Those of you who know me know I’m not normally the type to be stingy with my words or particularly calculated in my self-expression (except in poetry and even then, I’ll admit, most of my ‘strokes of brilliance’ are actually just strokes of luck). But over the past several months, I have accumulated multiple drafts of the same — or similar — posts.
Surprise — apparently, even I am capable of recognizing that certain situations require a little sensitivity. Or maybe it’s self-awareness; perhaps I knew that I needed time to reflect and determine my level of responsibility for what gnaws at me. Because if I didn’t do that, this post would just be a hyper-concentrated jet of vitriol aimed at the eyes of a few specific individuals. And that would be valid, and I still think that would be warranted, and I still think there’s something to be said for ‘naming names’ of harassers in a misogynistic culture where women are both explicitly and implicitly discouraged from doing so — even if I’m still afraid to do it.
But the more I reflect, and the more I toss around questions of accountability and blame in some of the encounters I’ve had over the past several months, the more I realize that I’ve been absorbing and internalizing a few really harmful messages about what it means to be a (young, female) poet. And I think the most important work I can do right now is not to smear the names of people who I feel have done me wrong, but to actively counter the messages that have caused me to devalue myself and, at times, lay down to be walked on by people who loved the feeling of me under their feet so much they didn’t bother to point out the indignity of it.
This is largely a self-centered, therapeutic exercise. But part of the inherent narcissism of being an artist is the belief that what you are putting out in the world has the potential to make a difference for other people. That just by virtue of your work existing, the world is a different place than it would be otherwise. Even if this post never reaches anyone who needs it, at least these words exist in this combination somewhere in the world, and my traumatized, admittedly-kind-of-narcissistic ass gets something out of that. So, here goes.
1. Anybody who tells you that your career rides on the good faith of someone who abuses you, harasses you, or even just makes you feel uncomfortable is absolutely full of shit.
If you gave any one of these people an enema, they could fit quite comfortably in an Altoids tin. You know how I know that? I have never been told this sort of thing by anyone who wasn’t abusing me, harassing me, or making me feel uncomfortable.
It’s true that networking is important, and that having connections is sometimes helpful. One of the most important things I got out of my undergraduate creative writing degree is the opportunity to interact with other writers — both my peers and those “higher up on the totem pole” than me. But if someone is a toxic force in your life, they’re not helping your career no matter what “advice” they can give you or who they have on their Facebook friends list — and this is coming from someone who won a prize this year for a poem I wrote about a poet who actively made me feel like shit about my work. I love that poem and I’m grateful for the prize. But do you know what I would have loved more? Not being lectured and berated by a poet I admired and having to write a poem in order to cope with the trauma of that.
That brings me to one of my other points:
2. “Capitalizing” off of your trauma does not invalidate your experience of said trauma.
In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott addresses this pretty famously and succinctly:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
…But even if expressing your trauma is a valid thing, it can create a lot of guilt when those expressions are well-received. As proud as I am of the aforementioned Trauma Poem, I feel uncomfortable sometimes when other people agree with me. I believe the poem is good, but I also don’t want to develop a reputation for being a chronic victim, especially because I have a small handful of similar encounters under my belt at this point. My worst fear is that someone will read my writing, hear about my “history,” and then interpret a series of unfortunately similar encounters happening unfortunately close to one another as a blatant misrepresentation of the truth. That people will look at me and see some girl who leads older poet guys on and manipulates them into hurting her so that she can write a good poem about it and win a couple bucks.
But now that my fear has been put into words, the problems are obvious, right? First of all, if I was that good at manipulating people, why wouldn’t I just manipulate somebody into publishing me? That seems like a much simpler method of achieving the same result. Second of all, writing a publishable poem is fucking hard; it makes little to no difference what it’s about. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything knows this without me having to justify it, but for argument’s sake, I will.
I wrote multiple poems before and after the prize-winning Trauma Poem about the same encounter with the same poet, and all of them were absolute shit. I could have (and have had) literally the same odds or better writing about any other fucking topic under the sun, like my taste for long-haired men or my distrust for white, mystery flavored lollipops or Mac-fucking-Demarco. Writing about a Big Serious Thing doesn’t guarantee your poem will be successful. Sure, there are some people who believe a poem about a serious topic or a personal trauma is more valid just by nature of the subject matter, but I don’t trust those people, and I certainly don’t write with them in mind. (See: the manuscript I have been peddling that includes multiple poems based off of Jaden Smith’s tweets.)
Besides, even if I limited my poetic interests to the negative things that have occurred in my life, I wouldn’t need to purposefully throw myself at an abusive/toxic individual in order to gather some more material. Life is shitty enough, seriously.
I feel like I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, so let’s backtrack and remind ourselves what’s happening here. We’re talking about all of the negative messages I have internalized as a 22-year-old female poet and why they’re absolute trash. Somehow, in almost 1200 words, we have only covered two of my points and are approaching the third:
3. It’s okay to not love your work so much you’ll do “anything” for it. You’re still a poet, dammit.
I love poetry. I love it so much that I pursued it even when I was young and everyone told me I was shitty at it. I love it so much that I studied it, and then pursued an advanced degree so I could eventually teach it, and then when I was rejected from the institutions where I hoped to receive such a degree, the only thing that made me feel better was writing poetry about it. I love poetry so much that I’ll sacrifice my only remaining free time for it. I love poetry so much that I put a bumper sticker on my laptop proclaiming my love for it even though the permanence of bumper stickers scares the shit out of me.
At times, I have loved poetry so much that I compromised my integrity and my sense of self-worth in order to prove my dedication to poetry to people who didn’t matter and had no right to challenge it in the first place.
Through a lot of reflection, I have determined that some of these negative encounters I’m alluding to could have been prevented if I had been more assertive in setting my boundaries from the get-go. This is something I have trouble with in general, but it’s extra difficult for me in the professional sphere because I often feel as if I have no right to turn down any door that is held open for me, no matter where it leads or who is holding it open. Low self-esteem and inexperience are partially to blame, of course, but I have also noticed a disturbing pattern. In those moments where I have outlined my boundaries, my dedication to my craft was challenged both implicitly and explicitly by the individuals who were making me wary.
I don’t want to say that this is always an intentional manipulation tactic, or even that it has been in every case where I’ve experienced it, but it has certainly had a negative effect on me and added an extra element of pressure and uncertainty to situations where the answer would have otherwise been fairly cut and dry: excommunicate the toxic individual, be firm in your boundaries, and move forward.
The message I have received multiples times in multiple contexts has been that a Real Poet would pursue any professional connection unconditionally, regardless of whether or not said connection was at all fulfilling or positive. In other words, a Real Poet would comply. A Real Poet would smile and nod and allow herself to be berated because poetry is more important than “ego.”
And here’s the thing: poetry is more important than ego. Some degree of professionalism is necessary unless one intends to make an enemy out of every single writer they meet, as is the ability to take criticism. I struggle with both of these things, and even in writing this post I wonder whether I am failing miserably in one or both aspects. Maybe I am. But when you tell someone firmly that you don’t appreciate their behavior, is it really “ego” steering the ship, or is it a healthy sense of self-worth? When someone challenges your level of dedication to your work, or they lecture or insult you in a way that doesn’t feel constructive, are they extending a professional courtesy or are they harassing you? When you decide that your dignity is worth burning a bridge for, is that unprofessional and immature, or is it an act of self-love?
When you decide that you don’t love poetry enough to place your professional success ahead of your value as a human being, does that mean you can’t call yourself a poet?
Fuck no, and don’t let anybody tell you that.
I was told these things, and I let them get to me, and because of that, I put myself through a lot of shit. I guess I did ultimately end up proving those people wrong. I was so dedicated to my career that I compromised my mental health trying to illustrate as much.
If you get anything out of this post, let it be this:
Don’t get sucked in.
There’s only one person in the world who gets to decide if you are a worthwhile poet (or writer, or latte artist, or whatever), and it’s not some toxic naysayer who keeps moving the goalposts every time you assert yourself. It’s you. You are the authority. You are the one who knows you best. Nobody worth their salt will think less of you for setting your personal boundaries. Nobody worth their salt will find you unprofessional or less-dedicated for refusing to be harassed or dis-empowered in the name of your art.
And if you forget these things, and you get swept up, and you internalize all of the ugly stuff about being a poet and get yourself into situations that end up wounding you and do your best to channel them into a somewhat motivational blog post?
I’ll have to get back to you on that.