Lately I've had some correspondence with a friend about a few political/representational issues that have arisen in the Maine poetry world. In the course of that correspondence, she referred to me (kindly, without pejorative intent) as a member of the state's poetry establishment. I was startled by the label, and immediately uneasy, and without further examination I forced myself to slot the phrase into the back parlor of my mind, where it would, I hoped, dissolve into dust. I have enough other things keeping me up at nights. I did not want to think about this label.
But this morning I find that I am still thinking about it, which means, I guess, that I need to address it forthrightly. What does it mean to be part of a literary establishment? Am I overreacting? Does it simply mean that I've published books? Does it mean I've become predictable, arrogant, and old? Establishment can sometimes be synonymous with the academy. Clearly, that's not true in my case . . . unless the academy implies a serious engagement with the past, which I also don't think is true, not at this point in time. Then again, as a self-taught engager with the past, do I seem to be wrapping myself in the mantle of snobbish oldster? Does my Virginia Woolf nose imply a Woolfian aloofness? Am I an inverse hipster?
Let me say up front that my friend probably only meant "writers in Maine know who you are." And she is right; I think many of them do. My reaction to the term is simply my reaction to the term. But having spent 20 years feeling like a badger in my den, the mere idea of being part of the establishment (whatever it means) is shocking to me, and not in a good way.