Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fame and Notoriety in Little Rock

Thursday morning, a new experience. First leg of a day's journey to Little Rock, Arkansas. I'd made it, a little groggily, from home to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit to the AirTrain. I checked in at Terminal B and found my way to my concourse. I waited in a short security line holding my boarding pass and my driver's license. When I got to the front of the line, I handed the youngish, open-faced woman with dark red hair the required stuff. She said, "Mark Doty the poet?"

I said, "How did you know that?" and she replied, "I'm a huge fan, it's an honor," and waved me on. Now I've had readers say hello in restaurants and on the street, and occasionally I discover that someone who seems to be cruising me is actually an excited poetry reader. But the TSA? I dislike the entire system of surveillance, and I worry about how easily we've said yes to whatever we're told needs to be done for our protection. Sometimes it seems like the TSA exists simply in order to keep us alarmed, so we'll cede power to the state. But I have to say this did put the whole thing in a brighter light.

Before you think I'm just basking in the light of readership, here's part two of the story. That evening I was welcomed to Little Rock by my warm and lively hosts at the library, who brought me to the nicely-appointed room where i'd be reading. There were a few early audience members already there, and one or two looked up eagerly when we came in. A man asked me to sign a book; as I was walking past the front row to go fetch a pen, a woman greeted me and said she'd seen my face on the current issue of APR. "There was your mug, right on the cover," she said. And then, "I like some of those new poems, and some, of course, I do not."

I didn't question her about this, though I might have if I'd really wanted to have the conversation. It was the "of course" that did it. A couple of the new poems have to do with substance abuse and recovery. There is no explicit reason to assume that the first person speaker in the poems is me; after all one of the poems in this same group of new pieces is spoken by a baby mammoth who's been dead for forty thousand years. But people assume that "I" means "I", and there's a certain degree of truth to it. Whether an experience is literally ours or not, we make it so, finding in it a way for something in ourselves to be spoken that might not otherwise be articulated. There's a poem in Anne Sexton's second book, an elegy for her brother who died in the Korean War. It's not her best poem, but it's a moving one, and the reader who's interested enough to dig for biographical information will discover that Sexton never had a brother. The poem's a fiction, but one that was clearly necessary for getting at some emotional truth.

What difference does it make, the relationship between the poem and the biography of the poet? I'll be the first to say that I'm terrifically interested in poets' lives, but a poem is not a report on an experience. A poem can't really be "about" drug use or recovery; it has to create an experience in language, and then to reach inside that language in the direction of making meaning. If a poem merely tells us a story -- well, is it a poem at all?

In truth I don't care what the reader in Little Rock thinks about my life or what she assumes about me. Are those poems autobiographical? I don't believe in the question. I'm not trying to be coy, it's just that I think that making such assumptions about anyone's work is not a helpful way of reading. What keeps bothering me is that "of course." Is it an automatic response, to dislike a poem that talks about what it's like to experience the unsustainable ecstatic produced by getting high? Or a poem that names the commonality of the pain of people in rehab? That "of course" posits a stable set of middle-class values, shared by readers, that the poet had better be aware of. And is that what we want poetry to do, reinforce our agreed upon standards, shore up the moral principles of enlightened readers? Ugh. If that's the project, I'm not playing.

And so, fame in Newark is balanced by being notorious in Little Rock. I'm okay with it.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Not all fine poems are likable. Some are chilling, will disturb.

I could say, meaning no offense to the poet, there are poems I cannot like. I may admire the way they are made, may agree the poems are necessary, even powerful, but yet find them impossible to like.

Mark Doty said...

Your comment raises such interesting questions, Glenn, about what we mean when we say we "like" a poem. Admire its artistry, take pleasure in its descriptive powers, insight, or implications? Feel in sympathy with its viewpoint, or restored by it? They're all true, depending on the moment. I am moved and deeply unnerved by Frank Bidart's "Herbert White," for instance, but it would be absurd to say I liked it.

I wouldn't worry about the reader I described not "liking" my poems in the sense of being made uncomfortable by them or not approving of their content. It's that "of course" that gets under my skin,
in its suggestion of the agreed-upon unacceptable.
But I'm sure that phrase could be uttered in many ways, and it's impossible to reproduce the tone of it, but what I heard was judgment and reference to some external standard... which made me feel prickly. Who knows if I heard what was intended! Or if the speaker even KNEW what she meant by it.

Mim said...

When poets do write about themselves they do so in a made-up voice, which is a kind of fiction. Many readers do understand this, but there is such a hunger for what appears to be the "real thing."

Yours for making up,

emily said...

How do you know which ones she "liked?" Maybe she was upset about dead baby mammoths.....

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Yes, Mark. I have no better way of knowing what the woman meant, of course! But when you reported the phrase ("of course") in your account (& before you revealed you were upset by it) the phrase amused me - "Of course I'm not going to like some of your poems! Of course!" It's natural enough you won't like everything by an artist, even one whose work you look forward to - tactless to say so to the artist directly - but natural.

When I wrote my comment I just thought to offer up what I might say to Ha Jin or Ai, poets whose poems cover really discomfiting subject matter: "I didn't like your poem at all because there was nothing likable about it. Awesome!"

A Synonym for Living said...

The situation in Little Rock cuts close to the bone -- much of my writing has to do with addiction and recovery. Most of the narrative situations aren't pretty, though I try, as you suggested, to let language and music lead. It's disheartening occasionally though, when I bring these poems into a workshop environment, and no one can even say the word "Alcoholic." It's confusing too, considering how our culture's come to obsessively consume addiction narratives (the good, the bad, and the reality tv). I could ramble on, but really this is just to say thank you for an articulate post on a subject dear to me. Needless to say, when the bookstores open tomorrow, I'm going to go find a copy of APR.

Kathleen said...

I'm troubled by that "of course," too. Thank you for exploring the reasons why. And I loved the story of your newly discovered fan!

Chris said...

To me, the "of course" sounds merely like a power play, as in, "Of course, I'm not going to like some of your poems, because I have more wonderful powers of judgment than you do of creation." It sounds to me merely pretense given by someone whose own sense of self-security is not the strongest. I can frankly empathize with that, as much as I don't like it, because I have some of the same clay on my feet. Of course (there it is again!), I'd have to hear the verbal inflection to know what one meant--as it could mean one or more of a dozen things.

At the same time, this experience opens up to me the element of judgment that I feel is inherent in the world of poetry, which has for so long kept me away from it despite my need to write and share at times. I sense that one needs to have a long list of honors and publications recited *before* reading, as if such recitation justifies listening to what that poet has to say. I think such honors should be read of a person *after* his or her reading, and let the work speak for itself. What do you think?

LKD said...

I found it interesting that you instantly leapt to the conclusion that the poems the woman in Arkansas didn't like might be autobiographical in nature and that she was somehow judging you and your life.

She said she liked some of the new poems and others, she did not.

You assumed that the reader in Arkansas was making assumptions about you. There is something almost circularly Zen-ish about that, a koan, maybe lurking in its edges.

As for that "of course" of hers that seems to be niggling at you, couldn't she just as easily have said: I like some Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavors, but others, of course, I do not.

No one can like everything, can they?

(Incidentally, I carry your green crab shell poem around inside of me. It's like a perfect pebble I found on the shore and tucked in a sweater pocket that I take out from time to time to hold up to the light and admire.)

russel said...

Not that I have to worry about it, but I'm thinking a lot of people something like that "of course" just as a way of distancing themselves from something they admire. A control thing. I like things but I have reservations. I haven't given myself over wholly. I can't give myself over. I'm still more valuable than everything I value. Which isn't to say that it's not mostly you know, resentment. But kind of the smallish kind? Stemming from an impulse not completely awful if awfully small.

Insatiable36 said...

If I wasn't honored before, I definitely am now, simply for you remembering me if nothing else. Please don't let the uniform fool you, I also have my reservations regarding TSA. But I'm certain you know how hard it is to be a writer and not have an ice cube's chance of getting noticed in the writing world. So, my writing degree and the recession has led me to take a job working for the man, much to my chagrin. I get to work with people which I love, do crossword puzzles on my breaks, write on my days off, and get shit every where I go for the person who signs my paycheck. Meeting you, for that brief encounter has made my year. Thank you.

Additionally, I wouldn't be concerned about that woman. People aren't always so good with meeting someone they admire. Who approaches someone and says hey, "I love that shirt, but not those shoes, of course". Or, "Your daughter is beautiful, but your husband isn't, of course", etc. I would venture to say that she was simply at a loss, but pride made her spit something out. But perhaps my my faith in people is too strong. And as a writer, I don't think anyone dislikes my writing more than myself...No, I know this is true.