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Quit your versifying.

May 7, 2010 \pm\31 4:55 pm
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Today an email arrived from a publisher that compiles books of data about writers into reference guides. They decided to add me to this year’s update, which is nice, but they also referred to me as a “poet and college teacher”. The latter is inescapable fact; I just lugged a massive pile of final essays home for the delightful week of grading I have ahead of me. But the former? I haven’t written a poem in two plus years, haven’t submitted to a literary journal in longer than that, haven’t even been to a poetry reading in over a year. The last poetry reading I was invited to participate in, I read prose. I write nonfiction now and have for years, with no plants to return to poetry land anytime soon.  So why do people keep labeling me (here and elsewhere) as a poet?

I know WWAATD is a poet-heavy site, and so I pose this question to anyone who reads this: how long do you have to be inactive in poetry to officially be labeled as an ex-poet? Or should we come up with a better term: poet in recovery, f*cking corporate whore sellout, coward, impostor, gelatinous mass of insecurities? Can you think of examples of poets who abandoned poetry, found success in other genres, yet were still referred to as poets? Am I just being too goddamned touchy about this? It’s like the fact that my family still buys me a black cardigan for Xmas every year because I was a goth for a little bit in high school. Cute, but I stopped wearing all black when I got eczema and my scalp left little flakies all over the sweaters.

  1. May 7, 2010 \pm\31 6:21 pm 6:21 pm

    People always call me a poet, even though I’m not. I don’t really care, so I just let them. In the same way, people often identify me as Jewish or a Jewish writer. I am not.

    I sometimes end up playing into these identity roles. It’s simpler and easier for people to index things into black & white categories, or at least it leads to a simplified view of the world, which is easier to manage.

    This is all obvious, but I guess I sympathize with people who seek to simplify. So I personally don’t mind. As long as it’s all in good fun.

  2. May 8, 2010 \pm\31 6:53 pm 6:53 pm

    I don’t think you’re being touchy about this. Annie Dillard famously left poetry for nonfiction, saying you can do more in nonfiction than in poetry, that she didn’t leave poetry, poetry left her. There are countless other examples.

    I think one distinction that might be useful is the poet who achieves some level of success and then leaves the genre, as opposed to the apprentice writer who begins as a poet and who never leaves the gate as a poet and then becomes a different writer entirely. The latter examples would be Paul Auster, say.

    The title poet sticks, I think, because it isn’t so much a genre for many as a type, and people think in terms of type.

  3. May 9, 2010 \pm\31 2:57 pm 2:57 pm

    Oh dear, I suppose I’m a poet type then. My poetry career never got very far even after a couple of decades of trying, so I always think that it’s mostly useful as context for my nonfiction or explains why I like to use metaphor and simile. It is tough to think of really successful poets (however one defines that potentially problematic term) who completely abandoned the genre, but I like your Annie Dillard example. Sometimes we just stop writing in a particular style, but the label sticks anyway.

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