Friday, May 17, 2013

What to expect when you're expecting a poetry book, or, how to talk to a poet about her new publication

There are many kinds of conversations that nearly no one knows how to have.  What to say about a friend's or family member's adoption?  What to say about a miscarriage?  What to say about a death in the family? And, perhaps surprisingly, what to say about a friend's or family member's new book of poems?

As someone who has gone through all of these life-altering events, I can assure you that such conversations usually go badly.  It's not that people are cruel or unusual, just that they don't know what to say. Schools, however rigorous, do not give credits for "kind speech." I count myself among the category "people," by the way. Sorry scripts get repeated in all of these situations, scripts that we might do well to forget.

I'll skip the clichés about the healing process and the getting over it and the it's nature's way and why didn't you adopt an American baby and how much did it all cost and at least you have other children and the weather's really nice just enjoy it and don't look so down just suck it up it's been a couple of weeks and there's always next time and you mean he's still on the answering machine and the rest of it and concentrate here on the least among these conversations, namely what we talk about when we talk about new poetry books.

Here is what the new poet sees and hears when she hands her new book over to friends and family:

--a face that begins to change shape, and eyes that begin to dilate with impulses of fight or flight;

--a voice that hesitates, sounds confused, and then erupts into the certainty of phrases like: "you know I don't understand poetry"; "you know I never did well in English in school"; "wow, that's a lovely cover, but I'm sure I won't get it"; "do you write for other poets?"; "you know I read some of the poems twice and still didn't get it"; "I just don't know what these poems mean";

--or, occasionally, a tell-tale blurt of "I hate poetry." Though, truth be told, that's usually from the kids.

The biologist who was on Colbert last night said that one bodily function that belongs exclusively to humans is perspiration. We sweat.  Well, poets know this well, because not only do poets sweat when they read in public, but they see sweat everywhere around them when they show off their new book. I just found a definition of this sweaty state of terror, here.  Metrophobia, or the fear of poems. And oh my, here's another from the Huffington Post.

Or they hear nothing at all.

Because poets are gifted with great imaginations, they tend to take these responses with utmost seriousness.  They come to feel like the dart board, flinching as each dart (who knew there were so many?) achieves its mark. They are not ever-fixèd marks, but simply targets for the unpracticed rhetoricians they love the most. Having worked for years to perfect the art of communication, or at least years of doing things with words, they find themselves assured that yes, the book's very pretty, but no, they're busy on the evening of the launch. And what does it all mean?

So, in the interest of preventing some of these difficult conversations, I have unsolicited advice for both partner in this unhappy dance.  To the poet I say, expect as much and do not return sweat with more sweat. Don't sweat it. Remember that people are scared of poetry, as scared as they are of death and dismemberment, that what first comes out of their mouths often tends not to sound kind.

To the non-poet, confronted by a book of poems that causes sweat to form on brow and upper lip, for whom poetry has always inspired fear, who feels that he or she ought to love poetry but simply does not, and who, in that not loving, feels something more akin to hatred or aversion than to appreciation, who yearns to understand meaning but cannot find it anywhere in poems. whose high school teacher told her she was stupid for what she said about Keats and whose college professor gave her Z's and scrawled insults on her feeble poems: take a deep breath, and then ask some questions of the poet before you:

--why do you write poems?

--please read one of your poems to me and then tell me where you were when you wrote it, why you wrote it, and what you'd like a reader to get from it.

--do you follow a pattern when you write?  Why?

--why do you think the designer made the book the size and shape she did?  Why the cover design?  Why the font size, letter shape?

And practice some exercises in appreciation that have nothing to do with meaning:

--I like the sound of that poem.

--There's an image here I really love.

--I can hear your sense of humor in this poem.

I hear someone say that last phrase to me about my kids.  We adopted them, so they aren't spitting images of us.  But our senses of humor and theirs are similar, and it's nice when someone notices. Poems are never spitting images of us, either, which is one reason they're so confusing to other people. But consider that poems are the poet's children, that to ask after them is to aim an endorphin-laden dart at their heart and to put everyone at ease.

After-thought: I do have a new book out, but what inspired me to write this blog blurt was a friend with her first book out. She doesn't yet have the appropriate armor.  Try this on for size!


Allison Cobb said...

I handed my first book of poems to my sister when I climbed into her car and she literally glanced at it and then tossed it onto the floor in the back seat. It was like it was hot, or smelled bad. Needless to say this image has never left me. If someone handed me their physics book and wanted my reaction I might feel the same impulse though.

Ellen Baxt said...

Thank you. I wish I had read this before my first book came out. The silence was deafening, and the faces were ... difficult to navigate, even though people were extremely kind, generous and supportive.