Saturday, February 7, 2009

What is a Community of Writers?

The word
stems from the Latin "communis," meaning "common" or "universal". This Latin word is made up of two parts--"com" or "cum," which means "with" and the root "-mu," which means "to bind." In other words, a community is bound together by commonly held ideas, values, etc.

What, then, is a writing community and how does it function? I am thrown back to a meeting at Naropa where the first and second classes of students of the Low-Residency MFA program were in a meeting. Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who was one of the professors who began the program, insisted that we send our work out to be published because only through the success of the students would the program be successful. Many of the students balked at this idea, and were angry that they were asked to do such a thing; their work was their own, and what they did with it was their own business. They were individual writers, and had no obligations to the group.

I wonder if there is some balance necessary. As a writer, I indeed am individual. I write differently than others, I take away different lessons from the books that I read than others do, etc. However, in calling myself a poet, I have an obligation to follow through with the practice of my craft: to write poems and to get those poems into the hands of the public, whether it be through publishing, the internet, etc. The way that I accomplish these goals may be totally different than other people, but I still have an obligation to do it. In calling myself a Cleveland poet, I take on other obligations. I, in some sense, represent Cleveland in every poem I write and every poem I read at readings. If my poems are dreck, then Cleveland and it's poetry community are taken down a notch. If my poems are solid or successful, or if I, as a poet, am successful, then Cleveland and it's poetry scene is raised up a notch.

However, there are other communities I belong to--Science Fiction Poetry Association, etc. Where these communities intersect, like the Cleveland Speculators, wonderful things happen. Where these groups clash, I find myself at a conflict of interest. For example, how does a member of the HSA approach some one writing abstract verses in 5-7-5 and insisting they're writing haiku. Does one community--the national or international--supersede the local or individual?

There is also a question of responsibility in response to the actions of other members. If a member of the Cleveland poetry community doesn't send their work out to be published, doesn't read at readings, etc. what should the other members of the community do? What happens when a local poet publishes a bad poem, or worse, a bad book? Should the other members of the community celebrate their success, or question their work. There is something to be said about supporting one's community, but there is also something to be said about setting a communal standard, or even establishing a communal discussion, to rebuke those members who may misrepresent the community or, through their mediocre work, bring the community down.

So, the question remains, what responsibility to poets have to their community of writers, and what responsibilities does that community have to the poets? Where do you fit in to the discussion?


Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Yes, yes, YES!

Writers so often get caught up in their individual creative process and refuse to acknowledge that they exist within a community, and need to contribute to said community in order to survive themselves as artists. Art in a vacuum is not art at all.

In terms of the questions about where our loyalties should lie, which community's standards should supersede the others...well, THAT, I think IS an individual question. Like everything else in art (and really, in life in general), it's subjective. There can't be any sweeping rules for this. We all have our individual priorities, be they to a local group, a national group, a set of artistic standards, etc.

I think the most important thing is to find A community--wherever or with whomever it may be--and a set of ideals to which the individual artist feels that he or she can belong. Not just for the mutual support, but for the sake of the craft.

J.E. Stanley said...

First, I do feel an overriding sense of loyalty and appreciation to the groups/communities in which I am involved.

However, speaking for myself, I take responsibility only for my own writing and represent only myself. If others view my work as somehow a reflection, good or bad, on themselves or their community, that is their problem, not mine. I write what I want to write and submit what I want to submit. I follow whatever "rules" I choose to follow for a given piece and break whatever rules I wish to break for a different piece.

I do not view the writings of others as a reflection on myself or any specific community. Likewise, I do not, and will not, assume any responsibility for the writings of others. This remains true even if I have critiqued said writing as part of a group and the writer has incorporated my suggestions. The individual is ultimately responsible for whatever he or she sends out under his or her own name.

Also, as far as responsibility goes, the one clear responsibility we do have, as citizens, is a responsibility to the 1st Amendment. In the spirit of said amendment, I find the concept of "setting a communal standard, or even establishing a communal discussion, to rebuke those members who may misrepresent the community or, through their mediocre work, bring the community down" to be disturbing.

As an editor, you can control the quality of your publication. As a reviewer, or commentator, you are free to express any and all positive or negative opinions you may have. That should be more than sufficient. Enforcing some sort of "community/communal standard" is unworkable and would, if actually put into practice, be nothing more than de facto censorship and oppression. Rebuking poets who refuse adhere to the "standards" of a community is especially inappropriate in a world where originality and individuality are already undervalued and in very short supply.

Anonymous said...

One person's dreck is another's manna, & it'd be sad to turn community into something that's exclusive rather than inclusive.

Anonymous said...

Good for you Jim.

Trying to impose rules and regulations on others is for the small minded, the religious wrong, and the flat-earth Republicans.

In America we're taught to speak up and out, not to seek group approval. basically, when I think of "community" i flash on sheep pens.

michael salinger said...

And what do the sheep think about that Steve?

pottygok said...

Let me provide a real example to solidify this discussion, and then ask a few more questions.

A few years ago at a Deep Cleveland Reading, a poet stood up and read a poem in favor of war under the idea that, as a Taoist, he needed to support war in order to support peace because there needs to be balance in the universe. I think he was trying to say that without war, there would be no such thing as peace to appreciate, but the content got muddled. I'm also not sure if he truly understood Taoism, but that's not the point. Immediately after the poet read the poem, another poet directly challenged him with an impromptu poem. They proceded to duke it out for a few pieces. Can this been seen as the community critiquing or editing itself, or setting its own standards without such things as "rules" or "regulations"? What about poets who don't get invited to read at open mikes, or poets who refuse to read with other poets? I know of a few poets who wont read with each other, or who wont support the readings of a specific person because of one reason or another. Could this been seen as a community critiquing itself or setting certain standards, be it one poet at a time? I think phrases like "communal standard" may be a bit off putting, but at the same time our community does have certain standards that we adhere to. I'm also curious about one's responsibility to the writing community.

A few more tangible examples to consider and discuss:

If an author is published by a press, local, national or otherwise, and that press publishes a book that the author doesn't like, be it in terms of craft or theme, what responsibility do they have? Is a scathing review good enough, or should they do more to represent the press? Do individual authors represent a press or magazine, or do the editors?

Also, what if we think not necessarily about standards in terms of craft or content, but in terms of action?

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

I don't think that a community necessarily has to speak with the same voice, or to "enforce" standards. You can be part of a poetry community and still have your own opinons, too; and I'd say it's up to you whether you chose to express them.

A lot of time the proper response to a poem you don't like is to just say, well, guess I'm not the target audience for that one... but I like you anecdote about one poet responding to a poem with another poem.

pottygok said...

The follow up question seems to be that, if a community does not have standards which it enforces, does not have a common voice or belief system, and does not have a common ritual or physical presence, what is left that makes it a community?In other words, how does one define the Cleveland poetry community, what does one offer it, and what does one expect in return?

J.E. Stanley said...

Re: The comments of February 9th.
The example provided in pottygok's post to solidify this discussion is a very good one. While it was a bit more complicated than previously indicated (it started with one poet heckling the other and turned into personal attacks on the part of both), the incident at the dc reading is a telling and appropriate incident to bring up here.

Even though this happened several years ago, one of the poets involved has never been back to the reading. Nor have I seen him at any reading, anywhere, since. So yes, this was certainly a victory for "community standards" and censorship. I do not view that as a good thing. While I, personally, did not relate, at all, to the condescending tone and obnoxious politics of said missing poet, I do feel that it is sad when a community's "open" mics become, in practice, closed. It will be sadder still if there is any success to this current attempt at turning the Cleveland poetry scene into an exclusive club where only the "cool kids" (i.e. politically correct poets with well-crafted poems) get to play.

The nature of freedom of speech and the nature of open mics is that, at some point, you will be offended. And also, you will occasionally hear material that is boring, poorly crafted or simply just not worth the time it takes to listen to it. So be it. I wouldn't have it any other way. Neither should any of you.

Re: The comments of February 13th.
Is there truly a need to "define" the Cleveland poetry community? Given the choice between the common voice of a defined community and the individual voice, I choose the individual voice. Given the choice between the enforced standards of a community and freedom, I choose freedom.

Consider your favorite writers. Were they concerned about following the pack and adhering to the dictates of any specific community? I'd bet not. In "Stealing Tomorrow," Harlan Ellison wrote "My soul would be an outlaw." As far as I'm concerned, there is no better attitude that a writer can have.

pottygok said...

After a week of allowing this to instigate and play devil's advocate, some of my own personal thoughts on the matter:

For me, there are two types of communities. The first type is the one which one applies to join, be it a college program, secret society, or country club. In applying, one is expressing a desire to be a part of something, and therefore takes on a responsibility in following whatever rules or restrictions said organization has. Any member accepted has an obligation to either abide by those rules, or to be repromanded or removed from the group. Whether or not these are seen as limitations or strengths is a seperate debate, and one that might need to look at each example on a case by case basis.

On the other hand, there are groups that are defined by what a collection of people do. As far as I can see, there are two requirements for being a member of the Cleveland Poetry community--one must live in or be from Cleveland or the surrounding area, and one must write poetry. Even these rules seem to be tenuous, as some still claim Langston Hughes and Hart Crane as "Cleveland poets," despite the fact that they really weren't centered or focused in Cleveland for much of their poetry career.

After those two basic "requirements" are met, everything else is wide open. Whether or not you publish, whether or not you read at open mikes, whether or not you view poetry as a hobby or a job or whatever, you are a member. The community is defined only by action (write poem) and location (North East Ohio), and those are the only threads that truly bind anyone together?

So is the word "community" the best or most accurate? Bottom Dog Press recently published a book investigating Cleveland Poetry Scenes, which is one choice. I have always enjoyed the name of New York's "A Gathering of Tribes," which is a bit more organic word choice to describe a group of people. Both of these may be more accurate than "community," in that scenes and tribes are not only less restrictive and more open, they're also more amalgamous; one can jump between scenes or tribes, or even consistantly be a member of more than one with little or no difficulty.

Still, it is important for us to acknowledge that we are, indeed, part of a larger group, and to constantly ask ourselves what responsibility we have to that group. However, the answer must come from within ourselves, and cannot be answered by any other, within the community or without. The most we can expect from others is encouragement, support, and, if not that, tolerance when we disagree on one thing or another. With that in mind, these are probably the things we should be offering each other, and offer to the world in general.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

I'd say that what defines a community is interaction. The Cleveland poetry community is a community because we interact with each other.

I was originally going to say, interaction in a communal fashion, but after some thinking, I suppose that even if the interaction is to some extent fractious (and, this being the Cleveland poets, it can be)-- it's still a community (although perhaps a dysfunctional one)...

When we stop interacting with each other, or when groups of poets don't interact with each other, we become separate communities.

pottygok said...

Okay, back to playing devil's advocate...

What about poets who don't interact or don't participate? If one writes poetry, but doesn't attend readings, send out work, submit to local anthologies, etc. are they no longer a member of the community? Are they not a "Cleveland Poetry"? I'm particularly thinking about folks who write poetry in their journal or view poetry as a "hobby," and have no interest in reading the works of others or showing their work to other people. This may be an extreme stereotype, but one based on some semblance of truth.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau