Inside the Invisible

A Blind Writer's View of Living the Attentive Life

Month: October, 2012

The Artist’s Role

My partner, Ona Gritz, and I recently attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey.  If you haven’t been there, you should go at least once, even if you don’t think you and poetry have much to do with each other.  In these times when, despite our increasing irritation with lies and negative campaign ads, we can find ourselves turning into political junkies, it’s refreshing to live in a community, albeit an ephemeral one, where introspection, open-heartedness, critical thinking, truth-telling, and meaning are what matter most.

Within that temporary community, though, you will find great difference, great variety, even great disagreement on such questions as what makes a poem, what is the purpose of poetry, and how much difference can poetry make in the “real world.”

One of the perennial questions has to do with the poet’s relationship to politics.  How overtly political should poems be? In one sense, each poem constitutes a kind of political act; to spend time creating and perfecting something that has little or no commercial value in a society run by corporations is a kind of political statement.  But beyond that, what role can or should the poet play in society? In some older societies, poets, like prophets, were revered.  But they also ran the risk of being reviled, should they say something starkly unpopular.

I wondered aloud to Ona about my own stance on all of this during the run-up to the election, as well as during the aftermath, especially if, God forbid, the party promoting unbridled greed and trickle-down humanity should win.  I said that losing out to such an ideology might have the benefit of sending me deeper into creating art, perhaps as a retreat for personal sustainability.  It’s a strategy that served me well when my parents, told there were no better options, sent me and my twin brother to a boarding school for the blind at the ripe age of four.  I learned I could survive, even flourish, by diving into other worlds found in books.  So, by extension, maybe I could make writing my foxhole. Then, again, maybe I should come out firing, doing my best to find words that would knock out malarkey  and mumbo-jumbo with the accuracy of a sniper.

I remember discussing this issue with Ilana Blumberg, a wonderful friend in graduate school.  “What responsibility do art and the artist have for making the world better?” I asked her.  She said, “There’s always the danger that politics will overtake your art if you try to make your art do that much heavy-lifting in the world.  I think if you want to make a political statement, go to a demonstration or organize your own.  If you want to affect change, go do the practical things to make it happen.”

In my previous post, I suggested that blogs have filled a need that letter-writing used to fill.  Maybe they also provide a vehicle for thoughtful writing that doesn’t have to be art.  What do you think about the relationship between art and politics? What do you expect from art, and what are the artist’s responsibilities?

By Way of Introduction

Recently, I was talking to writer and friend Molly Fisk about starting this blog—more thinking out loud than anything else. “Blogs seem to offer so much,” I said—”deadlines, a forum without the scrim of overwhelmed and underfunded publishers, the potential for two-way communication. But does the world really need one more blog? Won’t I just be another of the millions of voices hollering into a bottomless canyon?”

Molly hardly paused. “Ever since cave men started drawing pictures on underground walls, humans have felt the need to express themselves, to take something inner and put it outward, without guarantee of audience or response.”

I like writing because it helps me know my heart and mind better. Of course, one can keep a journal for that purpose. The world doesn’t need to see everything that helps me learn something about myself. Yet, even in published work, if the poet doesn’t learn something about himself or herself through the process of writing, even if it’s nothing more than what kind of poet he or she is capable of being, what’s the point? As Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.” Likewise, if the writer of memoir comes to no deeper understanding of life through writing, then the time spent writing has been wasted.

To publish your own work, to put it onto the wall, requires a certain kind of arrogance, I suppose. You have to think it will be worth something to others.

Blogging, it seems to me, provides a place halfway between the private journal and the finished, fully-crafted, printed work. Writers have always needed this halfway house, but they used to get it from writing letters. In a world of tweeting, texting, and email blasts, we still need some intermediate forum for working things out, even if it turns out to be letters to a world which doesn’t necessarily feel the need to read or respond.

In that sense, it can be a little like praying.

I used to work as a church musician. When attendance in mainstream, urban, Protestant churches began to plummet, we church people had conversations tinged with desperation about how to “get people in the door.” It felt like trying to sell a product. What was the church down the street doing that we weren’t? Should we drastically change the worship service? Should we stop using the organ and start playing guitars? Should we go super-informal? Should we act more like the business world? Looking at online tips for starting a blog gives me something of the same feeling. I found they mostly addressed getting hits and making money.

I might do everything wrong. The tips say to carve out a small niche. While I plan to keep my focus more or less on living wide-awake, that could manifest itself in thinking about art, politics, and the spiritual life—all huge topics. The tips suggest it’s best to post something every day. I expect once or twice a week to be more like it. I hope that blogging can nourish the rest of my writing life without taking it over.

I like experiments. I like feedback. I like having this wall to write on. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll keep coming back.