The Anxiety of Audience

[Note: This talk was originally given at the Academy of American Poets 2012 Poets Forum on Friday, October 19, 2:00 p.m. at The New School’s Theresa Lang Center at 55 West 13th Street, New York, NY. The title of the panel was 'The Anxiety of Audience: Who We Write For, Real & Imagined'. The other participants were Mark Bibbins and Brenda Shaughnessy.]

The title of our panel, ‘The Anxiety of Audience,’ is obviously flirting with that other ‘anxiety’ title with which we are all quite familiar: Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. The slippage from Bloom’s title to the panel title is actually quite fitting since one of the anxieties relative to ‘audience’ is that we will be overly influenced by both our longing for its approval, and our fear of its imagined disdain.

One might think you could avoid the anxiety of audience by simply deciding to write for oneself. While it’s theoretically easy to say, ‘I only write for myself,’ when I say that, I immediately think of Dickinson’s comment in a letter to her life-long correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson: ‘When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.’

Of course Dickinson was talking about the speaker of the poem, but I would say the same thing about my reader, or audience. I write for myself, however, ‘when I state myself [as the audience for the poem] it does not mean me, but a supposed person.’ We could call that supposed person my avatar.

Avatar, as you may or may not know (I admit I had to look it up), has four possible meanings:

1. In Hindu Mythology: a deity descended to earth in an incarnate form.

2. The personification of a principle, attitude, or view of life.

3. In Digital Technology: a graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet.

4. In science fiction: a hybrid creature, composed of human and alien DNA and remotely controlled by the mind of a genetically matched human being.

It’s this fourth meaning that comes closest to describing the audience I write for. I like thinking that my audience is a science fiction avatar and that it, or she, and I are so similar that we actually share DNA, but at the same time she’s part alien—-which means she can’t know everything I know. And, fortunately for me, she can’t go off on her own and start writing her own poems because she’s remotely controlled by the mind of a genetically matched human being, in other words, by me.

We’re similar in that we’ve both read all of the same poems written by other people, dead and alive; we’ve read the same books, the same newspapers, the same New Yorker magazines, we agree about which cartoons are funny, and which, not so much. We agree, as readers, on what we admire, and what fails to earn our admiration.

She’s also read all of my poems and she’s very good at pointing out, after the fact, every bad line break, and every misplaced comma. Sometimes I tell her that I’ll change all that if I ever have a selected poems and she says, ‘Don’t be a fool, no one else sees these things. And no one else cares. And besides, you were made to live in torment.’

So how does it work when I go to write? Since my avatar has read all the poems I’ve written, I can’t write the same poem or she’ll be bored. She’s also read countless excellent poems by others and she rather cruelly holds me to those high standards. She says things like, ‘What are you doing. Eliot already did that.’ Or, ‘Haven’t you read Marvell?’ Sometimes, even before the line is typed, she’ll give a fake yawn and say, ‘Dude, that is so boring.’ That’s the alien in her. I would never call myself ‘Dude.’

I almost always listen to her, although I often tell her to wait. ‘Just let me get this down,’ I tell her, ‘and then I can change it.’ I keep telling her I have to write badly so as to better it. And that sometimes works. She’ll wait, tapping her nails on the edge of the desk while she sings the theme song to Mister Ed:

People yakkity yak a streak and waste your time of day
But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.
You never heard of a talking horse?

Well, listen to this. I am Mister Ed.

Sometimes I wish I could write for real people because some of them have been kind to my work. Not all real people. I don’t expect everyone to appreciate my work. But humans, for the most part, have been much kinder to my work than my avatar has been.

Does she ever fail me? Of course she does. One of the problems is that she knows too much about what I want to do. So, as critical as she is, I sometimes worry that she’s not critical enough. Because of that, when I’ve made my peace with what she has to say about the poem, I open up a set of dummy cases and take out the dummies and arrange them around a table, workshop-style, and assign each a position: one has the job of being the neo-formalist who asks why I’ve abandoned the rhyme scheme after three lines and why aren’t I using regular stanzas; another, a strict symbolist, wants to know what that image is supposed to represent. The post-avant says, ‘Really? Stanzas? Again?’ And so it goes around the table. At some point, when I’ve heard all the possible arguments against what I wanted to do, I put the dummies back in their cases and consider what they’ve all said and try to decide whether I want to make any changes.

This kind of process, anticipating arguments against various aspects of the poem, allows me to sometimes better what I have. Sometimes it helps me to take more risks. Sometimes it reveals the risks I thought I was taking were just pure Jerry Lewis silliness. This helps me grow and change. By the time I’ve finished, I’ve had to defend my choices, if only by saying it has to be that way because it makes me happy to have it. As I tell my students, we get very little for all the effort of writing our poems. We should at least be able to keep those things that made us happy when we put them in the poem.

The key is to not let any of these voices stop me, but to listen to each so that when one does makes good sense, I rethink what’s best for the poem. My avatar often reminds me that we already have enough poems in the world to last until the end of time. ‘And what are you going to write?’ she asks. If I have an idea and I tell her she might say, ‘You did that yesterday’ or, ‘No, Brenda Shaughnessy already wrote the best poem ever about “your one good dress.” Remember, there was that incredible line in it, “Your body is opium and you are its only true smoker”? You can’t better that.’ Or, she’ll remind me, ‘Mark Bibbins already wrote the best single line in an elegy, “We’ve left our doors unlocked in case his longing exceeds us.” ‘ What my avatar does, in cooperation with that group of dummies about the workshop table, is she makes me keep trying to find that thing that will be mine and mine alone. That thing that as a writer I will be happy to have put in a poem. And when I finally do get to something that seems to have promise, she’ll say, ‘Good luck with that.’ And I can hear that in one of two ways, as evidence of her ever-doubting alien DNA: as in, ‘Yeah, right, good luck with that’ or, as encouragement, as in, ‘Good luck. It’s hard, what you do, but keep trying.’