It’s been on my mind much longer than it has lived in my mouth as an articulated idea. Usually, it takes the visceral shape of, How do I get what I’m here for? or How can my all-the-time needs be fulfilled while on-the-clock? Or, most simply, How do I make this my thing? From waiting tables to performing cheap university labor to working at small disorganized non-profits, I cannot deny the years-long existence of this tendency in me, practically from the moment I entered the workforce, to infiltrate. I’ve done it for selfish purposes (finishing a task early and sneakily writing a poem). I’ve done it in socially agreed upon capacities (no customers = no better time to get some reading done). And I’ve done it toward political, by which I mean personal, ends (if I’ve already got these teens making collage postcards, I might as well leave our Senators’ mailing addresses in an encouraging location, might as well teach them about the wage gap).
Infiltration implies resistance, that one cannot accomplish one’s needs or desires through a purely transparent or accepted method. Or else it implies a disconnect between what two different people determine as valuable. I would be hard pressed to try and convince my boss that if I can just get these last few lines written down, these last few pages read, I would be in a much better capacity to take that family’s order.
Perhaps this makes me a bad employee. Perhaps I merely have yet to find a job that will let me feel truly fulfilled, holistically present, one that won’t demand that I compartmentalize these diverse capacities so presumably at odds within me. Poet. Care worker. Has-to-pay-rent-monthly person. Add to this the fact that I swing wildly between manic motivation and a sluggishness that any grown woman should be ashamed of, and it’s no surprise that my obligations and my intentions can sometimes feel slippery and interchangeable. But the fact is that I’ve found myself, repeatedly, in situations where I’ve felt driven to infiltrate, either to accomplish what I see as most beneficial and responsible or, less glamorously, to try and remain a somewhat sane person, one whose time could be used in a manner reflective of the value of such finite resources.
This situation is nothing new or rare, my insights entirely standard ones. But this is the context that shaped my reception of “In Defense of Imagination,” a conversation recently published in Guernica between Ada Limón and Matthew Zapruder, on the occasion of the latter’s newest book of prose. It’s a sweet interaction, one that veers from poetry’s distilled powers to Dickinson’s feminist trailblazing to descriptions of classroom teaching that give Dead Poets Society a run for its money, and I found it both useful and inspiring, these two accomplished writers paying such genuine attention to all the different ways a word can hold things like acceptance, or grief. Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry, sounds like a thoughtful, well-researched and self-reflexive read, and the excerpts popping up online prove this. Every time I write that title down, I have to backspace and delete the question mark that I automatically insert at the end, and this seems important: though Zapruder seems wholly invested in the way that questions can shape and deepen one’s love of a thing, his aim with this book is also to give readers some justification, some support, an expansive explanation: not why poetry? but here’s why poetry.
I like Limón’s distinctions between useful and necessary, and I like the way Zapruder says “neat” to show admiration. And I’m most certainly always happier to read this type of exchange, an optimistic and sweeping battle cry on behalf of the generic Poetry world, than to read the clever and pointless attacks and insults—poetry is dead!—that seem to pop up with embarrassing regularity.
I can always manage to quickly forget about those harsh, self-serving criticisms, usually after a brief period of rowdy commiseration and beer drinking. And yet it’s the optimistic defenses—Limón and Zapruder’s conversation, the love letters, the impassioned and straight up happy appraisals of the poet’s life and purpose—that sometimes keep me up at night, leave me feeling as if I’m doing something wrong, as if I must have misunderstood some key component of success somewhere along the way. As if maybe my own version of public rallying would not revolve around a wholly committed defense of Poetry and Poetics. Feelings are feelings, but where in the world does this one come from? Me, a poet, wanting to infiltrate my own love of a thing with suspicion and privacy, with the cold truth of its actual limitations and perhaps even a healthy dose of believing that, at the end of the day, poemdoing is utterly not the same thing as any other form of doing. An awareness that I stubbornly insist on voicing even when contexts are made clear: poetry is simply a space for a certain kind of thinking—“anarchic,” even, as Zapruder describes it at one point—and nobody here is trying to claim that it prevents oppression, or that it campaigns, or that it legislates.
It is an awareness of purpose—the actual vulnerable heart of these kinds of discussions, I suspect—that felt uncomfortably poked as I read through Limón and Zapruder’s conversation. Almost immediately, Limón points out the invigoration that can be felt at belonging to an occupation so regularly misunderstood or deemed pointless and therefore requiring defense; after all, she cites, nobody questions lawyers and their practice of law, or waiters and the validity or usefulness or reasoning behind why they do what they do.
I am also a poet, though I would not call it my vocation, not in the sense that it’s connected to how I pay my bills, and neither does it provide me with even a small source of bonus income. I have been paid a couple of times for things I have written that were not commissioned, things truly born of the soul or whatever else in me, the purpose of writing them having been a deeply and entirely personal one (which, to be clear, does not automatically apply to the content itself). How many people are truly making a living from their poems, not in the poetic sense but the IRL one: making enough money from appearances and publications and other writerly accoutrements that I don’t even have access to imagining, that they’re able to confuse their job with their passion? How many people can strictly give one answer to the infamous question, “so, what do you do?”
To compare the poet defending her work to the lawyer, the waitress, the librarian, or the barista is to suggest that the poet’s skills might be quantifiable to begin with, that one can simply decide to become a poet in a socially recognizable way and then proceed forward in the manner of their choosing: open a poem shop, or start publishing in exchange for immediate money, perhaps even become a celebrity poet in public. I’m moved and engaged by Limón and Zapruder’s discussion of what poetry is for, in a philosophical and, well, a poetic sense, but I’m made sad by the misleading comparison of jobs. I cannot support myself through my love of reading and writing poetry, not even through my skill (arguable as it may be). And though I live a sheltered life in a small town, one that affords/restricts me to my own situated perspective, I insist on claiming with full confidence that not many people are making rent through their poems. To imply anything otherwise seems ungrounded, or silly, or oblivious.
Perhaps when the job of the poet is discussed with so few footnotes, what is really being talked about is teaching. I get it: you love poetry, you obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing, and then you pursue professorship and Academia all the way. But now I’d like to make another confident claim: poetry is not, no matter what they tell you, the purview of higher education alone. It is a bastard child, or maybe an adopted one? Perhaps it’s just righteously immature. The point is that while I do understand the poet who aims to teach, whose goal is to pursue their Poethood as one stemming from or revolving around the classroom, I lament the lack of imagination that suggests there’s no other way to do it. It is, I suppose, a grief born of fact: there isn’t really any other clear way to be a poet, not professionally. You can write and publish and read and submit, enter contests and attend AWPs, network, do the obligatory social dances of recognition and branding, and maybe one day you will publish a book, maybe even a few. But you will probably, even then, still have a day job.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this comment from Zapruder, occurring about a third of the way into the conversation:
Some people have seen [prior remarks about the definition of poetry] as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could ‘afford’ to think in such a way…I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right.”
I love this: the acknowledgment, the advocacy, the sincerity. I’d just like to call a spade a spade, a poem a poem. Necessary and useless. Placing “Poet” amongst other occupations is like positioning this baby doll as my offspring. We’re all just playing around! That’s why we’re good at poems. We shouldn’t stop writing them, but maybe we should think twice about calling it our job?
What we call things matters (see: whatever Trump recently said on Twitter), as they direct our sense-making. Some people look around and say, biology, psychology, accident. Others, magic, meant-to-be, or perfection. Most of us, all of us, fly back and forth between such poles, our reason and our desire and our imagination all sharing the same bed regardless of their different or competing sleep schedules. And some people choose, in the face of harsh realities and limited abilities, in the face of explanation and fact, to leave a little space open in them for optimism and hope, for the birth of a spirit animal, for the way providence sheds a slightly different light on the object before you than does coincidence. It is, undoubtedly, the poet’s choice: you infiltrate reality with meaning. You write the poem regardless.
Here are some things I do want: more generosity stemming from deep within myself, more confidence in how and when and for whom I define my boundaries, more play, more money, more stability, more responsibility in tandem with the constantly growing amounts of more complicity; to write more poems, to read more poems, to vary when and where and for whom I write those poems; to sneak more creativity into boring jobs, to sneak more political engagement into daily activities, to sneak more vegetables into my boyfriend’s food, to sneak more gratitude and acceptance into my engagements with difference, with poets unlike me, with people who do different jobs than me or even the same jobs but to different ends. To sneak some vulnerability into every single engagement between myself and the page. To sneak the poem into the essay and vice versa.
Poetry is its own form of infiltration: it breaks into language and steals meaning, steals utility, lays bare a wealth of behind-the-scenes linguistic functioning and inserts all manner of happenstance and coincidence and prank where none existed before. Could it ever truly be an occupation when it revolves around infiltrating the means of production themselves? It is always about getting away with something, and often some form of robbery. Though most people choose a better getaway vehicle than words.
Pure infiltration. What other medium, what other linguistic shape or form of communication could allow its own angst to intrude upon its defenses, could allow or even encourage the subordinate to both betray her responsibilities and question the enterprise itself? Perhaps the real job of the poet is to write regardless of circumstance, to pretend for once in this capitalist-centric world that money might be what it actually is: beside the point. As Dickinson might say, the prose in which we are all shut up.
“There is a way in which the silent body, at the request of those receiving it, threatens to become the invisible body. As if spoken language alone can constitute our reception, our method of meaning. What does it mean to be a quiet girl in a room full of people? If my own experiences are to be trusted, not much.”
Essay forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue.
Sometimes, I think about this haunting sentence, from “On Erasure,” by Mary Ruefle:
…life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don’t know or haven’t experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased “whole” becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased.
Ruefle says that our lives are erasures because we cannot bear them in their entirety. I wonder about the conflicted life of the poet: simultaneously erasing and writing, erasing and writing, considering things she sometimes can’t bear to feel or remember; writing as an attempt to document, and then writing as an attempt purge.
Documenting and purging: there is a schism between the inner and outer world: between my private self and the one I make visible. And even this visible self is ruptured: I find myself intellectually, artistically, even ethically drawn toward & excited by the loss of composure—by the idea of refusing to accommodate the world’s demand of public poise—but I remain practically, viscerally scared of such a revelation. As a result, my motivation as a writer has been to creatively transpose the body into language, to alter my understanding of it via the expansion of words and, in doing so, (re)create my relationship to the body. In other words, to think and theorize my way through and around vulnerability, to walk closer toward it in words and then hope my body will follow. But what does it mean to take risks in writing that aren’t being taken in life? Where do I draw lines of responsibility and interest, of theory and practice, of personhood and poethood?
Before I came to articulate this motivation—before I’d even begun to recognize its preverbal form—I went to grad school. There are probably a lot of complicated reasons why I’ve erased almost all my memories from the composition theory course I took my first semester, but of the few that remain, I think of one almost weekly: I have no context leading up to this instance, nor any memory of what followed the moment when a professor said, with a slow deliberateness that almost revealed his southern drawl, “compose yourself.” Not to any one student in particular so much as to the room, calling attention to what the command is truly saying, compose yourself!, to make yourself readable and sensible and, as Butler might say, culturally intelligible. To be, especially if you are a woman, composed, as in emotionally contained. He didn’t say it directly to me but he might as well have, and that’s the first trick of language: to unlock a sense of self that previously wasn’t there. Suddenly, I heard the danger underlying those two superficially harmless words. And it is the loss of this composure, by which I mostly mean the appearance of composure—the revelation of the messy and complicated and uncontainable female self—which underlies the greatest form of risk I can imagine taking.
Hence the rupture: between word and body. I feel embarrassed and melodramatic making such statements, ones so clearly born of a privileged life, where risk has made few appearances. But what if this is the consequence of having confused my writing life with my real lived experiences one too many times? What does it even mean to associate risk with things like school, and poetry, and a kind of danger that is mostly visual, that is even theoretical, that hinges on the in/visibility of one’s most crafted and edited self? What do I mean when I say, “risk?” I tried mapping it out:
- potential for public failure and/or mistakes
- being seen as out of one’s “league” or “wheelhouse”
- being seen as trying too hard or as overly ambitious
- potential for confusion—either looking confused or confusing others
- “that’s not something I would do”
- potential for embarrassment and/or over-sharing
- to make oneself too accessible
- to make the invisible visible
- to lose control
- to inject emotion where it isn’t wanted
- to lose composure
- potential for discomfort
- potential for confrontation
There is no space for my body in this list, and yet it all wraps tightly, every single possibility, around my skin. Perhaps I say body and I’m really just addressing the signified thing: not the organism standing in front of you, but the whole and its parts envisioned in the clear space of one’s reading mind. I can spill the word “body” all over the poem, include it in every single title, without having invest(igat)ed a single bone, a single strand of hair. And while some of the things listed above have to do with gender or trying new things, all of them revolve around constructed notions of self and success: how I present my personhood to the outside world, how I make visible to you the things that will validate my life as a good one. Composed in the ways I mean to be, and unintelligible so long as I am in control of the mess—so long as it is relegated mostly to the page.
In other words, there are things we bear in our selves and there are things we bear in our writing, and these are sometimes very different things and why, what does that mean?
I don’t even know if this essay is true. Or the difference between body and word: what I think I am afraid of; what I claim to be doing, in one medium or another. If the divide is not really just a blanket.
A true thing: Last summer, I finished reading Maggie’s Nelson’s The Argonauts during the late hours of the night while sitting in a crowded terminal in O’Hare. I was waiting for my repeatedly delayed flight home after visiting my best friend in Lafayette, Indiana. The trip coincided with her 30th birthday; we drank Polish vodka and rode horses with little instruction. Why do I tell you this? Because I cannot unstitch the context of my life from my writing and questioning and thinking. Perhaps writing is the only space in which I have no ability to compartmentalize, where I can consider anything so long as it is all at once, all in the same room. Where I can un-compose and re-compose myself as language demands: where I might become suddenly brave enough to enact the things I’m driven toward. Or, to choose to write about myself as if my boundaries are clear: here is what I do, here is what I write.
I tell myself I am writing to get closer to the body, but aren’t I just keeping it at bay?
Once, when I was a young girl in middle school, I wanted to be Gwen Stefani, and sometimes I remember the sense of it so acutely: how desire can feel urgent and enthralling and inspiring and quite unrealistic; how it can keep you, in secret inner ways, reaching forward toward a self comprised of all the things. Who needs “poetry” or “theory” or “memoir,” categories of definitive composure, when you can do them all at once? Who needs a cohesive sense of style when you can wear a skirt on top of your jeans!
Does the self begin on the page, in word, and grow larger from there? Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken the longest route possible to achieve a short thing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve started a life backwards, relegating my achievements, my ideas, my best selves to language. As if I need to know the right words first before anything happens: as if words make up the vessel in which I’ll be caught. As if poetry ever had anything to do with the soul.
When I’m writing, I tell myself it is toward messiness and complexity. But I repeatedly run head first into an inherent disposition toward composure, toward control, engulfed in the fear of anything otherwise. Can fear be a habit? I tell myself that I figure out important personal things in writing, but perhaps I am making it all up, the words acting like a safe distance, like an arm’s reach I can keep myself at always. Sometimes, I’ll realize a mistake I’ve made in life, see something in the poem and chastise myself for not having recognized it sooner elsewhere. But with any instance of clarity, I’m never learning from my mistakes so much as finally catching up with them, out of breath, making space for myself slowly over long stretches of uneven time. Trying to un-contain and re-contain my body through language and yet remaining consistently frozen with my back against the wall, with my back against the page. A safe or habitual or made-up response to the world’s pervasive demand that I compose myself.
[Note: this essay also appeared in the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter]