I went to the Warhol exhibit at the Frist museum in Nashville today. Appropriate to Nashville, the exhibit focuses on Warhol's involvement with music, his prints of Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli, Debbie Harry, etc. It also featured memorabilia from Studio 54, album covers he designed, snapshots of himself with famous singers. I'd seen a lot of the pieces before at the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, but it's always nice to see some Warhol regardless. One quote stuck with me today (paraphrasing): He didn't want his images in a series to look similar, but he wanted to them to look exactly the same. If we see the same thing over and over, he said, we become used to it, and it makes us feel better. This was in particular reference to the car wreck works. The idea of repetition is not new, obiously, to me from Warhol, but it just struck me in a certain way today, the way art is supposed to, when I go back and back to it. I guess it can make us numb or make certain ideas not such a big deal. I think about my students being bombareded by tiny screens in their faces all the time and, depending what they are looking at, I wonder what that's doing to their heads, our heads. Is anything a big deal anymore?
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
I notice that when poets talk about writing that we qualify: I love that book, well, most of it, there are about five poems that don't work. Or: that was a terrifc book, the ordering could have used some work, but overall I really enjoyed it. It seems like we equate loving something with an endorsement of its perfection. Why is that? Don't we love imperfect things all the time? I'm not excusing myself from this observation, I do it, too. I can be as jaded as the next person and love some good dishing as much as the next poet, but I think it's a problem when I don't want to talk about books because I'm tired of having to justify my love for a book, or having to walk down the: "yeah, but" road with whomever I'm talking to. There are venues where pointing out the negatives and being aware of the negatives are absolutely necessary: revision, critical reviews, workshopping, and sometimes conversation with other writers. But I worry about becoming so critical that I forget to be generous, forget why I wanted to be part of this poetry thing in the first place. Poetry moves me like very little else can. Those shapes, sounds, and stanzas are pretty damn awesome, and very little in the world can make a point for me in quite the same way. I know truth when I hear it, and I've heard it in poetry more than in any place else. And regardless of whatever school a poet identifies with, aren't you glad, if you're a poet or reader of poetry, that they're doing it? That the art is big enough to contain all their ideas, all their visions? A new friend, a novelist, signed her book for me today at lunch. In the inscription she wrote simply: Look for love. Being around her, her wit, her thoughtfulness, and intelligence, I know this is something she means sincerely, and I took it as such. And I've been thinking about it all afternoon. Where do I put my energy? Am I so insecure about what I like that I have to immediately start picking out flaws in work for fear that someone might find me flawed for loving a book? Am I so arrogant and think there is just one way to do something? I am talking to MFA students next week, and I want to tell them: read to love, read as if your inner life depends on it because it does. Yes, it's important to the work to have the critical eye and to engage and build one's aesthetic, but I don't know if our primary mode should be following what's right immediately with what is wrong. And I'm certain that at conferences we should spend more time liking than disliking. Maybe we should look for the love, with love, at the thing we love and don't let our egos do that easy move of tearing something down versus standing with the imperfectness of the art we deeply care about. What books do you love? You can say. It's okay.
I was just at a wonderful conference where the main focus was Appalachian writing or being an Appalachian writer. This is a label that I've never felt or claimed. I feel like my whole life growing up in West Virginia was leading up to my big exit, poem by poem I was planning my escape. I finally left West Virginia in 1996 with a vow to never return. Some, I observed at the conference, look at the landscape and see this huge connection to the earth, this comfort, endless metaphor about existence, a real compassion for the landscape. I look at the landscape and see the backdrop to some of my greatest sadness, the landscape that witnessed the sadness, that kept me locked in, the world outside inaccessible. So, it's odd that I'm in year three of being back in West Virginia, teaching there, living right where I never thought I'd be again. I took the job for the teaching experience (you've seen the job market the last couple years) with a promise to myself that I'd leave after one year. Then one year became two, two became three and so on. This fall I will start my fourth year. I will see my first class all the way through. I can't completely say that I've stayed because of the market. I've definitely worked outside academia and (minus the summers off) found it mostly fine. But I think I've stayed so long because I've needed to make peace with something. I've needed to settle into my head some, which I found extremely difficult to do when I lived in New York (part of the reason I stayed there so long, I guess). Have I come back to make peace with the past, the landscape, the monsters that I've realized weren't really so big after all? I don't know. But I do know there are days when, despite the fact there is mostly nothing to do (and you won't catch me spending the day hiking) that I look at the stars out the back door, or the fog surrounding a moutain, and I think: not so bad. Maybe that's Appalachian, too? The going out, the coming back, the going back out again (which I'll do again eventually). I think of Mary Lee Settle's novel Charley Bland where she talks about wanting the angel to bless her, wanting her homeland to approve of her. I don't know if I need blessed, but I do know that every day I feel less and less afraid of whatever that sadness was I was running from. And maybe it's just as Appalachian to be conflicted, to escape, to hate it sometimes, and, at other times, to think: not so bad.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
I've been thinking a lot about our need to be a part of groups and our need to have autonomy outside of groups. Is it just our nature to start identifying characteristics that we have in common with one another in order to feel a sense of community, a sense that we are doing "it" right? A person told me the human mission/condition is to balance autonomy with membership because we need both. I think about that in terms of writing. There's a certain comfort from membership in groups I identify myself with (poet, for example), but there is definitely a part of me that needs autonomy, that does not feel comfortable with expectations from any group, that does not feel any real connection. I don't want anyone to think I'm speaking for them or that I have to prescribe to a certain way of doing things. I'm tired of people saying what they think poetry is or should do, what art is or should be (who gay people are and what we want). Just fucking write what you want, borrow from a tradition, reject a tradition. Just fucking do it and quit talking about it. Sometimes all this banter feels like foreplay when you just want to come. I was recently at a writer's conference and told the audience that the last scene of Moonstruck (where Cher is kicking the can down the street) is more moving to me, stays with me more than any Shakespeare I've read. Of course I know Shakespeare is a genius, but I'm tired of pretending that things matter to me that really don't. I'm tired of saying the "right" things hoping people will respect me more. We say write our obsessions then spend most of our time turning our noses up at poets who take that to heart. Isn't there room for autonomy, for our own visions, for that fucking can being kicked down the street, while also keeping membership? Can't we do it our own way and broaden our views of how it's done? Probably talking in circles, and that's fucking fine, too.