In Which Our Heroine Listens But Not Uncritically

28 April 2004

The poetry reading was in the basement of the library, and I took Mark and Timprov and C.J. with me, so I escaped without books entirely. I think one person fewer would have meant I'd slip into the new books section, but I didn't. I was strong. I also finished 1968, which was interesting but a muddle, and I'm not sure if that was an accident or a statement about the year itself. Now I'm reading Naomi Kritzer's Turning the Storm.

Anyway, we saw Joyce first thing in the door, and I went to say hello to her. She blinked and hugged me and congratulated me, "on, oh, just everything," and told me I'd "always been wild, from the very first day."

I do not think of myself as wild.

Their publisher talked first, and I was...I'm not sure why I reacted as I did. But I went to his homepage, and I think I've figured it out. The homepage says, "The artistic mission and primary purpose of the press is to give voice to important local, national, and foreign poets, and in particular poets who have often been overlooked, yet who nonetheless have dedicated their lives to this art."

Uh...huh. Okay. Well, first of all, I don't think that dedication of a life to an art is any guarantee that I should pay attention. It's no guarantee that the dedication paid off. But that's not really it, either. The thing is, this guy makes his own type. He does it all the old-fashioned way. Which is fine, even good. It can be art. I have friends and acquaintances who make paper the old-fashioned way, who spin their own yarn, who hand-dye things with dyes they've made themselves. I have no opposition to that. It can be very cool. It is not, however, automatically cool. If you hand-dye something a bilious shade of lime, I'm not going to automatically give you praise for having done something artistic. The printing work I saw of his was nice, but not outstanding. While this could just be my untrained eye, I will note that printing was a family business on my mother's side within my memory. I don't know everything about it, but I can see the difference between nice and awesome.

But the other question is, is this the best way to "give voice" to poets or any writers? I'm having a hard time thinking it is. He was talking about press runs of 300, and I realize that poetry is not fiction, poets cannot expect tens or hundreds of thousands of their books to sell. But it just seems from this vantage point that spending the time and money on making your own cast type is a choice that takes away from promoting the actual poems. It seems to embrace the smallness of the poetry market rather than fighting it.

And then I came across this: "There is something tyrannical about manuscripts that arrive un-asked for, something of the undistilled & presumptuous ego. And I have come to feel that having to judge and make the decision to reject or accept this unbidden work leads away from the dream & vision I had in starting the press, that there is a threat of weathering or erosion."

And the horse you rode in on, buddy.

I mean, seriously. He's talking about undistilled and presumptuous ego? How about the feeling that he will already know all the good poems, the important poems that have been overlooked? How egotistical is that? Having to make judgments erodes his dream and vision, and poets are the ones who are egotistical? If he had the honesty to say that he likes messing with typesetting and that he aims to publish poets he likes, okay, fine. But give up this "give voice to the overlooked" crap, because it's fairly clear he doesn't mean it.

(Incidentally, if you follow the link to that page and click on "books," you will find titles but no authors listed; you have to click on each title to find out who wrote it. Yes, certainly a perfect way to give voice to the overlooked -- their names will become household words if you can't even bother to put them on the listing for their own books. Honestly.)

I get wary whenever people talk about "overlooked" art, because they invariably mean overlooked by someone else. Sometimes they're willing to exchange evangelisms, to let you ramble on about your favorites if they can ramble on about theirs. But sometimes they just want to talk about Other People and what big philistines they are, and then I have no patience.

Anyway, the first guy got up to do his reading, and his wife got up with him to put her line drawings on an overhead projector to go with the poems. I've already ranted about the publisher, so let's be polite and say that their work was not really my thing. No, no, I can't do it: it was dreadful. The line drawings were all distorted and wobbly, so I ended up writing down a title inspiration from one of them: "Pieta with Ferret." (Also known as "Madonna and Mongoose.") The poems were delivered in a horrible singsong, and that wasn't the worst of it. They were just so very done. The soul is like a bird. La la la.

But in his first poem, he was talking about his father the coal miner, and three little words hit me: "five brothers underground." And now I'm writing a story, "Five Brothers Underground," that features moles and nettle shirts and coal miners. Nettle shirts, and you know what that means.

I think nettle shirts and moles may be an indication of wildness in some circles. I think that may be what Joyce means. I'm not sure.

I think one of the things I'm poking at lately is how much it can help to know the old stories and how much it can get you in trouble. This applies to my characters, but also, I think, to writers. Using myth and folklore and ballads and whatever else you like as a jumping off point: good. Adhering to them slavishly: bad. (And how can you tell how much adherence is slavish? Why, whether I like the story, of course. Naturally.)

None of that was in the first reader's poem at all, no nettles, no sisters, no Philadelphia, no nothing.

The second reader was much better. Her name was Freya, and so I was thinking about Freyja more than perhaps I otherwise would, thinking about Freyja as the hostage, Freyja from a different family of gods entirely. I ended up writing a bit about that, too, when I got home, from the scene where Mar goes to Valhalla in Island Duel, another four books down the line from Dwarf's Blood Mead. I also wrote a bit of The Mark of the Sea Serpent, only a few paragraphs, because it was feeling forlorn and left out, and also because Pamela provoked me on e-mail. (She said, "It came out all right. I cut its head off." Well, now, really, if that isn't topical, I don't know what is.)

So yes, I enjoyed Freya's poems, and I really enjoyed Joyce's poems, even though my brain was doing the "little kid who has to pee" dance over "Five Brothers Underground." Joyce did poems I'd never heard before, and I liked them very much, especially the one about "It's amazing." Then there was open mike, sort of, except that there was no microphone to be had. A very wide variety, and the most awful of the poets were done comparatively quickly. (I don't think it's automatically a bad thing to write a poem for each month. I don't even think it's automatically a bad thing to write a poem for each month in rhyming couplets. But I do think that's the way to bet.)

That's Freya Manfred and Joyce Sutphen, by the way. In case you're looking out for them. In the car on the way home, I said, "Do you see why she was a good creative writing prof for me?" Joyce is all commas and exclamation points when she talks, and the rushing enthusiasm is just exactly what I needed then.

And it's part of why I like her poems: she knows that people will sometimes laugh at that rushing enthusiasm. She sometimes laughs herself, and she reins herself in sometimes, but not in a bad way, just so that she won't trip over her feet. I like poets who have enthusiasm for what they're doing, and who laugh, and especially who laugh in their poems.

What I need now is lunch and more work and an attempt at calling Michelle for her birthday. All doable things.

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