Manifesto 3 (What poems are for, OR good writing is hard to eat)
I’ve always been a little obsessed with cooking shows and food shows. It comes in waves. Maybe because it’s easier to understand the role of food than it is to understand the role of poems. While watching David Chang’s Hulu series “The Next Thing You Eat,” I think I had an epiphany about why I’m so interested in chefs and the work they do; it feels metaphorically connected to poetry and the work I do. It’s a matter of medium—food and language both exist on this insane spectrum between utility and revelation. We have to eat to live; food is a necessity. We have to speak to convey, connect, discover, learn: language is a necessity. What we eat says everything about where we come from, what we value, what we don’t value, what we’ve escaped and endured, what we access and what we celebrate. Food doesn’t only keep us alive; it’s a way of living. Language signals what we know and what we don’t know, who is inside and outside, whether we make space for others or close down into solitary worlds, the rhythms our ideas make, the difference between anger/ignorance/oppression/depression/joy/fear; it’s a way of life. It’s also true that some of us can’t or don’t think a great deal about where our food comes from or what our choices for lunch and dinner reveal about us. We don’t all concern ourselves with where our produce is sourced our how our choice of language affects our ability to feel either connected or disconnected from those around us. We can’t always afford to—economies of time and culture and money intervene, leaving us untethered.
My deal as a writer is that I can’t not think about it. Words pervade every element of how and what I know. It’s true of both food and language that they can nourish, or they can get the job done. They can be cheap, or they can be responsible. They can have flavor and nuance, or they can be bland and homogenous. They can be what we choose, or they can choose us. When I think about my responsibility as a poet along these lines, what it really feels like I’m asking myself is: who do I feed?
The necessary utility of language makes me weary sometimes. Was it Adrienne Rich who said that writers are the only artists who can’t divest themselves from the political associations and biases of their medium? We can’t choose different words. We can deploy them with increased awareness, but they will always be the same words.
I think at the root of my tiredness with(in) language is that I can't just drink it or eat it. I want to enjoy it for its own sake, despite what it is or isn’t good for. I want good language like I want a good meal—not to keep me alive, but to make me feel alive. The problem with language is that I'm always having to do something with it--respond in a way that furthers and deepens understanding, stay current with shifts and opportunities in publishing/the literary landscape, make sure I'm communicating the truth of my inner world with all of the best camera lighting and without all the clumsy self consciousness I'm always afraid I'm showing. I want to take off my uniform for The Discourse. I want to pull up my chair at the dinner table and eat all the poems that land on my plate. I want to park my old car in a field and spend hours facing a stage moving wordlessly with a sea of other seekers while my molecules rearrange. I want to lick the batter from the spoon. I don't want to tell you why. I don't want to show you my teeth. I want to sit inside all of it. To be a perfect machine of my own joy. To be lost in this whirring. To taste it all.