I’ve never really wanted to have a book. Write a book. I’ve never really cared about writing a book. I’ve been saying and re-saying this aloud a lot recently, not because anyone’s offered me a book deal (they haven’t) (there’s no manuscript to offer a deal to) (it’s okay, I’m not stressed about it), but because it’s what I’m in school for. To write a book.
I’m in an MFA program now, and it’s incessant, this thing about writing a book. I can barely think about writing anything down, never mind a poem, never mind a book. It’s so important, and I’ve been working on thinking of it this way (important) (Important) (it’s important and new and Important), but what seems newly central is to repeat this thing first. This thing about how I’ve never really cared about writing a book. What is this?
I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s book on the women of the New York School (Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, Iowa 2007), and as I read, I highlight and I underline and I write things like “yes!” and “oh!” in the margins, all the while nodding my head and making little noises. I love when this happens.
Here is Nelson’s list of categories that one can care/not-care about, at least as were relevant to the so-called first generation of New York School poets: one can care
about literary stature, about politics, about ‘good writing,’ about posterity, about the role of the poet in the world, about P/poetry itself, about publication, about ‘bettering anyone’s social relation,’ about the fate of the avant-garde, and so on.
She goes on to point out that perhaps these conversations and oscillations when it comes to caring, the flexibility to perhaps try not caring—implicitly or explicitly addressed, settled or not, genuine or affected—may be why the New York School has been, in her words,
so attractive and useful to women poets writing in its wake, who found (and to some extent continue to find) themselves charged with navigating their way through a male-dominated literary scene and history which has never [in turn] ‘cared’ about their voices in the same way that it has about those of men.
“Yes!,” I wrote in the margins. It certainly does seem that the conversation about—the approach toward—making art has to be different when the idea of posterity isn’t even in the picture. How, then, do we spend our energy? What is the art-making about? and for? and from? Who is there to talk with about these questions? Who else might feel like this?
As a person who’s coming into newly-recognizable-as-trans identities, as a person who’s been queer for a while and female-bodied for longer, I’ve never totally had this drive to insert my self, my voice, my work, my permanent/fixed emanations, into the world. I’ve been ambitious in all the ways I’ve been taught to be (I’ve wanted to be “the best,” I’ve wanted to “win” when “winning” was a question) (I’ve also wanted to be an observant, lively, gentle version of myself, a positive force for myself and for loved ones, I’ve wanted to gather understandings of what I haven’t previously understood, I’ve wanted to ask big questions as insistently as possible and listen to all of the answers), but that ambition has almost never included wanting to be in the public eye. How vulnerable it is, to be looked at! Even a terror! I don’t mean to be melodramatic; I do have anxieties. When people look, what if they don’t like what they see? What if intent and expression don’t line up? What if it’s all misinterpreted? What if I am seen but not seen? What if identity/intent and expression do line up, and it’s still unlikeable; threatening (to whomever witnesses); threatened (by whomever reacts)? Sometimes it seems like a relief to be shrugged about. Passed on and over. Because, phew, then it can be over and then I can be safe.
Quoting Eileen Myles, now:
My dirty secret has always been that it’s of course all about me. But I have been educated to believe I’m no one so there’s a different self operating and I’m desperate to unburden my self of my self so I’m coming from nowhere and returning. That’s sort of classic.
And then, of course, there’s “How public – like a Frog –” which is my favorite part of Emily Dickinson's (irony alert!) endlessly famous “I’m nobody” poem.
I should mention that the world hasn’t presented a pattern of actively making me feel unsafe, or trying to make me feel unsafe. It’s also never promised me relevance. In high school I hid much of myself (though I did not feel unsafe by much beyond my own design); in college I performed a self that was acceptable or appealing, as far as I was able to conceive of those terms. Now I’m living and breathing and sometimes writing poems. I’m eating better and taking care of my body. Modesty seems important. Central. I’ve wanted to have modesty. Be modest.
I want to be a modest writer, though I don’t entirely know what that means. When I didn’t feel like performing in recitals or for my peers, I dropped out of the music school and bought a marimba for my bedroom. And when I don’t feel like performing identity/inner life for the world’s perusal (and to ready myself for its reactions)? What is the marimba-for-my-bedroom of writing?
This is all something I think I’ve been told to get over: to not let the anxieties dictate the artistic production. There’s definitely something there: I don’t want insecurity to be central to my life or to my writing, and I think I mostly do an adequate job of this. But what I’m realizing in reading Nelson’s book is this: it is central, and that is a fact of the life and of the writing: the deeply-set belief (and, indeed, the hope) that I am not central, and as such that I am tasked with either pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing to fundamentally see the world differently—the world that sees and doesn’t see me—or I can attempt to work within the paradigm in which I have developed over these couple-and-a-half decades. It might mean something different than writing a book, or it might mean writing a book. It might mean thinking about this some more.