One of my earliest memories is of my mama mopping, in that little single-wide trailer that was my childhood home in North Carolina. The trailer had no carpet, just that late 60’s speckled vinyl flooring, and she mopped every inch of it, keeping it spotless down to each corner, as they say, “clean enough to eat off of.”:-) What’s striking about these recollections, though, is not the mopping itself, although that little tiny woman cleaned those floors with a ferocity that still cracks me up. What I love the most about these mopping-memories is the poetry she recited as she mopped.
Thin curtains lifted by a stray breeze through the rolled out windows, lemon-colored sunshine floating with dust striping a ladder of light across the battered couch and damp linoleum floors, my mama’s pretty little doll-sized bare feet, and that mop. In the sharpest memory, she’s reciting Rudyard Kipling at the top of her lungs 🙂 the British turn of word melding perfectly with her lilting Appalachian accent, the cadence of her recitation keeping perfect time with the swish-swish-swoop of that raggedy string mop:
And it was Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Poe’s Annabelle Lee, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Whitcomb Riley’s The Raggedy Man, Longfellow’s Paul Revere, Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis, Edgar Guest”s Home:
Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ living in it.
Edgar Guest showed up, too, when I doubted myself, was afraid to do something, try something new:
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
My daddy, too, reciting Shakespeare and Yeats, the hazel wood and stolen child, and always—always—he and Mama both returning to Whitman, Mama reciting whole long sections from Song of Myself–Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul—Daddy delivering O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells! in his persistent Brooklyn accent. I still have the beaten thin first copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass they gave me as a gift when I was barely ten.
Why does this matter to the book tour I’m building? Because more memories than I can tell you about my parents have them surrounded by books, and neither of my parents were academics. In fact, until I was sixteen, neither of my parents were college educated. Dad had started in seminary in New York, but left without finishing to marry my mama. Mama went to community college to finally get her nursing degree when I was fourteen, proudly finishing her associate’s as a registered nurse when I was sixteen. These two people, far from those insulated academic halls, could, at any given second, recite from memory more poetry, more passages from all the great books, than nearly all of the literati—academics or writers—I’ve met in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in the university community.
I had the privilege for more than a few years to chair the Dos Passos Prize for Literature at the university where I work, an award I’m fond of as its purpose is to recognize under-appreciated writers, particularly those at mid-career. The last time I stood on the stage to open the prize ceremony, I was ecstatic to be introducing the novelist Robert Bausch, one of my favorite writers and people. Bobby is heartbreakingly talented, relentlessly forthright, both in his art and in person, and brilliant—in the same ways my parents were brilliant. I remember wishing time and again that my mama especially could have met Bobby. She would have loved his work, if not his politics 😉 but man, would they have had a blast matching minds and wits!
That night, I looked out over the crowd in the auditorium on Longwood’s campus, seats filled with students, some of them willingly, others there for the promise of extra-credit from their teachers, faculty, present and retired, and a handful of local people who support our small campus events. I studied that crowd, glanced over at where Bobby sat waiting for his introduction, and suddenly, I thought:
Where were my parents?
Not literally. Both my parents had walked on by the night this event took place, but I wondered where the people like my parents were, why they weren’t there with us. My parents couldn’t be the only ones, people who weren’t academics who loved good literature, who loved poetry, right? In fact, I know they weren’t—and aren’t. I have friends, people both older and younger than me, who are not academics, without college degrees, all who read voraciously, who read everything from the canon to comic books, who can hold forth the same way my parents did, reciting and commenting on everything they’ve read with perspective and insight equal to any PhD, and from whom I learn from in every conversation.
**The young man who works as a highway surveyor, with his dreadlocks and rugged work boots, who grows his own food determined to move toward self-sufficiency, plays guitar to his beloved dog, and can sit with you by a fire he’s built for conversations on everything from conservation theory to recited verses from the I Ching to statistics and details recalled from stacks and stacks of books on Appalachian history.
**The communications engineer whose work specializes in systems associated with nuclear power plants, an absolutely brilliant autodidact, self-taught in more areas than I could even list here, who draws up effortlessly snippets from Thoreau or Dawkins or Ovid or a whole Shakespearean sonnet delivered in his deep Carolina drawl.
**The soldier who has seen and survived four deployments, two to Iraq, two to Afghanistan, who has read literally hundreds of titles across genres since he began his career in the Army almost two decades ago at eighteen.
**The postmaster in the tiny tiny post office where I live, who has not only read as much as my parents, but who—I swear—seems to have read everything ever listed in the NYT and who also reads all of the critical reviews of the novels he loves as well. I make notes while we talk through the window, taking his reading suggestions tucked into my pocket when I leave.
**The woman who works at the gas station where I stop, who always asks what I’m reading as she rings up my purchases, and pulls out a piece of blank receipt paper so she can jot down titles I suggest, especially poetry, so she can take it when she goes once a week to our small local library. She smiles, sighs wistfully, and says. “I love poetry.”
An article in The Washington Post the other day announced yet again that poetry was dead, this time complete with the bar graphs and charts that I guess are supposed to make it inarguable. Yes, I’m another voice that, if I looked around at my own immediate world, would want to disagree. My day to day life is filled with poets, and writers, and readers, and I see events and initiatives and young slam poets and performance artists and other people doing amazing things like the Miami Poetry Festival to fill the world with beautiful words all the time. But….
but I can’t discount the article as much as I might want to, no matter how it hurts my poet’s heart. I can’t disagree because I’m still looking out at those audiences, in bookstores and university auditoriums, and not finding my parents, or my non-academic friends.
My dear-beautiful-sister-in-the-word, the crazy-talented poet Amy Tudor, in a conversation we had about the academic hostage-taking of poetry, astutely called it “the Echo Chamber Effect,” saying, “Being only able to publish in (and write for) academia is doing a lot of damage. People already think poetry’s elitist and “gated,” and that’s not helping.”
So, I guess I’m asking—Did the audience leave poetry? Or did we leave them?
Did we leave our audience—locking ourselves and the art away inside that academic Echo Chamber, away from the very people who taught their children to value it, to love it, like my parents?
And what can we do about it? As a teacher of young writers, in that very same insulated academic arena, this bothers me on more levels than anything having to do with my own work. When that twenty-year old poet flops in the chair in my office, excited to talk about revision of his latest work, more excited to begin planning for grad school applications, what do I tell him about the future of this art we both love so much? I know one teacher who openly discourages students from pursuing graduate work for a number of reasons; by his own admission, though, his main reason is the horrible employment market for academics. I understand that he’s trying to, as he puts it, be realistic with them, but isn’t he just furthering the insulation by assuming the only future is academic?
How do I respond to the parade of students I engage with daily who soooo love the literature, and who soooo want to write? I’ve always been what some would call brutally honest with my students—about revision, about the difficult odds of getting published, about the changing nature of publishing, dashing those romanticized notions they have of the glamorous writer’s life they imagine. They call it my Random-House-Is-Not-Looking-For-You speech. But do I tell them, as my colleague does, to give it up?
The word I’ve found myself using more and more often over the last ten years has been: Adapt.
More and more of the readership is to be found online, no matter how much we love the smell of a newly printed page. More and more it’s on us to go chase that readership down. More and more we have to imagine and create our own opportunities. More and more it’s on us, as artists, to quit, as another astute friend said to me in a conversation about all of this, “quit taking comfort in our martyrdom,” and take responsibility for our own creative lives, not just the making, not just the writing, but the getting-out-there-and-selling part too. Adapt or die—isn’t that the old adage?
This house-concert book tour is, for right now anyway, my attempt to practice what I preach.
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.~Edgar Guest
Or maybe I’m just hitting the road with this box of books, because I really miss my literature-loving parents. Yeah, maybe that’s it too.
Links to cool people mentioned here ❤
The inimitable Robert Bausch! Check out his latest book: Far As the Eye Can See! http://www.robertbausch.org/
Some of Any Tudor’s amazing work: http://www.connotationpress.com/a-poetry-congeries-with-john-hoppenthaler/2011/april-2011/812-amy-tudor-poetry
Miami Poetry Festival: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”~Walt Whitman http://www.omiami.org/festival
Next up: Do we dare….talk about value?