How I Got From My Not-baby to Everyone Else

1.

At the coffee shop, I sit on my phone to avoid feeling stupid. There are women talking around a long table adjacent to my own. Their hair sits on their shoulders. Their words, however various, repeat—these I can’t remember. I made a note on a piece of scratch paper, thinking I’d be able to trace the condensed record back to the entire moment, as if empathy were not spontaneous but conjurable, always designed. “Oh motherhood.” “Oh fixable body.” Not that but something like it, words that make joy feel tangible. But the moment is gone, the empathy with it.

What was I thinking? Sometimes it’s a genuine question, not criticism but memory. Striving to locate a previous intensity, pulled in some direction by a body that didn’t ask for much. Why would I say that? Bodies aren’t born out of their own desire, and there’s something about this fact that I forgot to write down, sitting on my phone, listening to the women around me.

What does intimacy look like? This one’s more loaded.

I just mean it’s hard to be a person. What is our responsibility toward each other in this regard? Our production and our repetition, our differences in tone and desire.

 

2.

My desire to have a baby and to not have a baby are what make me feel sorry for Donald Trump.

Babies do the best they can because first, more than any other fact of their identity, all they care about is survival. They learn to survive and then, much later, they learn to care. They’re trying.

Donald Trump the baby survived and for that I am grateful. No, that’s not true. But in some fleeting moment I can achieve at least a passive, observational stance on Donald Trump the baby’s survival.

When my period comes, I tell myself to appreciate this pain: that my body, already emotionally and mentally tripled and quadrupled, will not double. But I almost always immediately forget my gratitude, curled up like a newborn, the Hollywood version of a little baby body on its happy side, anxious to come out and see the world. Me on the bed, perfectly sideways as if on cue. Anxious for nothing, curled into myself and trying to forget about my pain by thinking about Donald Trump, and then trying to forget about Donald Trump and succeeding only by the thin membrane of my hallucinations of Donald Trump the baby.

His problem is singular and so is mine.

 

3.

Why do we pretend that the opposite of not having a baby is having a baby?

 

4.

I do not have a baby because of a sense of responsibility.

I do not have a baby because of a sense of social and personal and generational insanity.

I do not have a baby because of a lot of hungry sad people, even those held in my aloof imagination.

I do not have a baby because of privilege that isn’t acknowledged.

I do not have a baby because of privilege even now, safe uterus.

I wish my uterus was at least made of paper money.

I wish my uterus had a better exchange rate.

 

I wish I could exchange my uterus for a baby and then back again.

 

5.

I thought if I wrote down the original sentence, even just one note, one correct use of punctuation, I could retrace my thoughts back to their empathetic creation. But even now, I can’t get away from the word, “retract.” I have always assumed, as a smart and capable person, that I could follow my way back to something so long as I wanted to. It feels so far away from me now, that moment when my stomach started filling up with not-baby ideals, when I saw the outline of my belly pointed at everyone other than the duplication of me.

I guess my not-baby has something to do with expanses.

And I guess my not-baby has something to do with agriculture.

And I guess my not-baby is itself a fertile landscape, so long as I remember the sadness of my own mother, and remember how angry I can sometimes be, and remember my small unwanted body turned bigger, and remember my mother’s sadness throughout the whole act of turning; only to remember, in a culmination of memories, that people are probably a lot alike.

 

6.

Why can’t I carry these words with me everywhere I go, put them to better use, bear them, as leverage, for hoisting up a better public space? Or hold them in the frame through which I encounter every person, so that I may find myself wondering about the circumstances of their own cells and making. I could even baby them—the words, the person—I could help them be more or less like me.

 

7.

I cannot trace my original sentence back to its initial point of empathy, can’t remember why I trusted that I would, but I know I once believed it possible. Is motherhood its own stark line? Would I be different? I scatter notes all over my house: in purses, on nightstands, under rocks on dirty counters. I never remember what I meant by the short words and phrases, can never retrace that initial moment of desire. And yet I made it: here are the words, haunting me. With their need and their confidence. With their longing to make something new: how words hold possibilities that can be sown into scratch paper, marinating until ready for the world. I return to the seed and find miracles or junk. Mostly junk.

 

8.

Had I been feeling empathy for mothers? For my own? For the irresponsible choices women do and don’t make? Women, who first began as bodies, out of control, born into or at least from a desire not of their own making.

I can hardly believe that bodies come from each other, one after another; that there was a time where I may have been fastened to another person’s body, outside their head.

I used to tell my mother where my body went, where it came from, all the various places a hand might linger or escape.

Did my mother ask to be born? Did she confuse my tiny growing limbs with something medicinal? Was my mother born a mother?

Made and unmade—my mother had no preferences between singular and doubling. Here I am perpetuating a familial lack of control, just by existing.

 

9.

That feeling at the edge of your ribcage, in the center of your stomach—pure, tumbling weight. I used to tell my mother about every single feeling that passed through me, and I thought myself a good daughter through confession and revelation, through clean words and limited intrusions. Through small defined bubbles that I could see wholly and define entirely at any given moment, the clear translucent space of girl desire. Some of my feelings revolved around intimacy. I defined my feelings against each other, sure of their potential for excess. I was the clear translucent space of a girlbody, parroting the outside world.

Sometimes survival means defining yourself against the very stuff you came from.

People used to tell us, over and over again, how much we looked alike, and this was understood as a compliment for my mother. How we must be sisters, born not of each other but from the same source. Words make the difference sound smaller than it felt.

I carried the feelings and the words until I couldn’t, until they’d grown large enough to exist outside the privacy of my womb. I mean brain. The writer’s dilemma—where do our babies come from?

 

10.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but of what?

 

11.

There are so many people alive that I take them all for granted, invisibility born of too-much-ness. There are so many songs on Spotify that I never know how to handle myself.

I repeat the same things because I know the comfort of familiarity. Isn’t there some semblance of danger in imagining that my not-baby would become a baby and would be, through the act of my own body discharging itself forward into my arms, my arms in which I tell myself only good things will end up, that my not-baby turned baby would be, somehow, a familiar thing?

And what of treating an unfamiliar thing as something you already know?

And what of treating a familiar thing with unfamiliarity? (most people, certain kinds)

And what of the moment when one’s familiar grasp is challenged and you give up?

What is the relationship between giving up and baby <—-> not-baby?

 

12.

I worry about my not-baby because of my own instability as a person, my fluid desires, my complicated feelings, my highs and middles and lows. I worry about my not-baby because I secretly mean that I’m worried about myself. What if my not-baby became a baby during a high and then was followed by a middle? What if my not-baby became a baby and I became low?

I care so much about my not-baby, openly and otherwise. Just imagine this care turned real (all care). I strum my not-baby like an air guitar melting into a song that goes, baby, oh baby. Just imagine if the song made real sound. These are the questions I never let myself ask outright, my body slowly beginning to wonder why it has never been beach-ready, baby-ready.

When I imagine following the desire to have a baby—already such a fleeting and limp thing in me, only in parts of me, close to my skin but never quite landing on it—my imagination floods with all the real bodies I see and turn away from and drive past angrily and order food from resentfully and sympathetically and in turns: miserable, then ok, then miserable, then ok. Me, or you? From where are such lines habitually drawn? How long ago were you just a baby, too?

 

13.

And why shouldn’t I till the landscape of my own dirt, as a way to reproduce something more contained, something less damaging? If I plant my not-baby in the ground of me, if I refuse to be afraid of letting things g/r/o/w in me.

And the swelling of my heart as it imagines life, even the life of my not-baby, how my heart bubbles out it swells it gets big and bumpy, why aren’t more strangers asking if they can hold her?

If I can remember that people sometimes want to have babies, I can remember, too, that those people already exist.

For years, neither my mother nor I could turn toward each other with any kind of consistency, with any sense of a shared perimeter. And though my focus and my patience toward my not-baby is more resolved and more consistent, my not-baby, in some sense, barely exists.

 

14.

I am naked in front of my mother every time I am in front of my mother, do you know what I mean?

 

15.

It’s hard to have a baby though I admit I have never tried.

My not-baby gets to listen to all the music that I love, and learn all my idiosyncrasies, and see my face the way I hold it, and curl her body in the tunnel of my own turn.

My not-baby pretends to be everyone else and I, on my best days, take such good care of her. Not even a train could replicate our spilling.

 

All of Mine: On Boss Baby and Invisible Love

I was born an adult. Serious, intimacy at arm’s length. Only able to make friends across wide gaps in age. So at five my best friend was 10, my vocabulary and disposition on point with hers. And at 10, 11 and 12 I was already babysitting the younger kids in the neighborhood. My eyes were meek and still behind glass at the time, always fixed on my charges or else the floor. One look at me and you knew this girl contained responsibilities, distant ones, probably born of the machine in her head. This girl was just bursting with safe interior spaces, ready to be put to good use. And even as a kid I was desperate to channel some prior, historical adolescence, struggling to unbury my capacity for play and fun, to uncover a carefree state that might appear as such to an outsider’s passing glance.

Tim, I may look like a baby, but I was born all grown up.”

– Boss Baby

As a biological adult, I’ve gotten better at the digging but also the burying. My body circles its own good feelings but never quite plants there, shadow of an accessory; like a cape made useless, tucked into the waist of my jeans. What’s the use in wearing a cape if you don’t intend to fly? I think of Robert Duncan and his eccentric dress codes, his conspicuous homosexuality, his insistence, as my partner and I discussed one evening, on keeping the children’s books of his youth on the nightstand near where he slept. What does it look like to be an adult, queer or otherwise, whose want is not filtered, restricted, or buried? What if I replace “he” with “she”? Or defend aging as a metaphor?

Though circling issues of privilege and normalization I am also talking about happiness, that fleeting state that even cis-white man-money can’t buy. “Happiness doesn’t grow on trees,” I once misspoke, in a dream. But also, “happiness can’t buy money” (Shark Tank). Mass production aside, happiness isn’t the fruit itself but the tree: deciduous, operating on scales beyond human control. Going dormant for stretches of time and worrying us too-serious adult types into thinking that it might be dead forever.

But children often get it, and sometimes that’s reflected in the art made directly for them. I watched Boss Baby soon after it came out on video and was overjoyed by how it examined the corporate culture of family, in all it’s terrifying and beautifully animated ways. Company success, in the world of the movie, hinges on the production of a “Forever Puppy,” a dog that never dies, that in fact never even ages. The puppy goes on being a puppy for weeks, months, years, lives well beyond, the implication whispers, your own discrete life. Though the appeal is obvious, the film quickly undoes one’s sense of desire by showing a baby turning into a boy turning into an adult, an old man, his gravestone…all while the puppy’s tongue hangs clumsily out of its cute small puppy mouth. The discrepancy is terrifying.

Through such exaggeration, Boss Baby sets up corporate culture in direct opposition to human connection, be it love, parenthood, or singular self-determined joy. In other words, happiness or success? When I was younger, the question manifested as a bedtime ritual: if I were a singer, would I rather be talented and ugly, or beautiful with a mediocre voice? I’d lay in bed night after night obsessing over the idea that to produce a certain kind of art you might need to look strange, that effort needed an invitation to show up plainly on your face, trying and contorted. I don’t need to confess which one I chose night after night as I spent those teenage girl years hiding in toxic analogies—I had ingested one too many television shows and magazine covers and middle school conversations, where value was conflated with romance and women with objects, all that media aimed directly at me. I’d never become a good singer, beautiful or otherwise, but I was practically born a very good audience.

When corporate success and family life are so directly opposed, love, intimacy, memories, photographs, and all the things that help establish social meaning and purpose exist mainly as alternatives to perpetual youth and immortality, a dichotomy summarized and symbolized by a pet that can live forever. As such, family bonds are necessarily born of and climb toward decay, death held in the arms of reproduction and vice versa. Perhaps one can’t be happy all the time in the same way that people are not immortal, and to want anything otherwise would be to exile yourself from your social circumstances, to undo your death as quickly as your birth. “I wasn’t born. I was hired,” says the eponymous baby himself, cleaving space between existence and work, between family values and company protocol. Each time I watch the movie I am reminded that what leads to financial success is not usually the same stuff that leads to intimacy and growth, shared vulnerability, to closeness and community and family and friends, whether chosen or assigned.

It’s that sense of choice that Boss Baby highlights so well, expanding traditional family arrangements. An off-camera explanation of where babies really come from is framed as a gross joke, but rather than stigmatizing the body’s natural processes it contributes to the understanding that families are chosen as often as they are produced by blood, that in so many ways even the people who just show up in your life are kept there only through active, repeated choice. Families are like environments and benefit from biodiversity, from the gathering of different purposes and desires, different motivations and origins, all in the same place.

“You can’t miss what you never had.” In the movie, it is spoken as poorly disguised grief, precursor to a toxic male defense. But you also can’t have what you don’t see. Like so many girls, I learned that part of being a woman is keeping yourself desired and sought after by keeping yourself missed, and this is how presence can be dictated by absence. No wonder I always chose beauty over talent, I was practically inventing my own form of female invisibility; I wanted a flatness and a blankness, pure beauty that didn’t rely on ability. And I wanted, more than anything else, to be missed and thought of and worried about, to hum in the minds of those who couldn’t see me. When your constitution is held between your absence and your appearance, it’s easy to be confused about where you exist, to misunderstand invisibility as really quite appealing.

If happiness were easy, would it remain desirable? If men lived forever, little puppy dogs of strength, would women fall happily into old age? Do men seek women for the same reasons that adults seek puppies and bloodlines and babies: to locate a part of yourself outside yourself, to pretend there’s some piece of you that remains visible even when you go away? Or to present yourself, confidently, in the space of another’s absence.

The gender of happiness, but also: the gender of the pursuit. Of searching and of filling out and of looking, looking, looking. A child’s gaze is often scattered and surreptitious, until adulthood forces it to hover in one spot. When you perform adulthood for long enough you begin to confuse it with instinct, that below-sea-level murmuring that predates even the most imaginative internal monologues, the you that is both hidden and remembered. See how easy it is to make invisibility sound tangible, to forgive gender problems as problems of age?

The corporate machine, with mechanical arms that read and interpret each newborn, doesn’t recognize Boss Baby’s “tickle zones”—a metaphor for basic human need, disguised as armpits, tummies, ticklish feet—and sends him off to management. Don’t we all live some version of this story? Some of us have unrecognizable desires, or bodies that do not act the way others expect them to, or brains that don’t perform well what we’ve learned, or personalities that try too hard, or that don’t try at all. Misrecognition suggests limited abilities and expectations, rendering certain purposes (and in some cases, people) obsolete.

The turn comes when Tim, Boss Baby’s kid brother, discovers that love is not finite, that sharing is not a neighbor of lack. Though we attribute such qualities to monetary wealth, it is love, after all, that remains chaseable and pursuable, that grows without restriction, that sustains and is sustained by equity. Love, which climbs perpetually upward no matter its point of origin, for there is just always room for more.

Boss Baby disentangles the knot made of capitalism and the American family unit: nuclear, built on consumption, wherein things (babies) can be returned and products (love) are finite and tempered by demand. “If there isn’t enough love for the two of us then I wanna give you all of mine,” says Tim. It is the ungendering of love, boys and men giving everything they have, a quantity not counted by numbers, the multifaceted beating heart: full of mass though you can’t weigh it; how it’s right there in front of you, visible and saying hello, how you want it so much.

A Rectangle is Always a Photo But a Camera is Not Always a Poem

The camera conjures as much as it contains, photography being an always-pointing medium. In this way, cameras and words are actually quite similar.

I’m only two sentences in and I’ve already messed up, conflating tool with outcome. A camera makes photos but they remain two separate things, machine and picture. Words, on the other hand, make more words, vehicle and product all wrapped up in the same gesture. Words are not pens, pieces of paper, typewriters, laptops. How to compare words to cameras with any hope for sense by the end of this? You don’t even really need any of those objects to make a poem. I can make a poem in my head and you simply have to trust me that it’s there. In this way, poems are like relationships: easily built of things you may never have access to.

Poems do not rely on tools, machines. “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” said William Carlos Williams, in the 40s. I am only one person in a long history of people conflating tool with outcome for the sake of the writing. Just give me a rock and a stone and I’ll show you a poem. A rock and a heart and a thinking mind, full of memory. A rock and a hard place. Poems are everywhere! I can make one out of anything—this shampoo bottle, this sleeping cat—and so, too, with the photograph. I could photograph anything I might possibly hope to contain. And there it exists: contained! Frame, sprocket hole, negative. Or else I put it in the poem, let it seed.

Playground

Do poems have sprocket holes? What’s the relationship between film negative and white space? And what of duplication, cropping, or auto enhance?

With words in my hands, I make more words. They self-reproduce—parthenogenesis, if you want to be technical about it. On the heels of these other words I produce more and newer ones, turning one thought into many, contradicting my meaning as if the act itself is how I pump oxygen directly into my brain. My body functions through contradiction, through conjuring and containment. I take a picture of myself and then I age beyond it. “Every picture is of you when you were younger” (Mitch Hedberg). I conjure my self in the poem. I contain my thoughts in words and the white space in between. I look at my negatives and translate them, miraculously, into positives.

The linear progression of time is an inherent factor. But on the page, I sometimes feel the true feeling of being young forever, that I am writing directly into the future from a body that remains, as if language were a vehicle that could opt out of time directly, could simply just go in another direction. Words can always go in another direction!

Drive Thru Open.jpg

Once, I had a film camera with a built-in fisheye lens. This camera took all manner of pictures: the sun peeking out from behind a fire hydrant, double exposures of street signs and random fences, poorly lit indoor shots of my cats. I would soon expand to include other film cameras, cross-processing, self-development, scanning at home, exploring things like texture and expired film. But the Fisheye was where it started, taking precious selfies before the word was a category, blurry shots of someone’s leg, a car driving by a little too slowly for a slow shutter. Always get closer to the object, or whatever they say. So I, the subject, would try, regardless of circumstance.

I used my Fisheye camera to make photos, sometimes with a lot of intention, sometimes without. I would line up the lens directly in front of a brick wall, click the shutter, flip a manual switch and take another photo, creating the illusion that flowers could grow not just before the wall but inside its top layer. With this camera I became a surgeon. Aren’t all artists trying to infiltrate our organs, working from the inside out, disrupting the safety of forms?

Then again, form gives you something to bounce off of, containers sometimes providing a method for setting aside dedicated space in which to invent. In a truly free, formless space, it would be very difficult to get close to anything. You would just float, pained and unsure of yourself, unsure of where you’re going or why.

With that Fisheye camera I became a doctor. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed with my power to create that I did not even think twice—click, click—just walked around my town, my neighborhood, my place of employment—click, click—as if I couldn’t be bothered with details, lighting, angles, outcomes. I was in love with the process. I was in love as if I’d made a baby. Every word that came out of her mouth, every new shaking of her chubby little baby arms, every diaper change was enough to blow my heart wide open: this didn’t exist, and now it does. I built albums and albums of photos, including the bad ones, made scrapbooks, the occasional larger print. It was the act of making that I couldn’t get enough of, the dynamic relationship between tool and product, this little machine nestled in my hearthands. Creation transforming into nourishment. In parental terms it was a total disaster, me wanting and needing my babe so much more than it could ever need me. But when your baby is art, it’s okay to not be careful.

Kids portrait (Fisheye).jpg

The surgeries grew more and more laborious, and I soon switched tools. I took less photos and I wrote and wrote and wrote instead, filling up my time with my language, forcing the two to meet in the middle. Aren’t all poets folding language into time, creating the sense that you’ve aged, that you’ve transported, that you’ve grown shorter or taller in the space of a few lines, a space in which it is difficult to take change for granted? Poems, too, can shift organs, can induce electric shock, can resuscitate the sick, unwell, starving body that reads them.

For a long time, I made my poems in the same vigorous way that I made my photos. Have I stopped? Have I grown satiated, tired, burned out? Have I found new ways to perpetuate abandonment? Conjured and then contained so much of me that I no longer recognize myself beyond the page, no longer have anything to write about, no life to translate into words and empty spaces. Am I living all the white space already, the occasional Oh and metaphor shaping my small life, getting smaller? And what about my own organs? Do I need medical help?

Like teeth (2008)

Fisheye

Fisheye - Portland

It is hard, in case you haven’t noticed, for me to think about my relationship to tools and making without also thinking about my relationship to myself. I’m talking about an attention that is pre-selfcare industry, just a girl and her body, not getting along. Wishing each other were different, trying so hard to synchronize tool with result. Trying to conjure the most photogenic parts. To contain, to write past, all the overdeveloped stuff.

Fisheye double (2008).jpg

The space between taking a photo and developing the film, seeing the result—there is this period of time in which you are forced to not know. You are allowed to not know. What relief! Like the space right after the interview, the submission, the attempt: that momentary feeling of having nothing to do because you’ve already done it. A contentedness born despite, or is it precisely through, unknowing.

I will tell you a secret: this is the same content found in writing. No matter how the words grow and double on the page before you, the poet learns to be comfortable with the act of seeing words and still not knowing. Writing is itself a gesture of reaching, whether in panic or to pass the time, to make sense of things but never so much that you bypass all waiting, all development. There is always more, and you have to continue writing regardless. You have to get used to not knowing ahead of time, as they say, even when “ahead of time” really just means you’re in the muck of writing writing writing, when ahead is entirely in the middle and the only way out is through.

It does not always come out correctly from the start. You don’t always get the shot on the first click. You wouldn’t blame the camera—so, too, you must bring a spirit of generosity to language, acknowledging the downside of such expansiveness, its ability to contain nonsense without shame.

I could just as easily be suspicious of words instead of pouring all this time into defending them. Often enough I’ve held a light up to their shiny scared faces, wondering where they’ve really been; wanting desperately, as if I could solve the heartache of the world, to just get to the bottom of their intentions.

I began taking less photos not through some active decision or profound refusal. I just became less interested in that kind of building. Through words, one directly discovers, in a way that simultaneously suggests invention. Was it there or did I make it? I began to search for some greater form of equity through the bypassing of visual consumption. I had become exhausted by visual consumption, having grown so accustomed to certain public discourses, to common descriptions of my own female trajectories, visual-based value, misogyny seeping out of all the cracks and corners, in fact I still sometimes struggle to recognize myself at all. This is an image of me when I was younger, except I’m still there now, waving at the camera, hoping my eyes aren’t closed when I swore I had them open. This is me on the page, happily confusing my body with something else. Say it enough and the thing becomes true, or at least becomes history.

Like MM.jpg

In the kitchen the other night, I peeled and roasted beet after beet, in the mess of it and without a proper vegetable peeler, only to come away slightly deflated when I saw the purple-red wash off my hands instantly and entirely. I wanted to come away stained. I’d already started imagining how money would look being passed from my hands, though first I’d have to get some. This is what I’m talking about: I am exhausted! By looking and by paying for things. Some days I just want to write a poem, the body within it, gendered or not, seen but mostly through metaphor. Metaphor is a lovely way to give your eyes a much-needed rest. Metaphor is like a hammock. It represents so much more than what it is, just string and netting and some available trees. Some days I want to close my eyes and write until my hands hurt. Some days I want to push the lens directly onto the paper, trace its perfect roundness with a pen, spend the afternoon looking at the world one page at a time while the trees hold me up. It is the thinnest of filters, poetry. It is a good method for getting close.

Playing

Shortcake

Boots 3

In Defense of Infiltration

[Note: a revised, slightly expanded version of this essay can be found in ASAP/J.]

 

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.