The Answer Season
So the sprinting stallion that is National Poetry Month has just crested the midway point of its race, and is now dragging Canadian Poetry’s population of bridge trolls and agoraphobics down the final straightaway. There are a lot of month-long projects on the go around the country, some lame, others interesting. rob mclennan’s version of The Globe and Mail’s usual poets-on-poets parade is better than most. My favourite, though, would once again be Julie Wilson and her library of mp3 files. Three cheers for them both.
Of course, readers of this blog will know that I am doing my own thing, over at the Torontoist. The Optimisms Project is itself halfway done, and has produced all the frustrations and teachable moments I had hoped. Someone in another blog recently called it a “thought experiment”, and I think that’s the expression I had been looking for. Early results suggest the experiment has been mostly successful.
But what do we think of National Poetry Month? It has all the properties of a hatable obstruction: government mandate, top-down astroturfing, and many opportunities to be publicly asked the kind of questions that poets hate, by people who only interview poets once a year (Where do you get your ideas, Mr(s). Ethereal Thought-Spirit??). Many a curmudgeon has popped up in my social networking radar screen to groan dismissively, and every last one of them has made a good point.
But I find NaPoMo hard to hate (except for that anagram: NaPoMo…I find that exceptionally easy to hate). There’s something earnest and unaffected about it. I feel like it doesn’t kill us to have to stand in the light a bit, and that doing so carries with it actual aesthetic and creative benefits, not just the fleeting benefits of press and publicity. Yeats speaks in “Among School Children” of standing as a “smiling public man” and, while I understand the danger in reducing the non-poetry world to a bunch of school children, that’s the kind of ethic that the month of April offers to us, if we’re willing to join the team. Many Canadian poets have visited schools these last couple weeks, and have been made to serve as smiling public men and women. Worse things have happened to better people.
A poet friend suggested that a far better use of the month of April would be to commit ourselves completely to the writing of good poetry. Lock the doors and man the pens, in other words. This sounds like a perfect vacation, to me (does this scenario come complete with vouchers for rent and food? Will someone take care of our kids for 30 days? Work our day jobs?) but also strangely similar to what we’d be likely to do if left to our own devices. I’m glad we have National Poetry Month (and, for the record, jobs and kids and other commitments) to distract us from ourselves. If there’s validity in the argument that poets who work in universities will end up just writing about universities (there isn’t, but not everybody who reads this blog knows that yet) than what can be said about the poet who only works on poems all day?
I’d argue that the kind of questions that poets get asked in general settings like class visits and interviews (and this interesting roundtable I attended at the Toronto Reference Library last week) are good for us. They are intense, primal questions: Why do you write poetry? What do you like about it? These are the kinds of questions we can go for hours of intense internally debate amongst ourselves without ever considering. Maybe this is because we’ve all gone past it, moved beyond it to a new world where we can speak of higher-order things. But that bedrock idealism never goes away, and I’d argue it needs to be consistently renewed and reapproached. Can you think of a more immediate and challenging writing prompt than a bright-eyed eight year old (or an angry-eyed forty year old, one with followup questions about public funding and intellectual elitism…) asking, What’s the point of poetry, anyway?**
These questions lead us into conversations about how or if poetry is a unique way of investigating the world. Which is a creative gift, because it pushes us into a self-aware headspace with the intensity and focus of someone being asked to defend themselves with words. That sounds like a good place to write from, doesn’t it? It might be frustrating to have to explain your worldview to strangers, but it’s effective practice. Being a smiling, public man (in small doses) makes me a better scowling, private one. At the very least, it makes me *want* to be one. And the press is sometimes good. It’s nice to sell things.
Hope to see some Vox Pop readers at the McClelland & Stewart Poetry launch on Monday. Go back one post for details.
**That’s not really a good writing prompt, I guess. It leads to abstractions and generalizations. A better one may be: What’s the point of poetry? Please express your answer in the form of a description of rain falling on a freshly-cut lawn.