Friday, March 11, 2011

The Notion of a Reader: Poet Jack Spicer

After an odd, misguided lifetime of writing mainly in solitude, I’ve started to share my writing with others. Sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes to have another simply witness my writing, sometimes with the idea of receiving useful, intelligent feedback—and sometimes for all of the above. The whole experience has given rise to thoughts about what it means to think of writing with actual flesh and blood readers in mind.

I’m more and more convinced that great art and great creations in general (yes, I believe in greatness, at least unless it includes me) are in essence collaborations, even if unwittingly. Would there be a Patti Smith without a Robert Mapplethorpe? A Jack Kerouac without an Allen Ginsburg? A Sartre without a de Beauvoir? A Brad Pitt without an Angelina Jolie (kidding)? And vice versa in all cases.

Life at its best is a constant riff, one idea arising from another in a wild, jazzy ping-pong match where you lose track of whose idea is whom's. That’s art for me, even if you have to shuffle back to your hovel to record it all in mildewed solitude.

Such chemistry is rare, almost divine I’ll venture, whether it’s in the form of a true artistic collaboration or simply the good fortune of finding a trusted reader. But just what makes for a good reader is worth pondering.

Despite going to grad school for creative writing, I’ve had many more bad readers than good ones (hence the years of writing in solitude, I suppose). When John Updike was asked who his ideal reader was, he once spoke of a teenage boy in a library, walking the aisles and pulling books off the shelves, more or less randomly, looking for literary adventure.

But I challenge Updike. His teenage boy is a nice notion, but I don’t want such an abstraction—it seems useless to be so removed from a real person who can receive one’s words.

Likewise, Harold Bloom posits that great writers feel an “anxiety of influence,” that they’re writing in a spirited competition to outdo their literary heroes, dead or alive (yes, a very male competitive notion of creativity).

Again, while I certainly write with influences and voices in my head, they’re more friends than competitors (could this be why I’m not a great writer?).

If love is a desire to reveal and relinquish at the same time that it’s a desire to possess and understand, then a writer wants to find a reader in the same mold. A writer wants to hold another with his or her words, to have a sense that words flow into feelings, that a pause is struck upon another’s gaze of life, if not a transformation.

You might say that the writer’s audience is always a fiction, a projection—as most of life is, certainly—but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Again, to pick up the metaphor of the writer as lover, a writer writes for effect, to give pleasure and meaning, to pique interest. It’s only with a loving or inviting recipient in mind that such effects can be achieved.

So what do I want from a reader? I used to think that I wanted a biting critique, a certain regimen for self-improvement, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so valuable. In the end, I want someone who’s fundamentally interested, who I feel wants to read me in that pure energetic and curious way that one person wants to know another.

If I feel that, then I can write to move another. I’ll scrutinize each word, make sure I’ve challenged each scene. I’ll know whether I’ve succeeded just by the enthusiasm of the response, not through any workshop critique (most of which end up as, “I want to know more about….” and more and more and more—sorry to all who've received such bad reading from me, which I'll call "stuck in the workshop rut of response").

I’ll leave the teenage boys looking for books in libraries and the writerly workshop folks to others. The ideal reader is not someone who adores without question, but one who wants to love and be loved, which as anyone who has loved knows, can be a quite complicated scenario. I’d expect nothing less than complexity from any reader. I’d never want a lover who didn’t challenge, scrutinize, dare, and sometimes ignore.

So reader as friend, lover, source of generosity, curiosity, yet intelligent and critical and biting if necessary, or something along those lines. But a real person.

This is all a lead-in to a piece the Bay Area poet Jack Spicer wrote on audience—in the form of a letter to Lorca (an essay on audience with a dead poet in mind, you might say—but an audience nevertheless).

Dear Lorca,

When you had finished a poem what did it want you to do with it? Was it happy enough to merely exist or did it demand imperiously that you share it with somebody like the beauty of a beautiful person forces him to search the world for someone that can declare that beauty? And where did your poems find people?

Some poems are easily laid. They will give themselves to anybody and anybody physically capable can receive them. They may be beautiful (we have both written some that were) but they are meretricious. From the moment of their conception they inform us in a dulcet voice that, thank you, they can take care of themselves. I swear that if one of them were hidden beneath my carpet, it would shout out and seduce somebody. The quiet poems are what I worry about—the ones that must be seduced. They could travel about with me for years and no one would notice them. And yet, properly wed, they are more beautiful than their whorish cousins.

But I am speaking of the first night, when I leave my apartment almost breathless, searching for someone to show the poem to. Often now there is no one. My fellow poets (those I showed poetry to ten years ago) are as little interested in my poetry as I am in theirs. We both compare the poems shown (unfavorably, of course) with the poems we were writing ten years ago when we could learn from each other. We are polite but it is as if we were trading snapshots of our children—old acquaintances who disapprove of each other’s wives. Or were you more generous, Garcia Lorca?

There are the young, of course. I have been reduced to them (or my poems have) lately. The advantage in them is that they haven’t yet decided what kind of poetry they are going to write tomorrow and are always looking for some device of yours to use. Yours, that’s the trouble. Yours and not the poem’s. They read the poem once to catch the marks of your style and then again, if they are at all pretty, to see if there is any reference to them in the poem. That’s all. I know. I used to do it myself.

When you are in love there is no real problem. The person you love is always interested because he knows that the poems are always about him. If only because each poem will someday be said to belong to the Miss X or Mr. Y period of the poet’s life. I may not be a better poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience.

Finally there are friends. There have only been two of them in my life who could read my poems and one of that two really prefers to put them in print so he can see them better. The other is far away.

All this is to explain why I dedicate each of my poems to someone.


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