What makes a literary community? This question is one that has been posed to me many times over, and I have some difficulty answering it, to be honest. Part of this comes out of a certain squeamishness I have around the word community. It is a slippery word to me because of the way it’s used. There’s a sense in which it is used to mean a neighborhood, or a section of a neighborhood where people share similar cultural markers, and I find that much easier to parse than the more broad uses of the word i.e. “the black community”, “the LGBTQ community” etc. My own feelings about this stem out of being put in positions where I am called upon to explain the way a particular group of people who I share parts of my identity with feel about a particular thing. This positioning consistently feels like being put on the defensive, because I’m never asked to speak on behalf of the “white community”, for instance. I am most often asked about community when what I am really being asked is to explain my “otherness” as if it applies to all the other “others” like me. And beyond this issue, I share communities with plenty of people who, if asked the same questions, would answer them very differently. I am focusing on this interpretation of “community” in particular because while I think it is more or less common sense at this point to acknowledge the absurdity of making one individual the voice of an entire group when it comes to social and cultural identities, I haven’t seen the same kind of analysis around vocation or craft. The question of what makes an artistic community interests me because it is often bound by form, genre and place as opposed to socially constructed identities. No one has ever asked me if I have a community of historians, or if I find it necessary to seek one out. It would be odd for someone to ask such a question because history is so firmly planted within the realm of academia. I refer to fellow history students as colleagues, professors as advisors and reviewers, and when I speak about history making, I reference “the field” where socializing is “networking” and discussion is always “a dialogue”. For me, there is a jargon, but for my particular interests, the people I write about and the people who I hope will read my historical work have no real interest in that kind of technical language. In poetry, and any other genre or writing, there is also jargon, there is networking and dialogues galore, but there is also a sense that if you are a writer, you might be involved with a community of writers—not tied to a particular institution, but to something more organic. This, to me, is very specific to place, and to the writer. The collective voice of a city or a region is important. This is what creates the notion of “the southern pastoral” or “New York grit” or even the way we tie magical realism to Latin American writers. The reality is, even if a writer is a loner, if they publish, or make their work public, their voice might influence the writing of those around them. My voice, as a poet, comes from the Northeast. I am, for better or worse, a Yankee at heart. This is also true of J.D. Salinger, and I’m pretty sure that guy embodied the Sartre quote “hell is other people”. I cut my teeth writing poetry in Amherst and Boston in circles of poets who influenced one another, read each other’s work, and maintained unique voices with similar stylistic flares. While I feel my own poetic voice changed velocity or certain nuances while I lived in New York, there are regional particularities that tie those two cities together (sorry Boston…um, go Sox!).
Earlier this winter, I was invited to join other poets for an informal gathering of The Detroit School (of poetry). What was fascinating to me is that although I knew some of the people gathered together, and was at least familiar with their work, I couldn’t readily identify two poets who wrote alike. Maybe there were hints of similar cadences, or a kind of ethereal quality between a few poets, but no overarching thematic schemas or sense of unified voice, which I think is an incredibly valuable asset. If you are not a poet, you might be imagining a sordid lot of bohemians with dark circles under their eyes, reading poems to each other, chain smoking and snapping , but we were in a well lit dining room, in seemingly good health, drinking wine, eating White Castle burgers and nobody read a single poem. There was, however, an interesting argument about what was to be done about the literary infrastructure of Detroit. Someone said they had gone to an open mic near their house and saw young poets who were writing about “when we were kings and queens” and said that they needed some kind of influence beyond that scope. That was met with a stern rebuttal that that wasn’t the real issue—the real issue being things like the lack of a creative writing MFA program in the city. The first person didn’t believe the MFA was what made for good poetry, and the second argued that it was part and parcel of the landscape. I didn’t interject, because I had been in the city less than two months and it was the first time that it had occurred to me that there wasn’t a writing MFA program in Detroit, which I will say more about a little later.
What struck me most from that evening was that the one major thing that connected everyone in the room wasn’t an idea or a voice, but two people—Vievee Francis and Matthew Olzmann. The majority of the other poets had studied under one of them, or both. It was clear to me, sitting in that room, that they had given so much to the poets in that room, myself included. I met Vievee Francis last June when I attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Brown University. She lead my first week of workshops, and I met with her for a one-on-one meeting on my 29th birthday. I like to joke that she made me cry on my birthday, but it wasn’t really her doing. Her insight simply lifted a veil about myself that I was unprepared for, and the reality of it hurt. She then gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever been given—which was if that if I were to see myself in competition with other poets, to compete with someone like Rilke.
When I first began writing poetry seriously, it was for poetry slams—geared towards listenability, immediate audience engagement, and competition. As I spoke with Vievee on my birthday, what I realized was that as time had gone on, I had been unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) competing with my ex, who is also a poet, for years. Even though he had been the first reader of most of my work for nearly a decade, and vice versa, every one of his successes was met with outward congratulations and inward envy on my part. This got more messy when he began to publish poems about me that struck me as false, or gunshy. I could take angry, or bitter, I could deal with ugly, but I wanted, at the very least, to be able to recognize myself. I’ve known him since I was fifteen, we came up through the same writing community, we grew together, we separated and the one thing beyond history that kept us tethered to one another was the work. We were always honest, never unnecessarily complementary and even when I had lost the ability to trust him in every other way, I trusted his insight when it came to my poems. This is true of every other writer I’ve ever considered myself to be in a community with. Above all else, you have to trust another writer with that which is precious, personal, messy and important to you. When I first met one of my closest friends it was because she had landed a spot on a slam team I was coaching, and it took a while for her to begin to trust me or her teammates. I don’t recall what tipped the scale for her, but I think about those first few team meetings often as an example of the foundation of building a writing community—building trust, acknowledging the necessary reluctance of allowing someone else’s opinion to even enter your brain, and above all else, showing that you are dedicated to another person’s growth and craft. I can’t speak for all writers, but I know I abide by the Badu principle, which is that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my sh*t, so I try to treat other writers with the same care that I would like to be approached with.
The night I first encountered the Detroit School, I felt a bit like a writer at a gathering of non-writers, which is to say I was mostly quiet. This is pretty typical for me when meeting a group of new people. I like listening, but I am also often trying to hear whether or not I can trust who I’m listening to. There were two things in particular that night that stood out to me, beyond the MFA argument. One was Vievee pointing out that neither she nor Matthew would suffice as infrastructure to the literary community of Detroit because they were people, with temporary lifespans (this is my recollection, not a verbatim account). In this way, there needed to be tangible buildings, institutions, publications and bookstores dedicated to local writers. While there are some of these things, I have to say that a creative writing MFA program would—regardless of one’s feelings about the merit of such programs—pull writers towards the city. It would validate Detroit nationally as a literary destination--think about writers on book tours who aren't from or writing about Detroit, or national traveling literary festivals. And perhaps more importantly, it could create a built-in support system for the writers who live in the D—both as potential faculty and students. Don’t worry, this isn’t where I roll out a big plan I’ve concocted after a few months in the city. Instead, I’ll point to the second thing that stood out to me about that night—something else Vievee said, which was that most of the writers she knew in Detroit were in the community—meaning that the vast majority of them worked with young people in some capacity or another.
I’ve mulled this over a bit because honestly, since I’ve moved into the Brave New Home, the people whom I spend the most time talking with about writing are between the ages of 12 and 19 in the classes I teach through insideOut Literary Arts. I had a student ask me this week if we got to talk about feelings, and when I told her yes, she was ecstatic. I was both amused and delighted by this. On a fundamental level, emotions are a poet’s bread and butter, and I don’t know any demographic more brimming with all of the feelings than teenagers. That doesn’t always mean they want to write poems about them, but it helps. I also had the pleasure this week of attending Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) in Ann Arbor with a team of young women who I’ve been working with as a slam coach. The point of LTAB isn’t the competition, but the camaraderie of young poets from all across Michigan showcasing their talent and hard work. I can honestly say it was the first time in years that I felt actual joy being at a poetry slam. I’ve been slamming or around slam venues since I was 18, and for many reasons I’ve grown a bit jaded. However, seeing these young people pour their hearts into their work made me remember what is so valuable about the silly sport of competitive poetry--it encourages people to say whatever they want in their own voice, publicly. It’s a rare kind of embodiment of personal truth, and in a way I think the best slam poetry offers an antithesis to the Internet Age’s anonymity and curated versions of self. Sometimes I feel like the worst part of slam is its foremost goal—winning. Regardless of what anyone says to the contrary, it is designed to be a game that someone wins, not to build up a community of people who care about poetry or each other. Some spaces have a balance of these things, but for over a decade I’ve seen far more poets get wildly upset about the arbitrary scores strangers have placed upon their work than I have seen help build up the youth poetry scenes in their cities. Most of the slam poets I know who work with young people are also some of my favorite people, people whom I’m grateful to share a literary community with. This is not to say that those who don’t are all terrible or self-centered, but that the culture of competition can bring out the worst of egos, and the most unpoetic of tempers.
As I continue to learn and grow here in Detroit, one of the things that gives me the most encouragement is seeing the level of investment so many writers (and other artists) have in the city and its inhabitants. While not all of Detroit shares the same community, this city is so unlike the one I left. At times, New York felt like every single person was competing against each other for a square foot of personal space, like every day was a brawl between elderly women, toddlers and middle aged investment bankers for a seat on the train. I’ve felt a real sense of collaboration and support in Detroit that I don’t think is relative to my unique experience. When I think about the future, and the ways in which I want to take root here, I keep coming back to the idea of what it means to build a literary community that outlasts a generation or a particular era. This is something that Write A House strives toward, and that I see a lot of value in, but I know that it’s not about one organization’s mission or about me. When it comes down to it, what it’s really about is communities acting in concert to advocate for and build the institutions and tools that will outlive us, and serve generations not yet born.