I am sitting in my classroom and office---the reality of teaching high school doing a little light reading on the internet as I listen to The Beatles’ Revolver. To my left, six of my college prep students are working on their essays which is due in a few days in varying degrees of seriousness. Having come across an old comment I made regarding places where poetry and political alignment intersect, I was struck with the reality of my answer being incomplete. I responded to the idea of conservative and liberal alignment, but I completely missed the opportunity to interject myself into the answer. The original question had some dealing with how poets address war in their poetry, and who is capable to do so. As a veteran and poet, I missed yet another chance to solidify my place in the poetry community. Now I am here, trying to rectify that in my own small way.
So first off, I need to make sure you don’t think I only find worth as a poet in relation to my place in the poetry community. I do not. I find my worth as a poet on many different levels and I am using the notion as a construct to discuss what is clinking around inside my head more than anything else. At best, I will only be able to get to one or two ways I attempt to find my worth as a poet—and hopefully I will be happy with some of what I have to say.
As a veteran of the First Gulf War, I find worth as a poet because I have on occasion successfully interacted with my experiences in the production of poetry. I have written a few poems which have accurately expressed my thoughts and emotions concerning both the reality of war and its political ramifications. I am no Brian Turner, whose work on the subject of war rivals that of any poet of war I can recall, but I am proud of both my service and the poems I have written which address the topic. I also try to support the poetry of younger poets and fellow veterans who happen to put some focus on their war time experiences. That is a dual role for me, as a veteran and a poet. But exactly what worth lies in any of that? Where does any of that make a difference to me or the worth I have as an artist? How am I supposed to take my activities and demonstrate worth to myself, other poets, or those with whom I am close? I know some of you will reject the premise of the question and offer the idea that the worth of poetry exists in the poem itself, or in the act of creation. I see your point, but I am not talking about the value of poetry. I am talking about me, the poet trying to find a relative placement within what most people find worthy. Let’s face it. Not too many people still find worth in poetry itself.
Does my worth come from my interactions as a poet, promoting other poets, continuing to address the issues I face as a veteran with my poetry? Can I expect anyone to assign me some sense of worth because I do those things? When I look at a poet like W.S. Merwin or David Lee, I find worth in their poetry, their advocacy, and the interactions (to varying degrees) I have had with each of them. Does anyone feel that way about me? Have I contributed enough to my writing about war and politics to register on anyone’s consciousness? Even in the periphery? Or has that boat sailed? Is my worth to be measured because I teach high school English, and as a veteran I am presenting the possibility that the modern, contemporary veteran can assimilate and become a productive member of the Middle Class? Let’s face another fact while we are here: Too many people paint veterans into a corner and get very uncomfortable when they have to acknowledge their presence or talk to them.
In the poetry community I am a bit of an anomaly. Part of that is because I am a veteran. I went through the Veteran’s Administration (VA) in order to receive vocational rehabilitation. I have a neurological disability which manifests itself in extreme headaches and fatigue. I received my degree in History and went into teaching high school not because I thought that was the best I could ever do, but because I was as I am now, a pragmatist. I needed a career and I knew as a writer, I could write no matter where I lived or what I did for a living. But because I did not go on to graduate school, whether to get an MA or an MFA, I am not classified in the same strata as other poets. This is not going to be a debate over the MFA, but I will tell you from my side of the fence, there are a few glaring examples of how I am treated differently because my master’s degree is in education, not creative writing. I will say this to be fair: I have received a lot more sour looks and treatment over not having a Ph.D. or teaching high school instead of college than I have for not having an MFA in poetry. I will also add that I make more money teaching high school than many of the poets I know in the poetry community, especially those who are trapped inside the adjunct system, praying for a chance for full time employment. I have published four chapbooks of poetry and four full length collections. I have a fifth collection due out in a few months, and all in the space of eleven years. Of course it took a long time for those eleven years to start, but I am very fortunate.
My being a veteran plays into my oddball status because I am a veteran. I am a liberal Democrat, especially on social issues, and I am more conservative in fiscal matters. Being a veteran also makes me an anomaly in the poetry world because I love guns. I own several and I enjoy them immensely. That puzzles some of my liberal friends just like my ideas which run counter to the National Rifle Association confuse my more conservative friends. Most of all, my status as a veteran makes me ‘one of those’ poets. There are several distinctions which puts poets in their place, and I get it because I am a veteran. I don’t mind a lot of the prevailing discussion of white male poets even though that is what I am because I agree with a lot of it. There has been a lot of privilege absorbed and assimilated into the subconscious of white male poets and too many forget there is a whole world of other voices out there which have value. Of course it’s the pigeon-hole effect I bristle at the most. I am a veteran, so therefore I must be a warmonger or some mindless automaton who goose steps and quivers with anticipation at the mention of Ronald Reagan. Of course that isn’t true. Nothing I am is the only thing I am, and I think that’s what too many people (not just poets or republicans or democrats) tend to do. We reduce each other to make our own lives easier. And when we do that out of necessity, I wonder where my worth lies. I wonder how other people perceive me and where they place me in their thought processes. I wonder what impact I will have or have had when it’s all over and done.
I wonder if my worth as a poet has anything to do with anything. I wonder if we make up these distinctions. Of course I am reminded of the intrinsic worth of poetry and the poet I mentioned earlier, but I am still talking about me finding worth outside of myself in the indeterminate poetry universe. Just because I am supposed to minimize my need to place or what some might call external validation doesn’t mean I am ever going to be able to rid myself of those things entirely. Nor does it mean my desire to know what place I occupy in that universe is an entirely irrelevant pursuit. Knowing who I am and where I stand is of great importance to me, and I think I will always want to know.