On Fashion, Pay, and Patriotism

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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in Archive

 

How much does it cost to be a poet?
— Kerri L., Cordova, Tennessee
 

I wrote poems when I was 13 and it didn’t cost a dime.
Unfortunately, most poets want recognition, and that can cost a lot.
True, poets don’t need to go to school to write good poems, but these
days poets are expected to give lectures, conduct workshops, and write
intelligible and pertinent blurbs on the back of other poetry books.
Those all require a decent amount of education, probably including grad
school, which can get expensive depending on where you go. But that’s
just the monetary cost — there are others.

When you are a poet in this age, your eyes go bad from too much time
spent in front of the computer screen and you may develop carpal tunnel
syndrome from deleting and rewriting lines or words or punctuation
marks. You won’t exercise as much as you should because maybe after a
hard day’s work, you would rather write a poem than run three miles
like your doctor recommends. On occasion, you may feel the urge, like
the ancients did, to get closer to the gods and drink too much wine.
When you become a poet, or when the poet becomes you, you also open
yourself up to feelings of intensity. You identify with everything and
must learn to stomach lunch while hearing the cries of bean sprouts and
avocados. You may spend a night or two weeping for someone you hardly
know, taxing your sleepless body and that of the significant other who
is dutifully consoling you. As the inner dialogue takes over, you also
may lose social skills and the ability to interact with others without
a script or a clear role dictated by your day-time profession, and you
might waste hours of daylight reading an e-mail aloud to ensure that it
has a good sound and is free of any awkward rhymes. And accidents,
caused by searching for a pen to write down the perfect phrase while
driving on a crowded street, those too may take a toll. But I think
it’s worth it.

 

What do poets wear to the office?
— Dottie H., Sierra Vista, Arizona

If a poet is a teacher, she wears clean, casual-professional clothes
and comfortable shoes. I’ve heard that Emily Dickinson wore all white,
but she was a recluse. Many poets today might prefer to wear something
dark: slimming, mysterious and capable of hiding various mishaps with
pens and food.

 


I’m an ironic hipster douchebag who’s too cool for most everyone and everything. But watching the Olympics, I’ve decided I’d like to become more patriotic. Are poets patriotic? Any advice on how to proceed?

— Josh M., Lubbock, Texas

I once met my state representative at a Fourth of July celebration. I was home unexpectedly from Peace Corps service, after Uzbekistan kicked me and all other Westerners out of the country in June 2005. As it turns out, that same representative was supposed to come to Uzbekistan and meet a few Peace Corps volunteers, including me. I was excited then (it must have been February or March of 2005) because he was from my home state of Arizona, and because he straddled the unusual dichotomy of being both Republican and openly gay: Jim Kolbe. Poor weather conditions, though, forced his plane to land in Iceland, and he never made it to Uzbekistan, and meeting Jim Kolbe was one of those unfinished tasks that haunted me during my sudden repatriation. My interrupted service left a gaping wound in my psyche that I thought would be healed if, among other things, I met Jim Kolbe, so when I saw him at my town’s Fourth of July celebration, I marched right past the Secret Service and shook his hand. At some point in the exchange (I think after he asked me about my future plans), I blurted out, “I’m a poet!” and I will never forget the quiet astonishment reflected in his blue eyes. I, of course, wrote a poem about it.

I begin with this digression for two reasons: one, to unite poetry and patriotism, if only tangentially, and two, to admit that I did serve my country in the Peace Corps, which might make me, at least, a patriot. You should remember that poets are people, too, and people are like argyle socks, varying with every pattern and color scheme. Whitman was patriotic, honoring our great leader Abe Lincoln in several poems. Robert Frost was patriotic, delivering his notable poem, “The Gift Outright,” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. Even our eccentric Emily Dickinson was patriotic, in the way I suppose most women are, by completely absorbing patriotism and making it something of her own (patriotism refers to the fatherland):

To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.

ED’s notion of being patriotic is entirely inward and private. Being patriotic does not mean waving flags or dropping bombs or pasting signs on our gas-guzzling vehicles that say “Support Our Troops.” Nor does it mean passing around petitions to “Bring Our Troops Home.” It doesn’t even mean watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Being patriotic (though I doubt she would use that word in reference to herself) means to go on living, fighting the eternal battle with whatever haunts us, be it sadness, psychosis, or the painful marks of memory. In ED’s untraditional sense, I believe most poets are patriotic, as the painful past often is what motivates poets to write. I must say, though, that the definition of patriotism is entirely too limited.

Allen Ginsberg, who marched on the National Mall with his fellow upstarts to protest the Vietnam War, was likely the most patriotic of them all, given that patriotism in America also leaves room for dissent. When he saw injustice, he howled: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals…and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.”

Now that’s really something to strive for. • 11 August 2008