When I meet someone on a plane, and they ask what I do for a living, I say, well, I teach Computer Science for a day job, but my profession is poetry. What usually happens next is that their eyes glaze over and I can tell they’re mentally checking their watches to see how much longer the flight is going to take. Then, unless they think to ask me something about computers, usually to do with whether they should scrap their pcs for the latest hot-lick models, they tend to develop a sudden, burning, interest in Sky Mall. If I’d been some other kind of writer, a novelist or a screenwriter for instance, I’ve always thought it would have been better, but maybe not, because to most people watching cars go airborne over the top of Gough Street, heading down towards the bay screenwriters seem as irrelevant as tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree.
Be that as it may, I think it’s fair to say that we poets find ourselves at the bottom of the interest scale with most of the non-reading public. One of the consequences of that is that we have fewer chances to connect with audiences than do people who work in other literary genres. So, being in the minority and being relatively poor, even in the literary world, we help each other out whenever we can, right? Well, in my experience, not necessarily.
For example, when I meet some poets, I get the feeling that they’re sizing me up to see if I’m any threat. If the verdict is that I’m not, then they relax. If they decide otherwise, they clam up and start looking over my shoulder for someone more useful to talk to. Sometimes, it goes much farther than this, perhaps even to the point of paranoia. For instance, a few years ago, when two poets came to my town to teach in the writing program, I thought, great, more poets, and bought their books. But not only have they not been polite to me--without ever exchanging more than ten words total with me in all the years since they’ve come, they put me down to their students on a regular basis. So why are they doing this? I’ve decided it’s because they’re protecting English, which they see as their territory. It seems such a pity, but I know it’s not an isolated case. I’ve heard other stories like that, where certain writers seem to have peed on their four corners, to make sure interlopers are aware that only they, the purveyors of urine, and their students are welcome within their borders. And if someone tries to cross that line, he or she finds out what that odd odor means and, to mix a metaphor, in spades.
Luckily, this isn’t universally the case, maybe not even generally so. Over the years, I’ve met some hugely generous people, to name only a few: Andrea Hollander Budy, Nick Samaras, Jo MacDougall, Frank Gaspar, Maurya Simon and, more recently, Ruth Schwartz, all terrific poets and all genuinely happy when any of us gets lucky. We buy each others’ books and tell people about each others’ work. To be fair, we’ve often become friends in the first place because we did like each others’ work. If you think about it, how much more deeply can you know someone than by living with his/her poetry. And sometimes -- in the ancient tradition-- we talk in poetry. For instance, a few years ago, Andrea and I had a poetry conversation, with the goal being neither of our greater glory but both of our greater growth. During that exchange, Andrea wrote some lovely poems which wended their way into her most recent collection, and I profited too, spinning off her intelligence in directions of my own. Nick Samaras and I are now doing a similar thing- we send each other a poem a month, which we then critique back and forth until it falls to rest. Nick’s a fine critic, and I’ve learned a lot from him. And those are only a couple of examples. I have many wonderful friends and teachers among other poets. In fact, like many of us, I feel friendship, even kinship, to writers I’ve never met, just from their work.
But the most important of my own friendships are the warm, live ones. It’s a great feeling not to need to explain why I do what I do, because they already know since they’re the same, and in that mutual knowing I feel the sort of acceptance which I can’t always, in the last analysis, get from those closest to me. In fact, sometimes I think of my friendships with other writers as a kind of home base on the field of my life.
I’d like to leave you with an analogy. My husband makes beautiful stained glass. And because he wants to give something back, he donates windows to poor churches. We go to Mexico often, making that part of our trips, and when Gerald’s finished a project, we prospect for another. A few years ago, he built some windows for a church on a bumpy street in a barrio in Patzcuaro. Ger spent an especially long time on those- there were eight, and he designed them beautifully, with an Indian woman in the foreground and colors which seemed just right for the bright plastic streamers which adorned the inside of that church. When the windows were ready, we took them to the sacristans in Patzcuaro, a couple named Adolfo and Josefina, to explain how install them and help them do it.
It wasn’t an easy job because the windows weren’t set up to receive glass, so there was a fair amount of improvisational engineering- a sort of engineering skat- to be done before we could start the actual installation. The three of us, Adolfo, Ger, and I had been working for several days, and neither Adolfo not Josefina had said a word about the windows. Now, I knew how hard Ger had worked on them– months and months in the barn. So, though I felt guilty about it, I was also beginning to feel let down and a little annoyed. More and more, I wanted someone besides me to admire those windows. Or at least thank Ger for his trouble. But then one day Josefina and I were sitting at the table in her tiny house with its glass-less windows and its dog on the roof, where they lived with their eight children, and she said: You know, we don’t have much, but everything we have, each person gets a little bit.” And then I understood why they hadn’t thanked us. Because, of course we’d shared what we had. And that felt right to me, and I think it’s how we poets should be to each other too, how my dear friends are already and how I’d like to be too: we don’t have much, but everything we do have, each of us gets a little bit.
Lola Haskins' most recent collection is The Rim Benders (Anhinga). Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from BOA in 2004. She teaches Computer Science at the University of Florida and is a 2003 NEA fellow in poetry.