Saturday, May 25, 2013

On the seminal role of shame: Poetics at the Emerging Writers Festival

I attended the first day of the Emerging Writers Festival Writer's Conference at the Melbourne Town Hall today. I saw some magnificent sessions and heard some wonderful writers speak about their works, their creative processes and their experiences in developing their craft. I could write several essays on the thoughts that each session provoked and the areas for further exploration they sparked, and I will, in time (for a start, I'll be doing an overview of the whole Conference on Tuesday for the next Interleaves column at The Shake).

However, the session that has provoked the most immediate reaction in me, the one I want to chew over tonight, was the Contemporary Poetics conversation with poets Astrid Lorange and Corey Wakeling.

I chose that session to attend because, as I tweeted, I have been increasingly coming to identify myself as a poet, and because I have two children who are also poets. (Yes, I do believe children can be poets). Although I have not studied poetry nor literary theory, I am an avid reader of poetry and a frequent writer of it. Of sorts. Although, now, I'm not so sure that "this thing I do that involves writing verse like things" can actually be classified as "poetry".

Astrid and Corey's discussion was, at once, fascinating, insightful, generous, absorbing and - because I am being honest - intimidating. Both are clearly people of formidable and incisive intellect, at home in, and speaking the language of, critical theory with ease. At one point, they pointed out that poetry is often regarded as an exceptionally intellectual, eve rarified, realm, and neither one refuted this as an assertion. And the ways in which they spoke, the references they made and the deep knowledge that clearly lay behind it, was ... impressive. And also, to me, somewhat overwhelming.

It wasn't even that the subject matter of much of the discussion was all that high-faluting. Corey and Astrid talked about the formation of poetic communities and how, really, coterie is a better word for these practice communities, and explained their reasoning very clearly. They talked about the differences between poetry written to be read on a page, and the quite different world of performance poetry. They talked about the importance of reading lots of poets and being part of the world of poetry to grow one's own versifying. They talked about the value of poetry being non-commercial, and about the observational, in the moment quality that poetry offers in a way unique to it. Poetry is the realm of the conceivable with language - we turn to poetry for the immediate percept. This resonated with me, as it's one of the things that has always driven my own creation: the need to capture or attempt to capture a fleeting, floating moment or thought today, right now.

As well as all these things, they also talked about the value of reading widely into deep and intellectually difficult areas - literary theory, linguistics, philosophy, history and cultural theory - as a way to inform and generate the poetic voice. This is where I started to feel the first itch of discomfort, which grew throughout the session, as I listened to these highly erudite, highly educated and very, very intelligent people. It was so apparent that both have a deep intellectual and technical understanding of their art, which has been informed by years of reading widely in challenging academic areas, to support and inform their poetic practice. There is a mental rigour there that shows its hand clearly in the way they speak.

Now, I have studied history and philosophy. Indeed, I have a Masters degree in history, albeit not in a very pomo branch of it. However, I am not clever at theory or theoretical disciplines. I never have been, and it's one of the reasons I decided not to proceed to a PhD - I knew I would have struggled, probably unsuccessfully, with the theoretical understanding needed at doctoral level, even in history, one of the last bastions of the academy left where you can get away with a primarily empirical approach. (Or at least you could, 15 years ago when I was making this decision; perhaps this, too, has changed). I find symbolism and symbolic language difficult, often impossibly so. I find theoretical codes - the dense in-language of high-level thinkers talking among themselves - as impenetrable as pure maths.

Listening to Astrid and Corey, I realised just how far back I really am from the kind of intellectual understanding and depth of knowledge that informs contemporary poetry. I realised that my poems, my little scraplets of verse, are faltering baby steps that may never go any further without the kind of dedicated attention that I can't give them right now, or the kind of piercing intellect I don't possess. That realisation wasn't comfortable for me, but that's not the fault of the speakers - the shame, the humiliation I felt is exactly that identified by both speakers as a part of the process of becoming a poet, of laying your underbelly bare in words. The shame of inadequacy can take you in several directions; it can crush you and your efforts, or it can shine a light on where you fall short and spur you on to know better and do better.

As the speakers said, writing - especially poetry - can be an alienating, humiliating, isolating and shaming process. But these emotions can be productive too. Shame is the affect of ethics, because it implies the Other whose witness causes shame. I think shame is the antidote to hubris also, just as the feeling of being humiliated by your own shortcomings is not pleasant but can be harnessed to a generative end.

I was going to write a logic propositional calculus to explain why I am not, any more, going to call myself a poet. It would have gone like this:

A: Poets are writers of intellectual rigour and deep knowledge.
B: I am not a writer who possesses either intellectual rigour or deep knowledge.
A+B = C: Therefore, I am not a poet.

On reflection, though, I think it should go more like this:

A: Poets are writers of intellectual rigour and deep knowledge.
B: I am not a writer who possesses either intellectual rigour or deep knowledge.
A+B = C: Therefore, I am not YET a poet. (Alternative formulation - Therefore, I am not yet a GOOD poet).

I know I am getting older - I'll be 40 in a month, no longer young or anything like it. I know that the chances that the second half of my life will produce greater creativity than the first are not awesomely high, especially as my central life project, the raising of my daughters, is a journey very much still on foot, and will - must - consume much of my time and energy over the coming decade at least. I know that I may never actually be a good poet. I know this now.

But the sting of it, the shame of it, doesn't make me want to stop writing my verse-like things. It doesn't mean I'm willing to let go of something that is an important outlet for me. It doesn't mean I'm going to curl up in a foetal ball and cry.

It means I am going to explore this art form for myself, in the ways that are accessible to me and possible for me. It means I will challenge myself to read, learn and try things that can improve and expand my ability to produce poems that are worth reading. It means that I will use this sense of shame to help me, not push me under.

I may never be an award-winning poet. I may never be a published poet. Hell, I may never be a GOOD poet. But I may, one day, be A poet. And that's enough of a goal for me.

1 comment:

  1. The pomo theory is actually a scam. If you want to know how poetry actually works you need to look at studies such as this: