On Thursday evening I had my poetry class, and we had a guest speaker, Joshua Kryah. It was an interesting talk, we asked questions about his new book of poetry, “We Are Starved” and about poetry in general.
Tomorrow I will be at a Book Fair for local authors at All On The Same Page Bookstore. I think there are going to be about fifteen local authors there.
The happenstance juxtaposition of these two events has helped me to get a handle on a feeling that has been growing for a while. I’m still gnawing through the gristle to get at the meat of the concept, but the question that I have is, “Who decides who is, or is not a writer?”
One thing that Joshua Kryah said on Thursday that really stuck with me was that he doesn’t like to call himself a poet. He teaches poetry for a living, he publishes books of poetry, he is invited to do poetry readings at universities all over the country, and yet, still he told us that he doesn’t really feel comfortable calling himself a poet.
He also spent some time grousing that he didn’t feel that there was much of an audience for poetry, and that most of the students in his English classes don’t like poetry. He complained that there is a general perception of poetry as something difficult and esoteric, that it’s not for the common folk.
I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a connection there. If a man who makes his living with poetry is so intimidated by the concept of “being a poet”, then how are his students going to feel? The vast weight of the academic machinery seems designed to foster a kind of dependence. If, it seems to say, and only if, we judge you worthy of the laurels may you ascend to the ranks of the immortals on Olympus.
Contrast that with Robin Tidwell, who writes, co-owns a bookstore, and has just started a publishing house. She has no problem calling herself a writer, and no problem inviting other writers to promote their work through her store. I showed up back in December, handed her a copy of Catskinner’s Book, and she read it, liked it, put my book on the shelf and set up a book signing for me.
I believe that artists should be autarchs. Nobody decides who is or is not an artist except for the artist her- or himself. If I sit down and write, then I am a writer. If my partner goes out and takes pictures, then she is a photographer. Nobody–not the academic community, not a publisher, not the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, not even the reading public–nobody gets to tell us we’re not artists except for us.
I don’t know if I was able to get that concept across to my instructor and our guest speaker on Thursday. I rather think I didn’t. I suspect that spending too long in universities may have ossified them. But I’m not going to stop saying it. Artists are people who make art. If you want to be a writer, then write. You don’t need anyone’s permission.
I want to end this with one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite poets, a woman who I am madly in love with, even though she died before I was born.
On Thought In Harness
My falcon to my wrist
From no high air.
I sent her toward the sun that burns
Above the mist;
But she has not been there.
Her talons are not cold; her beak
Is closed upon no wonder;
Her head stinks of its hood, her feathers reek
Of me, that quake at the thunder.
Degraded bird, I give you back your eyes forever, ascend now whither you are tossed;
Forsake this wrist, forsake this rhyme;
Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost,
–Edna St. Vincent Millay