Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Post-AWP, my panel-mate Kasey has expressed the wish "that there were a smaller annual conference dedicated entirely to poetry, minus all the content oriented around professionalization." This is a fine idea, but I wonder if it would really address what I perceive to be the clash of cultures that takes place at AWP and in writing programs more generally. The first is what I think of as the culture of affirmation; the other is the culture of solving artistic problems. The former, larger group consists of people who are most urgently concerned with confirming their identities as writers; the panels they assemble and attend are overwhelmingly concerned with publication, professionalization, and a more or less romanticized vision of "the writer's life." Most of the ads I see for MFA programs in Poets & Writers or elsewhere appeal to this mindset, as does Richard Hugo's famous maxim, ""A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." The second, smaller culture consists of people who, though hardly free of the anxiety and desire for affirmation that constitutes the affect of the first, are primarily concerned with questions about what they'd like to accomplish as writers and how they should go about doing it. The panels these writers set up and attend are devoted to the theory of writing (not necessarily in the sense of literary theory, but it does seem to be the case that this culture is much friendlier to theory than the culture of affirmation is; the former, not without justification, sees theory as a barbed wire fence intended to keep them out of the garden). Put simplistically, the first culture concerns itself with becoming, while the second assumes its being so as to get on with questions of doing.

The tension between these cultures is palpable, and it's intensified by the fact that almost every member of the second culture was at one time a member of the first. Almost no one feels entitled to the role of artist in American society: without some persistent culture of affirmation (be it the encouragement of parents and teachers, the assembly of a clique or movement, or one's cohort at an MFA program), very few of us would have the strength to go on writing poetry in the face of the world's colossal indifference. (Even the solitaries, I would argue, take strength from the imaginary community of affirmation they assemble from the books and writers that they arrange about them in an imaginary conjuring circle.) But as we become more secure in our identities, there is a natural tendency to want to distance oneself from that older, now disavowed self—the self which desperately sought affirmation from sources high and low to confirm his or her identity as poet. It takes a lot of compassion and self-forgiveness, I believe, for members of the second culture not to treat the first with condescension, scorn, or the desire to haze its members the way they themselves were hazed.

As a writer, as a teacher, as a human being, I'd like to find some way to bridge the gap between these cultures. Personally, I feel that engaging with artistic problems is more personally empowering and more likely to establish that necessary bedrock of writerly identity than the more touchy-feely stuff—so maybe the best that can be hoped for is to speed the transition from one culture to the other, while having the wisdom and courage to recognize that the desire for affirmation never really goes away, and the contempt I might feel for someone's naked desperation or emotional neediness or obsessive logrolling has its origins in the wince of self-recognition. We could all stand to show a little more compassion, of course. But what I'm wondering is if there's something that could be accomplished on a structural basis to facilitate the education of writers without so much tension and bad feeling between what are the fully legitimate needs of the two camps.

No comments:

Popular Posts