Facebook, Poetry, and a Crisis of Audience

Once my nephew got in trouble at school for clowning around.  His mother did the only thing she could do and told him to quit that.  He said, “But you don’t know how hard I worked to become the class clown.”

I feel his pain.  Entertaining others is a big job.  Attempting to do it is pure pressure.  But sometimes you just can’t help yourself.  Facebook feels like that to me.  The status update is performance art, and I am compelled to make my mark on it.  I am the class clown of my Facebook friend stream.  There are others, of course, but I’ve littered the stream with so much of my own personal nonsense that people call to check on me if I take any time off.

As this person who has updated way too much, I’m a particular authority on the weirdness of audience juxtapositions that Facebook creates.  In my friend list, I have family, colleagues from my real job, and colleagues from my organizations where I do various unpaid and therefore unreal jobs.  There are people I went to high school with, people I went to church with, people I met online, people I met in graduate school, former students, people I admire from afar, and people I’m not sure I even know at all.

The first rule of performance is to know your audience, and none of those groups fit together.  As someone whose life before Facebook was extremely compartmentalized with no pieces overlapping, I’ve had to overcome a great deal of audience anxiety in order to keep going without worrying too much about who I offend, confuse, or generally shame myself in front of.  This is part of the reason I think my students need to do more public writing.  They need to put faces and attitudes to their audience.  They need to have to ask themselves what the function of their writing is and who it’s for as well as how it might need to change if people who weren’t invited to their party happen to be listening in.

So that’s that.  When it looks like I’m practicing random acts of status mayhem, sometimes I’m really seriously mulling over this question of audience overlaps and the general confusion of purpose they create.

Which leads me to another issue.  I have this poetry thing that I do.  I’ve done it for a long time.  It’s what I got my degree in.  As part of that, I’ve “performed” as a poet in public venues via publications and/or readings for probably twenty years or more.  Yet that particular public persona only belonged to one or two of my categories of Facebook friends:  English majors, and people who hang out in the same coffee shops where English majors hang out.   In other words, people who “read” poetry and poets by a certain set of previously determined expectations.

Families and people who used to babysit you don’t know about those expectations because they belong to a very isolated sub-culture rather than the world at large.

In a poetry class or at a poetry reading for English majors, for example, no one would ever ask if the poem you wrote about some sort of childhood abuse or a wrenching emotional loss was actually about you.  They wouldn’t ask because they know they’d be looked down on as not understanding the craft of writing if they did.  And for crying out loud, you wouldn’t sit in a poetry class and say the poem was about you.  That would be the kiss of death.  Because it doesn’t matter if it is or it isn’t to the process of crafting it as a work of art.  And if it started out to be about you, it won’t be by the time you’re finished with it.

And so it is that I’ve been writing these poems all these years–in first person mostly because I like the sound of feel of it–without ever giving much thought to how much of me was in them.  I didn’t think of the I in the poem as me at all.  I thought of it as a character with its own voice that I was manipulating for the purpose of serving whatever tone or mood or thought process I wanted to create.

Along the way I’ve stolen things from my life to put in them, but those things were more like borrowed objects than confessions.  I took them out of context, moved them around, reshaped them, mixed them up with details I’d seen, heard, or imagined.  I wasn’t trying to write autobiography, so it never mattered to me if I was telling truth as in what had actually happened to me and how I actually felt about it.  It only mattered that I was telling truth as in whatever sorts of human truths I could extract from the idea on which the poem itself meditated.

They were inventions, often wholly invented.  I wouldn’t even want to try to figure out at this point which parts happened to me and which didn’t.  I wouldn’t remember, and even if I did, I’d just retell them in another reinvented version that may or may not be any closer to the truth.  That’s the way memory works.  It’s all story.

As so it is that I’ve gotten by for so long without having to explain this to anyone because most people who read my poems would have never asked and the few that have asked were not emotionally invested in my answer.  I got by with it, though, because I kept the poems compartmentalized to only one part of my life.  When I thought about showing them to my family I chickened out.  Families want to know everything about your personal details.  They don’t easily accept that one line in a poem might be something that happened to you and the next line something you overheard in a coffee shop and the line after that something you just made up.  Or that you no longer remember which is which in many cases.

But because I had this weird crisis of audience thing going on over family + poetry, I never really tried for the kinds of publications that would be noticed outside one small circle of people.  I never really tried to publish a book.  Until this year.

At the urging of a couple of friends and on the strength of whimsy alone I put together a book manuscript of poems and sent it off to a few contests.  As luck (depending on your perspective) would have it, I won one of them.  And for about five minutes, I contemplated (1) turning it down; or (2) keeping it quiet so as to avoid altogether my whole tangled up relationship with poetry and family as audience.  Neither option was actually available to me.  Within five minutes of getting the news, I had told a colleague about it.  Within five minutes of her learning about it, the news had spread in multiple directions, and my school’s marketing team was primed to spread it further afield.  Try as I might, I can’t selectively choose who reads about me in the newspaper.

All of that is just to say (1) I have a book of poetry coming out in the spring; (2) publication of all sorts, digital and otherwise, makes for strange intersections of audience that anyone who wants to write has to figure out how to navigate; and (3) please don’t ask if my poems are about me.