Points on my poetic license

I have a guilty sense that I’ve deluded people, cast up a falsely shimmering mirage of the Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher, when someone asks how I get so much done. I feel perpetually behind, anxious about what I should have finished but haven’t started yet, and believe that last year’s publishing rate is a fluke. Really, my bulb has burnt out, and next year they’ll see the illusion flicker off like broken film.

At the same time, like everyone who has the arrogance to try and make art, I think I am an underappreciated genius. When asked how I get so much done, I experience a static charge of irritation. The answer, of course, is that I work really hard even when I don’t want to. That’s the only answer, ever.

There’s another piece, though, and it’s not something a scholar should admit: I am not a perfectionist. I send poems out before they’re done and regret it later. I don’t proofread my emails, dammit. I fail to double-check the spelling of a name or the exact wording of a reference. To anyone not a scholar or researcher or journalist, this probably sounds like silly stuff to worry over, and sometimes it is. I had a reviewer lambaste me for a misspelled name once (in a quick aside, not a major point) and I still think he was unnecessarily snarky; he was looking for errors because he didn’t like my poetic politics.

Sometimes, though, even small errors have ethical weight. I wrote down just the first author of a co-authored source once, and never re-checked and caught my omission of the collaborators. Later, one of those collaborators wrote me in frustration—she had just done me a huge favor and noticed in the process that I had cheated her of credit for a lot of hard labor. You of all people should know better, she said, and I agreed.

I recently made a couple of other mistakes in which I failed to give full credit to women. I just published an article about The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List called “A Salon with a Revolving Door: Virtual Community and the Space of Wom-Po.” One mistake was just a basic confusion rooted in the real difficulty of following tangled threads: I attributed the invention of “Foremother’s Friday” to Ellen Moody, who more or less runs that feature now, instead of to its real originator, Amanda Surkont. The other error is worse, in my opinion, because, again, I really should have known better. In one paragraph, I blithely recognize Charles Bernstein for founding the Buffalo Poetic List and John Kinsella for founding poetryetc. I describe Wom-po, however, not as Annie Finch’s creation but as the collective venture of a group of women.

Yes, it was a collective endeavor—all those email lists are—and my article emphasizes its communal aspect as a feminist achievement. However, all those lists also had leaders, people who steered the conversation through conflicts, navigated technical difficulties, and kept the group lively and growing. In short, I gave full acclaim to the men, but not to the woman. There are enough jerks out there doing things like that with an edge of malice; people who don’t want to be jerks have an obligation to be careful. Annie Finch (in a nice way) called me on it, and I apologized, but I wanted to say again here: I get it and I am sorry.

I never made the omitting-the-coauthors misstep a second time and I don’t expect to make the failure-to-credit-the-woman-same-as-the-men error again, either. I’m pretty sure I will find myself apologizing for other mistakes, though. It’s not that I’m cavalier about it or won’t try hard to get things right, or at least err on the side of generosity. It’s just hot hard work here in the projection booth, with that Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher film on constant display. My Teacher-Scholar simulacrum likes to finish things, tick them off the list and keep moving. Only the poet really takes things slowly enough, at least some of the time. That’s one of the uses of poetry’s uselessness.

3 thoughts on “Points on my poetic license

  1. Lesley, I loved reading this! After the discussion on wompo, I wondered how you were thinking and feeling about the feedback on the article (which was of course on the whole an excellent piece!). I really appreciate you writing this with your reflections on it. Errors are human. Understanding the political significance of errors is feminist. Two monikers I think you embrace, along with productive. I applaud your work!


  2. Lesley, Great and instructive catalog of how it’s done! Though I wonder how many men–father-scholar-poets??–get asked the same question! From one mother/feminist-scholar-poet to another, my confession: I skim! By the way, I thought your piece on our beloved WomPo was so important–it occurred to me how necessary it is to document history just as it is being made and in this electronic world, ironically, we believe we are “documenting” all the time, but really, we’re chatting until it’s pulled together in a formal way. It would be great to have Annie’s comments and replies posted beside your essay as well to get the full picture. These aren’t errors; they’re dialogue & document!


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