Knowing Better: On Sentimentality and Criticism

After my Martin Luther King day missive over on popcorn, I received some nice comments about the timeliness of the post and reports that others had also loved Richard Blanco’s poem. But on Facebook, a poet friend of mine was bashing it. Specifically, he said:

I-N-S-U-F-F-E-R-A-B-L-E. Somebody please point me to a contemporary poem that a) is competent; b) tells competency to f*** itself and transcends to something sublime; c) has a real poetic “voice” behind it, even if that voice is not that of the poet’s; d) does not elude, evade, or avoid; e) tells the f***ing truth– about something, anything beyond the speaker’s narrow view of the universe, i.e. ‘my f***ing father died and here I am comparing his death, vis-a-vis my grief, to this violet (though ‘violet’ is ALWAYS better than ‘flower’)’; and g) makes readers–and not just fellow poets, especially Ivory-Tower poets–CARE. I f***ing dare you.

I should say right off that I adore this friend, and admire his strong positions, and plan to share this blog post with him, but nonetheless, there it was. On Facebook. Where others piled on and piled on and piled on.

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

And it got me thinking.

I didn’t, actually, “love” Blanco’s poem, and I’ll admit that the only line that stays with me is the one I used as my blog title: thank the work of our hands. But I loved that the poem existed. I think beyond its efficacy as a piece of writing I felt the symbolism of its being a poem by a gay Cuban man in America on the inauguration day of an African-American President on what also happened to be Martin Luther King day–wow. King would have been proud. That the identity of the poet was politic is undeniable; and maybe, as a writer, I’m not supposed to accept politic. I’m supposed to demand excellence. But man, I know as well as the next poet how difficult it is to write “occasional” poetry; I wrote a wedding poem for my own wedding and can’t remember any of its lines, either. (I wrote one for a friend’s wedding, however, that was pretty great–only then he got divorced.) So I guess, on MLK Day, politic and symbolism and the fact that millions of Americans actually read a poem that day was plenty for me.

But nonetheless I’ve been thinking about this since: have I gone soft in my old age? I once, writing a book review for the Willamette Week, absolutely bashed a book. I think I said something to the effect of, “as a graduate of Iowa, Ms. X should frankly know better.” I felt powerful when I wrote it, like I knew something she didn’t, like I was a “real” critic. But now when I think of how I committed that snarky comment to paper I absolutely cringe. A large part of this is that someone once wrote a caustic review of a poem I’d written. And it made me feel terrible. And I realized that it is very easy to sit in a corner and sling arrows rather than support the work of other writers even if you don’t care for what they’re doing. The more I’m in this game the more generous I become, I guess because generosity is the only thing that’s liable to get any of us read, published, and admired.

But I also realize–and this is the part that scares me just a bit–that I have become more sentimental in the past few years. I find myself disregarding writing not because the writer should have known better but because I can’t find the heart in a piece. Some of the arguably most impressive books of the last decade–like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and even Infinite Jest (okay, that was 1996) were books that to me were technically impressive but not entirely likeable, because I didn’t connect with the characters enough to care. I seem lately to value above all else writing that shares the common human experiences of love, loss, and sadness. Not very intellectually interesting of me, I suppose.

So have I become a big sap? Was my friend right that Blanco’s poem was insufferable, unchallenging, limited, and lame? Have I become so sentimental that I can’t discern good writing from plonk? I hope not. But I don’t think I want to sling arrows.

Not just yet, anyway.

What Wisdom is This

“The dream of being a writer and the crazy price one has to pay for excellence are impossible to demonstrate or, really, even to fathom.” –John Lahr, reviewing the play “Seminar,” now playing in New York, in the November 28 issue of The New Yorker.

My last blog post created a bit of a stir. A friend reposted it on her Facebook wall, and all of a sudden people I didn’t know were reading my blog and commenting on it. This may be silly, but that gave me a thrill. Lately–what with a new blog, and some childcare, and a motivation towards getting out there that has been dormant for some time–I have been feeling, for the first time since I had L, public. Like I am a writer with a writing life, not just a woman squirreled away working on stuff. I made this Website and blog in part because I want to create a sort of grassroots presence for myself on the Web; I have a memoir to publish, after all.

So, anyway, there was this reposting on S’s Facebook page, and then there was a bit of a stir on my own Facebook page. First my friend BK made the point that conservatives “suck hairy elephant nutsacks” (oh boy) and then my mom very brashly said she’d never let a kid cry it out, whence another friend admitted she had in fact let her kid cry it out and then another friend came in on the side of respectful parenting and I sort of tried to smooth everything over, secretly thinking, Uh oh. Conflict.

And I very nearly rethought the whole thing. Because I don’t do conflict that well. It scares me. It worries me that my conservative friends will be really offended by a silly quip or that there will be an all-out war on my Facebook page (no, the smallness of that concern is not lost on me). I am the sort of person who is both deeply opinionated and scared to death that people won’t like her, so I run around trying to make everyone get along.

Over the weekend, deciding how to deal with this problem, I got to thinking about the desire to be a more public sort of writer, since it seems in this day that that is what is required of writers. Have a Website, the books admonish. Have a blog. No space for Emily Dickinsons here, I’m afraid. And then I had to admit to myself that with or without tools like Facebook and WordPress, I’ve kind of set myself up for conflict. My memoir is about the year I spent traveling with B, my now husband. I joke that it’s a “tell-all exposé” of our relationship but the joke is thin; it is. I can’t say what possessed me to write this book other than to say that I started out writing travel essays and quickly realized I had a very different story to tell. So I let it just pour out, and there you have it: how we met, the first time we had sex, the fights we had, the marriage proposal, all on paper. And I want desperately to have it published and widely read. Am I crazy? (Incidentally, what scares me most is my mom and dad reading about us eating hallucinogenic cactus in Peru.)

When you write something like that, you open yourself wide up. For conflict. For judgment. I have been in writing workshops where people said the character of Susie was snobbish, that she needed more gravitas; another found B totally unsympathetic. Another read Susie as an utter basket case by page 50; did I really want that, I was asked? Well, no–and yet, if you’re writing a memoir, you’re bound to tell the truth. And yes, Susie was a total basket case by page 50. After some of those moments of criticism I came home and had a really long, hard cry, and then I went back at it.

If I do get this book published, I know there will be a stir, however minor. And some people will love it, and some will say, what wisdom is this? Why should we care? I guess that’s all a part of the deal.

I just realized how long I have been wanting to get this off my chest.