:: First Published in Arsenic Lobster (Image Credit :: Public Domain)
:: The Winter 2012-2013 Issue of Barrow Street
:: My Poems, “And the Mountains Rising Nowhere” and “Farm Labor Homes”
Order your copy or subscribe to the journal by clicking here.
This morning, I read an article in Tricycle titled “Social Media Guidelines for Vajrayana Students,” and I kept thinking about how some of these guidelines might apply to poets. Toward that end, I’ve developed a set of guidelines for poets who engage in social media, inspired by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s piece.
What I like about Rinpoche’s article is that he isn’t saying Vajrayana isn’t transformative or profound. Quite the opposite. He’s saying that it’s precisely because of these qualities that practitioners should duly consider how they represent Vajrayana when engaging in social media.
I admit to doing some of the things I detail below (as recently as yesterday), which is part of why I created this list. When we engage in a practice that’s extremely important to us — that feels as if it both defines and determines who we are — it is easy to diminish that experience in our efforts to communicate about it to others (especially when social media is our mode of communication). This list will help me begin to think more, and more clearly, about how I communicate as a poet — in social media, on my site, and in my life.
Social Media Guidelines for Poets
- Don’t post images of “famous” poets, especially not ones in which you also appear, grinning, your arm draped over that poet’s shoulder. Especially avoid posting photos of this nature from conferences such as the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. These types of photos do not make you important any more than your own poetry makes you important. They also do not make the featured poet’s work more important.
- Do not post words and phrases a poet has uttered in a semi-private setting, such as a writing retreat, workshop or class. If you must share these teachings, make sure you receive permission from the poet before doing so. Consider also the context in which the words were said, whether they are suitable for a general audience, and what effect you hope to bring about by sharing such words. Think about their effect not just on you but on those who will read them.
- Do not shroud your experience of poetry in terms that make it seem supernatural, exotic, spiritual or otherwise out of reach of others. Being a poet is special, just as countless human endeavors are special, but that does not make you any more special than anyone else. Likewise, touting your “special” role as a poet only serves to undermine the experience of being a poet. Honor and cherish each day you have with poetry without the need to display for your perceived digital audience how much better, different or unique being a poet makes you.
- If you have had a profound or transformative experience as a poet, let your poetry convey that experience. Tweets and Facebook posts cannot communicate that transformation, no matter how many times you use words like “spiritual,” “mystical” and “muse.”
- Take care to avoid using your work, the work of others, and poetry in general in service to your ego. Do not brag about your work, your approach to writing, your reading practices, or your education and publishing credentials. Do not assume your path to poetry is the only path, your way of writing a poem the only way, your aesthetic the only aesthetic. These impulses lead to beliefs and assumptions that not only drive a wedge between poets but also create strife between us all as fellow human beings.
- Don’t boast about your mentor, your writing group, your master of fine arts program, or the school of poetry to which you belong or perceive you belong. Embrace them and derive support from them — just as you in turn give support to them — but don’t be boastful as a way of distinguishing yourself from other poets, schools, groups or programs.
- Don’t use social media to create disharmony by slamming other people’s poetry. There are appropriate methods and avenues for discussing and critiquing work. Little jabs on the internet serve to undermine real discourse about poetry. If you appear to be a poet who is out to tear other poets down, you should not be surprised when you draw like-minded poets toward you and put others off. Create harmony when possible. Remain silent if you cannot create harmony. Write and speak about poetry with intelligence, thoughtfulness and insight when you do discuss or critique work — a difficult thing to achieve when limited to one hundred forty characters or less.
- As for the poets themselves: Leave them out of it. Stick to the work, not the life behind the work. Don’t use social media to create disharmony by denigrating other poets. In doing so, you create a distraction for those who see your posts. This type of distraction is needless and keeps your readers from their own work in the world. In acting this way, you create a false detour for others that is really a dead end, one people will travel down in the confusion you have willingly created.
In 1999, the most difficult year of my life, I approached the front door of The Writers Place in Kansas City, Missouri. I was headed outside when Phil Miller stopped me. He’d been teaching a workshop upstairs that, until moments before, I’d been taking part in.
During a class break, one of the other students in the workshop approached me and said she really loved what I had to say in class. That was an amazing thing for me to hear — and something I desperately needed to hear at the time. I needed every single person who could do so to tell me there was still something about me that was of worth. I didn’t believe there was, but I reached out to other poets in my community, and to The Writers Place in particular, in the hope that, through poetry, I might begin to heal. I also hoped to maintain whatever hold I could on poetry, since I loved it so much and wanted to both read and write it and also experience the companionship of other poets.
When I say that 1999 was a difficult year, I mean it was an impossible year. I don’t mean impossible in the way that poets often use the term in their work when they simply don’t know how to get at what they have set out to get at. I mean impossible. Impossible to live through the health issues I was experiencing. Impossible to deal with my husband’s health issues, which were racing toward us like an out of control vehicle on a winding road. Impossible to recover any sense of self, of safety and security, any semblance of the life we had before — just days before, weeks before. One moment, we were one thing. The next, another.
We were thrust into a future neither of us could have anticipated or would have asked for, one we would have avoided at any cost if only we’d known it was coming and had any say in its unfolding. That was when all roads behind us dimmed, then went dark, until those roads were not only impassable but impossible and we came to believe we never once set foot on them or claimed them as ours.
So when the woman who complimented me — I really love what you have to say in class — continued her sentence, she might as well have thrown me headlong down the flight of stairs and put me out of my misery. I really love what you have to say in class, but could you talk less because you’re really dominating the conversation and other people aren’t able to say anything.
It was a fine request to make, I suppose, and there wasn’t any way she could have known I was broken, or that her words shattered the broken pieces that comprised who I was. That’s when I headed for the stairs, and the door, certain that there was no way back to poetry for me, or to community, or to life as I had once known it.
But Phil didn’t make it easy for me to leave that day. He followed me down the stairs, and stopped me at the door. Stay, he told me. Don’t leave because of what anyone says to you. And then what I remember most clearly: We all go through something in our lives. Embarrassing things, difficult things. Don’t let that keep you from what you love. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
His voice grew louder as he spoke. The students upstairs could hear him, even the woman who hurt my feelings. Phil didn’t care. He told me that he wanted me in his class, and that was all that mattered. That I wasn’t dominating the conversation. That he wanted me to come back and participate as much as I wanted and to not think twice about remaining quiet. He begged me not to leave.
I left. I couldn’t stay that day, but I worked up the courage to come back to the class the following week, partly for myself and partly for Phil. The class had several more weeks to go, and I didn’t return. I also didn’t return to poetry — not for six years. It took moving away to Seattle, Washington, for poetry to slowly make its way back into my life and for me to have the courage to do what Phil asked me to do that day in 1999 — which was to stick with it, no matter what.
When my husband and I moved back to Kansas City last month, I wanted to find Phil and tell him thank you. He stood by me when others abandoned me. He believed in me when others didn’t. He saw a future for me, one he believed I could realize if I only stayed the course and believed in that future myself. We owe everything to people like Phil Miller. We owe them our gratitude, our admiration, our kindness. When the world tears you down, the Phil Millers of the world build you back up. We are human, and more humane, because of people like him.
I found out about a week ago that Phil moved away from the Kansas City area a number of years ago and passed away in 2011. I deeply regret not having let him know how much his words and actions meant to me. Last Friday, a friend invited me to a poetry reading at The Writers Place. It was the first time I had entered the building since Phil’s class. I was greeted by the same plaster walls, the same worn wood floors, the same staircase leading up to the classroom where Phil once taught. Though I know he couldn’t hear me, I whispered to him anyway.
I am here, Phil. I am here. I might be fourteen years late, but I did what you said. I came back. To poetry, to my life. I made it. I finally made it. And so did my husband. We are here. Thank you.
Hyacinth Girl Press has announced its year three lineup. I am thrilled that Jay Snodgrass and I have a collaborative chapbook in the mix — Tomorrow I Will Love You at the Movies — which will appear alongside the other amazing poets whose work will be showcased in the coming year.
The other poets for year three are Kelly Boyker, Jessica Cuello, Mary Stone Dockery, Elisa Gabbert, Sally Rosen Kindred, Julie Platt, Kathleen Rooney, Katie Jean Shinkle and Laura Madeline Wiseman.
Visit the Hyacinth Girl Press website to learn more about what’s in store for 2013.