The relationship between critical and creative practice is:
- Chalk and cheese, apples and oranges, oil and water: i.e. recipe for a bellyache
- A tricky but fruitful alternation with, at best, one kind of labor generating ideas and energy for the other
- [Insert metaphor for fatal competition here—“Two Cats of Kilkenny” comes to mind]
- Identical—there is little difference between these activities
- Harmonious! I’m so happy about my balancing act! If I break this facial expression of brittle cheerfulness I will collapse into a zillion overextended pieces!
All these answers are true and false. To paraphrase Whitman, poets embrace contradiction—although scholars are supposed to resolve contradictions, an observation that returns me to the Kilkenny limerick. Anyway, this is one of the big questions of my life, and the same is true for many friends and colleagues. I value both critical and creative work, but I’m always worrying over the tensions between them. That is, what writing should I do, in what order and proportion? What makes me personally happy? What kind of writing is most useful to others? Is it even feasible to pursue both? By writing criticism, do I shortchange art, or vice versa—am I becoming a dilettante?
For academics, this is very much a start-of-the-summer question, because suddenly it’s not hypothetical. We all have demands on our time beyond writing, and we may be burnt out from the intensities of teaching and service, but if increasing the daily word count isn’t possible in the gaps between terms, it never will be. So, my teacher-friends who aren’t working second jobs, who don’t run summer classes—is that, like, five of us?—what projects do you actually WANT to sink your teeth into? Is there something you think you SHOULD be doing instead? And how do you negotiate writing in relation to a backlog of delayed obligations and gratifications? (It’s prime errand/ deal-with-house-falling-to-pieces/ deal-with-body-falling-to-pieces/ summer-camp-paperwork/ tower of unread lit mags/ catching up with friends/ new-Stephen-King-novel-just-sitting-there season for me, too.)
I’m asking because I’ll be giving a keynote address on the relation between critical and creative practice at Nottingham Trent University on June 19th, and this is me warming up. And not really sinking proper effort into it yet. And also noticing that keynote-writing is not exactly critical or creative writing in any case, or at least, not the writing I most need to do.
I feel chagrined at how much work I’m always lining up for myself, but I’m also eager and curious. I’ve never been to Nottingham. Plus I’m excited to meet my correspondent of the last year or so, Zayneb Allak, who is writing a dissertation there with a chapter on Heterotopia. This is my chronic problem-slash-positive-personal-quality—I like going places and learning from people more than I enjoy the sound of my own voice. But assembling a talk (hard) or reading (easier) is a fair price to pay, really, for a ticket to the party. And interesting new possibilities and projects arise whenever you haul yourself into gear to draft the keynote or prep the reading. Almost every single time I do, I think afterwards: well, that was worth it.
Notice how many “buts” and “ands” and hyphenations litter the above paragraphs? I change my mind about what I should be doing and feeling so often I have a perpetual case of vertigo.
Before I just give up and sit down with a mint julep, though, let me know if there’s something I need to read or hear about the relationship between critical and creative practice. Most of the testaments I’ve encountered so far are similarly ambivalent and irresolved, so if there’s something like wisdom out there, I’ve missed it. All I know is that I have two slightly overlapping networks and sets of accomplishments, and I don’t want to give up on either, so I’m doing my best to nudge the worlds closer together at every opportunity. I recognize this may be a hopeless effort: real scholarship, the kind that rests on slow careful scrutiny of every source you can find, just requires a different set of habits and behaviors than poetry-writing does. (I don’t count short reviews as real scholarship–their scope is too limited, and they’re too much fun to write.) I also recognize that if life makes me choose, poetry-writing is what I can’t live without, even if it turns out that good criticism is what the world really needs from me.
Well, back to distractions, for the moment. I’m Lead Packer for four of us as we prepare to relocate to Bath, where Chris is teaching a summer workshop. Because Chris leaves on Friday and his birthday is next week, last night I organized a Fake Birthday for him with presents and banana cake. Then there are TWO graduations–Madeleine from high school, Cameron from middle school–and, oh yeah, book edits, visiting family, and even major pre-packing for the weeklong summer camp Cameron will begin less than 24 hours after we return from England (I know, I know, but the boy wants to see his camp friends fiercely). Flashlight, sleeping bag, immunization records: check, check, check. Wish us all luck.
And thanks, too, to The Malahat Review, whose current issue reminds me that I actually can write a decent poem once in a while. And the 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone just arrived–it contains the first publication from my book in progress, Taking Poetry Personally, an essay about Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field” that combines criticism with memoir. We’ll see how my chalk and cheese cookery is received.