“How do you punch the reader in the gut? How will you take stabs at your idols? What’s the best way of setting down literary land mines?”
Rashaan Alexis Meneses has a great post today, over at Ruelle Electrique, about destroying your idols (Immediately, I am reminded of Rupert Estanislao’s “Kill All Idols” poems, which I will have to write about another time). Rashaan discusses admitting our literary idols’ “artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself,” and hence, jettisoning those things which (could) have “negatively” affected our own art. I love her post, because it’s as necessary to think about and articulate what not to do, what we wish to avoid in our writing — just as much as it’s necessary to know what we DO want to do.
[E.M.] Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature.
If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for.
Indeed, my own life is not so remarkable, so when I write an “I,” it’s rarely ever me. This is what gives me the freedom to write, ignoring autobiographical details and “fact,” and to think about “truth” in different ways.
I understand there’s a danger in falling into abstraction, given what I’ve just written about myself. How then, to “keep it real?” Or is that even a true goal for me? There’s a lot of talk about taking risk as writers, how and why we must risk in order to grow, but there’s a stronger (social) draw towards our safety, as Rashaan says, “we don’t like conflict in real life.” Literature isn’t real life though, and even as I talk to folks about documenting our lives and stories on the page, surely, there is art and risk involved in that documentation. Some writers tell me they want (need) to remain faithful to autobiographical details, even though this is precisely what is weighing down the work, preventing the work from soaring.
When I was in college, I was so intimidated by the women of color who edited and published in the woman of color journal, smell this. The poetry was so raw, so open, so faithful to real life. I had never read poetry like that before, and part of my feeling so intimidated was due to the kind of strength and boldness these women emanated, so unapologetically. And there I was in my English literature classes, reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning (it seemed Professor Ralph Rader was obsessed with Browning), ashamed to admit that I actually enjoyed reading Hopkins and Browning. I was also afraid to admit that as an emerging poet, I could actually learn something from them.
I read the poetry in smell this, and I attended some of their poetry readings; I was the little shy goth chick from the suburbs (barely 100 pounds, lots of white face powder and black shit on my eyes), standing in the back of the room, avoiding making eye contact with any of those fierce women poets. I was afraid to admit publicly that there was a lot of poetry in the journal, and that I heard at the readings, that really wasn’t very good poetry. A lot of it was more so journal entry than poem, or over-expository, cluttered, proselytizing, filled to the hilt with Ethnic Studies jargon and cliché. I was afraid my judgment was too rigid, that I was one of those whitewashed, bourgie poetry snobs.
So I tried to write poetry like theirs — indignant, undisciplined, raw, emotional, in your face, roaring at spoken word events. I rejected editing and craft, because everything I committed to the page was the truth, and it was not going to be tempered, or rendered “safe.” This suited me for a while, got the crowds at spoken word artists of color gatherings snapping their fingers and calling me a bad ass, got the well-bred Pinays to be fearful of me. And then I stagnated. For nearly all of my 20′s, I was writing the same three or four poems for years, because I found so much safety in that spoken word artists of color community.
I hear folks also throw that term around, “safe,” as in “those writers are safe,” and this is understood to be a bad thing. But “safe,” in the contexts I’ve heard the term used, is rarely expounded upon. It usually means institutionally accepted, or widely published, or nationally recognized, or borne out of MFA workshop. Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” certainly takes on the contradiction of being lettered, degreed, published, and negotiating that against the kinds of historical and ongoing Western institutional suppression, erasure, and violation suffered by women of color, by diasporic, multilingual, Third World people.
So then, (how) is it different for women of color, we whom Audre Lorde writes, “were never meant to survive,” or for the women of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” who were prevented from putting the pen to the page, whose modes of expression and creativity were thus limited to domesticity — gardens, quilting, home cooked meals. What is our criteria for great literature, that which we create to resist silence and erasure? We risk when we commit our words to the page, but today, what’s really at risk?
Please do read Rashaan’s entire post. She’s definitely got my gears turning this morning.