The day I decided I was going to be a poet was the same day my grandfather was hit by a city transit bus and had his hip shattered. He passed away in the hospital a week after having the surgery to repair that hip. He was 88 years old, and he was tired. In his bed he labored for breath, and after my grandmother went down the hallway to get a drink of water, he pulled the oxygen mask off his face and died. It was that simple. He made a decision and ran with it, figuratively speaking. It was what he had done his entire life, and it is how he undertook his last act of will power. My entry into the world of poetry was also a deliberate act, and I hope my poetry continues to be an act of deliberation for me, pushing me further and further along. The only difference is that I hope I will never come to a place where there is nowhere else to go.
It’s all bullshit. All of it. I had been writing poetry for at least twenty years before my grandfather passed away at the age of 88, after he slipped and broke his hip on the pavement outside of the convenience store where he met with his friends almost every day. I actually came to poetry by way of an accumulation of teenage angst and alienation. I started writing short little poems in an attempt to impress the girls I liked because at the age of 15 I could already tell there was no way I was going to get their attention by way of athletics. There was nothing for me to do except to start writing horrible little poems or to start burning down the houses of my neighbors. Seriously. Ask anyone I went to school with, or the teachers I had. I was probably the same kid some would identify as a potential shooter. I wish I was exaggerating this part of this essay, but I am not.
The creation myths of poets have been of interest to me as of late, and I am wondering how exactly poets see themselves in contrast to what they actually are. I know I am treading dangerously close to some deep and somewhat complex ontological and epistemological questions, but please bear with me. I hope my exploration will yield some interesting thoughts. Of special interest to me are the affectations poets place on their by-line and biographies which are included with most publications. These bios often reveal some aspect of the path poets have taken in their becoming, so to speak. More so, I believe they reveal how poets see themselves. When we paint a picture of ourselves, we not only reveal how we want the world to see us, we reveal how we want to see ourselves.
When I was younger, I read primarily from anthologies rather than single author collections of poetry. I found the economy of an anthology appealing. I could read a hundred poems from upwards of a hundred poets and I could also read their biographies. Being a young poet I wanted to model my entry into and ascent in the poetry community on other poets. I thought there were certain things one did in order to become a poet. This was right before the revolution and saturation of the MFA degree. Had I a normal trajectory, I am somewhat positive I would have gone through an MFA program—not simply because I wanted to model myself after other poets, but because I would have been looking for more schooling in general. Reading from anthologies, I read a lot of extended and elaborate bios. I read biographies which were creative and witty, and those which were more reportage than revealing. I read some that were strange and some that were simple, and to this day, I still am drawn to read the bios of every poet I read in a journal or anthology. For me the act of reading the poet bio is compulsory.
Of course I have my own preferences, and those preferences have evolved over the years. Some tell-tale signs of a poet early in his/her career is the inclusion of a myth story and every single publication. Other young poets feel that a bio full of metaphor is the way to go. My major education in the art of the bio started when I decided to create my own literary journal. It wasn’t all that much, just some one-man-band sort of operation of no real consequence. My journal is where I learned about the tremendous egos of poets, and to a lesser extent, prose writers. Yes, it is my belief that of all the kinds of writers out there, poets have the biggest egos, myself included.
I cannot tell you how many times I would accept a nice short, little poem, only to have the bio sent to me be longer than the poem, even with the explicit guideline stating I wanted a short, clean bio, with no frills. Of course the next e-mail I would get, after I asked the poets to proof their pages one last time before publication, invariably complained that I had gutted their bio, and would ask me to restore it to the original length. After all the poets seemed to imply, a finely crafted bio was another opportunity to prove how witty and clever they truly were. I can tell you plainly here, dealing with poets and their egos was at the top of my list for why I never want to try editing a journal ever again. Ever.
Still, it piqued my curiosity. Were all of these offended poets truly upset? Were their efforts at calling themselves ‘rivers of thought’ or ‘creatures of the night’ true and sincere expressions? Was it trying to conform to a preconceived notion of what poets are supposed to do and say, or were they truly behaving thus because they were poets. What was so terrible about me asking for a straightforward biography with a few recent publications and no attempt at being clever? A very Hegelian sort of puzzle, don’t you think? For me, yes. I am guilty as any other young poet who created the extravagant biography, celebrating every achievement (great or small) from birth up to publication. I wrote many bios that went completely over the top, asking the readers to believe my entry into the poetry world was brought about by the same foamy seas which created Aphrodite. Well, maybe not that far, but close. But then I grew up. I matured as a poet. I realized that cute and clever are more times annoying than informative or productive. And this isn’t to say I am advocating for an acquiescence or surrender. Be bold. Be direct. Be assertive. Just don’t try to be self-important. Do you see what I am getting at? What does a bio really say? What does it reveal to the reader that is on real interest? What purpose does it serve, and what is its true value? This isn’t a condemnation, no matter how opinionated I am against cute and clever bios, it is a genuine question I wish to explore.
Maybe I am just being snotty or snobbish by wondering these things out loud. I know there are plenty of poets who would be upset at me for confronting their creativity with dour realism and calling what they do both precious and infuriating. But I am probably out of luck if I have any expectation these same poets will defend their decision to write effete and smarmy, ego driven biographies. By talking about this in public, I am probably opening myself up to the kind of criticism that originates from the very core of the poet’s being, some element of identity. I get that, but for every poet who proclaims their right to be maudlin and overly dramatic, all I can see is one more poet perpetuating a mythology which alienates us from the general population—those readers who so many poets claim to be writing for yet never seem to materialize.
I will return to an earlier question. What purpose does the bio serve? What is its value? If we as poets are talking to one another through our bios, our autobiographies, then what does it serve the writing community to refer to ourselves in such terms? If we are indeed writing these monstrosities of figurative bile for each other, I am reminded of American Psycho, where everyone is pulling out their new business cards and gloating over the raised lettering, font, and various shades of white. It’s a little disturbing to me. If poets write bios as a way of attracting new readers, then why would a poet write something more likely to widen the gulf between writer and reader by claiming to be some unknowable or imperceptible mystery of the cosmos? I must be getting old and cranky to be so very impatient with such self-importance.
Let me assume that writing such a bio is intended to create a myth that surrounds the writer, clouds or obscures our vision of him or her. What then? What am I to believe about the writer when I encounter more writing and a different bio later on? Am I supposed to say to myself I have found a real artist, a sincere artist, or am I supposed to acknowledge defeat, having lost the unspoken but slam-like battle royal we poets are continually engaged in for the dominance of the poetry world’s attention? How am I supposed to get to know a writer if I can’t even get a straight answer about who they are? Or, is that the point? By closing off one venue, I am forced to confront the work and forego judgments based on gender or societal norms? That is plausible, but it is hit and miss. I may be forced to ignore a writer’s rural upbringing if they were to say they are a locomotive of passion and desire, tumbling through the hate that is today’s political climate. But I am also as likely to assign a negative connotation based on my perceptions of the ego who would assume I cannot judge a poem by its merits rather than on who wrote the poem.
I know it’s a losing battle I am fighting here, trying to get poets to stop throwing their egos at me like hipster gang signs, telling me how they are so entirely unique the work is just going to vomit or create a pearl from the irritation they cause. All I know is I have an aversion to poets who cannot be honest, straightforward, and demonstrate some faith in the reader. Just tell me who you are and where I can find more of your work if I am so inclined. We are all special snowflakes, and we all love the sound of our own voice.