Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rebel Rebel

Today's mini-rant is all about being a rebel.  As a high school teacher, I see kids trying to express their individuality on a daily basis, and with a very few exceptions, they are all miserable failures.  When I point this out to them I almost always immediately get a quizzical look, revealing they don't understand what it is to be a rebel.  Next, they give me that defiant look that says, "Hey!  I'm unique.  I am a rebel."  That's when I finish their sentence with: "Just like all of your friends."  It takes a few seconds, but most catch on to the strange predicament they have walked themselves into in the attempt to set themselves apart from the crowd.

The poetry community is much the same.  Yes it is.  Think for a moment.  Most of us, while many have their own voice, still fit within the confines of the cliched box.  We are terrified of that box, and many of us believe being poets sets us apart from the crowd, but we are in fact, simply trying to be different, just like all of our poet friends.  I don't excuse myself from this distinction.  I want to be perfectly clear what I am going to be talking about for the next few paragraphs in no way excuses me from the status of sheep or lemming, or mindless poetry zombie---pick your image.  I am different, just like all of my poet friends.

Thin about it.  On Facebook, how many of your so-called friends are poets?  How many of those poets talk about being published and talk about writing issues and being rejected over and over?  How many of them (us) toot our horn when we get a really good acceptance, or have a book taken by a publisher?  How many of us play the same corporate game of poetry we see everyone else playing?  More?  How many poets out there do you know of who are true rebels?  I mean the kind who truly go against the grain.  I can think of a couple.  Bill Knott comes to mind, and I am certain if I was to put a few minutes of serious thought to it I could name a hand-full more. 

Now put that in terms of how we support poetry.  How many people talk about how difficult the contest system is in the poetry world, but day after day and week after week, keep sending in their manuscripts to contests because of some secret desire they have to be able to put that in their bio?  I know I struggle with it every day, or most every day.  Hardly a day passes where I don't wonder what it would be like to be the poetry world's little darling or flavor of the month, to have my poetry accepted by some of the name journals, to have "winner of the ________________ contest for emerging poets.  I am being sincere.  I want these things and I am not certain how to feel about them or the fact I want them.

For years I have been urging people to support poetry presses by other means than entering contests.  Contests are so limiting.  It is my belief they literally stifle the creativity in poetry.  The entire poetry community is homogenous if your sample pool is wide enough, but I am not speaking of all of us fitting into a mold we can all recognize.  I am talking about expectations.  If all we do is envision the contest system as our means of book publication, we begin to move towards that which we think will win contests.  Isn't it already bad enough inside our heads as poets?  In my head I am constantly hearing my own little private radio station, passages and lines continually drifting in and out of earshot, and I ignore most of them, waiting for me to focus in on what I think poetry is.  It's my own little censor, but what if the poetry I ignore or am perhaps too fearful to write down is a new direction calling to me?  I think it's the same with poetry at large.  For the most part, too many poets are shaping their language to their perceptions of what they see going on, allowing what has come before to have too much of an imprint on their own poetry. 

I don't mean this to be a condemnation, just an acknowledgement, an idea of what I see happening.  I am continually blown away with the beautiful words from so many poets.  But if I am truthful, I see a lot of poetry that is trying to be the same thing, even if that same thing is trying to be different like all the other poems out there.  I certainly am not free from this reality.  I still write to please too many people.  That is, too much of what I write is written trying to please more than myself.  I just happen to think if more poets would go around the contest system, we would see a lot more diversity in poetry---even more than we see now. 

Of course, that diversity comes at a cost, because we poets need to support presses by buying books, and not just books written by our friends.  We need to buy books which constitute a risk.  I have bought many books I do not like.  I have purchased books by poets who write in a voice and/or style I will never write in, and I do so willingly.  I have said it before, but one of the things I admire most about Ron Silliman, even though we write nothing alike, is his willingness to read almost everything and anything.  He buys books and reads.  He rarely gives out praise and that's fine, but I respect his opinion because he reads the poetry I like, and he reads the kind of poetry I write.  he may not ever like any poem of mine, but he dares to take up the banner and march forward.

So, rock on with your poetry, but let your wallet do the heavy lifting and make a real change.  Be a rebel.  Be like me.

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