Thursday, June 7, 2012

Poet Laureates and Angry Reactions

So the poet Natasha Tretheway was named as the US Poet Laureate this week. Another well-known poet, whose name I won't mention, then wrote a scathing post on his Facebook page about her lack of talent and how poetry has been dumbed down (some clumsy metaphor about lowering the bar so low, we trip on it).

A lesson in the dangers of emotional reactions, I guess. I am all for strong opinions about writers and their work, but reacting in anger or frustration seems like such a dangerous road to go down. I learned the lesson long ago that writing just about anything while angry (Facebook posts, emails, blog posts) is never a good idea and always ends up being something I regret terribly.

Part of what Mr. Angry Poet reacts to, perhaps, is the simplicity of Trethaway's language. She is not, it's true, an overtly complex poet. Yet this tendency for certain male writers to dismiss certain female writers as talentless seems so 1962.  It gets at the heart of a common question I get: about which writers I would never invite. Last night over dinner, I was debating this with someone I had just met: whether a literary festival needs "good" writers in order to be considered successful. And it's something I feel strongly about: while "good" writers are fine, my goals as a Programming Director are to create interesting, complex and, yes, entertaining events. If that means including writers who are not considered "serious" or "good" writers, I really couldn't care less.

Another aspect of criticism easy to throw at Trethaway is how her "story" often seems to supersede her work, as if the details of her biography and those influences on her poems are an integral part of her poems. They shouldn't be. Naturally, though, her experience does reflect a certain kind of American experience and Tretheway's exploration of race and class in modern America does seem to capture something important. But her poetry is very "accessible" (the word my former advisor used to use to dismiss a writer as "not serious," as if an inaccessible writer is naturally smarter. Please. "Inaccessibility" often just strikes me as bad writing. Period).
Natasha Tretheway

Of course, we can't have a Festival with just NYT bestsellers and we do need to present a wide array of writers (representing different ages, genders, life experience, etc.) so that we can appeal to as many different kinds of public as we can. But though I am a bit of a snob in terms of my own personal reading habits, I don't approach festival programming in the same way. As I often say, it's not "my" festival.

No matter how one feels about her work, Natasha Tretheway would be a great "get" for us though I imagine now she's going to be quite in demand so if anyone's hoping to see her in 2013, it's a long shot.

Incidentally, I am fascinated by Tretheway's work and her story personally. That said, I respect Mr. Angry Poet's work a lot more and find his work to be full of subtlety, humour, and intelligence.

1 comment:

  1. "As I often say, it's not "my" festival."

    well put. the whole post - but especially the part where you distinguished your goal as the festival director from your own taste.