notes toward a personal poethics:
i. to carve for myself the limits of the personal, to know the parameters of my own work and the work of living in culture
ii. to figure out the social good of what I do, even though I can’t help it
iii. to always prioritize the effect of the text over any innocent or misguided intentions, to ensure optimal effect in culture
iv. if the text is an offspring, to help it grow up in the world to be a good human being
v. if the text is out of my control, to make the kind of work I have to make, to make myself the kind of poet who makes good work
vi. to be sensitive to the meanings of words, their roots and their consequences
vii. to allow for the experience of the work to take its own shape, trusting in its purpose, or just in its existence
viii. to not just be conscious of history, but active in its wake
ix. to know the limits of my own voice, to leave room for the things I cannot know, to leave room for those who can and give them voice
x. to make this meaningful, to keep trying to give it meaning
I’m watching bill maher or listening to rap music. I’m listening to a liberal friend or a conservative lover. I agree on some things and disagree on others. I shuffle the parts of my identity around like a deck of cards. one takes priority over another depending on the context. sometimes I have to ignore a whole house. this is the work of living in culture.
I’m reading a book or watching a movie. somebody makes a jew joke. I’m listening to music or dancing to myself. somebody says something sexist. in a cab or on tv somebody says something racist. somebody says something wrong in general. somebody says something about poor people. poor women. poor white women. somebody says something about rich jews. somebody says something about asians. somebody says something in a bar. on a second date. somebody says something about abortion. a man says something about his mother. a woman says something about all men. in a classroom or at church somebody says something about gay people. somebody says something about a gay best friend. somebody says something about deaf people. somebody says something about crazy bitches. all women. all light-skinned girls. all black hair. somebody says something they heard on tv. somebody says something. repeat.
therapists say how does it make you feel. maya angelou said people remember how you made them feel. what are the words for these feelings. it’s always personal. how do you react. sudden flush of shame. a sudden guilt jab. something is happening in Israel. sudden awareness of the self in the world. suddenly public. somebody comments on your outfit. suddenly a body. suddenly all these social implications. your skirt length matters. the cut of your shirt. the relative tint of your skin. the shape of your nose. your hair length matters. feminine v. masculine. your smart mouth matters. your belief system matters. the prejudice you harbor. the stereotypes you haven’t worked through yet. they come in a flash. they drop you into a bigger context. you’re in a conversation with yourself and others. you leave marks in the sand
how much of this is part of your identity? gender has had the single greatest impact on my life as I see it. I mostly identify as a woman. Judaism has had the second greatest impact. I would rank that 2nd. white in America but other everywhere else on account of my nose and hair color. lower to middle class in America. depending on who I’m talking to I play it up. is identity always a touch performance? Russian in America or ‘eastern european.’ former soviet union. moldova. jewish. refugee or exile. immigrant. naturalized citizen. American. educated. suburban or urban. code. code-switching. writer or poet. artist. graduate. educator. adjunct. then aunt sister daughter etc. cultural jew. secular. non-practicing. feminist. feminine. woman.
then there’s the personal shit. the life choices. the childhood traumas. your relationship with your mother. I say your because it’s easier than saying my. more friendly. easier on the eyes for a reader. easy to relate to.
then there’s the case of the reader. who the fuck is that. my ideal audience is people like me. is that closed-minded. is it racist. sexist. classist. which class is that. is it just bad writing.
when I write it’s either for a past version of myself or a future self. I’m talking to myself again. I want my younger self to see what it’s like in the future. to feel safe. to feel more confident. more secure. I want my future self to aspire to this. the vision I have for my own identity. not much changes but the words I use.
depending on who I’m talking to I switch it up. play up a cultural dialect or slang or sound more academic. ordinarily I like to subvert whatever type I’m talking to. in a more academic setting I like to sound more casual. in a more casual setting I turn up the education. depends on who I’m talking to. not everybody gets it. how can language make people feel more comfortable? how do I get my point across to as many audiences as possible?
this poetry is for you. I know that about myself. I think I write what I think you want to hear. the most fun I’ve had writing has been geared toward a clear audience. a former lover even. a mother. if it doesn’t sound true I can tell immediately. I bet you can too. if I’m acting too much or trying too hard it comes out. the best readers are psychologists on two levels, the intention of the writer as presented by the syntax of the writing. they diagnose the mind from the text. I can’t believe the two are mutually exclusive and I believe it isn’t ethical to suggest they are. inspiration comes from anywhere, maybe that part is divine, but the words we use are man-made, the ideas are filtered through fallible humans, and the writing becomes a social document. a part of the public record. political necessarily.
and because it’s political. we have to care about how much of ourselves we put into it. how much of the work is true. intellectually honest, my conservative friend would say. not just mimed language. not just repeated tropes. outdated stereotypes. those aren’t true. were never true. are never ethical.
sexist language isn’t ethical. racist language isn’t ethical. classist language isn’t ethical. not true and not good writing. not examined enough. lazy. dangerous.
the work of the reader is the work of the writer. to mine the self, to sift the parts that are constructed from anything intrinsic. I mean it’s all intrinsic but to sift the performed parts from the genuine self. I mean it’s all performed. but to grind them down further, to figure out the moving parts. with respect to the self and the self in the world. does a text make you angry? why? what is it in yourself that leads to this reaction? what is that part of yourself you’ve learned to hate? then why do you hate it in others? do you admire a woman’s freedom but hate that she’s freer than you? do you secretly believe all men are shit and then confused and ashamed when a character isn’t? do you identify with the female heroine that the male author kills at the end? the work of the writer is the work of the reader. to mine the self, to sift the tropes from the truth, the easy outs from personal complexity.
I imagine that I could get along with anyone, be read by anyone, if I find out where they’re coming from. if I ask questions and get to the place they live with in their heads. if I empathize hard enough. I like to imagine them coming to terms with the world and others. I feel like if I’m patient enough I could speak their language. I imagine an ideal text and an ideal reader-writer relationship. I imagine communicating something that can be accessed by all English speakers. not just through meaning but by the sound and texture of words themselves. word-parts, word-order, word-look. I like to imagine men being moved as much as women, if I express myself clearly enough. there’s an element of divinity here. the aura of the text. anyone could pick up what I’m putting down. the perfect democracy of the text. the delusion of it.
I’m perfectly aware of this countdown, the limits of language, the limits of my own thought. I’m actively shying away from theory language because it can be too exclusive, too in-group. I’m extending my thinking as far as it goes in this instant. I’ll return to it later but I’ll keep the process. the process is half the fun. I want the reader to see the seams. I believe in them. I want to keep the order, the way the mind associates out like a constellation, non-linearly but out to each star in all directions at the same time, out to each letter. one move haunted by the other. language only following after. it’s only ethical to show the moving parts. the text is never perfect and the reader needs to know that. the writer isn’t perfect. this is an attempt at inclusionary writing.
what do we have in common? failure. trying. relationships. language. there must be a human condition after all. great art gets at that. tests the limits of that. attempts to widen it. and in expanding it complicates it.
by ethical I think I mean to live better together. I’ve always turned to literature to show me how to live. alternative ways of being in the world, in culture, since I was a kid trying to fit in. a new language. a new habit of mind. new ways to dance. new music. new flavors. foods people say are good. standards of beauty. how to exist alongside ideas I disagree with. how to reist the pressures of the minority then prevent the resisting voice from its own tyranny. how to foster connections between people so lives can be lived and fully no matter what skin or social context you’re born into. is equality justice? how to give people the tools to firstly understand their own wants and needs and then communicate them with each other? and then the careful balance between one’s own wants and needs and the wants and needs of others. and then negotiating yourself with yourself and others. and then being among others. and then understanding them. this must be the task of poetry.
poetry is hard for a lot of people in America right now and it takes work. every year another older white man wonders if poetry is dead. I wonder what poetry he means. there are different ins to it and different outs. different styles and modes. poets are free to play around with any of them. but it takes work on the part of the reader to enter into the world of the poem, with its unconventional line breaks and word use and resistance to language tropes. and it takes time to sit with a poem and figure out how it operates. and what’s the pay off? it doesn’t pay the bills. it might not make you feel better about yourself and your life. it might not even entertain you, if it might distract. and what’s the point?
poetry can help a writer in a cathartic way but it doesn’t mean it should be read. poetry can’t settle a conflict. but can’t it slow it down? if people communicated in poems it would take a long time to communicate. but maybe this would be ethical. each party would have to sit and think about what they really want to express, and how. and then the other party, when presented with this gift, would have to sit and think first about what it’s expressing, and why, and then again sit and think about how to best respond in their own poem offering. what a world that would be. tempered feelings through language. violence expressed by the space of the page, by the cut of a line. revenge by outshining the quality of verse. and then navigating the minefield of words and their meanings.
does poetry have an obligation to be ethical? no. no more than a person has an obligation to be human.
what are the benefits of a text that builds upon itself? the writer evolves with it. the reader can agree and disagree at different turns. can follow along or not. slip in and out of consciousness. is free in that. nothing’s at stake. there is no ending. so we’re all free from fitting into a narrative. a stereotype. a certain kind of life.
when is the process over? when I say it is. arbitrarily, and the reader needs to know that. emma bovary need not die. and had I written her she wouldn’t have. we’re all allowed that possibility.
I identify with it not just because of gender. our shared gender makes it easier to see the experience as my own, that it could’ve been me in a loveless marriage. that I also love romance and lyrics and art. could I identify with a male protagonist? of course, I’ve been trained to from a young age. the boy’s experience has stood for all experiences. but that prioritizes my ambition over the part of my identity that revolves around the body. that I bleed every month and worry about getting pregnant. how would that affect my narrative. that I am identified as a jew and still afraid of that. it changes the way I behave in the world. what about a character than can encompass all the parts of my identity? I have created her.
to give everyone the tools and the language to create their own. express that with anyone who’ll listen. a democratic myth-making. a collective individualization. everyone building on the models set by everybody else, writing and editing as needed, showing the seams. inventing words, word orders, expanding the language. a perfect language of the people, for the people. the poetics of the ethical.
form forces that thinking. knowing there’s an end, a death, makes me fit myself to it. a means to a mean. making meaning. what if everyone knew their death? would they run toward it or away? would it matter? this is a narrative.
Marina Blitshteyn is the author of 4 chapbooks, including Nothing Personal (Bone Bouquet Books) and $kill$ (dancing girl press). Her first full-length collection, Two Hunters, is forthcoming with Argos Books in 2017. Work can be found in Two Serious Ladies, No, Dear, 1913, Sixth Finch, and the &NOW Awards 3 anthology of innovative writing. She works as an adjunct instructor of composition and literature.