Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
I begin this essay with Eliot’s words because I have been mulling them over recently with a dear friend who has carried these lines with her for decades, and because my thinking about these lines approaches the question posed by this project: why do we write what we write, and how do we do it? And in brief, I believe I write what I do in order to both bear reality and rethink reality.
There’s so much reality to bear, and language can hardly carry the weight of it. And although I want to write poems to shift reality and shift the world, in the end, I come up much too short. A poem cannot change the world.
But if, at times I think I will stop writing poetry because there’s so much else to do to make this world a better place, I find myself knocking around empty. And so I keep writing, searching for new ways of understanding the world, through language and toward new action. I keep writing in fear, toward trust.
And so to reveal language in its failings
It is the old problem of the impossibility of language translating experience exactly, of capturing meaning precisely. It’s my frustration with the imprecision of language, and the clumsiness I feel when I attempt to communicating what is ultimately unsayable, that brings me time and again back to writing the kind poetry we call “experimental” or “avant garde” or simply “difficult.”
If there is any truth I can express (particularly as a queer woman of color), the only way I can come close to doing so is to pierce the veneer of transparency that we pull over language. To expose its materiality and enforced thinking. To begin to expose the ways language has been used for centuries as a tool to prop up systems of oppression, such as capitalism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. And thereby attempt to communicate in a way that asks for a different kind of reading, of sense making, of connecting.
But I do not want to abandon sense entirely. I like constructing and juxtaposing images in the service of surprise. And I cannot seem to abandon narrative completely. And so, I suppose I position my poetry in the realm of the postmodern hybrid. I like Cynthia Cruz’s term “broken lyric” (as cited by the late Reginald Shepherd in his introduction to the anthology Lyric Postmodernisms). I like it because it suggests music and discord, fractured tunes, something beautiful and shattered: It is so much of my experience of the world, which is a weird place, and, indeed, difficult. When I write, I want to channel that difficulty as well as the mystery of the world. I write hoping to both disrupt and weave stories across a broken field of words.
Seeing the world through a queer :: eco :: poetics
In the last few years, I have been interested in being part of the rethinking and retelling of the story of human relationships to the “natural” world, as it is happening across genres and disciplines. As I’ve written elsewhere, as a queer writer with a very specific relationship to the concept of the “natural,” I am interested in exploring new ways of understanding, toward an ultimate transformation of thought and behavior, around what is “natural” or “unnatural.” This is what I travel toward, writing in a queer :: eco :: poetics.
Thanks to us – humans in the industrialized world – the earth is hurtling towards irreversible change. If we are to minimize the damage we have already inflicted, let alone prevent further damage, we must undergo a tidal shift in how we understand and relate to what we call “nature.”
To be clear: I’m not making a reactionary argument. I have no interest in advocating for a back-to-the-land, pre-industrial lifestyle. We are now, for better or for worse, creatures of screen and concrete, and I’m pretty sure there will not be a mass movement to abandon our smartphones and live in yurts.
So what I want is to write poetry that both locates my own queer, American, 21st century, mixed-race body in its specific, technologically rich context while interrogating and expanding the very idea of “nature.” How might I/we arrive at a new understanding of the give-and-take necessary for survival? Leaving behind old notions of the poet standing apart from nature to observe it, celebrate its wonder, or use as a trope, I’m finding ways to write into an eco :: poetics inextricably part of and inside of, rather than outside of, the world.
I want to rethink boundaries. I want a new kind of sense making that helps us rethink all that surrounds us: the environment in the largest sense of the word.
Writing in fear, toward trust
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if any of this is possible. And so, finally, I write afraid that I am abandoning readers. I write towards mystery, afraid that I am alone in it. I write afraid that writing is a selfish and self-indulgent endeavor, and at the very least, that as a queer poet of color, it is my duty to write accessible poems that “tell my story.”
I write into all that fear toward a kind of trust. Trust that there is something collective in this endeavor, that language made material, language disrupting meaning, is language that can connect the text, the reader, and the world somewhere in the mysterious joining of mind and heart.
Tolstoy wrote, “if there are as many minds as there are heads, there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” And if there are that many minds and that many hearts, then there must be that many ways to write – and read – a poem.
Once, I had the chance to speak with poet Myung Mi Kim, and I asked her if she ever feared alienating readers. She encouraged me to write what I needed to write without worrying about audience and accessibility. She said the urgent poem will connect readers who need it, in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine.
It is this trust I am writing toward: a trust in a sort of truth that can be held in a poem, that comes close to bearing reality, that will connect to readers across time and space and meaning, and help all of us construct change in this fragile and resilient world.