I’ve been reading Louise’s blog (which is great, by the way), and I came across a statement that I think captures some of the ambivalence and frustration I experienced when listening to Tone’s last poem on Friday night. Louise said:
“There was a time, way back in MFA-land, when I thought I was the only female poet who had not been abused as a child. All these healthy-looking, functioning adults and not a single one of them had loving parent(s)? Wow. And so it began, my experience with female poets who feel
a) if something bad happened to them, they had to write about it
b) they needed to shock with their poem
c) they will get a "better" (read less critical) response with heavy stuff -- the abuse, the rape, the abortion, etc.
I remember sitting there, smallest person in the room in all senses, trying to make out what to say to a woman who just bared her soul about her child abuse in what was at best a mediocre poem. My inner voice said to me: I hate this.
I also remember starting to feel as if I had to write about the crappiest crap in my life just to be validated. This feeling warred with not wanting to be pegged to that topic.
Now, when I'm in poetry-slam-and-spoken-word-land, I see this kind of female poet exists here too. (Not all, mind you, the best of us seem to have range.) I see them get sympathy points in the same events where good poems get real and really earned points. And it really does seem to be a problem for women poets more than men. (Men have their own problems.)
And to those who think their i-hate-you-daddy poem is original, it was Sylvia Plath who first said:
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. - written and published in 1962"
First, I’m sorry for anyone who has suffered abuse.
Second, beyond that, I’m not sure what else there is to say. Abuse is obviously traumatic and scarring. I don’t want to downplay that at all. And to the extent that I can know someone in that situation and call them friend, then I want to be supportive. I surely don’t have the magic words to fix any of it, but I will listen, enter in to that person’s pain, and try to be there for that person. That’s what friends do.
But here’s what I wanted to say to Tone: Everybody has his or her story to tell. And it’s okay to tell it through art, but please realize that your story, whatever it is, doesn’t make you much different from anyone else. You are not the most wretched, suffering person on the planet. Of if you are, then so is everybody else. Dysfunction is the norm. I hate to say it, but your traumas and your private hells are both uniquely yours and something you share with just about everyone. So go ahead and share about them. Write about them. But don’t play your traumas as an artistic trump card, don’t play Can U Top This in the Sympathy Sweepstakes, because I’m going to claim that if you do then you’re being cheap and tawdry and ultimately demeaning to your art. It’s confrontational melodrama, but it’s melodrama just the same. And it stinks, not because it’s not real or important, but because it’s bad art, and you’re trying to pawn yourself off as an artist.
There is a fine line here, and I’m not at all saying that art can’t engage social issues. Some of my favorite art does just that. But it is a matter of, umm, Tone. Bob Dylan and Public Enemy write great social protest songs. Steve Earle tries, but then claims that Condoleeza Rice’s problem is that she’s so uptight because she’s not getting anything in bed. One is challenging and uplifting; the other is merely idiotically distasteful and misogynistic. Can you guess which side I think rants about Ritalin and Mountain Dew fall on?