A few weeks ago, I went through a five minute registration process on NPR's website just so I could downvote the comment pictured above (never accuse me of not backing up my political and aesthetic beliefs with real life actions…).
Good Lawyer's comments are not unusual or even particularly offensive. I hear some version of these sentiments every damn time a "friend" makes the mistake of mentioning in mixed company that I craft the occasional poem.
I guess I see calls for "making sense to an average person" as something of a feminist issue. What I mean is, "average person" is usually (maybe even always?) a(n invisible) code for male (white, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied, etc.). Women aren't average people. So, poems written by women are, perhaps inevitably, unaverage.
I tire of folks holding up "easy to understand" as a virtue, as the virtue, of printed words. Granted, instructions for operating a forklift or at-home bikini wax should be easy to understand. But poetry is (NO DOY…) a wordbeast of a different color. So I'm pretty sure poetry needs to be judged by its own criteria. I mean, we don't judge child beauty pageants using the same criteria we use to judge hog-calling contests (please don't ask if poetry is the child beauty pageant or the hog-calling contest in this metaphor…).
95% of Media proclaims that women are "difficult to understand" (yes, I arrived at that percentage using official scientific statistical measuring machines…). It's the bitchez be crazy narrative--what with their hormones and dropping half their paychecks on Jimmy Choos and shit. So, if one of the "requirements" of "good" poetry is that it must be "easy to understand," how can readers like Good Lawyer possibly care for poems written by us mysterious Venusians?
In his essay "In Praise of Difficult Poetry," a former United States Poet Laureate/Simpsons guest star reminds us that "difficulty, after all, is one of life's essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties." Difficult poems do tend to tickle my best parts pink. I think it's because they make me, like, proud to be a human. Because, Look Ma! at all the amazing things humans can make with language. Difficult poems make me super-grateful I wasn't born a sea cucumber!.
When I posted a picture of Good Lawyer's comment on my Facebook page, the poet Melissa Severin related the following quote from a recent interview with the poet Sarah Vap:
People often ask me, "'Do you mean for your poems to be so difficult? Why are they so difficult?" A shadow of a response that I always have is "Why do you want them to be easy?"The reason I enjoy building difficult poems is that they allow me to play with/manipulate language and images to reflect the complexity of, IDK, the complex experiences of existing in this lady body with this lady brain. Complex poems might provide insights into human experiences that "easier" poems cannot. Because being a person, especially an othered person, tends to be a fatherfucking complex experience. For some folks, it's impossible to be simultaneously easy and truthful.
I am thinking of the feminist slogan "well-behaved women seldom make history." I used to have a t-shirt with that slogan on it. I am thinking that I should have someone make me a t-shirt that reads "well-behaved poems seldom make history." I would, however, be reluctant to wear a t-shirt that reads "well-behaved poets seldom make history." Because I'm weary of the glamorization of the poet-as-liverless-suicide (quick recommendation that y'all go listen to Bikini Kill's "Bloody Ice Cream!").
A disclaimer: Just because I like difficult poetry, doesn't mean that I don't think "easy" poetry can't also be beautiful truthful, and/or feminist. Actually, I hate the term easy. It reminds me of the derogatory way some folks refer to women who have sex before being bought the socially acceptable number of dinners and/or diamond rings.
Straightforward might be a better descriptor for poems that might meet the approval of "Good Lawyer." But even the term "straightforward" could be read as problematic. I had a friend in high school who refused to use the term straight because straight means three things: "free from curves, bends, angles, or irregularities," "candid," and "heterosexual." Thus, the term straight, according to this friend, contributes to the othering of queer folks (quick shout-out to all the lovely oddball teenage activists at OPRF High School circe 2003!). For what it's worth, I didn't and don't agree with my friend's stance against the term straight, I just felt like sharing her perspective because I enjoy hammering home the point that the taxonomy of poetry is difficult and weird.
Since I do love to read, write, and publish straightforward poetry. I am slightly worried that publishing this rant-ette on Switchback's blog might leave folks with the misimpression that Switchback doesn't like straightforward poetry. I know all literary presses (and journals) claim this, but I truly believe that Switchback rilly hearts many (I won't go as far as to say "all") kinds of poetry (quick plug for the Gatewood Prize, which you woman-identified folks shopping first or second manuscripts should totally submit to!).
And I think that the dichotomy between easy/difficult poetry is bullshit (quick causal mention that I went to graduate school and thus read Derrida!). So maybe take these words o' mine as a defense of difficult poetry but, also, hopefully, not a criticism of straightforward poetry. The dividing line between the two is an illusion, bro. Though the "difficult" end of the illusion seems like it gets ten lions' shares of the haterade, which is why I didn't give Good Lawyer both an upvote and a downvote. Also, NPR's commenting section doesn't allow commenters to both like and dislike a comment because, obvs., NPR hates contemporary feminist poetics.
Daniela Olszewska sits on Switchback Books' Board of Directors. She is the author of four collections of poetry: cloudfang : : cakedirt (Horse Less Press, 2012), True Confessions of an Escapee From The Capra Facility for Wayward Girls (Spittoon Press, 2013), Citizen J (Artifice Books, forthcoming Fall 2013), and (with Carol Guess) How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming in 2014). Her tumblr address goes like this: http://danielaolszewska.