I was at a reading a few months ago, where a friend was reading from his new memoir. I’ve known him for a number of years as a poet. He’s been subject to a Lucy Grealy-like sequence of surgeries for neurological trauma, though unlike Lucy’s, his surgeries have never interfered with his stunning good looks (though it has impaired his vision—he doesn’t get to enjoy those good looks himself). The memoir is about how he was a golden boy living a charmed life until his first stroke. His poems are mostly about his experiences with cancer. The narrative arc is basically a fall from grace—from being the most popular and talented, to being a sudden invalid. But because I know him as a poet, I couldn’t help feeling like the narrative arc ends in poetry. He was broken, and he had to come join us here on the island of misfit toys.
I never read memoirs by people I know. It’s part narcissism (if I’m going to know this about you, I want a direct audience) and part a fear of false intimacy (what if I meet someone at a party and casually reference the affair they had with their stepfather? awkward!). Now, oddly this doesn’t stop me from reading poems by people I know. With a poem, I feel like I know the line better. But I also don’t entirely trust memoirs. Poems calibrate a moment—they bring order to a chaos in order to make chaos visible. Memoirs have a story to tell; they give meaning to chaos (hence the public’s taste for memoir and my accompanying distate). But this explains why I suddenly had the uncomfortable realization (or feeling—perhaps if I read the memoir, I’ll find out his ambition was always to be a poet) that poetry was where you go when something is wrong with you.
All poets have other professions (or trust funds)—teaching being the profession that usually comes closest to “poet,” since when you’re teaching, you’re talking about poems. It’s a profession where your knowledge of poetry comes in handy. But there’s something so frustrating to me about the margin poetry has come to exist on. I self consciously structured my life so that poetry would be at its center. It still surprises me that people seem not to like poetry—I mean, I get it, I know— I even understand that what I like about poetry is precisely what keeps it on the margin of culture in general. But still, it’s like, come on folks. Poetry is awesome. How did I end up a cheerleader on the island of misfit toys?
The past year hasn’t been good for poets. Rachel Wetzsteon and Deborah Digges killed themselves. Reginald Shepherd died of cancer and Craig Arnold died in a freak accident while exploring volcanoes. I keep thinking that we need to take care of each other better—but I don’t know what that really means. What should we be doing that we aren’t? Rachel wasn’t a close friend of mine, Rachel wasn’t a close friend of mine, but I felt that kinship with her that defines poets as a community. I often feel like I’m hanging on by my fingernails. She seemed safely on the ledge. It’s painful to think about how wrong I was. Every time I go to the theater and they collect for Broadway Cares, I think, “We should do that. Writers should take care of each other like that.” Then I remember that there are probably more people in the audience of whatever show I’m seeing than bought a copy of my first book.
I wish I knew what to do about the Frank O’Hara problem—that as you begin to be recognized for things that aren’t poetry, they take over. It’s easier to be an editor or a journalist or an essayist or a memoirist or an anything. But perhaps I’m being selfish. I don’t begrudge anyone an ability to make a living or be popular. But I do get mad when someone becomes “multi-genre” when they used to be a “poet.” I want poetry to be enough. I don’t think my friend the memoirist is going to leave us behind—I think he loves poetry and he’s sticking around. And I’ve been writing more prose lately. Maybe I’m worried about losing my own center of gravity.
When I was an undergrad, a friend wrote a poem to me praising me for having poets as heroes. I think that was the first time it had ever occurred to me that this might be unusual.
But back then, I didn’t feel like I was on the island of misfit toys.
She finished the poem just after she’d been accepted to law school.