It’s a peculiar situation that writers find themselves in, isn’t it? We work in solitary, spiritual prisoners of our own devising, away even from others doing the same work—even artist colonies keep us apart during the work day.
But then, after that day’s work ends in inevitable failure or the startle of success, we want others around, even need them around. But we want this in a special way: because we do not necessarily want them around as real entities.
We want (maybe I should say, I want) the idea of others, that is, the idea that they could be there, whether they are or not. And we want them there not to lament the failure or to rejoice in the success, but to be there, part of the world that comes after the writing.
I said the situation was peculiar. Maybe I should have said strange.
This idea of the community of others is one kind of informal, virtual, but necessary community. There is another kind, the factual or real community, created, ongoing, institutionalized: an actual thing. It is the kind produced by and from writing workshops, and readings, and teaching—by intention and effort.
Both are important, both necessary. I want to explore notions about them in this post.
The situation of the poet is that we practice our sullen art (apologies to Dylan Thomas for dropping the “craft” of his characterization in favor of the option) alone, in an effort that is not and cannot be communal.
The art requires our journey into darkness as individuals who carry only what we are, seeking to bring something back into the light. Our fidelity to that experience makes our poems true for us in the moments of creation and for those who will later read what we have made.
The work is ongoing, of course. There’s a line of Paul Valery’s that captures the necessary intensity of the work as well as the inevitable failure of the effort: “A poem is never finished,” he says, “it is only abandoned.” I love that.
It is our failures—for every poem fails its inspiration—that we must live with and acknowledge, afterwards, if we are honest. They are not sharable, except as an accumulated weight, a burden we carry until the next poem is finally abandoned, and the burden is replaced.
The journey and the fidelity to it, the failure of abandonment, the solitariness, the success, and so much else specific to the task, are what make the writing life different than others.
What I say here applies to other artists as well, I think; but I am not a painter, sculptor, and do not engage in other arts, so I cannot speak with much certainty about them.
Here’s the thing I want to stress: that every other human activity I can think of, even the most abstruse, has its stresses and strains, its pressures, its integrity; but all have at least the comfort of collaboration. The experience of poets is unique to the poetry community, and even unique, sui generis, to each writer.
So who else can we share it with at day’s end except another writer, someone who could understand the experience in the way we do? I don’t mean we want or need to talk about it, though of course some do; only that there is a common knowledge, a common frustration that brings and binds us together, that is the bridge between us. The secret is that we could talk about it, whether we do or not.
In my case, it is after creation of the work, or more likely, after a day of work at the process of creation (for per Valery, the process does not end) that community becomes important. What do I want at that point? Everything. Nothing. Contact. Appreciation and support, I suppose.
But to be clear: It’s not support about my work, but about THE work. About poetry, and the idea of poetry, and the love that is poetry.
Sometimes I don’t even have to have the support or contact, only to know that it’s there, and that’s somehow enough. It’s sort of like—this is a terrible analogy—working at night: Sometimes when I work my wife is in the next room or another part of the house. We don’t talk, we don’t even see each other. But I could see her or talk to her, or she could do the same with me, and for the time, that’s enough, and it fills everything. I’m somehow a better person knowing that she’s here. I know for a certainty that it feels different when she’s not here. I still work, but it’s different.
The point is, I don’t want or need a support system, but rather a system that is supportive because it exists whether I use it or engage it or not.
That one system can exist without the other, but it becomes easier and perhaps richer if someone in the area is running classes, or sponsoring readings, or publishing a book or a magazine. In those situations we can go, see each other, we talk, maybe about the reading, and we are suddenly looking at the same object or the same event together. We argue: this one thinks W.S. Merwin is a great poet who is getting greater, that one thinks he is repeating himself and setting the bar lower with each new work, and another is hearing judgments he or she has not considered on a work not wholly familiar.
Attending a poetry reading is not a way of being in a support system, but to be there is to attend an event that is supportive of what we do, and of what others do. To take this a step farther: It’s the knowing that there are readings, and that I could attend them, that provides the significant part of the support. Better: people who wold not otherwise consider writing may do so because of the workshop, find their talent and have their moment and come together in such places.
You can’t teach someone to write, but you can expose them to the precepts and percepts of the creative endeavor, can show and let them experience why it is important, and how it makes us more human. The virtual community I described earlier comes into existence so much more easily because of the institutions of an actual community.
And at some point, a community will hit critical mass. There will be enough writers in it to sustain that creativity on a broad scale, enough ferment to make someone or several someones take the chances needed to become a writer or a great writer. We talk about how a community “produces” a writer, but that’s not how it happens. One becomes a writer with a series of small steps, growing, becoming confident. The virtual community helps that happen, and the actual community creates the environment where it can happen.
Here are what I think are the necessary institutions for an actual community of writers: readings, classes, social space where writers can congregate, magazines, books, workshops. Each of these activities can support the others, and all of them together support the writers and those who would be writers. I think Syracuse is on the edge of that development, with great institutions like the Downtown Writers center at the Greater Syracuse YMCA, and the work being done at out various colleges and universities. It is an exciting time to be here.