Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Strange Thing Happened at the Book Launch.




No, people didn’t rush to buy books. 

I’d read a poem called ‘Not just a broken token song”. I hadn’t had time to explain why I don’t like such songs but the poem is a light hearted criticism of them.

So reading over, standing at the table with the books for sale, doing the usual  smile and greet. A man approaches the table, stands directly in front of me, picks up a copy of the book, starts thumbing through it.

“The word whore trips off your tongue?” he said or asked. It was hard to tell.

I was too baffled by this opening to do anything except gold fish impersonations.

“Yes, he says, still thumbing through the book, I see you’ve used it again .”

I think I muttered something about contexts. 

“Well”, he says, “you’re the poet”, and dropping (tossing?) the book back on the table, exits.

Leaving  aside how rude such behaviour is, and all the clever things I thought of saying  a week later,  I’ve been trying to imagine what he thought he was doing. 

So let us assume he was an educated, rational human being.  This was, after all, an event in an academic writing conference.  He obviously objected to a word (ok, that’s not entirely rational in my book but let’s run with it) and he felt strongly enough to want to police his little patch and make his unhappiness known.  But there was no attempt to enter into any kind of dialogue, no attempt on his part to explain what/why/;  no effort at all to even make his point clearly.

I was obviously not worth the effort of an explanation.  So exactly what I was supposed to do with his outrage remains a mystery.

Leaving aside the specific Incident, and all the clever things I thought of much later, it also seems emblematic of a growing failure to read poem as poem.   It’s an extreme version of the “ideological reading”. 

As a writer I choose words in context, to produce an effect in context:  I believe it is possible to give words to a character to signal that this character is speaking and behaving in a way I am criticising.  (This is exactly what’s happening in the poem in question).  I’m interested by  attitudes and opinions  that aren’t mine and poems seems a good place to explore them.

But if poem isn’t read as poem, as something made, and the writer not given credit for the time and thought that goes into its making,  if the default reaction is to pick whatever seems unacceptable without stopping to consider how the words are working, then what’s the point of writing a poem and putting time into its construction?

There are people who wonder at my lack of enthusiasm for publication….. 

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