Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Being Noncommittal

The following is the introduction to a book review I'm writing for the class. I thought it was particularly relevant to my experience of the past weeks, where a number of people have asked me questions about my work to which I could only reply: [*crickets*]. Through addressing another writer's ways of meandering around explaining her work, I've been able to pin down some ugly truths about a) why I avoid talking specifically about my work or reflecting on my processes and b) why it annoys me when others do the exact same thing. So, with no further adieu:

In No One’s Land
Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Ahsahta Press, 2007

In No One’s Land is Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s first book. In her author’s statement, published on the Ahsahta Press website, she engages in problematic indirection when she writes, “I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: ‘I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.’” It is the same kind of refrain we hear all the time from young poets—“I’m not the one to talk about my work,” or “I can’t really articulate what I was trying to do,” or “It just came out that way. It’s a mystery to me,” all of which seem to be translations of “Don’t look at me.” She takes a stab at more substantive commentary later, as she notes,

"David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as ‘the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.’ Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, [my emphasis—TB] I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly…"

While I can appreciate that nice fat slice of humble pie, I also wonder if this sort of exaggerated humility is really benefiting writer or reader? It is as if the poet does not wish to commit to a reading of her own work. I can certainly sympathize. How many times have I criticized artist statements as useless, self-indulgent, or flat-out inaccurate? And how many times have I made similar claims of ignorance about my own work? As a reader, I am not entirely drawn in by these milquetoast attempts at creating a context for the work. As a writer, I am frightened by the mirror being held up to my own face.

So I wonder if this impulse of avoidance has anything to do with a fear of being made answerable for one's project. After all, when one actually says something, puts a concrete idea out into the world, one is opening up the (real or imagined floodgates) of criticism. Or maybe it's a more deeply seated fear that has to do with the possibility that, if one truly examines one's own work, one will find that one isn't actually saying anything. What if it's not about anything? What if it's an empty shell that is so coded and repellant to statement that there simply isn't anything to explain? All that time and effort for---nada.

Or maybe that's just my baggage.


Robb said...


Here's a thought: most writers who are still working through what they want the craft of their writing to be (that is, most writers, whatever age--but this is more in the foreground of younger writers, I think) don't proceed from a set of assumptions or goals other than, "I want this to be a good poem/story." I think essayists might have a slightly greater emphasis placed on the question of an ethic, but the assumption I have is that craft and intelligence are the things that guide most younger writers. So when those more formal concerns (and I'd have to argue for intelligence as formal) are in front, it's just easier to avoid post-compositional justifications, because they're bound to be inventions. It's more honest, in some ways, to say "I was really just thinking about how the juxtaposition of these things seemed to create a neat sense-rhyme" rather than, "I wanted to explore juxtaposition's power to disrupt and manufacture coherence at the same time, to manufacture a state for the poem at an angle to the structures organizing daily life." The second one may sound cooler or something, but to say it and not really mean it puts a writer in a weird place.

Honestly, it's the writers that do provide these petty manifestos that come off sounding the least honest or interesting...even if they do seem 'intelligent'. Not to name names, or anything like that, but I'll just say that one of them self-published, and another can be found with a chapbook on Noemi.

Trina said...


I've been thinking about this for a couple of days now and I see your point. But I wonder whether there's a way to step away from the work once its written and look at it as a reader rather than as a writer--to say not "This is what I was trying to do when I wrote it" but "This is what I see in it now." Or maybe, "These are the relationships I'm seeing based on my influences and my particular knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the composition." I guess what I'm asking for is not a statement of intent, but something informative from the author's point of view.