Mr. Bright Side

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Sometimes I get annoyed about men’s fashion. Men’s work clothes are so bland and uninteresting–pants, shirts, ties, jackets. Period. Khakis. Whoo hoo! Dangerous. I used to get irritated that the women in my offices could wear things that were basically more casual and comfortable (say, by not having a bolt of silk knotted at their throat, for example). In Arizona, it was worse, because women could come to work in what were essentially muscle shirts with collars on them and it was fine. When it was 116 outside, I totally considered putting a collar on one of my sleeveless shirts rather than put on the thick, biohazard suit-like clothes of the office guy.

Maybe there’s something in the air lately, but I’ve read and heard from several writers this simple sentiment:

“Thank god I don’t make my living through writing. I’m so happy I have this other job as a nurse/math teacher/graphic designer to keep me going.”

The remarks stunned me a bit. While I feel lucky to have a job where I get to work in the “literary world” somewhat, and meet writers, and plan events for them, etc., I sometimes wonder if things would be better (would it be awful to say “easier”?) if I were teaching college. For poets, I think university jobs are sort of the elephant in the room (if you don’t have one). I wonder, for example, if it would be great to have summers off so I could trot off to writing residencies, or how great it would be to work three or four days a week so I could travel for readings and everything.

And it’s hard to remember all the unpleasant parts of teaching that I don’t have to deal with, like paperwork and tenure review committees and politics and bureaucracy. Because it’s easier to focus on what I want and don’t have rather than what I have and don’t want. (It’s a personality flaw, admittedly.)

So, I don’t get to go on writing retreats longer than a long weekend, and I don’t get long summer days to read books and write new poems. I work about 50 hours a week in one of the most fun jobs a writer can have. And I’m good at it, too. I don’t know if I would feel so excited to do something I was only 75% good at.

So what’s the bright side of fashion? That although my closets are full of pants, shirts, ties, and jackets, most of them don’t ever go out of style. Thanks, black pants, white shirts, etc! That’s money in my pocket. To go buy more clothes.

Brr!

Yes, Virginia, you do wear wool winter coats in Arizona:

Current temperaturee at 9 am: 41 degrees.
When it was totally black outside, it was so early: 39

That’s almost freezing! If we had water here, it would freeze.

It scares me.

Dumbledore, we hardly–ah, never mind.

So along comes Rowling with Dumbledore—a human being, a wizard even, an indisputable hero and one of the most beloved figures in children’s literature. Shouldn’t I be happy to learn he’s gay?

Yes, except: Why couldn’t he tell us himself? The Potter books add up to more than 800,000 words before Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and yet Rowling couldn’t spare two of those words—”I’m gay”—to help define a central character’s emotional identity? We can only conclude that Dumbledore saw his homosexuality as shameful and inappropriate to mention among his colleagues and students. His silence suggests a lack of personal integrity that is completely out of character.

The boy with the empty plate at the poetry buffet.

It’s happening again. I’m forgetting what poetry is.

This happens a lot. I forget how to write poems. I don’t know what they are anymore, I don’t understand them, and I feel frustrated.

I become a very picky reader. I don’t like anything I hear or read. I think everything’s been done already and there’s no use writing. I get frustrated, anxious.

But in the past couple of weeks I’ve read two really good books: Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It and Neil Smith’s Bang Crunch. Both are inventive short story collections, both gorgeous.

I wish I could stick books directly into my head like a tape into a VCR.

I wish I knew what I was trying to say.

I got a nice rejection note from Ausable Press today that said my manuscript was very good and I should try submitting again.

I needed that.

Wait…are you saying literature isn’t dead?

I think one of my biggest minor annoyances in life is talking to people about literature. Books.

When I meet people, I generally don’t offer up that I write, although it is frequently a question that follows once people have asked what I do for a living, since it seems a natural extension of the place where I work. I cop to it if asked, yes, and then for some reason, people always feel compelled to confess to me various aspects of their reading habits. “I don’t read much,”
they’ll say, as if apologizing to me personally, or to pre-empt my seemingly inevitable judgment of their intelligence, class, or cultural savvy.

[As an aside, something similar occurred when I first came out. People would respond with the most outlandish confessions, like “Once I stole lip gloss from Wal-Mart!” or “Once I let a boy do me in the butt!” As if there’s an equivalency there.]

The people who don’t read much, I understand. People are busy. Books take a lot of time, and a lot of them are kind of bad, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for, have gotten a crappy recommendation, or are new to reading for fun. For most people, reading is a chore akin to carefully flaying their own skin from their body and stretching it taut across a drum to be tanned into leather. I get that. Sometimes, some books make me dislike reading. This is the case with any book my father would enjoy: non (*shudder*) fiction.

People, I don’t care if you read. Don’t read if you don’t want to. I’d rather talk about what’s on TV anyway. Did you see the Veronica Mars finale??

Those who do read, I find, generally begin to ask me if I like a series of writers. They generally ask like this: “Do you like ____? Do you like ____? Do you like ____?” as if this were high school and I were handed a note that says, after each one, “check yes or no.”

Their list of writers oftentimes looks like this:

Dead white guy
Dead white guy
Dead white woman
Nearly dead white guy
The DaVinci Code
White guy I think is probably dead, maybe in the past couple of months
Dead white guy

It’s as if most people believe that “literature” is no longer being created. That all of these great books, written by dead people, somehow just appeared on the shelves in their local bookstore. They don’t seem to understand that there are actual living writers creating actual works of art RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. They also don’t seem to understand that they can read those books shortly after they are published, while the writer is still alive, and that typically they can also go somewhere not far from their house to hear the author read, meet the author, etc.

I’ve learned when people ask me what I read that I generally have to list for them the dead people whose books I’ve enjoyed, or else they look at me quizzically, wondering who these writers are they’ve never heard of. “Oh, they’re still alive,” I explain, and then I’m met with a very skeptical look that I know means nothing written by a living person could be worth reading.

I think America’s reading-living-writers crisis has become so extreme that “Living Writers” could be a real stumper of a category on Jeopardy!

Unless, of course, the book has been made into a movie, a TV movie, or a mini series.

Effigy Poetics

Thanks to all who linked to the TIME magazine article about why poetry sucks and doesn’t meet anyone’s needs. After reading it, I feel like I am now a part of a very hoity-toity circle of airbags—like the Marketing Department in Dilbert but with bigger vocabularies.

Blaming poets for poetry sucking seems like the right thing to do. After all, we don’t blame the gun for killing someone, we blame the gun manufacturer. We don’t blame the cigarette, we blame tobacco companies. We don’t blame the customs agent, we blame the tuberculosis-infected individual who slipped through. Perhaps one day soon there will be a class-action lawsuit against all poets everywhere. For making poetry suck.

It’s helpful, too, then, that people across the country are asking poets why our poetry sucks so bad. Why are we wasting time with the lyric when we could be tittilating folks with filthy limericks and the like? And isn’t the haiku just so darling? With poetry like this, we could reel in both the WWF Smackdown audience AND all six people who were watching Men in Trees this year.

If poetry were more popular, perhaps we could encourage America’s most avid and widely-read readers to put down their Danielle Steele novels and try something new.

In all honesty, though, if I really were to choose some people to blame for people’s dislike (and distrust) of contemporary poetry, I’d look at the English teachers. The handgun-wielders. The cigarette smokers. The people who put poetry into action for young people, when attitudes and associations are formed about literary and poetry.

How many of us sat through classes where imagery was “decoded,” where symbols were “demystified,” “explained”? How many of us read actual living poets when we were school—or poems written before 1940? And it’s not even really the teachers’ faults, many of whom aren’t and will never be able to receive poetry as anything other than a set of tropes and codes, meter and rhyme, etc. That’s what they were taught. And education is, after all, catching.

And what about our textbook publishers, who select poetry that doesn’t connect to young people? The world is no longer as interested in writing by the Big White Guys anymore. Even white kids are tired of reading it. An effort to represent the poetry being written today would be more beneficial in raising poetry’s cultural quotient.

Billy Collins isn’t for everybody. Nikki Giovanni isn’t for everybody. But Billy is for some people, and Nikki is for some people, and for the rest of us there’s still an enormous widening gyre of poets and books to be read.

When people lament that only poets are reading poetry, it exposes their naievete. Of course we are. Because we know there’s so much good stuff out there. If you’re not reading poetry, there’s something wrong with you, not us.