Poetry, Activism, and Self-Esteem: An Experimental Feminist’s Approach

If you’ve ever read about self-love and self-esteem, you’ve probably found a great deal of writing about owning yourself. First of all, the whole notion that we each have a self is difficult for a poet steeped in experimental feminist literature.  For example, the feminist punk author Kathy Acker who I will be in the Dead Poet’s Poetry Slam on Halloween, believes that the Self isn’t real, at least not an authentic self. To express oneself authentically through writing– a patriarchal system– you are accepting the patriarchal “I.”  This isn’t self-evident to everyone. You have to be sensitive, the kind of kid who cried about denim hurting your skin. The idea that some people won’t understand makes me anxious, an anticipated lack of compassion for what I mean but can’t explain exactly. Just think of it this way: The idea that owning yourself will help you love yourself is problematic for anyone sensitive to issues of oppression. Then I need only prove a connection between the use of “I” and ownership. You can certainly experiment with using “I” in different ways, but this language system is set up to trip you. Sure it’s better to own yourself than other people owning you; but isn’t the best possible reality that the self not be owned? And that I avoid language that implies ownership of something that I do not believe should be owned?
 
Amidst this struggle, I’m currently putting together a collection of poems called How to Love the Poison in Your Own Heart, which will be a chapbook that includes a lot of my writings about being involved in activism or living a life of resistance. Many of these poems come out of energy from the Occupy Movement, though I am having trouble sorting through some of the poems that feel drained.  When you’re close to something or someone, you don’t know how to see what you’re looking at. It can be that way with your own writing–self-invisibility, for lack of a better term, intersecting with the poison in your own heart. Self-invisibility surrounding anything that you do or create is an irritant that can bring out your worst sides. Last night when I read Brenda some of the poems that I was considering for the collection, she agreed that she liked some of them, others she didn’t like so much. I was grateful to get her feedback, to help shed light on some of my self-invisibility.  However, Brenda also admitted that she doesn’t like poetry that much. I totally respect that perspective. A part of me doesn’t like poetry either even though I write it. I think that’s because how poetry is traditionally defined can be really disheartening. Whether or not you get any pleasure out of poetry is really subjective. I want to be the kind of poet who gets people interested, especially if they don’t like poetry– a goal that comes from my connection to performance poetry communities, especially the Cantab Poetry Lounge.
 
Nonetheless, I found myself getting upset. Questioning everything. Considering that I might quit poetry. Feeling tired of pursuing a dream that doesn’t look like anything. I know I’m not the only one. My poet friend Michael F. Gill (I have to use his whole name because I know too many Michael’s) says that he feels like he doesn’t have any good work to read at Cantab sometimes, which is completely ludicrous because he has a large body of outstanding work.  What is it about creating art that leaves one feeling empty, as if the act of creating and the thing created never happened?  Is it because the poems are a branch of my self-invisibility? Given that I can’t foresee untangling myself from self-invisibility, how will I live with this kind of disconnection? That’s the question I’m trying to answer. By “answer” I mean “exploration” rather than singularity of meaning.
 
The life of a reclusive poet like Emily Dickinson seems completely absurd to me. I definitely do not live a life of isolation. Most days I jump from work directly to a new and different land of artist communities and activism. Certainly, there are some overlaps between work and art– in the morning I have time to write a blog like this, in the afternoon I enjoy being around creative teachers and students. But there is a big rift between community and work, as epitomized by a parent when I asked her about what she does for a living and if she likes her job. She immediately said she loves her family most of all and chose not to focus on answering my questions too closely. I loved that she responded that way! I don’t believe human beings are supposed to experience this rift between community and the bulk of their adult working life.  A great deal of my self-invisibility stems from this rift causing alienation.
 
We don’t just stand behind a curtain and pick out the features of our lives and how they will define us. We are dealt various kinds of alienation. Owning myself, having high self-esteem and self-love is not a solution if the approach to this topic makes alienation invisible. I don’t know how to love the poison in my own heart, but I want to believe it’s possible. The doubts that I have about my poetry– It isn’t good enough. I don’t seem educated. I’m missing something. I’m not good at this or that. I’m not theatrical enough– all form the poison. Now how to love these imperfections, self-invisibility, first and foremost…
 
That is hard to accomplish. I will probably fail. It’s the effort that counts.
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About pennapril

feminist, activist, poet
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