Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Poetics of Identity

BECAUSE I'VE NOTICED THAT PEOPLE ARE JOURNEYING OVER HERE FROM THE HARRIET BLOG, I've decided to re-post my essay on identity poetry. Lest I be named a hypocrite, I want to be straight in saying that my arguments on every subject are often contraditory.


Lately, I have been thinking about poetry and identity. There have been many poets giving birth to children lately. I have been reading various discussions of how parenthood influences a poet"s work/identity. Jeffrey McDaniel discusses this in "babies, parents, and poetry" on the Harriet Blog. Eoach just did a fabulous issue #3: Queering Language. This issue includes many of my favorite poet/blogger/people including Jen Benka, Amy King, Bill Kushner, Mark Bibbin, Nathaniel Siegel and so many others. Soft Skull recently published Jullian Weise's An Amputee's Guide to Sex.

First, I need to "identify" what people mean by "identity' in poetry -- or the world. I think that people chose to create identity in order to survive in the the world without being destroyed. People tend to create identity issue as a backlash to marginalization. White, rich males don't tend to focus on their whiteness or richness because these are not things that need to be overcome. When people consider the question of identity in poetry it tends to focus on some version of the outsider due to race, disabilty, sexuality, gender, or, believe it or not parenthood.

Identity in poetry can be great, and it can be very problematic.

On the one hand, I am so grateful to people like the editors at Eoach who put together such a comprehensive, beautiful issue. It goes without saying that outsiders need more of a voice in literature. However, what I am leery of, is poetry that rests too much on the laurels of the author's "otherness." If Charles Bernstein wrote obsessively on being a Jewish boy growing up in New York, would he be so wonderful? The quality of the poetry has to always be primary. The poets in Eoach have been able to avoid being trapped in one kind of work. The poetry speaks for itself.

I have not read Weise's book yet. I have to admit, I'm a little jealous. She's very young and has met good sucess. What I have read of The Amputee's Guide to Sex is interesting. The book has great selling power: disability, sex, and a scadelous cover. But, what will her next book be about? How can she move backward from this? Although I thought Tory Dent was a highly talented poet, I found her work problematic. She had HIV; that is all she wrote about.

But is it okay to use one's disability/race/queerness to sell books and/or get a university job? Isn't society hostile enough toward us that it is okay to turn the tables on them and use it to our advance? Is it fair for me to sit here and collect a check for being "disabled" when I actually could be at work? Or did God bless me by giving me time to write? It's all so very hard to sort out.

I have wrestled with this problem as a poet with cerebral palsy. When I wrote something direct, James Galvin tore it apart publically in a workshop. I was crushed. But, then he gave me some great advice. He told me that my disabilty would come accross, no matter what I wrote, and I think it does. In my new book, I only have 2 disabled poems, one is really good, one sucks. UNM Press has decided (and I have too) to make it clear that I am disabled in the hopes of making the book stand out. But, again, I'm not entirely comfortable with this, it's more like, well as a poet, you have to use whatever you can. (This would also be a good place to note that to my knowledge exposing my disability has done NOTHING for my poetry career, which has been relentlessly slow). I have tried to tackle the issue in my second book, but have had very little success.

I hope I don't piss off too many people here. I am certainly not saying that anyone should be/live/write other than their own experience. Until we rid society of prejudice, there will be a need for special grants, magazines, and so on. But, people only need to write, and their experience will be there. Everyone knows Ashbery is gay, Eigner was crippled, and Hughes was black.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the quality of the work has to be primary, but I think that if you live in a situation in which you are constantly reminded of your "identity", then there's something dishonest about failing to address it directly at least some of the time. While I understand the distaste for marketing one's own otherness, it's a fine line between avoiding that and hiding from oneself. said...

Hi, thanks for this commentary which I stumbled across. This is certainly worthy of commentary and reflection. You mention Tory Dent which I think is instructive. I think you misunderstand her work. While it is in the context of her illness I think it very much transcends her illness as well -- this is obviously a subjective opinion. Milosz also said that poetry should be written from the trenches, that if it's not meaningful to someone who is facing death, it's not worth writing in the first place. That's what Dent does. I also don't think she ever got a "university job" or sold her illness per se. I remember one quote where she said she didn't consider an audience at all, which is I think the best and most productive way to write. At the end of the day you do the best you can with your writing, tear it out of your heart, try to make it as meaningful and true as you can, everyone makes individual choices about the extent to which aspects of their life come into it. But it is obviously going to reflect the circumstances of your life. How the work is marketed or received is not entirely up to you. I would be careful about scolding others for the choices they make in addressing their own misfortunes. Usually the complaint that one should stop making one's illness a topic of work is born from a desire to not listen. But illness and death are profound topics that deserve a much wider listening than the generally get in our culture.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Thank you both for your comments.

Sean, I think you have a good point. It's hard to get one's complete point across in a blog. I guess it's a matter of personal taste. I like work that transends one's personal experience, rather than relies upon it. I think that in the age of the memoir and a landscape of political correctness it it too easy to rely on your own differentness to sell work.

I would be curious to hear from people who have reaf Julian Weiss's book, and what she had in mind...

John B-R said...

Why identity? Why not identities?