As you know, the U.S. Presidential election was last week, and things aren’t good. Hatred has always been here, of course, but I never for a second believed it was prevalent enough to elevate that man to the nation’s highest office. His “win” has spawned a rash of hate crimes across the country. The worst of us is on display.
I have had to wait to write you back in part because I haven’t been sleeping and my energy is low, in part because I’ve been spending time experiencing the collective gasp, expressing rage and figuring out what to do next. But I also waited because I wanted to get to a point where the horrible news didn’t consume my entire letter to you, though the trauma (anger, sadness, etc.) of it does feel all-consuming.
My gut response is to say the current fear for myself, my friends, our communities and our country puts my creative anxiety and self doubt in perspective. However, that’s not quite right. I think they’re actually connected: will any of our voices matter?
It may seem like that question is larger now than before the election, but that’s myopic. That’s dismissive of history, which busts at the seams with questions related to which voices matter. This isn’t new ground. It’s why media is so vital (and often fails its responsibility). The question of voice is central in social media, too. Entertainment. Politics. The arts. Who gets the opportunity to be heard anywhere? Power dynamics are always at play and, of course, include things like economics and privilege and access. There are gatekeepers everywhere.
And so yes there’s perspective related to the “po’ biz” and poetry’s gatekeepers: all of it is, really, quite insignificant. I get it. At play, however, is legitimacy, something you brought up in your letter. And legitimacy really does matter. A sense of legitimacy matters to voice (and to our sense of self). It matters both to which voices the world accepts and to which speakers dare to speak. While we have work to do on the first half of that, it’s the second half — which writers dare to speak? — that’s most interesting to me. In other words, we must have enough sense of self to feel legitimate outside the gatekeepers. All we need is to feel enough sense of self — which is related to a sense of the work — in order to dare.
I’m with you when you say you’re ashamed that you still even think legitimacy in poetry is a thing. For me, it manifests this way: like blowing out candles on a cake. If I define legitimacy (loosely) only as having a book published via some kind of selective or editorial process, I make the wish for legitimacy but can’t really quite muster enough breath to blow out all the candles and see the wish through. However, if I define legitimacy as believing in my voice and the creative work regardless of permissions (in other words: *I* say it’s important; *I* say it has value), I can muster the wind. I’m grateful my energies fall in that proportion.
Still, both brands of legitimacy matter to me, and my entire approach to poetry has been to find a path that meanders between them. I got my feet under me creatively through blogging all those years ago, workshopping poems online and testing my chops with other poets in community at open mics. I also, later, decided to get my MFA. And even though I’ve started to share work online again, I’m continuing presenting work to editors and judges hoping to be chosen. It’s the hoping that’s hard. It’s the hoping — the feeling so fucking earnest (something you also mentioned) — that can feel shameful. But it pleases me that you talk about giving into it.
I’m also delighted that you talked about the fear of being too personal in your work. You write:
It’s like showing up in a dress that’s just a smidgen too short, and crosses some line no one explicitly told you about. Everyone lifts an eyebrow, and then looks away.
I want to say this: let the body your dress reveals raise eyebrows. (And I mean that figuratively and literally, LOL.) Readers can tell when writers aren’t being honest. They know when writers are holding back. Write what you’re moved to write (this is part of feeling “legitimate,” yes?) and let the rest take care of itself. It’s better to betray someone else’s sense of decency than your own sense of legitimacy.
What if someone told Maggie Smith not to write about her kids? We’d miss out on her poem “Good Bones,” which is a kind of love letter to our troubled world. The poem went viral after the nightclub shooting in Orlando and is making the rounds again due to the result of the U.S. election. It wasn’t written to or as part of any particular political movement. It was written from the voice of a mother, and look at its value now! This isn’t to say the path to a viral poem is to be personal and honest. A viral poem isn’t the goal. The goal is the moment of intimacy. Maggie’s poem packs us all in the same room looking around with hope. We don’t see what’s there; we see what’s possible.
Shared hope. Intimacy. What’s possible. These are the things that attract me to certain communities (creative and otherwise). However, like you I’ve felt like an exile for most of my life. Even as a little girl. Especially as a divorced woman. And partly as an artist/poet. There’s something we do that’s inherently outside of. And that’s ok. It may even be necessary. The idea of exile is also related to the woods, isn’t it? Even when we choose to go out there, we’re getting away from. And backpacking? We leave for days. We live a while beyond the realm of.
By the way, I 100% understand what you say about how hiking reinforces so many damned clichés! Did I really hike 140 miles to understand life’s “ups and downs”? Did I really shred up my feet to learn that worrying about what lies ahead serves no purpose? that the only way out is forward/through? Yup. I did.
One of the most common questions about the hike from others was, “Why are you doing THAT?” I didn’t have a good answer then, and I still don’t. Except I do know it was a legitimate pursuit.
I was going to stop right there. It seemed like a perfect ending to this letter. But then I re-read what you said about how vulnerability can be terrifying. A huge part of the reason the hike (and the poetry/publishing) is “worth it” is because of the vulnerability it forces. I am no match for the wilderness. I am bound to struggle with what I carry. I am bound to struggle to find my footing. I am bound to fall down. (Cliché, cliché, cliché.) But I set out just the same. Each time I am called to do so I dare.
And so we have claimed our space. What now? Tell me what you’re working on. Tell me about how you spend your days. Tell me about the wilderness.
~ Carolee xo
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