Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some Thoughts on Issue Poetry

So this was prompted by reading a poem in which a mother celebrates the engagement of her son. A rather dull poem on the whole - except the son's fiance is a man. Oh, I think, an Issue Poem. She can't have been unaware of the implications of what is an explicit reference to The Gay Issue (see how I use those capital letters.) It must be deliberate - to highlight the issue of Gay Marriage.

Except, reading the poem, it isn't really. It conveys a mother's delight at her son's happiness, that is all. But because the son is gay, it becomes an Issue. Then I think of all those gay and lesbian poets who talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends, their love affairs and encounters, and wonder what my reaction says about me. I think of John Ash's poems Following A Man or Cigarettes, two wonderful poems about his gay experience, or I think about Thom Gunn's poetry about his experience, and how uneasily they actually fit into the boxes that we have a tendency to put Issue Poems in.

I also realise that I'm still at the back of my mind bothered by the idea of poetry being about issues. It could be any issue: peace for instance. As a lifelong pacifist, I've written relatively few poems about peace. I also consider myself to be a "person of faith": how do I write about that without coming across as strident, or preachy? So far, I've found one solution in using collaged voices; but there's probably other solutions. I'm wary of too much message, because I've learnt over the years that this is A Bad Thing. I also don't like being preached at even when I agree with the message.

Really, what makes Thom Gunn a good poet is his humanity, his honesty and the accuracy of his observation; but the fact of his sexuality is not a by-the-by; it's part and parcel of who he is; just as my straightness is part of who I am. In the past, gay people used a lot of coding and hidden symbolism because it was illegal to be gay. Nowadays, you can say what you like; except, if you do, you will immediately be classified as an Issue Poet. Thom Gunn wrote about being Thom Gunn, not about Being Gay (again with the capital letters!*); and his poetry was all the better for it. Apart from possibly Frank O'Hara, Jack Spicer and a few others, I think he was one of the earliest poets who didn't cloak his sexuality in symbols.

One day, maybe, the sexuality of a poet will be something so boring as to be hardly worth noting; or at least be acceptably normal. Until that day, my reaction to the rather dull poem I started with might be repeated: oh dear it's an Issue Poem.

* A note on Capital Letters: of course, all poets who are not white, anglo-saxon middle class males are going to at some point be accused of being an Adjective-Poet. White Anglo Saxon middle class male poetry is, as we all know, "just poetry". If you happen to mention your colour, gender, sexuality or class anywhere in your work, or if you are in anyway experimental, you are an Insert Correct Adjective Poet. That is a Fact of Life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some Thoughts On Quirkiness

I've been told my poetry is 'quirky' a lot over the years. Here's what the Urban Dictionary says about that:

737 up162 down
something that is strange/not normal but cool
Wearing long stripy socks that are odd...
2.quirky426 up198 down
Unconventional, surprising, odd.

A word often used by narcissistic scenesters when they describe their oh-so-unique selves in their Livejournal user info pages in attempts to sound like interesting people.

It is a word best used by one person to describe another. Those who apply "quirky" to themselves thereby call into question their very own "quirkiness" by seeming gleefully self-aware (just like everyone else).

I've never called myself that, so I hope part two doesn't really apply to me. I am, I guess, attracted to the unconventional, surprising and odd. I've never worn long stripy socks that are odd, though. Maybe I should start...

I'm sure that's meant as a compliment, but I always feel slightly uncomfortable with the term. A lot of the poetry I read is only odd to people who don't normally come across things like that. When I read Tom Raworth or Geraldine Monk, I don't think, "I say, this is rather quirky, isn't it?" It seems to be the way things should be written. It attracts me in a way that a straightforward narrative doesn't; it just seems natural that is the way the world is.

Oddness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Those of us attracted to modernist/postmodernist practices don't think about their oddness all the time.

Calling something or someone quirky is a way of putting them into a box and saying, well, they're a bit odd, so we can smile wryly at them, tolerate them, but not take them seriously. The challenge of challenging poetry is in the way it doesn't conform to expected norms; calling it 'quirky' means you can accept it without taking up its challenge. You can carry on in your own, sweet, 'normal' way as if nothing has changed. Don't mind him, he's a bit odd, but he's all right really.

But when I write a poem that uses found material or cut'n'paste; or when I notice something 'odd' about the world, something no-one else has noticed perhaps, or not noticed in that way before, I'm not trying to be quirky. I'm trying to reach for some kind of truth: however compromised by language and the media such a concept is, I still believe that it's the job of the poet to seek truth. Truth is often hiding in some odd places, and that's where I like to go looking.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Some Questions On Voice

1. Does everyone have only one authentic voice, or can we have many authentic voices?

2. How much time do we have to spend 'finding our voice' or do we just get on with the writing and 'the voice' will come to us?

3. Can I lose my voice, and can I find it again if I do lose it?

4. If I lose one voice, can I use another, or must I stick with the same one all the time?

5. What is an authentic voice anyway?

6. Can I use different voices in the same poem?

7. Can I use the voices of other people or must I stick to my own?

8. Granted that all my poems are probably going to sound a little like all my other poems, does that mean they all speak in the same voice or do they speak in different voices that have similarities?

9. Can I put on a robot voice now?

10. Can I do the police in different voices?

11. Can I be authentically inauthentic, or inauthentically authentic?

12. If I keep hearing voices, on the train, in the air, out of the radio etc., do I write them down or do I ignore them because they aren't my authentic voice?

13. If I have nothing to say and am saying it, does that mean that I have no voice?

14. How do I voice voicelessness?

15. Am I voice or a chorus of voices?

16. Whose voice am I using today?

17. Does silence have a voice?

18. Have you got some linctus for my voice? I think I'm losing it...