Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.

The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away.

Anybody who reads deeply, widely, and intelligently is going to disagree with the prize committees sometimes. Good books fly under the radar all the time, and mediocre ones (including plenty of books by privileged people) win the love–although when the latter seems to happen, a reader ought to ask herself whether her judgment could have been wrong. Sometimes, I know, I miss what’s exciting others because I’m not ready for a book, or even just in a bad mood. But Hicok’s examples, for heaven’s sake–including Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón–they’re brilliant writers who take great risks and produce great books, partly rooted in their identities and experiences and wholly illuminated by talent and hard work. All have had luck, I’m sure, but all have overcome obstacles, too, and continue to do so, because there’s always someone trying to chip away at their achievements, treating them like interlopers, and sometimes even threatening their safety. In the U.S., “straight white men” are just more free than everyone else, and dealing with unfreedom wears you down. It can make achieving art at all seem like a miracle.

A little example: I have plenty of friends who couldn’t afford a trip to Portugal, or whose disabilities would make it extremely difficult, so I thought about how lucky I was constantly (except while vomiting in the hotel toilet). Being at a liberal arts college insulates me from the high-level territory battles at R1 institutions, as I remembered while listening to a roundtable on the state of literary criticism, with lots of anxious references to postcritique and presentism. People are sweating about how to do relevant work when academic protocols can be so conservative and advancement is so tricky, but my main worry is finding publishers for my more boundary-busting work; at a teaching-focused institution, most people don’t publish as much as I do, so even my small wins look good. Beyond the conference, too, being a middle-aged cisgender American of European descent means I can generally get a taxi or a seat at a restaurant, even when I’m grungy from climbing all those cobbled streets, because no one objects to my skin color and everyone knows I have euros in my pocket.

Yet for all that luck, the trip home sucked, because I’m a woman. The otherwise polite white guy next to me, average-sized and not more pressed for space than anyone else, seemed delighted when his nearest rowmate turned out to be me. He promptly claimed his god-given right to the armrest and then, by degrees and apparently obliviously, he leaned his arm against my ribcage. No matter how I contorted myself away from him, his body intruded into my space, and not in an impersonal, occasional, shoulder-bumping kind of contact, either. Like about a quarter of the women you know, I’m an assault survivor. Being unable to avoid close physical contact with strange men–well, it’s upsetting. Once the aisles were clear I asked my husband to switch seats with me, and then Mr. Man-Spreader kept to himself, because of course it would be inappropriate to lean against another man’s ribcage or even his arm, right? Men deserve a little breathing room.

This happens to me all the time, and sometimes the men are far more aggressive. I’ve spoken up and had men respond by pretending to stay asleep, pressing against me while staying on the safe side of “page the attendant” obvious harassment territory. I get panicky, and eventually angry, while doubting that anyone would believe me; I rehearse all the times my space has been violated before; I wonder whether it’s worth flying to conferences on my own, in overstuffed understaffed airborne tin cans; and all of this upset is completely invisible to anyone around me. I’m not in any danger, to be clear; these violations are minor, in the long run. I just get triggered in an exhausting, demoralizing way, and I fear inappropriate touching on airplanes even when it doesn’t happen, so that travel costs me extra stress.

Bob Hicok thinks this gender-specific #MeToo-ish history gives me some publishing cred. I don’t think so, yet even if it did, I would trade that publishing edge in a heartbeat for not having to worry about moving through public territory as a woman. For people who get denied space for multiple intersecting reasons, things are much harder. While plenty of us feel, as Hicok does, that our work merits more attention than it gets, he’s underestimating freedoms he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy because of his own identity, as well as the cost of identity-related struggles that occasionally lead, by twisting paths, to powerful writing.

It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.

Also, as Jeannine Hall Gailey puts it in a post she was clearly writing as I composed this one: once you’ve won two NEAs and a Guggenheim and published ten books with a dream press, as Hicok has, this racist, sexist, ableist complaining is not going to win you any sympathy. The guy has already claimed nearly all the armrests.

From the Serralves museum in Porto, with a reflected poet in it

3 thoughts on “Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

  1. Well I now had to read the essay too. You point out its biggest literary flaw: that it just seems to restate its observations/self-reactions over and over and over. It had the depth of a couple of tweets and yet was over 4000 mostly dreary words! He had one interesting point to make I think: that arts, and poetry perhaps as much as most arts, can serve as a sort of R&D dept. or avant garde pioneers for things ahead of the culture.

    And you and Jeannie Hall Gailey point out its most questionable assumption: that this is a zero-sum game. That same thing that makes poetry good at being that avant garde/R&D thing is that it’s not capital intensive. Its much decried small audience means it has lot of ways to grow an audience, and people can become “micro celebrities” (love that term) sometimes fairly quickly, sometimes by good writing, sometimes by fashionable writing, sometimes through an influential sponsor or prize, sometimes by good “origin stories” in the comic book super-hero sense. But why, why, why are Hickok and the like so fixated on the supply side? Isn’t there a demand side with considerations?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Absolutely! And changes in readerships reflect a widespread academic problem: the professoriate nationally is whiter than the student body, so we’ve got an important gap to address through hiring and event programming as well as better writing and teaching.

    Liked by 2 people

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