This morning I checked FaceBook. It’s not a great morning habit and eats up time looking at obscure people’s updates. (How did they even get on my newsfeed?) I was, however, looking at an article by a colleague, Dorie Clark, about travel tips, as if I could ever make the ritual any easier, and somehow clicked the wrong button and lost the thread right in the middle of “guess what Richard Branson always brings on his trips?”
As I was searching for Dorie again, I came across the name of one of my favorite poets, Dorianne Laux, with whom I had a workshop twenty years ago. She’s a former waitress and I once dubbed her the writer of “the best sex poems ever,” fearless in her language and probably gave me the best compliment I’d received when she said my work had “chops.”
Down the Dorianne rabbit hole I went, looking at her photos and mostly tributes other writers had posted on her timeline. All of these poetry mags and writers referencing each other and I know none of them. Like February, when I attended an open poetry reading at the AWP Conference with my friend, former teacher, and winner of the recent Pushcart Prize for Poetry, Nance Van Winckel. “This is what poetry is these days,” she said to me, and I couldn’t tell if it was just matter-of-fact or disappointment. They weren’t all terrible; their poetry just wasn’t anything that compelled me to look them up, buy their books, or worse, go home and write my own poems. I know very little about what’s going on in contemporary verse, except I recently renewed my subscription to the hallowed Poetry and picked up a copy of The Paris Review. I confess I was more excited to see an interview with Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner than any of the poems and dismayed to see John Ashbery on the list of contributors. Again? Really? Why?
In Poetry World, I’m outdated, out of the loop, and left behind. My journal publications’ list is old and insignificant, my rejection slips yellowed and faded. It’s been ten years since I left academia and ten more since grad school, where I kept up and dreamed I might compete for the Yale Younger Poets prize, which you have to win before you’re 40. I can’t decide whether I’m sad that these are no longer my people, if they ever really were. It seems, back then, my favorite poets were either the classics (dead and gone) or random-knowns like Laux, Weigl, Forche’ and Hass. You won’t know them at all, unless you hang out with poets. You might know Billy Collins (because he’s funny and was a popular US poet laureate), Mary Oliver (‘cause she was finally interviewed in Oprah Magazine by Maria Shriver) or Maya Angelou (Bill Clinton’s inaugural “On the Pulse of Morning” poem). Other than that, you likely won’t know any poets.
Yesterday, I went for a short meeting at famous accounting firm Deloitte with a new potential client. Out of the 45 minutes we spoke, about half of that time we spent talking about poetry. In fact, I hadn’t gotten around to reading my Sunday NYT, and he mentioned a recent OP-ED piece, “Poetry, Who Needs It?” It’s as if the world has shifted on its axis for me. I thought I’d left poetry behind after giving up my tenured faculty job to start a consulting business where I learned a whole new language about performance management, ROI and EBITDA. Now, secretly, of course, I was still writing poems, always writing poems. It was true, when James McAulay, my Irish poetry professor, professed that we’d “done it now . . . choosing to be poets. You’ll walk about in the world as a raw nerve exposed.” He cried every time he recited Yeats to us. I could never forget that image. It’s kind of like walking around with an invisible cone or a small satellite dish on my head, constantly sending and receiving signals. Hearing bits of conversations, downloading images, unscrambling the universe. (It’s a whole other topic, to imagine turning this sucker off.)
It wasn’t a conscious leave-behind with poetry and me. True, I left academia on purpose. When the finale arrived, I sat in the hot front seat of my black Honda in the parking space outside the admin building, looking at my hands on the steering wheel and said aloud, “you will still be a good person if you don’t teach English.” This sounds sort of ridiculous and dramatic in the re-telling, but I had a sense I was leaving a culture that supported brilliant martyrs, who would confirm their pity on me, a sell-out, whenever I returned to visit in the first few years hence. I suffered relentless burnout each quarter, a colleague finally asserting, “This isn’t a holy vocation, Libby.” Even so, I love those people and even now, when I step onto a college campus, I’m happy for it. I know somewhere, someone is acting out a Mr. Keating scenario and at least one person is lit completely on fire by poetry, or history, or ornithology. What I miss most are the conversations about great literature, about art that moves me, in the Great Conversation of the world.
So, you can imagine how thrilling it is for me to be sitting on the 33rd floor, looking out at the Columbia and Smith Towers, Mt. Rainier hidden behind the clouds, for a little chit-chat about poetry, and language and why anyone at a big accounting firm should care about this at all.
(excerpt from The Poetry of Persuasion)