When I received Stacey Harwood’s gracious invitation to guest blog for Best American Poetry, it came as a surprise, and the surprise came with excitement, stitched by tinsely nerves. I’ve never blogged before, and furthermore have never thought of myself as a ‘blogger’ or as the bloggingtype, exactly. But when faced with the opportunity, there’s no doubt about it: I felt anticipatory, ideas dipping their toes in my mind almost immediately. So why, then, have I held this medium at arm’s length, or thought of myself as outside it? Has it been snootiness? A nostalgic attachment to more “permanent” mediums? Fear I wouldn’t be good at it? Perhaps there is a sliver of truth to each of these possibilities – though, what comes back to me most viscerally when I consider this question is an image of myself at age fourteen, fifteen, sixteen (a foggy amalgamation of these ages).
The image is a cross between dream-shred and photographic still. I am in my high school, and I am standing down the hall from (but within eye-shot of) the classroom where I had (I think) both American History and American Government. (World History with the school football coach happened just around the corner, past a row of mauve lockers.) I’m brimful with feeling and I’m looking at my hands, stretched out in front of me. Suddenly I’m keenly aware of both what they can reach and what they can’t reach. The phrase “at my fingertips” is in my mind, and I can sense that what is at them is this – what surrounds me – what I can know inwardly and outwardly – what I can get close enough to to touch or feel or hold in my hand or mind. What falls beyond the pale of my grasp is clear too, but shamefully so. The classroom with the closed door down the hall holds those things (facts, hard knowledge, geographical boundaries, stark, statue-like opinions) which are too hard for me to hold onto, and dissolve when I look at them, and leave my memory almost immediately because they have nothing to do with my hands or what I can reach.
I feel this image vividly still, and remember how I lived in real fear of someone quizzing me on my knowledge of geography – about which countries X bordered, or which oceans settled around which continents – because then perhaps I would be exposed for what I was – a person who didn’t know things. To know things, to be in possession of firm, conveyable knowledge or clear-cut opinions, was to participate in a strangely solid element – certainty – when the only way I knew to move through life was by a tentative feeling-out – by uncertain, nerves-on-fire sensing – by thinking through feeling and feeling through thinking.
I think it was this girl who came rushing and blushing to the surface when I received Stacey’s email. What do I know? I thought, despite the fact that I’m a writer (and the BAP blog’s main audience consists of writers and readers), that I have a PhD in poetry, that I teach college students about literature and writing with relative confidence. But somehow, despite having read many examples of literary blogs that forge their way by more personal, meditative means, I still associated the medium with expectations of public certainty. I’ve had the same response to that strange genre (it feels like a genre), the academic job interview, which the girl also associates with a calm, cohesive front, a voice plugged firmly (no shorts, no disconnects) into the mind, the mind a perfect hair-do or else one all-of-a-piece creature moving gracefully down a single path, taking everything seamlessly into account.
Of course I know that in both these cases the expectations are imbedded in me as much as (okay, more than) the medium. After all, they are only people, those figures on the other side of the job interview; you’re only people, reading this slightly too confessional post. For all I know you value uncertainty as much as I do. But I do wonder if others who live just a little outside the ‘blogosphere’ (ah, maybe I am a true blogger at bottom after all…) have similar preconceptions about the medium and the expectations surrounding it, and if so, to what you attribute them. On the flip-side, I wonder how those more firmly inside the sphere might answer to these associations. Would you call blogging just another form of writing/essaying, another form of publishing? Something else altogether? What defines or distinguishes the medium and/or genre for you? I wonder in part because it occurs to me that the substance of my initial apprehension about blogging directly opposes the substance of my abiding draw to poetry. One seems to call for a sturdy, public over-voice, the other for a faceted, low-toned under-voice. This would suggest a rather large divide between the stuff of poeming and blogging that I’m not sure I buy, even from myself.
As a counterpoint to my own experience, I should mention what a writer-friend of mine, who is also new-ish to blogging, told me the other day. What makes her slightly nervous is not an element of presumed certainty or experthood, but the element of personal reflection (calling for a very different sort of performed self-cohesion) which she perceives is expected from her posts. She veers consistently toward the newsy, the lightly researched, which feels like safer ground, while also struggling to strike the right distance, the right casual, bloggy tone. Perhaps for those of us who did not grow up with the internet (who have vivid memories of a past life tumbling through web-less space), our fresh engagements with mediums like the blog are a bit like encounters with inward-seeing fun-house mirrors. They show us what we most white-knuckled-ly continue to clutch or fear about ourselves (and perhaps our beliefs about writing), and provide an opportunity to move our limbs differently, to scramble along in a new perceptual way.
So that’s how I will look at this week of guest-blogging for Best American Poetry: as a lucky opportunity to inch through some things that are on my mind and at my fingertips, via a new medium, but as myself, and as the writer and reader I am. Since fruitful not-knowing is so often a touchstone of the poetry and fiction I love most, perhaps uncertainty can be the engine (in theme and mode) of my week of entries, for as far as that engine will take me. Thank you in advance for accompanying me on whatever stretch of this week you feel called to accompany me on, and thanks to the folks at Best American for being such interesting and gracious hosts.