Poets Puke: Explaining Why My Work is Important
During a mock job interview when I was asked, "Why is your research important?" I sat there, gaping like a carp. Then I reasoned that "research" means poetry. And then I rationalized that my poetry has to possess some importance, otherwise I wouldn't do it. But isn't it, the Midwestern half of me wondered, kind of pretentious to brag and to say that my work is important? Little Old Me, who nobody's heard of?
Then I realized that I needed to stop right there. If I am going to ascend past the rank of graduate student to an Assistant Professor, or any kind of professional, then I will need to answer this question, not only for a job search committee, but also for myself. For the question, "Why is your work important?" arises in countless incarnations not only on the job market and throughout our poetic lives. The most successful poets I know are scholars; although they may not write criticism, they think critically about their work. They are aware of the gaps that they are filling in, as much as they consider the omissions. They know who their audience is. They are able to clearly and concisely articulate the major themes throughout all of their work, drawing up larger a trajectory. The fact of the matter was, until I came to understand why my work is important and speak intelligently to that end, then nobody else ever would find it important either. That was the bittersweet truth.
Right now, as I examine the ever-growing pile of poetry books overtaking my loft floor, a quick scan of titles reveals a key and related point: all of the authors whom I am currently reading, returning to, and obsessing over are authors who know their larger concerns. They are writing from cultural, racial, and political standpoints, even when the subject matter does not explicitly engage these themes. Jamal May, with his global preoccupations of social justice and racism, also possesses a personal obsession with Detroit, love, and addiction. Warson Shire writes of her complicated upbringing as an African woman. She writes the body, particularly the female, while describing the horrors of genital mutilation (Shire 7). Ocean Vuong tirelessly interrogates his Vietnamese-American identity in opposition and in harmony with his queer identity. My dear friend, T.J. Jarrett is constantly writing new poems that generally engage the concepts of slavery, family, and resiliency in the face of trauma. Some of my favorite contemporary literary crushes each have one common attribute: they are aware of their larger and personal subject matter. And they know why these issues are important.
Aesthetically speaking, I borrow from Plath and Sexton. Among my more contemporary influences are Audre Lorde, Mary Karr, Etheridge Knight, Kim Addonizio, and Dorianne Laux. Some of my favorite new writers include the aforementioned Jamal May and Ocean Vuong, and Iliana Rocha, whose work I became acquainted with during these past three semesters. These writers have influenced me; their obsessive and beautiful renderings of trauma, love, healing, and the body all conveyed in accessible lyrical/narrative forms. These authors, moreover, are not afraid of being brash and accessible; but they possess a great deal of empathy and self-awareness for their subjects as well. The most important aspect that these poets share, however, is the ability to localize/personalize their global concerns. In other words, each of these writers make the personal political by embedding his or her work within a narrative, then examining concepts such as war, racism, and poverty through a personal lens. The speaker/author then zooms away and back from the self, capturing these emotions through different perspectives throughout their own individual poems and more broadly throughout their full-length collections.
With this realization in mind, as a straight white Greek-American woman, I began to more critically examine my own work. What are the larger patterns that arise, the inescapable obsessions threading throughout not only my individual poems, but also spanning across my whole books? If I could trace thematic connections throughout my poems and books alike, what are those arcs and why are they important? I have concluded, somewhat sadly, that until thus far, I have subconsciously enjoyed the white privilege of denying my body along with the blissful oblivion of acknowledging my work's larger concerns. Ironically, the best new work out there contains a sense of self-awareness. Those who do not possess the privilege of denying their body generally displays this heightened sense of awareness; the work that emerges is relevant and evocative.
On that note, I began to think of the ways I should investigate my deeper poetic identity, as well as my personal politics. As a woman who comes from two diametrically opposed backgrounds, who has lived all over the United States and traveled throughout the world, I have never fit into one particular place. I've found the different cultural norms—even from the Midwest versus the West Coast—to be fascinating and alienating. I realized, throughout my work, I focus on this alienation through the travel-narrative. Therefore, whenever I revisit the travel-narrative, I am as compelled by the ensuing disasters that occur as much as what saves the speaker. I think of the travel-narrative as a vehicle which propels the speaker into self-examination and the realization that there is no escape. Therefore, she is left amid glints of machetes, piles of cocaine, and emotionally unstable people only to realize that she cannot keep escaping from herself (Nazos 2017).
Thus, I began to think more deeply about what makes my poetry tick. I realized that my work explores the concept of borderlands a great deal, both in the abstract and concrete senses. I am interested in places that both keep us out and, paradoxically, trap us within its real or imaginary walls. These questions stem from my own identity as a Greek-American woman who was raised in two completely opposed places: Joliet, Illinois and Athens, Greece. For this reason, I have never quite fit in culturally anywhere. Out east, I am perceived as comparatively withdrawn and laid-back; in the Midwest I am read as non-white, loud, and aggressive. In Greece, people are perplexed by my obvious accent when I speak the language. This sense of isolation, travel, and searching will always permeate my work. Moreover, I am interested in what happens when we try to escape these unpleasant feelings and cross the borders—literally or psychically—into a different and dangerous place. Whether I am literally paying the toll and leaving Belize for Guatemala, (a scene I will engage throughout my third book, entitled "Giving Up the Ghost"), or exploring the alienation of living on the metaphorical edge, as I do in many of my poems including "Expatriate's Pantoum" (Nazos 2017), there is a sense of the speaker trying to escape only to collide with her limitations. So what happens then? When she crosses this "borderland" there occurs a kind of anti-travel narrative, a darker antithesis to Eat, Pray, Love. No, my speaker does not go to Costa Rica where, amid the beauty, she comes to a brilliant realization while she floats away on a surfboard in the lotus-pose. No. Instead, the narrator tries to escape her past demons, by dashing off to exotic places. Except instead of obtaining peaceful insight, she is confronted by demons at every turn. And those demons are not embodied primarily within the eccentric characters she encounters; those demons are within her. She realizes that there is no reprieve no matter where she goes. Regardless of how many borders she crosses, she will not escape herself until she confronts the mess of her life. And so, as I continue to name those larger themes in my work, I am now comfortable with describing my poems as containing an "anti-travel narrative."
Through examining the anti-travel narrative, my work provides a different perspective of escape. We can never really escape where we are from, so how can we negotiate our origins, whether they present themselves as our troubled families, or our dysfunctional past lovers? This concept of the anti-travel self-examination is important because we have to negotiate these difficulties, particularly as women, especially in this current political regime and world where tragedies inevitably occur. And it is too easy to give up. As long as we are signed up to live life, we poets must and examine what force helps us to live—poetry is that source for me, now more than ever. Whether we suffer or lose an election to a toxic president or say good-bye someone whom we love, we must interrogate what helps us remain sane in this world. My newer poetry reflects that interrogation. That is to say, my personality and poetic philosophy emanates from the page. I rely on laughter, especially in the face of sadness, trauma, and awkwardness. I don't flinch for better or worse when faced with dangerous situations. Although I am becoming more discerning, I am still admittedly drawn to wild, crazy, and broken people if only because I see them as needing love as well. More honestly, I see shades of myself and of everyone within these people.
Aside from my exploration of the motivating source that keeps us writing, living, and loving, another preoccupation strewn throughout my anti- travel narrative includes trauma and resilience. Whether I am writing about mass shootings, as exhibited by "Aubade in a Burning Bar" or more personal loss such as "Change in Altitude" (Nazos 2017), I am not only interested in how we process grief, but how the narrator rises above it. I believe that my poetry (and poetry in general) is important because it facilitates these questions of resiliency. At its very best, poetry can help us to recover from our traumas.
Another major obsession of mine—that is also situated under the larger umbrella of the anti-travel narrative, trauma, and escape—is abandonment. I write about the larger theme of the speaker's leaving in an attempt to escape an aspect of her character that is, even in paradise, inescapable. Therefore, the speaker has two choices: either to heal or to die. This do-or-die mentality is precisely why the pantoum form appeals to me: because it is the language of obsessive dysfunction, of leaving, then coming back. In other words, the pantoum is a vehicle for my chaotic travel-narratives. Alongside this sense of resiliency, compassion for oneself and others is paramount. I write about not only of abandonment as it applies to the act of leaving; my work is also obsessed with the fear of losing those we love, whether through addiction, illness, or geography, as well as examining what happens when we leave.
In : Craft Essays
Tags: poetry maria nazos phd graduate school creative writing academic job market poems