Monday, 20 May 2013

My Poems Don't Understand Me (Brief Article On Art, Narcissism & Self Expression)

Poetic Narcissism?

Are performers more narcissist than writers? I don’t know, but if there is an idea that attempting to engage people with your art is purely a narcissistic tendency, then that's an unfair generalization. 

In Part 2 of my interview with JackUnderwood, Jack spoke about his own ill ease with the “narcissistic whoosh” of performing on stage, but I’d hate for someone to feel discouraged from performing or public speaking because of this flawed judgemental association with something negative – narcissism. I think this is partly cultural; a British idea that being reserved is modest and good taste, whereas being an emotional exhibitionist is tacky. Mostly I’d agree (being British too) but I am also someone who writes and performs poetry which is personal, anecdotal and emotional at times, but it is craft that gives the awareness and taste needed to avoid cringing tones of sentimentalism, self-victimizing or self-love. However, I want my poems to love me, but I don’t want them to wank me off in public...

"Mate, That's Too Personal"

I tried out a new poem of mine in a set recently called 'Recognising My Mum's Ex-Boyfriend' which I wrote after a talk on modern masculinity and how men (in the western world) are becoming somewhat more openly emotional. My poem deals with a situation I was in when I had to assert my "manly-ness" after an abusive ex-partner of my mum walks into the gym I was working in. This triggers an introspective recount of what he did, while trying to respond "as a man", wondering if it is a duty of men to be aggressive? anyway, the response to the poem was mixed, another poet said to me after the show, "mate, that's too personal". 

Later though, there was an audience member who thanked me for that poem, explaining how he'd been in similar situations, he attends a counselling service which he felt guilty about, because you know, seeking help is unmanly, anyway he hugged me (rather abrasively) and offered me a pint while telling me how "fuckin' brilliant that poem was", my ego (and my heart) walked with him to the bar and thanked him while downing a Guinness.

I wrote that poem to resolve something personal, yes that is true, but I shared it with other people in mind, people who have only heard about modern masculinity spoken about from a safe distance, intellectually and in abstract terms. The articles I read on the issue gave interesting speculations but what was lacking was personal insight, that is often what I (again this is my taste) seek in my art, personal insight, if an artist can't offer this, I usually can't trust it.

On the other hand, Kate Tempest was in The Guardian after winning the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for her poetical play ‘Brand New Ancients’, speaking about attitudes towards Spoken Word. "People think if you're a performance poet you can get away with being a shit poet because you're a good performer. But there's nothing more wonderful than being told a story by somebody and being able to tell that they're genuine." 

The idea of “genuine” is problematic when you think of the standard of poetry that is published by The Big Issue in the ‘Word On The Street’ section, where homeless people, drug addicts and abuse victims write deeply confessional poems. The stories themselves are heartbreaking, and although this gives voice to outcasts of a society that has failed them, from an academic perspective the writing of these poems are usually clichéd, failing at any notable writing technique. This suggests that a poet needs more than sincerity to write effectively for an audience, they need craft too.

The Appropriate Placing Of Self-Expression

As an educator, I advocate for creative self-expression which would probably contradict Jack's early poetry classes -

"In my first poetry classes, where the idea of performing a poem was never even brought up, we were told not to write ‘cry for help’ poetry, not to assume a reader’s interest in our lives, to create an objective distance between ourselves and our work and not to be satisfied with creating an amusing effect or stylish surface. There was general advice about how to interrogate an idea in a poem, how to necessitate an imaginative participation by your reader, how to invite complexity without disappearing up your own arse, and also guidance on how not to merely provide somebody with a didactic instruction towards a point of view."

I do assume other people will take an interest in the life of students/ others and I've seen time and time again, tastefully crafted work (which ok, is subjective) from this approach. I'm against the idea that poetry is not the place for catharsis, it hasn't stopped Sylvia Plaith from a prestigious reputation, nor has it stopped Sharon Olds winning the TS Elliot Prize and the Pulitzer Prize this year.

On the other hand I get what Jack is talking about, I've wanted to throw numerous poets off stage who try to win slams with poems written like suicide notes, if it is a slam, you are putting your pain into a competition, to be ranked by random judges who are forced to GIVE YOUR PAIN A 5.2! 

In a classroom environment I'd applaud those poems but then I have to report to the Special Educational Needs department, because it is cry for help poetry  and that cry is responded to with action which we hope improves their well-being, but at a poetry night in a pub, well, I do actually have the numbers of FRANK, Child Line and even Amnesty (for those that compare their suffering to a holocaust) ready to offer those that need a more appropriate response than the applause of strangers.

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