Friday, January 25, 2013

Of Tempests in Teapots, Po-Biz, and a Welcome Return to Sanity




by Linda Rodriguez




I’m a hyphenate writer. Poet-mystery novelist. One foot stands in the airy-fairy literary world of poetry, where I’ve published two books, many individual poems, and won some national awards, while the other is planted firmly in the down-to-earth storytelling of mysteries and thrillers where all the loose ends have to be tied up or explained and where I’ve been very fortunate also. Although I love both worlds and have wonderful friends in both, as well as people who have mentored and helped me, I’ve come to realize there’s a real difference—and this past week brought that home with a sting.

The poetry world—or “po-biz” as we poets tend to refer to it to mark the difference between writing the poems and building the career by publishing, winning awards, getting tenure, booking readings, etc.—is very competitive. At least, the establishment academic poetry world is highly competitive. The side niches where you will find most of the African American, Asian American, Latino, or Native American poets are highly cooperative and collaborative, real communities, and their members usually don’t get the plum positions or lucrative honors.

The world of mysteries, where there is more money and a vastly larger number of readers at stake, is surprisingly not cutthroat competitive, but much more of a cooperative and collaborative community, even though it would be considered by the po-biz folks to be pretty establishment. From the beginning, I was blown away by how generous and helpful major writers were toward the beginner I was, and as I’ve spent more and more time among the mystery writers, I’ve seen firsthand how super-collaborative they all are.
I still write and publish poetry. In fact, I have another full-length book manuscript I’ll be sending out for publication in the near future—to join my other two published collections, I hope. I negotiate the two worlds with a shake of my head at the differences, and that’s about all. Until something like last week happens that really brings home to me the absolute difference in cultures.

I was thrilled to learn that a dear friend and fellow poet, Richard Blanco, had been selected as the inaugural poet for President Obama’s second inauguration. I’ve studied and critiqued manuscripts with Richard, and I know what a gifted poet he is. He has won some of the po-biz’s major awards, equivalent to the Edgar or Rita, and continues to study and work hard to constantly challenge himself and improve his art. Plus he’s a genuinely nice guy, funny and smart and generous—and Latino and immigrant (at four months of age) and openly gay. Those last qualifiers guarantee that he’s spent a lot of time in those side-niche poetry communities I mentioned earlier where there’s much more community and cooperation.

Before the inauguration even took place, there were rumblings from certain corners of po-biz about his selection. Award-winner or not, Richard is not one of the usual recipients of this kind of honor. These kinds of things, like the poet-laureate position of the U.S., are usually reserved for a handful of old white guys who went to the “right” schools and studied with the “right” teachers, etc., etc. So obviously, even though he had great credentials, he couldn’t possibly be good enough for this job. He didn’t fit the mold.

I read these carpings with little worry. I knew the quality of Richard’s work, and I knew he would write and read a great poem. When the inauguration came, he read with great effect a wonderful poem, in which he did the almost impossible and caught the essence of America on the page. He brought tears to the eyes of many Americans with his great poem, which caught perfectly the mood of the moment that, even after terrible things have happened, we will all pull together and make our country great.

Bare minutes after he finished reading, the insults and criticizing began on Facebook and soon moved to prestigious blogs. His poem was trashed, his performance was trashed, and sometimes he himself was trashed. I came face to face with a very strong expression of the ugly side of po-biz. One academic poet even admitted at the beginning of his attack, “I wanted to hate [the poem.]” He ended with a suggestion that Richard should have inserted some exciting profanity to liven up the poem and make it a little bit hip (completely ignoring the occasion for which the poem was written at which “exciting profanity” would have been totally inappropriate, if very hip).


So this past week I’ve been living more in the poetry world than the mystery (and other commercial novel) world. I wrote a blog lamenting the situation and the way poets tend to eat their own at the slightest excuse and how the egos of poets are so often poetry’s worst enemies.


I’ve had a lot of support for this from poets of the side-niche, collaborative communities of poetry—and even from some of the po-biz folks themselves. But I’m ready to quit reading every attack and frothing at the mouth at the absolute stupidity and cupidity of the remarks.

I’m ready to return to the sane and generous community of mystery novelists where few, if any, feel that someone else’s professional good fortune is a threat and an attack on their own lives, where writers are more likely to extend a hand in congratulations to someone else getting an award rather than to sling mud at her or him. I’m eager to return to the place where kind writers with major reputations often offer a hand to those just starting out or having to start over.

And I’m here to tell my friends who are writers and readers in this great community—you don’t realize how good we have it here. Just take a look across the way at po-biz and thank your stars or guardian angels that you’re novel writers and readers and not poets.

15 comments:

  1. Hi Linda,

    Watching and listening to Richard Blanco was one of the most moving experiences I'd had in years. It is distressing to read about the criticism. I hadn't known about it until reading this. I am sorry to say, though, I am not shocked. I gave up writing poetry 15 years ago. I was, in a small way, successful at it in grad school. I hadn't taken any courses in writing poetry. I just wrote and read it when invited. I wrote for church services, for ordinations, for invitational readings, for a baccalaureate service, and different events. Then one day some other students questioned my cultural identity. They did it behind my back. They spread rumors based on lies. That was not a fight I wanted to take on. I wouldn't, and I won't. There was, I learned, in the academy, an ugly fight for the right to be who you are. So I bowed out of writing in my community, about my community, because the me that I was, was vulnerable to a few who wanted my space. They owned my space, because they were more of what we were than I was. It doesn't matter who was wrong, who was right, who supported me, who did not. It was not worth the fight. I write crip poetry now with pieces of my cultures peeking out at times. It's better, because I am me. I am me. That's enough.

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  2. Thanks for this fabulous post, Linda. I knew we mystery writers were a great community but hearing what happens on the po-biz side just underscores that. As someone outside of the poetry world, I was struck by Blanco's inclusiveness in the words he wrote and the accessibility of the poem, both aspects of which I thought highlighted what a wonderful work it was. Every word was carefully chosen; that you could tell. If you have the occasion to talk to him, please tell him that he now has a fan in NY and I thought that his reading of the poem was extraordinary. Maggie

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  3. Thank you, Linda, for this post. I, too, straddle genres/worlds, and have long known that academics (like any group of people) occupy a long continuum of attitudes & behaviors. There are some fabulously generous people on the "literary," academic side of the aisle, and also all-too-many petty, insecure, jealous, vicious little snots. I agree, though, that the proportion of generous people is very high among mystery (and other "commercial") writers/authors. All we as individuals can do, really, is to continue to read and write what we love, and to associate with people with whom we can share mutual struggles and mutual triumphs. In the end, the others just don't matter.

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  4. Reine, I'm so sorry that happened to you in grad school. Unfortunately, that kind of intimidation happens a lot--and not just from students. One creative writing prof I know (a woman!) has suggested that I might just as well go "spread [my] legs on the street" if I'm going to write popular novels. I wish I could speak to all the students who get discouraged and driven away and say, "Stick with it!" But I will say that to you. Write from who and where you are and thumb your nose at them!

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    1. Linda... you are the reason I started writing poetry again. As I read your response to my comment I realized that I can't leave myself out of my writing in any way. I am sure that sounds obvious, but when you're in the middle of a pile of crap, you just want to breathe.

      Now that I see what you're professor said to you, my invasive professor, coming from her position as a tribal elder, was just a little sweetie. She did what elders have a right to do, and I was intimidated by her power. I am not anymore though, and you will see. That crisis came at a time when I was naïve and subject to both community and institution, to ancestors who were enemies, and to ancestors who went to the same school where I found myself lost in the circle wrapped in ivy.

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  5. Maggie, you hit the nail on the head exactly! What Richard needed to do as inauguration poet was to write a poem and read it before over a million people in person (and millions more on TV), most of who weren't poets or academics. That poem needed to be totally accessible to people who might not have read a poem since elementary or high school, to people who came from different backgrounds and cultures, and it needed to connect with them and speak to their hearts and minds. An occasional poem (written to celebrate a specific special occasion) is the hardest type to write and make it a really good poem, and this is about the toughest occasional poem you can be set to write. (I would have been paralyzed and made a mess of it, I'm sure.) Richard did a really wonderful job of meeting all those criteria and still having a good poem.

    I will pass on your kind words to him. I've been letting him know about all the non-poet writers I know who really liked it. Thanks!

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  6. Sheila, a fellow traveler! Actually, I love a lot about the poetry world and have many fabulous friends there, but the petty jealousies and bickerings over who's "really" good or not have always bothered me. This just brought that ugly aspect to a head. On the other hand, lots of good people in that world applauded Richard's accomplishment.

    I was just struck by 1) the automatic outpouring of nastiness and 2) the fact that most of us just shook our heads and said, "Of course. You know the po-biz." I realized that I'd never seen that kind of attack in the mystery (and other commercial novel) world. And it made me view it in a different light--that this isn't necessarily the way writers have to treat each other.

    Got to say, I love my mystery writers and readers and am so looking forward to our next reunion at Malice!

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  7. Being a mystery writer allows me to put people I don't like into a story and kill them. It's a great way to release tension and get even.

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  8. It is truly surprising how supportive mystery writers are of one another, there are exceptions, of course, but they are few. As for poetry, I am not a poet, but I do enjoy reading poetry.

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  9. Oh, Warren, thanks for the chuckle. As you are aware, I have been known to do that. Not any poets, so far, but who knows?

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  10. I, too, responded to Blanco's poem at the ceremony in a very positive way. I'm not very versed (haha) in poetry, not such a fan or knowledgeable about it, etc., but I do appreciate it and read and listen to it now and then. I thought the poem was lovely, on point for our times and the occasion, and his reading was terrific. I don't understand the perspectives of those who are saying it was bad. Made me want to read more of Blanco's work and gave more meaning and depth to that wonderfully American event.

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  11. Marilyn, yes, the warmth and generosity of the mystery community is quite amazing!

    Vicky, I envy you getting to start from the beginning with Richard's work. You're in for a real treat. Beautiful, moving poetry.

    One other thing I've discovered since settling into the mystery community is all the people out there who do like poetry. I've said for years that we need to make our poetry accessible to people who don't have an MFA or PhD in poetics, that we're falling down on our jobs as poets (the original shaman of most cultures way back in the day) by turning our back on most of the world. This episode has shown me how right I was. There is a large community of intelligent people who would love to read and enjoy more poetry if they're given half a chance.

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  12. It was wonderful and inspiring, and I pity those whose egos require them to trash other people.
    My favorite professor*, who nurtured students rather than try to squelch them, would often declare work worthy of publication. He would also warn us that the venues for publication were shrinking, so we wouldn't be blind-sided by rejection.
    *Howard Schwartz

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  13. Mary, is that Howard Schwartz at UMSL? Lovely man and great poet!

    And yes, there are many academic/establishment poets who don't take these parochial attitudes--wonderful, bright, and dedicated people. Unfortunately, there are also a goodly number who do. What I find so refreshing and delightful about the mystery community is how very few there are here with those attitudes. I've never encountered any, but I know that no group of humans can be quite perfect, so I assume that there's at least one or two out there.

    And it may be a function of how new I am to the mystery community and how old I am with the poetry community, but I don't think so. I've had a chance to see a wide swathe of mystery writers, and I'm still ultra impressed.

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  14. Linda, do you know if there are blogs or websites with videos of poets reading their work? I have never been quite so moved as when I watched and listened to Richard Blanco reading his inaugural poem. I know there are occasional posts one can find here and there, especially on YouTube, but I was thinking it would be very nice if there were a dedicated website one could visit. The concept of the internal critical aspect of po-biz that you described here is more distressing than I thought it would be to me-- I think, because I had overly internalized my own experience. I'd never seen it clearly as symptomatic of a larger problem. If I hadn't felt comfortable in commenting here, I believe I would not have discovered this about myself. It gives a person quite a lot of freedom to discover such things, so thank you.

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