We have several stated missions here at Junior Varsity.
1) We’re here to reclaim aspirational space, to take the word aspirational and shake it out, beat it like an old rug, ridding it of dust and connotations, making it cool, making it something we don’t mind qualifying the word artist when we describe ourselves.
2) We’re here to deny the difference between process and product, to insist everything is a draft including ourselves.
3) And finally, we’re here hoping all of you will fall in love, if you haven’t already, over time building a gentle army of writers and singers and actors and clowns who are deeply invested in each other’s work and qualified through workshop experience to provide necessary critical feedback.
We also have an unstated mission. A secret mission. My secret mission, which is to do whatever we can here to make poetry culturally relevant.
That’s why we borrow terms from the genre; that’s we call this portion of the evening the ‘poetics’. It’s why I’ve invited my poet friends here. Whether or not they know it, at this moment they are goldfish, acclimating to this tank in a little zip-lock baggie of their own familiar water, until such time as they are ready to swim here, to share their work, charming you into becoming a person who reads poetry.
At the moment, very few of you fall into that category of person. It’s ok. It’s not shameful. It’s not even moral and it’s extremely common. I’m glad to have the opportunity to talk about this here, at Emerald City, because this is where I first began to understand precisely how obscure poetry has become.
I used to work here. We’ve got a daily trivia question that earns customers 25 cents off their drink. I went through a phase where I would put lines up from my favorite poems make the dailey trivia “who wrote this?” Inevitably, no matter who it was, the only guesses were Robert Frost and Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. All of these folks are fine poets, but they were never the right answer. I put up W.H. Auden and I got Frost and Whitman and Poe. I put up Mary Oliver and I got Frost and Whitman and Poe. I put up Maya Angelou and I got Frost and Whitman and Poe. Then, during pride, expecting no answers at all, I put up Eileen Myles and asked “What post-punk lesbian wrote this?” And I got Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver.
Still super wrong, but I took this as progress.
Now, there was a time, according to the elders, when poems could be hits, like songs. There would be a hot poem every summer that people would all be reading at the same time, reciting to each other in high, excited tones as they fetched water from the well or churned butter or darned socks or did other olden-time activities. In this by-gone age poets, were popular celebrities. Maya Angelou had her poems published in Ladies Home Journal. That doesn’t sound cool now, but, like poetry, Ladies Home Journal was at one time a culturally relevant publication.
Now poetry is a niche genre, becoming more esoteric by the decade. If we were to do a pie chart of people presently reading poetry in this country, it would have about three slices: coerced school children, poets, and my mother.
Though surely the world’s English teachers and curriculum planners and text book publishers mean well, we should not be surprised that children who first encounter poetry in a classroom do not become adults who seek out poetry voluntarily. We teach poetry in schools through the lens of analysis, an approach which is not only over-serious and un-fun, but one that ultimately misses it’s own point, which is understanding.
We don’t understand poetry by analyzing it the same way we don’t learn what a frog is by seeing it lain out and flayed open on a dissection table. There is a time for this maybe, but that time is late, that time comes after we have seen a live a frog, held it, learned the tad pole life-cycle, and gone to the swamp to witness its phases. We would never begin this process with vivisection. That’s totally morbid and misguided and that is the dominant pedagogical strategy for introducing school children to poetry.
Back when poetry was embedded in popular culture, this might have made more sense because the classroom wouldn’t be the first or the last time people engaged with the genre. But now it often is, which is tragic, as poetry is not a true denizen of the academy. So, if poetry made a strange first impression on you there, don’t judge too harshly; the circumstances were making it uncomfortable.
Because poetry is not really a homework assignment: it’s a pleasure creature. We should read poetry for what it stirs, what it evokes, the way it gives us light goose-bumps. We understand a poem by synching up with it, sinking into it. The poem does need us to know what it means. In fact, there are truths the poem has held back, on purpose, so as to be spacious, so as to leave room. The poem desires our company. It knows it cannot make us stay and it won’t try to, but it hopes we’ll think of it after we’re gone and that someday, when we’re feeling lonely, we’ll return for a visit.
The poem does not want to be our teacher or our preacher or our lover or our chore or our badge of honor. The poem wants to be our grandmother.
And we, the poets, know this. It’s a secret we keep by accident, because, for the most part, we are unassuming, bookish-mouse-people, not prone to evangelism. Reading poetry is a necessary part of our artistic practice, it’s true, so when you run into us huddled in a corner of a café furtively reading a collection, you may assume we have a practical purpose, but really, we are doing it because it feels good. It’s an act of life affirming hedonism.
Which brings us to my mother. Who is not a poet. But who reads poetry. She cannot recall why, or who taught her, but I know how she taught me. Make no mistake. I didn’t grow up in a literary household. My mom wasn’t reciting Elliot while she folded our laundry or plated up our nightly dinner of rotisserie chicken and frozen vegetables. She wasn’t lecturing me on the bards between bath and bedtime. She didn’t even really talk about poetry. All she did, and this was everything, was to leave poetry around. My mother showed me poetry was a possibility by occasionally lying on the couch, reading poetry in my visual field. She gave me a few collections of children’s poetry, but, more importantly, she left her own books on the shelf in the study. I’d take them down and open them idly, noticing not so much the words, but the notes left in the margins, markings meaning someone had traveled here, meaning here is a place one might travel.
It was an incalculable gift. To read poetry is to survive life. Right after college my mom gave me a book of poetry called ‘The Hungry Ear.” It’s poems about food. On the inside jacket she wrote: when life gets tough read poetry, when it get’s tougher memorize poetry, and when it’s unbearable, call and recite poetry to your mom. It’s the best advice I’ve gotten, and I’m passing it along.