I had so much fun self-publishing my poem last week that I may have to do it again. I know; I’m so wild. Some of you readers also got excited about the “vanity” discussion, and the idea that traditional and self-directed publishing aren’t necessarily an either/or situation. This got me thinking about how that kind of oppositional thinking sneaks its way into our lives, and the faces it wears in the poetry world. Yes, dear reader, once again, Pokey Mama’s making a detour.
The detour is about divisions, that good old fork in the road that our friend Bob Frost mentioned. He makes it pretty resonant, doesn’t he, with that dash and line break and end rhyme?
I took the one less traveled by,
Emphasis on the I.
Apparently there are two primary interpretations of the poem, and thereby, natch, two factions. One is that Frost was showing off his rugged individuality. The other is that it’s kind of a snarky commentary on a “friend” who tended to wring his hands over lost opportunities and choices.
Hard to tell from the poem which of these might be the poet’s intention. And we’re not supposed to look at the man behind the curtain for answers. Not only will we discover he isn’t a wizard we’ll soon figure out that he doesn’t really know what he meant either. It’s a poem, for crying out loud, not a thesis! Intention, shmention!
And that made all the difference.
Choices are everything! Choices are meaningless! There are no choices!
You think Pokey Mama’s going off the critical deep end here. But I have a point, and that point is that we seem to be a people who want to define ourselves through negation. Think of it this way: when you make a sculpture by building it up from, say with clay or plaster or –in the case of Nam Jun Paik—TV sets, they call that an additive process. When you chip away at marble or wood— or in the case of Janine Antoni—chocolate and soap, it’s called a subtractive process.
I think we are a subtractive people.
It’s not enough to say we are poets, we must be a particular kind of poet, and in order to define precisely what kind of poet we are, we must be sure to distance ourselves from the kind of poet we are not. We subtract them. For women, in particular, this has meant taking care not to write about anyhting that could be labeled “domestic,” “confessional,” or “political” (code for “feminist”).
These days it’s equally the kiss of death to be known as a “narrative” poet, but even worse than that is—drum roll—the “nature poet.” Was Bob Frost a nature poet? Nature-nature or human nature-nature? Either way, who wants to hear about that boring old stuff?
Remember I talked about going to that book fair and being impressed with all of the new presses and journals? Well, even if you don’t—so I was at this book fair, and I stopped at one of the tables and spoke to the guy standing behind it, complimenting the books and asking about his process. He looked me over, gave his spiel, and then hastened to add, “We don’t publish nature poetry.”
I’m not sure what in my person incited this remark. I took a quick swipe at my hair, thinking maybe a piece of hay had somehow lodged there. No, I was free of plant matter, overalls, Argyle sweater or Birkenstocks. But I discreetly spat out my chaw, and mumbled, Oh shucks, yeah, geez, yuck, nature.
I think he really meant, “we don’t publish a certain kind of nature poetry.” Or, “we wouldn’t publish anyone who would call themselves a nature poet.”
Now, I certainly have never thought of myself as a nature poet, but the more I thought about what he’d said the madder I got and the more absurd it seemed. Obviously, it isn’t just him, it’s everywhere! In the current poetry universe there is a barely polite aesthetic rift between the so-called Language poets and the so-called…what? Non-verbal poets? Idea poets? We don’t like them and they feel the same. We think they’re cold and they think we’re mushy. Whatever.
This is what we are not. Subtractive, subtractive, subtractive! Why would you close yourself off that way? As with the publishing discussion Pokey Mama’s squarely on the side of inclusivity. A little of this, a little of that—sharp language, wacked-out syntax, unique voice, interesting ideas, good stories—new ways of looking at the world, however you define “world.” I want poetry to have it all!
So, I came home from the book fair, stewed. Then I wrote a poem about it!
To the Young Man Who Said He Doesn’t Publish Nature Poems
That’s good, because I don’t write nature poems;
neither tree, bare or leafed, nor bird, winged
or warbling has a place in my text. No
creature is examined once, much less
13 times. No creatures scamper, lumber or
gambol. I’m especially vigilant about flowers,
which tend to crop up. Nothing smells
as sweet as anything, my love is like a red, red
nothing and nothing art sick. Expect zero
water, likewise earth, wind or fire, unless
I’m talking about one of my favorite 70’s bands
and then, I italicize. I write exclusively
about dishwashers, telephones, prosthetics
and buildings. Similarly, heavy equipment
gets a pass but anything tractor-sized or smaller
stinks of the pastoral. Forget hills, distant
or dark, shrouded in mist or tattooed
with fast-moving cirrus, no blood-orange
sunsets, light moving on water, beauty, no beauty!
(terrible or otherwise) no wonder, reverence
or awe, nothing about this world that’s solidly
before us, nothing for which I’m grateful,
for which I have no words.
OK, it’s not my very best poem, but it made me feel better. And you get the point, don’t you?
Next week I promise, no more detours! We continue with the next installment of Pokey Mama and the birth of her… book.