Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Want To Write Poems.


I wanted to write a complete, full-blown thesis on factionalism within American literature.  But then I got to thinking, that's not really what's bothering me right now.  That, and I'm actually helping with the preparations on a day of action organized by Librotraficante, to address precisely that problem, so maybe an essay is not what is called for.  Not right now, anyway. 

As is my m.o. (sometimes), I've been trying to make a small pet peeve into a bigger, more universal issue.  Mountains, molehills, and the like.  But the peeve and the cultural issue are not precisely related.  Well, maybe they are. 

Can I just say this?  Stop me if this makes sense.  Poetry is not professional wrestling.  Nor is it a series of battles against roving gangs of zombies, wizards, wolfpacks and vampire clans, medieval nobility, mafia families, or vatos locos.  Of all the things I hate in my professional and artistic life, nothing bothers me more than the feeling that "Poetry" has become a playground for people without any real combat skills to pretend that they belong to a gang.  Jets.  Sharks. Iowa.

I can barely open my email without hearing about some kind of disagreement over
something bothering them about the community of writers they belong in, and almost none of those issues have to do with the actual craft of writing. 

I can trace my involvement with the literary world back to 2002, when I first stumbled into the back of the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe.  I'd heard about these things called slams, the Nuyorican poets, and Def Poetry, and I wanted to see it up close and figure out what was so sexy about it.  And it was sexy, of course.  You'd walk into a confined space and see these people you'd seen on HBO, or in the Piñero movie, or in a book you'd read, and you'd desire to be a part of it, because frankly, the last poet on stage was not that impressive.  By 2003, I was hopping into my car, or an airplane, or a train, to travel the country and participate in what I'd seen. 

I don't regret that part of it for a second.  My involvement in poetry has brought me, either directly or indirectly, to the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico, to the greatest hamburger I've ever eaten (Bobcat Bite, outside Santa Fe), Harvard Yard, City Lights Books, the St. Louis Arch, rural Indiana, the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and to Wicker Park in Chicago.  When I return to Cuba, I can go visit Nancy Morejón.  There are no words for the privileges I have, thanks to literature, thanks to my writing life.

And yet, most days I feel like writers, some I have called friends, spend their days wringing their hands; walking on eggshells with some University administrator with a tenure-track position to hand out; getting depressed because they have submitted with no luck to dozens of book publishers or prizes; politicking on who picks who to read poems at a bar or a bookstore, lamenting over not being chosen to do so.  They fret when a space closes down, when a workshop stops running, or when a reading series switches venues.  They spend their waking hours on Facebook arguing about spoken word versus page poems, slam versus academia, MFA versus no MFA, instead of writing the things, living the lives, that inspire them to walk the lines, or erase them.

I am not the pot calling the kettle black, though.  I've been all too familiar and invested in these arguments myself.  And to be clear, I'm not speaking of arguments on access: I believe that the fight for equal time in the publishing world, the right of marginalized voices to be heard, is a civil rights issue, an issue about the proper framing of history, and the telling of every American story. 

Simply put, I'm no longer interested in engaging the egos of writers and poets who view their participation in American literature as a game.  I am uninterested in poets who view poetry as a way to gain entry into a clique, to look down on the ones who aren't in it.  I am tired of professional performers who are not interested in poetry beyond finding the next gig.  I am tired of the phenomenon of the poet thug, the streetwise wordsmith who just wants folks to wake up to injustice, while living a life that does not reflect those ethics.  I'm tired of poets who compete with one another for attention and mic time, and who throw you under the bus when they don't get it.  And I am beyond fed up with idiots, frankly, who claim some level of imaginary leadership status within the poetry "scene."  You know the ones.  They use bluster and bravado as a way to justify their own existence as a writer, or mask their own deficiencies as poets, as human beings.  If you think about it for three honest seconds, they'll come to you.

I know them, because I used to be around them.  Wanted to be them.  And I just can't listen to all that noise anymore.  I want to write poems, and I want poets to be heard.  At my core, that's my mission.  Everything else is bullshit.

There's only one way to be a poet:  write poems, read poems, live honestly and openly, and listen.  That's a lesson I learn day in and day out, and something I need to be more mindful of.  I'm trying.  I'm succeeding more, and I'm trying.

I am uninterested in politics.  Or identity politics.  I'm more interested in deconstructing identity, especially in a world where my identity is easily tracked, manipulated, erased, or reinvented, without my consent.  Talk to me about people, not systems.  Talk to me about people, not Republicans and Democrats.  I'm about to be 35 years old, and my time on this planet is not guaranteed.  I want to write poems.  I want to see things for what they are.  I want to be able to frighten you when I show you what I see, and how I see. 

Mostly though, I want to support the real organizers of poetry and literature and cultural change, the ones you don't hear from because they're too busy writing, and getting your writing seen and heard, to concern themselves with the game.  Miss me with the bullshit, folks.  I want to write poems.


Barbara Jane Reyes said...

honestly, it sounds like you surrounded yourself with some pretty poisonous people. surely, there is a way to do real writing, real publishing, real community organizing, w/o having to drop out of (for lack of a better word) industry. for myself, i stay somewhat connected so that i can published in places where i have confidence in my editors, so that i can teach the stuff i believe in, have an opportunity to mentor young folks of color, encourage and challenge (especially) pinay writers to push their writing harder. this work takes me into mfa and ethnic/international studies programs, and simultaneously keeps me in local community spaces.

so let this not be about me. am glad you're articulating your discontentment with BS po-biz. and glad to see you being thoughtful outside the BS that is FB. i still very much believe it doesn't have to be about po-biz at all or that it doesn't have to be one or the other. where are the spaces we want to inhabit? how do we create and maintain them and invite like-minded folks in? how can we get our words into the hands of folks we want to reach, and then beyond - growing our communities etc. i know, i sound like a broken record. last thing: it helps to be a moving target! thankless, but fulfilling. if you are ok with the thankless part, then yeah.

Rich Villar said...

Hey Barbara. I don't think I could ever really divorce myself fully from the industry at this point, nor would I really want to. For me, it is an issue, as you point out, about the poisonous people that inhabit these places, that which we refer to as "po-biz," or "the scene," or the "community," etc. It's definitely safe to say I surrounded myself with poison people. Sometimes, when you desire to fit into a certain circle, or when you're insecure yourself, your discernment goes out the window. That's what this post is attempting to acknowledge: that I am filling my days with nothing BUT discernment, and trying to find constructive ways to engage with the world at large, in the best way I know how--as a poet. And yes, definitely outside of Facebook.

The work with Acentos can be thankless, but it is rewarding. As are the notes and encouragement I get from genuine friends and younger writers who are interested in learning about writing. It's when the poisonous rear their heads in the course of this work, even in the context of Acentos or building with other Latino writers, that I feel particular hurt and disgust, and a desire (more existential, I guess) to flee to the hills. But none of this should be interpreted as my need to get my St. Francis of Assisi on. I guess I should have included that as a disclaimer!