Monday, May 13, 2013

I wonder if I'll ever get over being embarrassed when people try to talk to me about my poems. This is an awkward, ungracious response and one that, by now, you'd think I'd have overcome. I post poems here in large part because I'm trying to make myself more comfortable with raw exposure; but when a poem appears in a book or a magazine, I usually assume that no one's reading it so I don't have to worry. My attitude is self-defeating because, of course, I long for readers and book reviews and interviews. And I really do like to read my work in public: when I'm performing, the anxiety slips away, and I can let myself be vulnerable and love the sound of my own words. Yet I have to fight a feeling of faintness when someone starts talking to me about one of my poems, I cringe at book reviews, and I have never--not once--listened to a recorded interview of myself.

At moments I do squinch my eyes shut and do what needs to be done: that Beloit Poetry Journal forum on the long poem, for instance. But I tremble at every word I share, and I dread looking at the responses--even good ones. All of this is stupid and self-defeating, a written version of stage fright. And it's unkind to the miracle of readers. For instance, a member of my band asked me if he could have a copy of How the Crimes Happened. Horrified, I quelled my urge to insist, "Oh, you don't have to read that!" and gave him a copy. He wasn't the poetry-reading type, I assured myself. He worked long days as a contractor and wasn't going to spend his evenings toiling over my poems. Surely the book would disappear under a stack of magazines beside his recliner.

But during next week's practice, he told me that he had been slowly and carefully reading the poems. Then he told me which ones he liked and how they made him feel. The other two guys in the band sat listening thoughtfully and then suggested that they should borrow it from him and read it when he was done.

I was stunned and confused and disturbed and embarrassed and flattered. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent adjective you can think of and I was probably that too. I wish I could say forthrightly that I was overjoyed, but the pleasure was overshadowed by the sense that I was making people's lives too difficult, that they thought I was demanding praise, that they were only being polite, that they suspected I was stuck up, that they were just trying to make me feel better, and so on and so on. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent explanation you can think of and I was probably that too. But since I am pushing fifty, it's about time for this callow behavior to go away.


Maureen said...

I hope you do . . . let that feeling go. Your poems are wonderful. I learn a lot from each one you post here, such as use of voice and persona and how the tiniest detail opens up to something more universal. I think it's marvelous that your bandmates are reading your work (music making can be poetry, too, after all). Good poetry always finds its way into the heads and hearts of thoughtful readers.

Dawn Potter said...

If I were me dealing with my other me, I'd slap myself upside the head. You're right, Maureen, and you're sweet and my reactions are just silly. Still, humans are a silly species.

Carlene said...

I have a pretty solid theory that we who have been raised in New England have vestiges of Puritanism in our DNA. We are raised to be self-effacing, not willing to raise our eyes--or our hopes--to praise and honest admiration. It's a hard trait to erase, and in its extreme, it even approaches a sort of prideful humility.(How's that for a paradox?) Don't beat yourself up in any way for the regional influences that shape your responses to people's interest in your work. I've just spent the whole semester following this idea through the values, culture, and writers of New England with a class of mine; one can trace the genesis of this modesty straight back to Jonathan Edwards.

Ruth said...

Just say thank you and ignore the pushing 50 adolescent

Dawn Potter said...

Carlene, that's an insightful thought. I am going to ponder it for a while. Prideful humility. Yes.

Christopher said...

I was very struck when you said on the BPJ 'Long Poem' Forum, "What a poem 'might be about' doesn't have much to do with how I read or write poems. It's a critic's question, and the idea of probing it in my own work makes me queasy."

Yes, it can be a disaster to think too much about what a poem is about in the process of writing it, I agree -- meaning tends to look after itself in the creative process, and I'd say the greater the poet the greater it looks after itself! But I just don't understand what you mean when you say you aren't concerned with what a poem means when you read it. Indeed, I'd say that's almost impossible, because language means whether you like it or not. Language indicates. Language communicates. Language transforms. And you yourself are a master of language, Dawn, and in every poem I've ever read of yours there's a door that opens and then everything inside there looks after itself in a brighter and more valuable way -- even if the poem is dark. That's why I read you, in fact, to find out what you say to me. And if you said nothing I wouldn't bother.

If I read you just for your language I'd say I was just a critic, and so much for that. And I simply wouldn't bother!

Language simply never just does language -- even in those new modern forms that say that's all they do. Because even poetry about language is about language, as is poetry about nothing about nothing. And there's a certain delight in that, too, of course there is, as there is in light or music. But I've never read a poem by you anything like that, Dawn. Your poems commit themselves, they take a stand, they tell me something everytime. Like "Mr Kowalski" -- though goodness knows what!

To suggest a reader who reads for meaning is just a critic is grossly unfair. I'd say, both to critics and to readers. And it's simply not true.

Dawn Potter said...

Christopher, I'm thinking you might have missed the point of this post. Perhaps I was unclear. My topic was anxiety.

Christopher said...

Forgive me, Dawn -- on rereading this I can see that that was certainly the topic.

But what I say is still relevant, I hope you'll agree, at least a little. And I hope you will let me say just a little bit more as to why.

The critics I really admire are especially good and sensitive readers who are deeply committed to what they read. Their sole purpose is try their best to give back to the author as well as the community of his or her readers a take on the writing, like a conductor gives back to a group of listeners a take on a symphony, or a great teacher like William Blake a take on Paradise Lost.

The critics I don't admire so much, though of course everybody has to make a living, and I forgive them completely, read anything whether they like it or not. They don't have to care whether a poem has anything to say to them personally or not -- indeed, they talk about poems as if they were just rhetorical constructions laced about with grammar without any particular weight or meaning.

And it would make me truly anxious if I had to be put through that mill, I must say. Which is maybe what you mean.

Christopher said...

We went way up into the mountains on the border with Burma and stayed in a Lahu Village -- these are not Thais but chao doi, hill-tribe people, what the anthropologists call "austro-tibetans." For them the frontier between this life and the next is extremely thin, and for them ghosts are like neighbors.

Homprang isn't Lahu but a Thai and a Buddhist, and she got extremely frightened -- she could hear the ghosts in the darkness and in the middle of the night one came right in under the mosquito netting and grabbed her.

She gradually recovered after the sun came up behind the huge mountain. She explained to me that she was vulnerable because she allowed herself to be weakened -- we didn't eat well and there was very little water. She said that to escape such feelings you have to be strong and willing to live in this world. You have to be here.

I don't know what that means but I wanted to pass it on to you, Dawn. I have a feeling that as a woman you may know what she means, and get help from her.

Dawn Potter said...

Tell Homprang thank you.

Christopher said...

I did, and she said for what?

In my experience, people who live in worlds where ghosts and spirits are visible are more matter of fact and literal than people like me who don't. I see metaphors, not spirits, or as I usually call them, meanings. Homprang doesn't see metaphors/meanings at all. I try and try to interest her in them but she just feels I'm making things up when I talk like that, that I'm "seeing things," she says, or "making things up."

This is a big gap between us, because poetry tells me everything that's really important about what I don't know, and I'm a full-time idiot-poet. "So much depends on" -- that's where I'm at, and all the way to Christopher Smart, and "Directive."

I think you're more like Homprang, Dawn, you're so literal. I suspect that that's why you're also so anxious, like her, and feel so nervous about how you come over. Everything you are you wear right on your sleeve for everybody to see -- or at night to be grabbed in the dark with no water under the covers.

I respect that greatly about you, dear friend, but it makes you a very difficult friend as well. Like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, you're extreme.

Which is yet another reason why I love to read you -- it's a whole lot safer that way, even if you're afraid I won't like you.

Christopher said...

Makes me think of these wonderful lines from "Elegy for a One Night Stand" (you can read the whole if you scroll down to April 20th):

But what’s the point of love that doesn’t shatter?
It’s the vice I’ve clung to; I never do get over anyone—
even you, my not-heartbreaker,
with the softest lips I’ve ever kissed, and then

that quickened breath against my throat,
those tender hands,
as weighted and exact as birds, and how my eyes
forgot their blue and, startled, turned to yours.

Thanks, Dawn -- a real shape-changer, indeed more fey than I could ever manage.

Wherein lies both the irony and the conundrum of those who see and those who don't.