by Amy King
I offer two spontaneous pieces back-to-back, Catskill Mountain patchworks, because I am distracted these days, letting surface what will, and because Sam and Michael asked. Much thanks to those who speak and challenge via “the socials” (as my students say) and face-to-face, mask-to-mask.
The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas — for my body does not have the same ideas I do. — Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
A poetics of the zeitgeist
The world has never been universal but is a series of interrelated shadows <hums Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”> or may be more like the unseen web of a “butterfly’s wing beat” in Peru that spurs the hurricane in Ohio that then raises prices at the gas station where catfish fries in Louisiana. Unseen, that is, until the web is laid flat, and we can draw elegant, jagged lines from one seemingly isolated event to another, ad infinitum.
In rare historical moments, we get to see those disparate dots connected during a civilization’s decline. We’re in such a moment now, one with our cultural seams straining, causing the unimportant to recede, giving space to an atypical, crisp visibility. Chaos can clarify perspective with ever-deeper immersion in uncertainty, accompanied by the striving for markers, lifelines of the familiar to hold tightly (see Roland Barthes on plaisir).
Guess who your small but mighty army is that trains, looking daily for connections among the unrelated. Poets. The best surface what we may only sense, what may be fleeting, and name the interconnections unremarkable on a status quo normal day, undetected by the average human radar. We are usually in a state of “us, them,” “here, there,” “mine, not mine,” “me, not me,” etc. We do not always see the karmic potential of wishing death on the opposition as a reflection of our own mental status. Or how the enemy may also be our own motivations at root. For starters.
But even better, trained at adaptation and MacGyvering our way through life in a culture that has no real room, except for the “show us you’re the same as us and we will tolerate you” mentality, are we queer folk. The offer is boxes and straightjackets to fit into. You’ve no clue how much I’ve loathed the promise of embrace in exchange for the shaving off of my ugly, my weird, and my “that doesn’t fit / it offends” views and behavior. I want to dance with and revel in anomalies that preclude my voice at the table and simultaneously reveal the inadequacies of the hetero-paradigm.
How many times have I upchucked, just a little, upon being told that “Man and woman are a puzzle that fits” growing up? To be a puzzle, one must offer an element of mystery to begin with. The conditioning, coercive culture of “man and woman are a satisfying puzzle” was a yawning oxymoron beside what I thought possible in the backwoods of my Southern childhood imagination. The Paper Bag Princess holds more sway than “Snow White.”
Today, I’m grateful for role models like the Hindu goddess Kali Ma whose modus operandi is chaos and destruction of the stale to clear a path for the new. And not just one new but the new that is not me, the pleasure of that which is unfamiliar. If life truly is an adventure, one moral imperative should include seeking out, platforming, and therefore embracing the undiscovered, those whose voices have yet to be proliferated. I have felt that drive among more BIPOC, poets and queers, than the majority on repeat in anthologies and survey courses.
As this historical moment ushers out the empty patriotism of (#notall) Boomers, the insecure resistance to change of my own Gen X, the disgruntledness of Millennials, it also clears a path for the renewed, unattached vision of Gen Z, unmarried to loyalties and promises of the past. Their fluidity and celebration of difference, their being handed no security but instead economic deficit and climate debt; in that, they can envision what we are still striving to see: ways to a future that embraces the “burn it down” ethos, making room and holding space for all.
The old systems of hierarchies, nepotism, and rigid labels offer no allure. One can be instantly sung famous for a kind act or a funny dance on TikTok as quickly as a politician’s fifteen-year-old can be supported for speaking openly against the old guard her mother serves as mouthpiece for and protects. The fact of Gen Z’s celebration of personhood and their lack of incentive to pick up the old mantle are the unfettered conditions necessary for the major upheaval of a system that offers them nothing but environmental death and disdain for the conditions of life.
The world is splitting in two and four and infinity. The youth, the queer, the poets are seeking ways that disconnections cross boundaries, fill in the spaces, touch and inform everything. In this, poems may be maps to look to in order to say what isn’t apparent. Poems offer vision. Poems can see. If you are stuck in the label of just one thing, particularly to the exclusion of others to hold on to who you are, and as one who doesn’t help make way and support the egalitarian proliferation of voices, you may remain stuck as the world around you changes. Unlike your own predilections, the world will not eject you, but you may still feel at odds with the zeitgeist, in which case, I’ll pray to Kali for you.
Poets don’t owe us: “Burn it down” and making way
Most poets’ livelihoods are not firmly attached to the offerings of Poetry World, minus the “elites.” There are few who can eek out a living solely publishing poems, save the rumored Billy Collinses, and his ilk, of the world.
In the yearbook of vocations that will get you a house, 401k, and star on the Walk of Fame, poetry is “Least Likely to Succeed.”
Nonetheless, I have watched a few friends perform nepotistic ass kissing in order to appear in venues with wide readership, motivated by speaker money, joining unnamed coteries and clubs to garner “esteemed” teaching appointments. I have also observed the publishing industry demand similar rites and dues, signifying capitalist homage with pretend-meritorious awards that determine whose work gets touted, whose work is heralded and therefore rewarded. The trade-off for a seat at the table is too often empty, sometimes fleeting, and ultimately unsatisfying.
I was myself lured by such potentialities, disappointed by what I felt was the industry’s indifference to my ill-suited work and not-so-respectable persona. As I aged and investigated, I became more deeply disturbed by the biases at work that any industry and system run by people is tempted to enact and formalize, including in the world of poetry publishing. The younger queer female I was was not “cool” or marketable back in the heyday of hip white boys who hung together, typically on the coattails of aging, esteemed white men. As I began publishing online in the late ’90s when it was still very much “invalid,” that too signaled my lesser status, as if the means of distribution that did not require big name recognition and the cash that put bound journals into hands made the words mean less, value-less.
Obviously things have changed and continue to do so in poetry publishing, and it feels rewarding to see my earlier decisions validated now by the proliferation of poems online, often expanding the definition of poetry itself, its reach, by integrating technologies that print is incapable of imitating. I will add that I’m glad to have experienced disenchantment with those arbitrary, “meritorious,” print-is-best premises back in the ’90s in order to be able to shirk my own desire to be embraced by a demanding system that is “owed” a cycle of submission and rejection until your “dues” are paid, if they ever are. Value, I realized, of the work was not validated by the venue in the end. And it didn’t even take a pandemic to illustrate that the medium and means of the online could also support and distribute good work. I feel freer now, a concept still worth inhabiting.
Beyond that lesson, I continue to write and publish but at a much slower pace and with little fuel for the work it takes to access and get platformed by those who might give me the so-called upper tier gigs were I to perform the proper rituals. Poetry World of the dominant paradigm is still intact (just follow the money), though it is very much challenged on “the socials” and by literary activist groups and voices chipping away at the façade that too closely mirrors capitalism and by making known the voices that repeat and maintain it. As I age in a society that demands we work ourselves to death, quite literally to the precipice, I strive to work even less. I seek ways not to compete, ways to work smarter not harder, ways to work not at all in the industrial world sense, but instead prefer to listen, learn, read, think — and strategize.
Analogously, I left the city for the rural mountains of upstate New York and am no longer viewed through the more urban lens of “poet seeking ... ?” I have found community that considers me more holistically, less endgame motivated. I feel cleaner in the smaller but more expansive spaces of what we call “the local.” I am unrestricted anew and obligated to write only what I want and think might benefit the world — or not write at all; I am beloved in ways the more status-conscious Brooklyn less frequently offered. I feel held.
I wish also for interactions with others to be unencumbered by the need to charm and appear in the “correct” package, fueled by the underlying drive to be rewarded by a Midas touch. So that moves my pen on occasion now too.
I think of the writers and poets I read, find old tomes of their work and do not wonder in which “quality” publications their work originally appeared. I may note the sometimes-unrecognizable name of the press the book I adore was birthed by, but I certainly don’t determine how much I will or will not be affected by the work based on its publishing house. I have read perfectly mediocre work published by the finest houses of the day. I have read work that takes the top of my head off published by the least of online venues.
Who doesn’t want to be read? Who doesn’t want to hear from strangers that their words have reached others and have impressed meanings and affected them?
But at what cost, especially in the world of poetry that feels, at essence, like the antithesis of capitalism? Even at his height, John Ashbery was not recognizable or heralded on his daily walks on the streets of Manhattan, and his praises were sung by one of the most influential critics of his day. Poetry is a low-stakes celebratory game in the larger machinery we inhabit, and for that reason, despite a part of our industry’s desire to run in sync with capitalist values, to don the yoke of capitalism, in the fullness of time, poetry is also one of the least likely of the arts to be read and revered for who was published in what prestigious publication. I do not pick up a Cesar Vallejo poem and decide it isn’t meaningful because it never made it to whatever the hottest venue was in Paris in his last years. Vallejo had escaped government persecution in Peru, was occasionally destitute, often depressed, and died in Paris in poverty. For lack of publication in the French equivalent of Poetry or the Paris Review, his work should not be meaningful? Should not resonate in some way today? For lack of appointments in the low residency MFA program of the Sorbonne his poems might be of no value?
There is a reason so many observations exist in relation to poetry versus politics. Try as some more privileged poets and industry makers might, they cannot truly fully permanently attach the value of poetry to the capitalist machinery that dictates much of politics. Not long term anyway. Ask a politician who receives campaign donations from Blah Blah Corporation’s lobbying group, and he may tell you the answer to climate change is a complex one. Ask a poet, and she will tell you we’re poisoning our shared air and environmental racism is a real thing. The capitalist muzzle doesn’t fit a poet’s pen. The poet speaks, not because of but despite capitalism.
I publish in my own time now, at my own pace, as I’m no longer motivated by “success” as pale imitation of a soul-killing system that says my worth is measured by recognition and access. And by a system that dictates it will reflect the value of your life based on your service. As it turns out, value and worth are very different than originally taught by the status quo, measures of GDP, and personal buying power.
Further, I no longer hold to the old cliché that as I age, I am wiser and due my due. If anything, this pandemic has made me realize that I understand less than before. I’m owed no comeuppance, and I have, in large part, reverted to being an intentional student. I’m reading philosophy, history, and of course poetry and am invigorated by studying again. This has, in turn, lessened what I think I have to offer for the moment. If anything, I hope to simply be a model of learning, identifying my own ignorance toward rectification and holding on to renewed hope as I find enrichment in discovering the questions. I’m nearly half a century old, and I don’t know what I don’t know — and that fact is electric and motivating.
I have often thought it was a mistake for professors to become stagnant and not keep up with what each new generation that enters our classrooms has experienced in order to grasp their perspectives, behaviors, and attachments. To think about what motivates them. But now I realize, for myself especially, it is a mistake to think education ended with degrees, and we’re the experts now, as if we have no motivation of our own to continue expanding our studies, including and especially beyond our own literary tastes and fields.
What this means on a personal level implicates the public for me. We are a society in decline, the litany of which I do not need to recount here as we are steeped in it. The anxiety is surging, and our political choices are to vote, protest in the myriad ways, and to look to the poets who would shirk a system that says this is how your work must be in order to deserve reward. Poetry has never, for the long term, held allegiance or been married to any ideology or persons that would exclude and limit voices. Poetry affords idealism as poetry is voices, all a deserving plurality, regardless of who has or has not been given a mic or is published in reputable places. Poets will speak the poems necessary to challenge and change minds and therefore the paradigm that is failing so many right now.
A decline is not an end. Kali destroys to clear a path to make room for the new, a new that accommodates more than previously embraced. Queen Elizabeth burnt down the institution of marriage to usher in the Golden Age. We are at the precipice. Give the poets platforms; share the poems that are meaningful to you with the local. We might be surprised by the web’s reach as we fill spaces with beautifully cacophonous voices of dissent and vision.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize winner. She’s coeditor of the anthology, Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change, and the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry. King is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.