Artistic Temperance

If you’ve stopped by this blog frequently enough, or perhaps even just once, you’ll know that I have what I consider to be a healthy and lively obsession with Project Runway. This is somewhat odd because while I am a homosexual and therefore innately/magically sartorially gifted, I am also colorblind, pattern-averse, difficult to fit off the rack, and, above all else, cheap. However, none of these personal failings detract from my enjoyment of the weekly competition, and I look forward to its annual launch as eagerly as some men regard football or basketball season. I even have my own fantasy team! I am also so in tune with the judges’ values that I’m able to predict, 95% of the time, who will be eliminated based solely on their critiques. (Their issues are, in order of decreasing seriousness, poor construction, lack of taste, misguided styling.)

I’m thinking a lot right now, both in my life and in regard to the show, about artistic temperaments. I’m looking at Gretchen with some intensity right now because this week Heidi chided her for her reluctance to accept criticism–a trait previously seen in some memorable finalists, including Kenley Collins, Santino Rice, Christian Siriano, and Jeffrey Sebelia.

It’s not a ticket to Bryant Park/Lincoln Center, but it does seem to serve the contestants, that wall they have up. If you remember, Kenley flat out argued with Heidi and Michael Kors during her critiques, especially when it came to the yellow feathered wedding dress she brought to Fashion Week. Later, she threw a cat at her boyfriend. I don’t think anyone was shocked. Except perhaps the boyfriend. And I guess that says a lot about him.

Each of those contestants was wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of self-importance, bordering on self-righteousness. In the competitive atmosphere of the show, that cocoon buffered them from the aspirations and competing interests of the other designers. It protected them from the fracturing feedback of the judges, which can reduce some designers to confused/unfocused blobs of fashion roadkill (Valerie, Christopher, Ivy). The feedback can, along with the sour grapes of other designers, cause the “weaker” contestants to second guess themselves, thereby diluting their artistic output.

I’ll work this over to poetry in a minute. Just stay with me. The only person I know for sure is still reading is Suzanne Frischkorn.

The Kenelys, Santinos, and Gretchens are fortunate because their artistic vision is so resilient it cannot be diluted. They are, at the end of the day, cursed with their own selfhood. They cannot escape their point of view, and, in the two former cases, it’s both what got them to Fashion Week and ascertained their loss. (Am I the only one who thought Santino’s “Auf Wiedersehen” panties were waaaay off base?)

Several of the winners–exclusive of Jay, Irina, Christian and Jeffrey, who I’d categorize with those above–also have a commonality. Many of them were working for something external of the artform itself. Chloe, for example, owned a clothing store already and was a successful businessperson, but needed the win to take her business and her clientele to the next level. Leanne, otherwise mousy and quiet but extensively brilliant, was working both with fashion as an object and fashion as a theory–nearly every one of her outfits was based in a kind of object theory or object lesson. And Seth Aaron had his family, his commitment to them, pulling him through.

Chloe, Leanne, and Seth Aaron were all grounded artists, tethered back to a reality outside of fashion, while my earlier examples were all riddled with a bizarre selfishness and self-importance that allowed them to live fully, absolutely, inside their art. They had no context for fashion because they were only fashion.

The only true commonality, though, is that all of these designers are immensely talented. Just, some of them are less palatable people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry world in the last few months, partly spurred by my departure from my job, and partly due to interactions I’ve “witnessed” (or “overheard”?) on Facebook and blogs and the like. The poetry world no longer exists somewhere else, like at an AWP conference or on a campus. It comes into my living room as often as I allow it and, oftentimes, makes me feel sad.

I had a colleague who used to tell me, when I was bummed out about interpersonal drama in the workplace, to “zip into [my] thick skin.” This always used to irk me to no end. But I’m an artist, I thought. Wearing my thick skin will take away the part of me that creates art. To some extent, I still believe this is true, but I also believe that I am the kind of person who, for whatever reason, will never really fit into a thick skin. I can pretend to wear it, and that I’ve done exceptionally well my entire life. But I will never really wear it. That is, it will never become a part of me.

I remind myself now, with the poetry world just a click away, how essential it is to ground myself in another world.

During grad school, my “other world” was the gay community. I was fortunate enough to have beautiful friends outside of my program to whom I could turn and not be a poet. They are still close to my heart, as are many of the writers I met during that time. But I was never fully dependent on either. I had a foot in either world, and this kept me grounded on either side.

I wonder now where my other place is. Certainly Beau keeps me grounded. Just this year alone, he’s earned a sash full of merit badges for all the poetry events he’s sat through. He may be able to recite most of my book from memory now. And my new teaching gigs are outside of that world, working with people who, in varying ways, are outside poetry looking in. That viewpoint is refreshing, revitalizing. It’s a reminder that, away from the politicking and backbiting and simple mean-spiritedness, people still love this art. People still believe in this art. People still do this because they want to be closer to art. Not because they care about prizes or fellowships or residencies or reviews. Because poetry matters.

Maybe now the connection to the fashion industry isn’t so oblique. If you want to know how catty fashionistas are, just ask Tim Gunn about Isaac Mizrahi. Or spend a while listening to Andre Leon Talley on America’s Next Top Model. Or pop in The Devil Wears Prada.

I’m grateful, now and always, to the kind and supportive poets who keep my faith.

To the rest? All I can say is, in poetry, you’re in one day and out the next.

It’s only a matter of time.

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