A lot has changed for me in the last month. Dan and I moved to Athens, Georgia. We now live in a two-story house smack dab between two soul food restaurants. And tomorrow, I start work at a travel agency (smack dab between a sorority mansion and a psychiatric office). I’ve been mentally compiling a list of all the things I want to blog about, like taking a break from teaching, or tying knots in our makeshift escape rope. But after reading Anis Shivani’s excoriating Huffington Post article, "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary America Writers,“ I felt compelled to articulate my uneasiness. Let me explain.
I’ve called Athens home before – it was roughly ten years ago that I finished my English Masters program and sped away so quickly that a North Carolina state patrolman pulled me over in a church parking lot for doing 55 in a 25 MPH school zone. I had both back windows rolled down to accommodate my recent ex-boyfriend’s pleather loveseat (or just "seat,” since the love had long gone). Next to me, and strapped in like a passenger, was my creative thesis. Yes, I’d buckled it up. Those stories and poems were such an extension of me, so hard-won and exhaustive, that I felt as if I’d born them from my rib (and without any anesthetic). When the cop asked me if I knew how fast I had been going, I nodded “yes,” unbuckled my thesis, and handed it to him. Through a sheen of tears, and in a calm serial killer voice, I explained that it had been a very long week. It remains the only time I’ve gotten out of a ticket and received a “congratulations” to boot.
So I feel like a time traveler, or a matryoshka doll. Inside the me living here now are other me’s who lived here before – the woman I was at 22, dipping my fries in feta dressing at The Grill, or 23, staggering home arm-in-arm with friends after a night at The Manhattan. The same bartender still works there. I can remember carving my initials into a table at Little Italy, but I can’t find the table. There are so many names, so many letters. I left Athens a decade ago heart-broken and directionless. Now I’ve returned, in a secure partnership, more self-aware.
I think we all walk around as living and breathing matryoshka dolls. Which is why Anis Shivani’s diatribe against his successful publishing peers struck me as so unmindful. In his post, he exposes 15 contemporary writers to be talentless hacks (11 of which are either women or minorities). He says of Amy Tan that she “empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of the molehills of their minor adjustment”; that Helen Vendler “has never uttered one original insight about the great poets she has studied”; and that Sharon Olds’ poetry “defines feminism turned upon itself, chewing up its own hot and bothered cadaver.” While I’m all for promoting an open forum for substantiated critique, Shivani’s anger precludes any reasonable persuasion. To rail so superciliously against popular authors in a poplar medium like The Huffington Post, without offering any pragmatic instruction or guided reading (he reduces each writer to a few lines out of context), is more than ungrateful. It’s a form of self-deception. Anis Shivani, have you never outgrown an author but still remained indebted to what you once felt or learned? Were you born fully formed, a solid figure, less matryoshka than the rest of us?
When I was in my early twenties, I drove four hours to DC just to hear Billy Collins read. Shivani asserts that Collins “has perfected, over twenty years, a brand of poetry candy.” I can’t say that I disagree. I think that Collins relies too heavily on formula. I would love to see him employ more mystery. I wouldn’t be afraid to say any of this to Collins’ face. I would offer him the same honest critique that I give to my friends. And I would tell him that his poem “Japan” meant so much to me – means so much to me – that I once navigated Dupont Circle in rush hour just to hear him say “I am the heavy bell/and the moth is life with its papery wings.” Collins contributed to my poetic education. Even if I have outgrown “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” there are layers of his poems inside me, poems that still resonate and affect the way I read today. I now have the tools to appreciate and critique. Haughtiness has no place in what we, as poets, are hoping to accomplish.
And Shivani himself is not just a critic, but a poet. We have more than ten Facebook friends in common – which is to say, we are members of the same community. My fellow writer and friend Zach was recently asked, by a high school student attending the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, to describe his poetic process. I loved his answer. Zach, who has just won four contests in a row, who remains humble and indebted to the spirit and integrity of craft. “I don’t distinguish between my daily life and my writing life,” he said. “I’m always taking notes, seeing poems in everything.” This resonated with me. Poetry is a way of being in the world. This existing can be analytical and discerning – it must be – but it must also be generous.
The term I taught Creative Writing at NYU, I brought in several poems to discuss on the first day. One of the those poems was Sharon Olds’ "The Glass.“ I asked a burly boy, a Junior, to read it aloud. He stopped half-way through. He stood up, pushed in his chair, and left without gathering his books. We continued class without him. When he returned, after everyone else had gone, he explained to me that he couldn’t take the course. His father had died the week before from cancer. I said I understood. "But I’ll keep this,” he said, unfolding the poem from his pocket. I hadn’t noticed that he’d carried it out of the room with him. I’m still not sure if this was a failed or successful teaching moment. I do know that Sharon Olds meant something to this boy – something that Shivani’s reductive “tampons and lactation” doesn’t account for.
So what is the purpose of poetry? Is it just to make us feel something deeply? I think we can start with feeling – never condescending enough to take away a person’s authentic experience – and proceed to intelligent, respectful critique. I find that high school and college students really respond to Olds’ poetry, and because of that response, I’m provided a window as a teacher. I thought a lot about Shivani’s post and its off-putting tone, imagining my students poring over its content and feeling chastised. “I guess I’m dumb because I like Billy Collins’ accessibility,” or “Now I’ll never admit Mary Oliver's ‘Wild Geese’ moved me.” I thought a lot about the poetry project Dan and I undertook, to record podcasts to help give our parents a point of entry into this seemingly insular world we so adamantly defend. One of my Augustana students last spring said to me, while we were discussing Olds' “Sex Without Love,” that the repetition of “come to the” was too obvious a device, that the poem would have been better if it had been more subtle. And I completely agreed. We weren’t afraid to criticize the poem, but we did so without bitterness, with the shared understanding of what it feels like to buckle-up your work in the front seat of your car. Someonemade this poem. Someone cared enough to try.
There are people behind poems. I like to think I earned another MFA working for Sharon Olds as her personal assistant. I did this job full time, for a year. I witnessed firsthand her process, the warm and seamless integration of poetry into her daily life. Sharon loves poetry. She loves helping others experience a poem. She would sit by her living room window, with its view of the Hudson, in the same spot where she probably rocked her two now-grown children, and draft by hand, or compose letters to friends. She, more than any other writer I have known, believes in a fellowship of writers, a shared compulsion towards, and reverence for, words. A great deal of my time was spent retyping the poems in One Secret Thing until I internalized its lineation and rhythms. I value her passion for exactitude. I value her political engagement with the world (an engagement that Shivani doesn’t bother to mention). Inside me, then, is the mastryoshka of Sharon. There are poems I dislike. There are poems I love. I could have a real conversation with Sharon about either. We learned from each other. I wonder if Shivani has the guts to walk up to Louise Gluck and tell her that she is mediocrity ascended to the top.
As a humor writer, I welcome parody and sarcasm and snark. I think it’s funny to imagine Mary Oliver talking to a snow owl. But there must be a way to critique that isn’t so rantingly mean-spirited. Shivani accuses Mary Oliver of such egotistical elitism that you would think he never wrote a poem about Harold Bloom’s old age. It’s hard creating poems, and it’s hard getting people to read them. Jennifer Moxley writes, in “Broken Poetics,” that “It is easier to eavesdrop on and denigrate the compassionate, learned, and much interrupted conversation that makes up the history of poetry than it is to participate." Surely we can do more to foster a well-informed community.