There have been times when I have sat in the audience and thought, what if I don’t want to play along? When I have obstinately felt a desire to rebel, and NOT play along. When I have wanted to stomp my feet and demand that the artists GIVE ME something of themselves, and an earnest intention to communicate something specific and meaningful, something that touches on the what it is to be human.

I actually feel odd paying for a theater experience that does nothing more than reassure me of my own creativity.

(How arrogant is that?)

I do not need to be co-creater in order to be an active participant in an artwork. I do not believe for a moment that the act of listening is passive. I believe more of us would be better at it if it were.

Clearly, I do not lack a sense of self-importance. I don’t even lack a sense of personal agency in my life. What do I want from art? I want it to give me something I would otherwise not have in my life. Why is art essential for me? For what purpose do I need it?

When I put down Bird, I felt a sense of connnection. The woman who wrote that play somehow seemed to know what it is to be human in the same way I have experienced it. We’ve shared that, without ever having been squished up in the same bathroom stall. She dared to construct a story from the fragments of life. She dared to share a whole-cloth work of art. Of course, I can never know if she intended to communicate the experienced I received. (That’s is the absurd truth of our lives, isn’t it?) But there was an attempt. And just that attempt, that act of courage — of vulnerabiltiy — is a human experience that I recognise.

 


*I’m not alone in thinking along these lines. Though Adam Alston has been much more systematic and erudite in his approach. I am in no way suggesting he agrees with me here in terms of what he would prioritise as a purpose of art.