Where are we at today? Ah yes, in writers workshop where my poetry is being critiqued by an eclectic group of undergrad students. Most of whom, might I add, have had more exposure and experience than I in studies about literature, poetry, and writing in general. I got my undergrad in computer science, so what do I know anyway?!
One answer to that is that I know some things which only life experience can teach (and I have about 20 years on all these kids). I digress.
I submitted a poem to workshop which was a tribute to Terrance Hayes. Mr. Hayes is a poet whose most recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is (in my opinion) a masterpiece. If the words “tribute” and “masterpiece” do not make it abundantly clear what my position is, then I’m truly lost. Anyway, so I wrote this poem – a double sonnet, which I worked for quite a while on to get the sound and sense of just right. And might I add that I am proud of the way it turned out and would be honored if it ever reached the eyes and mind of the person who it was written for. I mean, I truly did toil over each line and phrase and combination of words.
To the critics who made me well up inside and out with angst over hearing their impressions and criticisms, I will concede a few points. There are word choices I did not realize would be offensive. Mind you, it’s a group of all white students save for one gal who remained silent the entire session (except for saying she was staying out of it). A couple of ill-placed line breaks which made the interpretation of my “white” poem seem racist. There I said it. That was the main tension in the room, that my poem was taking on a subject in a way that was offensive and inappropriate.
That somehow, in my attempt to praise Mr. Hayes for his skill and mastery of the poem and of language, I came across as crossing some line that shouldn’t be crossed. To me, hearing these comments was most disturbing because I was not trying to play a race card at all. I was not trying to use his blackness or my whiteness to any end. I used (sparingly) a little of his language and that was taken as appropriation. In the poem I was basically saying that he has done something I could never do and that I can never truly understand his words because his history and experience are so different from my own, but I can try. That I want to try and understand.
Right. In the poem I’m literally saying I want to try, I have to try, for my sake to make something more, to try and learn from what he has to offer and empathize with his plight. It is a poem about love of language and bowing down to the skill of another.. and if anything, the need in this hour of human kind for a little understanding across boundaries. Good gawd.
To be fair, there were a few comments that were counter to all the negative and one person said it was “the best poem they have ever read in workshop”. I think it was this differing of opinion that made people want to keep talking about the subject. In any case, The discussion ran long and the class was due for a break so the prof said to cut it there and take 5. I took my 5 to the bathroom on the 3rd floor of the fine arts building and arrived back after I had regained my composure (which took longer than the 5 minutes allotted).
I’ve never cried during workshop before and I’ve been in workshop with Kate Gale for god sakes. What on earth am I doing letting these comments get to me. I didn’t have the time or space to put together final comments so I basically just said something about my intentions. That It was meant as a tribute and high praise and was not at all meant to be offensive. I will probably change those line breaks and maybe another word or two here or there, but as for the rest? I’ll stand by it.
It kind of makes me think about that Robert Frost poem, Road Not Taken, which was written as a lighthearted jest to his friend who often lamented taking the wrong path. That poems true interpretation and intention has been argued countless times in the last 100 years (originally published in 1916), and at the heart of that, lies the secret of poetry – which is that it has layers of meaning and is always subject to interpretation in the mind of the reader. The meaning can be opaque and perhaps, in some cases, it’s better that way.
Now I’m not comparing myself to Robert Frost (ha!), but I would say that if my poem stirs that much discussion and controversy, then I might be on to something. If one measure of a good poem is that it makes a person remember and elicits a conversation long after it is over and done, then look how this poem might be a huge hit.
My only counter to that is that I don’t actually think it’s that edgy. I really don’t. In a way, I think these workshop mates of mine are just looking for something to be critical about. Still (as I said) I will revisit the poem again to make a few adjustments. I suppose the only true fix to this predicament is for me to have it accepted for publication. I should start doing more of that anyway.
Perhaps one day I will be posting a “conclusion” to this post in which I’m announcing my success. A girl can dream anyway right.
Ok.. that’s it for today. I’m over it.. and out!