Remembering the Importance of Badassery

It’s funny how kicks from the past can arrive at the right moment. Lynn Melnick has written an excellent, close read of Diane Wakoski’s work in the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a former student of Diane’s, much of Melnick’s essay resonates with my experience of Diane, her poetry, and her “enduring badassery.” No one could make me think twice about a “lazy image” like she could.

The essay has shown up at a time when I’m noticing that my poetry has gone surfacey, lost touch with its raw parts, started to shy from honesty. (Curiously, this has overlapped with a severe sore throat, something that tends to happen when I’m squelching my voice. The body has a way of telling the truth, even if I won’t.)

So I especially appreciate the reminder about Diane’s use of personal mythology:

“Her assertion is that poets are never writing autobiography in the strict sense…but are creating a myth of self in which to tell their most personal stories.”

I’ve been thinking about exposure and sharing lately. About how the speaker shows up in writing… mostly how that damn word “I” has become a vacuum of attention in my poems. (Who is the “I” anyway? Why is she standing in the doorway, just in front of the guts of the poem?) I’ve been attempting to write “I” out of my poetry entirely, until it feels like it’s earning its keep.

I’ve also been struggling with how our online lives are not really our art, although they are full of expression. There are days when Twitter feels like a bad networking event of people vying to leave an impression. So many “think pieces” and blog posts that are less about making something new and more about people making an artifact of themselves. I don’t say this to attempt to be judge and jury… rather, I think it makes the concept of personal mythology — and how Diane applies it — all the more pertinent today.

With personal mythology, there’s still truth in the mix. There’s still a raw voice; the presence of a speaker, an orchestration of characters. It’s an artful construction that works like story, rather than merely aiming to leave an impression or persuade the reader (like so much of our online narratives). In my view, truth-telling is not about persuasion… and maybe that’s the distinction I’m hunting for in all of this. Honest art is voice laid bare, without apology.

Despite what myth-making entails, I don’t find an artificial “I” in the doorway, especially in Diane’s approach. The truth might be dressed as George Washington, the motorcycle betrayer, or an imagined twin… but the “I” itself is not a managed impression that keeps us from seeing the characters/mythology directly.

To make this more plain: I wrote line after line about family (and still do). The “I” was (and still is) standing in the way of those poems like a nervous gatekeeper. It says: “You can see this story, but please put these sunglasses on first, and listen as I explain what you’re about to witness.”

Then I learned about Diane’s use of George Washington as a stand-in for a father. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed that I had never attempted anything like this in my work. That same day, a poem fell out of me that was a truth I’d been rumbling over for a few years. There was no “I” in the poem. There was a trope, a mythology, and truth that I could feel — my ears grew hot when the words began to show up. It was my first taste of a badass poem.

As I try to write my way to the next one, I’m grateful to be reminded of Diane’s mythology and her exacting sense of what poetry can and should do. And I’m grateful to Lynn Melnick for her suggestion that Diane should be on more poetry reading lists… I know I’ll be revisiting her poems with fresh eyes over the coming days.