Friday, February 09, 2007

Diversity of Work - From Doodlebugs to Death


My daughter told me that they were reading poems in class and she told her teacher, "My mom's a poet. She wrote a book." The thoughtful teacher said, "Oh wonderful, we should have her come in and read us a few poems." My husband when hearing this said, "Yes, I'm sure the children would love to gather around and listen to your poems about death."

He said exactly what I was thinking. Many of my poems focus on death or the unpleasantness of life. Many seem to be spraying silly string across the church's pews. Here are the first three titles from my manuscript:
* After Being Asked Why I Write About Death and Poetry
* Between the Covers We Find Jesus
* Coffin Shopping.

The next poem deals with a dead baby and fetal pigs in formaldehyde, the one after that- the problems with my St. Christopher medal & meeting Neruda in heaven. Definitely the stuff one would want to bring to a school to share with children who still look for flying reindeer in December and put baby teeth under their pillows.

Yet, I don't think my work is gruesome or depressing. But it definitely doesn't connect with everyone and it's really not the stuff to read to kids. There are poems in this manuscript and in my full body of work that I would feel comfortable reading to children, however, those poems tend to be the exceptions.

I started thinking about my work and the diversity of it. I also thought about labels, how some poets get tagged as "nature poets," and can get characterized by their poetry. I remember at the Skagit River Poetry Festival Ed Hirsch said to Li-Young Lee after the quartet finished playing, "Oh, what happy music...now you go up there and read your poems about death." The audience laughed, but yes, that's what we were expecting. Just as we were expecting some mention of "geese" with Mary Oliver. And with Billy Collins, we expect to laugh. We expect the poems to be accessible with Ted Kooser and at a reading with Olena Kalytiak Davis, we don't know what to expect except that it will be unexpected.

But who wants these expectations? Do they help or hurt the poet? What if Ted Kooser started to write poems that needed a series of footnotes to be understood? Or if you went to a Billy Collins reading and nothing was funny? Would that be possible? Would people just be laughing or ready to laugh because that is the expectation?

I'm a young enough (and an unknown enough) poet that these issues haven't concerned me too much. But it's something I think about as I find myself writing poems about the same subject (over and over again), which I do. Am I writing the same poem a thousand times? Or am I discovering something new as I approach the subject a different way?

I like poets who vary their style and content greatly, but there's something comfortable about picking up a book by your favorite poet and getting the handshake you expected. Or perhaps, all that matters is if the poem is good. Whether they write about death or dope, Catholicism or chocolate, what matters is the feeling I have after the poem. A poet friend told me that it doesn't matter at all what the content of my poems are, what matters is the craft of the poem. Basically whether it's doodlebugs or Danfur, both poems have the opportunity to be successful or unsuccessful; it's not the subject, it's the poem.

Still, I hope I'm never called a __________(fill in the blank) poet. I hope my work is complex or varied enough that one word isn't possible--unless that word is "fantastic," "genius," or "Pulitzer Prize winning..."

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