the instability of audience

This bit about Langston Hughes recuperating from illness and under bad financial pressure in Carmel made me laugh on many levels:

Perhaps the best poem is “Big Sur,” the most modest in size: “Great lonely hills,/ Great mountains, / Mighty touchstones of song.” He appears to have gauged his audience in Carmel — genteel, overwhelmingly white, synthetically rustic — and, like a threadbare professional wooing a monied clientele, elastically adjusted his standards. Perhaps the best that might be said about such work is that it reflects the peculiar pressures facing him as a democratic black poet seeking, paradoxically, the widest audience. In dividing his poems into groups and sending them in various directions, he showed himself aware of the instability of his audience. Rather than lapse into silence, Hughes had committed himself to adapting his voice so that its message might be heard everywhere.

– I like “mighty touchstones of song” but it also makes me snicker.

– “synthetically rustic” is so exactly right! That describes about 75% of the white upper class poets I know (including myself). I remember being about 19 and waking up to the fact that most of my daily experience did not involve “Nature” and that I had to wrench my mind out of looking around me with a poet’s eye that was narrowed to a tunnel vision which made most of the world fall off the map. I see other poets overcorrect this by writing about cigarette butts in the gutter on purpose for a good long while before they figure out how to mix it up and control their own gaze.

– power dynamics, money, Hughes’ intense idealism and social consciousness in tension with needing to make a living. The bio’s author has a point here. And yet, there he was, a poet, sick as can be, depressed from sulfa drugs, hanging out for months in Big Sur. Duh he’s going to write some mild and quiet nature poetry. It seems a little unfair to expect anything else out of him – maybe a few poems about gonorrhea and mortality.

– Dividing your “self” as a writer and having different writerly personalities in different circumstances or for different audiences. The bio is trying to get out of the binary trap of either defending Hughes or hissing, “Sellout!” I like the phrasing of this sentence and the idea that it’s not about markets, it’s about audience instability. If you write one kind of book, for a definite demographic and you know who you’re writing for, or to. If you write a lot of different things — not as stabs in the dark to see what catches on and makes you a living, but because that’s how you think and what you want to do — then your identity as a writer depends on reflections from so many different sources, an unstable mirror, a fluid mirror. Rampersand is correct in describing this as a problem that in many cases functions to silence authors like Hughes, “Rather than lapse into silence….” In other words, not hitting a stable, large audience is not failure, and yet think of the pressure on Hughes to focus or shut up.

I’m thinking of last year when, after the BlogHer conference, I split up my blogging into different areas. That has allowed me to push my thoughts further and reach different people. I thought of it as an attempt to impose structure and discipline and be aware of who I was writing to/for. That has only partially worked and I keep mixing things up. I got my computers in my poetry blog and my restaurant reviews in my mommyblog, and then the core “Me” blog which feels like the most unstable and uncertain, and which I don’t want to treat as a dumping ground for everything else. Possibly I took the wrong approach, and should instead have been doing better tagging and categorizing on my main blog?

People complain to me they can’t keep up with what I’m writing. I’m hugely flattered that anyone would care to try. The problem for me is that I can’t keep up with it myself. Instead of feeling organized, I sometimes feel over-fragmented. And yet I found that separating out into different blogs made me *write different stuff*, and I’m cool with that – it was interesting to explore. Did it make my writing better or worse? I don’t know! (And I don’t mean “sloppier or more or less conventionally literary – I think I mean “interesting as a blog”.)

Perhaps I should have kept everything together. But then it crosses my mind, “No, what I *should* do is separate the computers from the poetry so that poets don’t have to read about Bloggercon…” Then I dismiss that thought! No way! The whole point is to mix up some ideas and get other people a little bit jolted out of their boxes. That is where I really identify with Hughes, a very cool border-crosser and introducer. It’s beautiful how he had his feet in different worlds and didn’t make himself choose one place to speak from.

Accusations of selling out, inauthenticity, not working hard enough, imperfection, incomplete vision, Hughes faced all that and found it very hard. It’s not like I don’t have criticisms of his translations of Mistral or his positioning of her, but I would never ignore the wonderfully hard work and Hughes’ intent of introducing a great Latin American poet to English speakers. When his critics called him lazy and said he should have tried harder on the translations, or gotten help, or left out Mistral’s most important poems, and that he didn’t know enough about her work or Latin American poetry in general or translation in general and so should not have attempted the project, he responded by saying that his effort was meant to get other people interested – and that more and better and more comprehensive translations of Mistral were his goal! In other words, you have to start somewhere. “So fine a poet as she was deserves many translations.”

It’s inherently fucking evil to insist that before you are permitted to speak, you have to know everything and be an expert. It assumes that it’s possible to know everything about a subject, claiming objectivity for a privileged few, and it silences the majority of the human race.

2 thoughts on “the instability of audience

  1. One of the interesting things about doing tech writing is that I am totally stymied trying to start a document until I get a definition of the audience — how technical they are, where they are getting the document from, what they want out of it.

    I’m thinking about this especially now, how does one write for the audience that…. publishes poetry, or the unknown blog audience (as opposed to the mostly-knowable lj audience).

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