November 25, 2017

How Much to Reveal or How to Reveal It

Lots going on in these past few months--including a fun conference about food writing in Tampa where I read new poems. I wrote some new poems, too. New poems! I put in final edits on an anthology I've edited, which will be out next year with a university press. Then a trip to Cyprus for an international poetry conference that I'm writing about for a magazine (fingers crossed), which means I can't write about it here. Yet. 

Before I go even one step further, I want to share this from Meg Day, a fantastic poet I got to read with back in April 2015 at the University of South Florida, and who I've been thrilled to call a friend ever since. I'm really excited to share the news that we'll be part of a Split This Rock panel together at the festival in April 2018. Day did a quick interview with 24 Pearl Street for their blog, and this is something she had to say:

MH: In your NEA interview, you mention how ASL is often misunderstood and diminished as a language of charades and how hearing people watching ASL poetry can further enforce that stereotype.  I minored in Hearing and Deafness studies so I’m familiar with this issue. Do you think it’s a matter of needing more interpreters or featuring more ASL poetry in the “literary world” or encouraging ASL as a more common second language?

MD: You mention more interpreters & featuring more ASL poetry in the literary world & encouraging ASL as a more common second language. I say YES-YES to all of this, though let’s make sure we get it right: there are plenty of interpreters, d/Deaf poetry is everywhere in the literary world, & ASL is already the fourth most common language in this country. We don’t need more terps, we need more access to terps & more sociocultural fluency around terps. We don’t need more ASL poetry (this is a lie; please, please more ASL poetry), we need editors who will publish it & do so with the understanding that this is a part of our American literary heritage & our contemporary poetics. In the midst of this Dis/Deaf Uprising—& a really gorgeous boom of dis poetics & dis activism—we’re encountering editors who either want to get crip credit for publishing ableist & audist poems that seek to (ab)use the disabled experience, or editors who want to tokenize & segregate Deaf & disabled poets in special issues. Both are really offensive & foolish ways to front investment in sustainable inclusion, or a comprehensive understanding of American poetics, or even an interest in the inevitable insult of archive. I think if editors got their acts together & the nondisabled poets who are offered stage time at big conference & festival readings insisted, at least, on accessibility—if not the actual inclusion of a disabled poet on the bill—we’d be well on our way to having more interesting & powerful conversations.

# Read the whole interview here #

Q&As are a funny currency in the literary world: so often there's a lack of return on investment, but then occasionally you get something great. A writer-friend connected a number of her writer-friends with her graduate student, to answer questions relevant to an MFA thesis project. I appreciated what her thoughtful questions stirred up. Specifically....

On how much to reveal:

I don’t know how much to reveal, or how to reveal it. That’s a lifelong project for any author. 

What’s funny is that when I read through my body of published writing—poems, freelance essays, memoir—I’m sometimes completely shocked at the naked details of life experience, or of my personal attitudes, that I’ve let float to the surface of a narrative. Sometimes there’s not enough context for anyone but me to recognize the reference, so I suppose that’s a kind of protective instinct. Other times I see how I’ve packaged a real-life anecdote and I’m overwhelmed by how much “more” there was to the actual event as I experienced it. But you don’t need to tell all of the story all of the time. Sometimes restraint is a good idea for the sake of your sanity, relations with friends and family, and the attention of your reader. 

There are essays I’m working on right now that might be something I can’t publish in the foreseeable future, because they trespass into the lives of others too much. But it would be a mistake to not write them for that reason. I’ve got to do the writing first, then decide. That’s endlessly frustrating to someone who is a perfectionist (as I am) and who works best toward external deadlines (as I do), but so be it. 

On the effects of social media on the dynamic of reader and writer: 

The great news is, Writers are real people! They have pets, and meals, and minor shopping frustrations, and major worries about the state of the world. Social media, depending on how they choose to use it, makes all of these nuances of character available to you as their reader. 

The terrible news is, Writers are real people! They have petty disagreements, their food photographs are poorly lit and unappetizing, their childhood friends have extreme political views, and they sometimes quote student mistakes in a way that they probably feel is “healthy venting” but to me is just inexcusable.

There’s a few dozen American emerging poets who all had blogs around the same time, mid-2000s, and we used that space to post substantive mini-essays about our lives and our thoughts on the publishing industry. The comments sections were hopping and largely respectful. I miss those dialogues. More importantly, I miss the way that reading those blogs was integrated with my exposure to the actual poems, since many of us were simultaneously page-neighbors in magazines and journals. 

If you are a reader of someone’s social media only—and I think more of us are in that position than we’d like to admit—do you count yourself as a “reader” of their work?

On identifying as a writer, and the "risk" of vulnerability:

I identify as a poet first, then as a nonfiction writer. Being a poet makes me a better nonfiction writer because I’m trained to recognize or apply framing conceits—ways of looking at things metaphorically—and because I’m particularly open to unconventional structure. Sometimes I’m drawn to explicit narratives, other times to subtle “landscapes” of text; I believe in the power of juxtaposition as well as argument. 

A writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum of aesthetics. I’m also a mix of inheritances that add up to being American, white, middle-class, and somewhat Southern. Fortunately, I was exposed to teachers who challenged me to read well beyond works by those who mirror me culturally. I am allied with those who have disability, in part because of my food allergies (multiple and life-threatening) and in part because every caring human should be allied with those who have disability. I’m frustrated that group, even specific to the literary world, is frequently left out of otherwise progressive advocacy conversations. 

You can’t be vulnerable without taking a risk. I’m not saying that to mock the question, but it’s really hard for me to envision being a poet or memoirist and not being vulnerable, and I’ve never been in denial of the risk associated with that, Maybe there are fiction writers who can feel differently? I’ve always wondered what that might be like, to build a world on the page. Anyway, the risk is worth the reward. I love every aspect of writing and publication: drafting, revision, submission, editorial correspondence, traveling for readings, even the dreaded “marketing.” I really do love the whole process, even when I’m complaining at 2 AM. 

On confidence and gender politics in writing:

Usually, rational confidence is grounded in the surety that you’re presenting information that is both correct and shaped well. Extra confidence—what we’d call charisma or bravado—is grounded in the knowledge that when you’re presenting is particularly insightful or novel. I’d resist gendering any of these criteria. I take pride in the fact that I’m not afraid to stake truth claims in my work. 

That said, I’ve always been a confident speaker. I played P.T. Barnum in the elementary school play one year, and then I was cast as Shakespeare’s Puck the next year. So does varying confidence affect my writing? Not so much. But I can set aside my particular instincts and sympathize with someone who has had a different base of experience, one which causes them inhibition or insecurity on the page. I’ve found that important to being a good teacher, because I’ve encountered amazing students who just needed help presenting their ideas with confidence. 

On being a feminist: 

Like a lot of American women of my generation, I had a long period in my youth when I took for granted the accomplishments of feminism. Sure, I noticed the ways in which “girl” and “boy” modes were differentiated and reinforced along stereotypical tracks (I was steered toward pink, versus blue; encouraged to play “nurse,” as opposed to “doctor"). But no one ever tried to restrict my movements, education, or creative output based on my gender. Birth control was an option. Abortion was an option. Hell, I could vote—I could open up a line of credit—I had no idea how relatively “new” these opportunities were. 

I wanted to be evaluated strictly in terms of merit, and so I resisted affiliating as a feminist or even simply as a “woman” writer, fearing those labels would somehow compromise the measure of my worth. I thought that to be taken seriously by the powers that be, which I now realize I’d equated implicitly to male powers, I’d have to suppress my identity as a woman. I’m not proud of my earlier solipsism; I just acknowledge it to provide contrast and perspective. I was also willfully ignoring some pretty crass and sexist behaviors coming my way, which at the time I thought showed my grit. 

I became a feminist when I recognized that my determination to “make it on my own” was a fallacy that ignored what those before me had sacrificed. I became a feminist because I started to see women I cared for slip through the cracks, failing to receive the support and nurturing they needed to succeed in art or academia or business, simultaneous to the pressure they felt to be caregivers. I became a feminist because I realized that the ways in which I diverged from what I thought of as “typical” feminist rhetoric or life experience made me more useful to the conversation, not less. 

How does this manifest? I hope in taking the time to help and mentor women in particular (and I use “women” here in an inclusive, non-binary sense; anyone who self-identifies that way), often in the form of gently pushing women to not internalize minor failures as global rejections or signs that they’re not "meant" to do something. I try to both listen for and correct, in real time, gendered assumptions in speech by myself and those around me. I read work by women, I teach their work to others, and I foreground them when asked to curate something. We set the examples for the next generation. If that means the students of tomorrow take it for granted that a syllabus features at least 50% literary works by women, then I’ve done my job. 

On the lure of the personal and "intellectual" vs. "emotional" writing:

Writing the personal is a natural extension of my entry into writing through poetry, which is so often driven by the intimate impulse; we get the term “lyric,” in part, from that centering on the I / eye. Illustrating experience is what makes reading powerful, so I’m not looking to separate the emotional from the intellectual. (An economist or sociologist might disagree with me; I admit that there are a few realms where the personal story can be misleading, but I’m speaking primarily about creative writing.)

What I’ll say, from a craft perspective, is that I admire personal writing that incorporates outside research from science and history. The essay collections and memoirs I love best interweave cultural history. Eula Biss, Margo Jefferson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Elena Passarello are all particularly good at this. Readers enjoy feeling like the journey is one of learning as well as understanding. Or at least, I do.

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