I tried to dispel The Myth last night at a house party. I think it went well.
Picture this: there's me (a poet), an investment banker, a real estate agent, an ads man and an environmental scientist. I assumed their work experiences were their own, and that I shouldn't denigrate them based off of stereotypes. I asked them if their jobs were fulfilling; overall, they said no but that the money was good. I asked them what else they did, because surely their job wasn't the entirety of their personality. Nothing much, really.
When I told them what I did, they were confused. I'm a poet and an editor. I felt singled-out, as if they'd been working hard their whole lives while I was engaged in things of folly, a belle epoque pastime that disqualified me from the grown-up "So, what do you do?" conversation. I tried to explain that doing and being aren't intrinsically connected, but at least a few people found this to be quite radical a notion.
"You mean, like, poetry poetry?" Their eyes squint at me, through me. Could writers also be happy (or fulfilled or important) doing this supposedly archaic, gilded thing? What does it even mean to be a poet today, they questioned? What has it ever meant? Did I write song lyrics? What do I do for a job? Do I sit in cafes? After a long day do I come home and write down my feelings?
I cannot blame people for their lack of understanding. Most educated individuals who spend countless dollars on university expect that other people are on a similar trajectory -- university to job. But the Poet's lifestyle is a different animal, not black or white or even in-between; still, this doesn't mean it's not calculated or purposeful.
You don't accidentally stumble into dedication. You can still pay countless dollars for an education in poetry and you can still find a job. Or, you may never go that route. The Poetry exists in tandem with the Life, as if they are Siamese twins. Inseparable, but parallel.
Often falsely defined as a nighttime passion one may have in addition to one's "real job," the Poet is by default reduced to hobbyist. The conventional path may have been taken, just as it may have been forsaken, but either way, its tangibility is in question, just as poetry's content. This (perhaps American) notion of realness denigrates not only the written word but the importance of our quality of life. For me (and for other poets) the Poetry has not only followed education and is a real job. For us, the written word was always important; we don't need a degree to tell us that.
My name is Lisa and I contribute in a variety of ways (if we must derive value from the idea of contributions): I have a day job and I also write, edit and publish work as a poet. I do not moonlight as a poet. Poetry is a job like many others. In some ways, it is more difficult; it is self-created. I believe that a Poet is not merely one who writes poetry but one whose dedication to poetry fits into their private or public lifestyle, and one who advocates for poetry in a way they believe to be valuable and meaningful. We may not all promote poetry in the same way, but by God we adore it.
Much of society places "art" and "life" into two segregated boxes. Therefore, the problem is that the Poet is seldom heard or taken seriously at-large, because our "box" is the "other" box -- the seemingly intangible box from which you can opt-out simply as a result of one's very nature.
"I haven't read poetry since college," the banker told me.
I say, "I have never known anything about banking besides how to check my bank account."
Giggles commence, yet his job is respected and coveted and mine is the joke. Like a parent shooing a child: "Aw, that's so cute! You write poems!"
When you say that you are a poet, the retorts are plentiful. Many are ignorant but forgivable and others are reductive and insulting. For whatever reason, the Poet's work seems to have been both diminished to that of a drippy college elective (made worse by the canonical white hetero-normative selections we're taught) and a personal hobby. And if you've never read poetry, you've seen the primitive depictions of it in film: poets are depressive and manically consuming coffee. And they have so many feelings.
What people don't seem to understand is that we do not feel more; we simply observe what we notice and filter it into something beautiful, like one's favorite photograph. Good poetry requires craft and the knowledge and observation of sound, culture, identity, society, space and language. It is its own variety of reportage, a record of what isn't being said out loud.
According to AnnRene Johnson, over at Johns Hopkins School of Education:
Former President John F. Kennedy stated, 'I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his/her vision wherever it takes him/her." Beverly Sills is noted for her powerful quote, "Art is the signature of civilization."
Webster's Dictionary helps to give greater meaning to these profound statements. Community is defined as - "Society at large." Value is defined as -- "Something intrinsically valuable or desirable." Belief is defined as: "Something believed." Education comes from the Latin root "educate" to lead out or draw from. What we know to be true, throughout history, is that the ARTS -- all of them, are beliefs and values in all societies that lead out, or draw from each of us -- the art from within. The ARTS define and celebrate all aspects of our lives.
The ARTS are the universal language that communicates to all peoples. That is why the arts continue -- they are values and beliefs. Values and beliefs are the very essence of who we are, and how we behave. Values and beliefs are constant in a changing world and society. The arts capture our essence, our purpose, our world, through multi-medium experiences that communicate and transcend to all cultures in all languages.
Johnson hit the nail on the head. Art, including poetry (no matter the style) is not private. People who write poetry are different from Poets, and this is why our job must be respected. There is an outcome.
The Poet and Their Poetry is a public entity that has observed, eaten, digested, analyzed, broken, re-appropriated, questioned, re-questioned, loved, hated, assaulted, calculated and regurgitated society and community as a whole, even if that society and that community is one human being affected within it.
The ads man, the investment banker, the scientist and the real estate agent all asked me, "So, what do you do as a poet?" I told them I read, write, edit, publish, study, promote and share my work and the work of others. I say I engage in conversations about people and social justice issues and rights and art, that poetry encompassed all of this. They asked me if I got paid. If I wrote when I was sad. They told me they thought it must be hard to be a "struggling poet." They asked me if they thought their favorite rapper was a good poet (no, I said, no he is not). The banker actually said that most poets he knew were "little wimps."
I politely told him I'm not struggling. I'm not a wimp. I get paid. And that I often write when I am happy. I feel I can speak for many poets in this regard.
I think it is of utmost importance that we defend and share our poetry and our value with the outside world. We must believe in and populate the world with the worth of our work. I will say that the intrinsic nature of the poetry "scene" (and its various arms) is a glorious thing at times. We as poets (even with the nepotism, ego, clique and jealousy) care deeply for one another and this is great; we appreciate and see the time and obsession we all share, whether we like the "other" work or not. But poetry ought not be self-contained.
When you're at a party, a family gathering, a wedding, a bar-wherever people might ask you about life as a poet, be honest: tell them about your work. Don't self-deprecate. Defend the countless hours, the late-nights wading through submissions, the pain and glory of rejections and acceptances. Tell them about why you write, why it matters and why it has an impact. Don't settle for hobbyist because it's easy to explain. Tell them that poets aren't all wimpy and sad. Tell them about the anthologies you edit, the courses you teach, the readings you do, the readings you host, the conferences you attend, the fellowships that allow you to see the world, the contest you won and the book being published. Don't talk down to them. When they ask you "what's your poetry about?" don't water it down. Let it speak for itself. This is something most poets find difficult, because how do you explain white space and metaphor? You just do. Just try. Trust your audience in the making.
When you're an ads man, a banker and a scientist, you are legitimized. You're contributing to society in a verifiable way. These jobs are transactions-based. They can be measured in revenue and developments, and poetry's outcome is just as verifiable, only the ways in which it can be measured far surpass a paycheck and a day-job. It is simultaneously immortal and ever-changing. It will live longer than an ad-spot.
Poetry requires of us analysis, research, devotion, marketing and creativity -- along with that other intangible element, and that's what sets us apart. Don't deny that. Defend it.
Follow Lisa Marie Basile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisamariebasile