When I was five, I told my folks that I no longer wanted to share a room with my three-year-old brother. I was going to sleep in our attic. "Why," they asked. "So I can tell stories," I said. A budding (and demanding) writer, I needed a quiet space so I could think.
Ever since, I've written my poems alone at home or in the solitude one finds at a table at a café.
Some poets have written collaboratively on occasion (such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch). But, I (like most people I know) can't imagine writing a poem together with other poets as a community. (Except perhaps, as an experiment.)
Yet, though I write as an individual, I find that the poetry gods desert me if I'm not part of a community. And not just one community. My muse bites the dust if I'm not a member of the intersecting communities that mirror the diverse parts of myself–the queer community, the disability community and the poetry community.
Of course, nothing since the dawn of time has been or is more difficult than being in a community...let alone the intersection of communities. But, nothing feeds the soul as much. Think of the Tower of Babel, then of the Womyn's Music Festival, and you'll know what I mean.
I'm sure that during the Cro Magnum era, poets threw rocks over who should read first and who would have the most time.
In any community, there are control freaks, divas and pompous profs. Not to mention the absent-minded or people who haven't laughed in 500 years.
Along with personality quirks and rivalries, one contends with cultural differences in communities.
The energizing thing about a community, or affinity group, is that you're connected with other people like yourself.
Until I was ten, I thought that I would die due to my vision impairment. Why did I feel this way? Because I'd never met a visually impaired adult before. I didn't know anything about the disability rights movement or disability pride. Ever since then, I've felt an affinity with poets who are steeped in disability culture and community.
My batteries are recharged when I'm in a community of gay and lesbian poets. It's not that hetero writers aren't my friends or aesthetic comrades. It's just that I draw creative juice from being with people, who like me, have experienced (personally and aesthetically) both the oppression and pride of being in the queer community.
The idea of poets being a community may seem to make as much sense as trying to herd cats.
But, where else would we discover anyone like us, or more important anyone who had a clue, about what it's like to be a poet?
The other day, I told my brother that my poetry chapbook had found a publisher. I was happy to receive his congratulations, but gave up trying to explain why it would not, as he put it, "help my cash flow."
My neighbor thinks poetry is my hobby and my cousin thinks it's my therapy.
I won't even go into the rejections (from poetry journals) that many of us all too frequently receive.
Except to say that our poetry comminutes help us to keep up our courage–to keep going, despite the rejections, and create new work.
But, unless you're on helium, you'll know that living in the intersection of communities isn't for the faint of heart.
Communities, often through no conscious ill-will, can be hit by racism, sexism or homophobia. Or not understand something about a facet of your life, such as your religious affiliation or disability.
For instance, a few years ago, a literary festival in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area was scheduled for the first day of Passover. (This meant that many Jewish people could not participate in the event.)
Recently, I was sipping wine at a farewell dinner during the last class of a poetry seminar. It was a lovely evening.
Except, for homophobic remarks that one of the students, a talented poet, made about a member of President Bush's Cabinet. I don't approve of the Iraq War or much else that this Administration does, but the snarky jokes about the official's sexuality weren't called for. This slur made me feel isolated from this community, though there wasn't any conscious intent to separate me from the group.
Yet, despite all the difficulties, community is more necessary than ever before for poets.
Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen.
Some poets say that poetry shouldn't be engaged with politics–that a poem shouldn't show concern for social justice. Language, craft–aesthetics is the be all and end all of art, they say.
Now is the time to prove them and even Auden wrong.
As I write this, the Iraq War, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, racism and hate crimes are word-worms swimming in our heads.
Poets aren't legislators. We can't wave a magic wand and stop any of these things. But, in community, we can raise our voice against these evils.
I do not mean that we should write boring, eat-your-spinach-or-else sermons or rants.
This would bore us to death.
I mean that we should make art–create well-crafted, beautiful, mysterious, provocative-moving poems.
I believe this can happen in 2008.
The Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in Washington, D.C. March 20-23 will be the most important event of 2008.
(As a call to poets to be engaged with public life, the Festival may well be one of the most important gathering of poets in decades.)
The Festival will celebrate the tradition of poetry of witness and will feature readings, workshops, panel discussions on poetry and social change, walking tours, films and parties.
"We call on poets of conscience to move to the center of public life as we forge a visionary new arts movement for peace and justice," reads a statement on the Festival's website at www.splitthisrock.org.
Featured poets at the Festival will include Jimmy Santiago Baca, Robert Bly, Kenneth Carroll, Carolyn Forche, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker and Stephen Kuusisto.
The current issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly (www.beltwaypoetry.com), a dynamic literary journal, features some of the poets connected with Split This Rock.
(I'm on the STR coordinating committee and my poems are among those published in the above-mentioned Beltway issue.)
Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, STR director Sarah Browning's first poetry collection (just published by The Word Works) is engaging and provocative. Interweaving the personal and political, Browning has created an exquisitely crafted mosaic of poetry of witness.
An event like Split This Rock can have more creative power than an unjust war or bigotry.
I'm betting that the spirit of STR will last well beyond three days in March and spread far and wide from Washington, D.C.
Let's make 2008 a year of art, witness and community.