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January 03, 2010

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Thanks for this post - it's a hugely important discussion, and there is a lot to think about here.

I look at poets doing other things in this way - everything feeds the poetry. Frank O'Hara's involvement with the visual arts fed his poems, as did WCW's medical practice and as does Wendell Berry's farming (Stevens' insurance work, maybe not so much :)). So I don't have a problem with poets writing in other genres, or even calling themselves "multi-genre-ists"(how's that for a word?). What matters is that the poems get written.

(I also think that poems often have as much an "agenda" as memoir - only we accept as a given that a poem is subjective, so we don't expect historical accuracy or even facts. We as readers know we aren't getting the whole story, just a slice of it.)

As for the losses this year - horrible, sad, and tragic. All those things and more. Certainly there have been studies that show that artists are more vulnerable to depression than the general population; that of all artists, writers are the most vulnerable; and of all writers, poets are the most vulnerable of all. Longshoremen have bad backs; poets go bonkers - the occupational hazard of the creative.

We need to be aware of this, ready for it, prepared to intervene when we can. We also need to be on the alert for something else - the romanticizing of the doomed artist, the seductive image of the suffering poet, so misunderstood by the world that death is the only noble option. This narrative, sadly, gets internalized by a lot of young writers and can become part of their own story - and can dangerously feed any illness or depression. We, as fellow writers and artists, need to vociferously refute this at every opportunity - in our teaching, our work, our lives. This can be our version of "Broadway Cares."

There is huge community of poets and lovers of poetry - people who understands its importance and honor its creation. Here, at BAP, is just a part of that community. Remember, the misfit toys eventually got off the island - they just had to stop thinking of themselves as misfits.

Writing prose requires me to think differently from the way I think when I write poems and thus taps into different sources of knowledge and curiosities. I like that. After turning (fearfully) to prose after years of only writing poems, I've come to feel that what I've done is to broaden my understanding of the coiling links inside my own head. Nonetheless, the readership difference between prose and poetry is disturbing--not just with book buyers but even with journal editors. It's more or a less a cinch to publish a good essay in a top journal. A good poem: not so easy.

Dear Blog Supervisor:


On the Best American Poetry blog, Jason Schneiderman charms with the common and slightly annoying fear that there’s a “false intimacy” between memoirists and their readers.


In a bouncy and sweet style (meant descriptively, not coyly), he describes his trepidation towards poets who cross over to memoir. He charms with the claim that he fears a “false intimacy” between memoirists and their readers.


For me, the phrase false intimacy is as suspect as the unreliable narrator—words so feverishly elasticized that they have lost much of their meaning. But perhaps more troublesome is mainstream critics of memoirs use peculiar adjectives like risk-taking and courage and intimate to praise autobiographical writing.


In a creative non-fiction course, I taught Julie Gregory’s “Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchhausen by Proxy Childhood.” By transforming her parents into farcial one-dimensional characters, she catapults herself into heroine status, escaping their clutches and fighting to bring the issue into the public. No surprise that critics called it an “intimate” portrayal of a poisoned childhood, etc. etc. What disappointed me about the book is it never investigated what would have taken true courage to do: to add weight to the childhood memoirs of being relieved in going to school, etc. That’s courage: to admit the joy in your own victimization.


I know that a lot of people worship Kathryn Harrison’s father-daughter incest narrative “The Kiss.” While I do empathize for sexual abuse survivors and their abject victimization, their stories don’t necessarily (on subject alone) catapult themselves into works of art. Critics praised “The Kiss” for its rawness, its courage, its intimate confessions. There’s no courage for me in simply sharing autobiographical experience, no matter how tragic it may be, and it isn't even necessarily courageous. To publish a book is to want, to ask for, whether or not its visibility, money, praise, sympathy, or all of the above.


This is what makes “The Kiss” courageous: she writes the incest narrative in a style similar to that of a junky Harlequin romance. Take a look at the short, choppy declarative sentences, the vague sense of time and place, the reckless pacing to arrive at what are for most readers the most unfortunately “enjoyable” plot points: the sex scenes. Harrison’s success in expertly and shamelessly modeling her tale as a bad romance novel is where the courage lies. No matter how "sickened" some detractors may have been. "It's badly written," they shout.


From reading her novel basely loosely on the same material, it is readily apparent that she can write a complex, syntactically complex sentence. Here she makes what may seem the oddest rhetorical choice, but within those formal strategy is the risk-taking.


Perhaps Schneiderman is weary of intimacy, because he’s ultimately looking for it in the wrong place: the elements of the victim narrative or the redemptive moments. It may help Schneiderman to remember that he may be able to find the intimacy he craves in the same places he sees it in poetry: the formal strategies, the subversion of certain narrative expectations.

"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."

Jason, I find this definition of memoir disturbingly reductive. Sure, some memoirs have a story to tell---usually one involving overcoming adversity to escape from the island of misfit toys.

But the creative nonfiction I value employs lyric techniques that transcend and necessarily subvert the Man Finds Meaning in Chaos paradigm. Among these: an ambivalent and living guiding image or object, an unnerving juxtaposition, a slippery unspoken subtext, a revelatory manipulation of narrative time....

I recently watched the Rudolph claymation which you used to frame this post with my five year old son. Steve will attest that my son is much more well adjusted, easy going and good looking than I could ever hope to be. Unlike me, he will not spend much time pondering the island of misfit toys.

I take solace in this, yet also feel about it a deep sense of loss. The truth is, all of my favorite people--especially my favorite writers--come from the island of misfit toys. It's not a question of genre.
It's a question of weathering and cultivating an outsider status that sharpens your ability to render and transcend the human condition.

As my son said, who wouldn't want a water pistol that shoots jelly?

I think some of the comment writers are reading too much into what was written. Mr Schneiderman was expressing his personal feelings about memoirs in order to bridge into how he relates to poetry. As much as you don't like his opinion you can't tell someone how they should or can feel.

I love reading the works of authors I know because of the voyeuristic thrill it entails. Casual acquaintances, through their writing, allow me, well thought out and stunning insight into their perversions and quirks making me feel like my life long struggle to hide my crazy has not been in vain.

Mr Schneiderman expresses a preference for poetry, since he is a poet we ought not be concerned or surprised by this nor ought we read criticism into his preferences.

An excellent post, and I'm very glad you raised the entire question of the memoir -- as a publishing category, an academic genre, a literary option.

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