Who are YOU Talking to? Audience and Poetry

Earlier this year, I attended the MLA conference when it was in Philly. As expected, it is massive, but it is broken up into many different sessions. Each session consisted of a handful of presenters presenting their papers and work on a related topic to a room of interested audience members. Some of these groups were large, but most of the ones I attended were rather small, with between 10-20 people. As this was my first time at MLA, and as this was my first conference ever, this went against my expectations of large rooms with people crowded into them. Because of the size of the sessions, and because of the fact that only those interested in the particular topic were in attendance, the audiences were rather friendly, often talking to the presenters, asking questions, exchanging info and setting up future times to meet for drinks.

In the week or so that followed the conference, I attended a poetry reading at Fergie’s, and the similarties between the reading and the individual sessions at the conference were striking. Here was a relatively small crowd of people, mostly poets themselves, coming to hear another poet’s work. They were accomodating, friendly, and interested. Just like the sessions of the conference, there was an intimacy to it, the feeling that the people there were in a sea of other subjects, bound together by their common interest, and their desire to share drinks.

But this is not how we view the poetry the past, a form of expression for a creative niche in society. We often see writers such as Keats, Frost, and Plath writing to us about universal things, putting poems out there in an abstract way and not targeting individual people or groups, exploring the Human Experience. I know this is not true – even Frost’s famous poem (I know, I know…) “The Road Less Taken” was written in direct  response to another work,  a fact that changes the meaning of the poem and is often overlooked by our contemporary analysis and reading of it. However, this view of poetry just being put ‘out there’ has to have had an impact on how we collectively approach writing.

This set of experiences has set in motion for me a desire to explore how we as poets consider our audience. When we write, How do we picture them? Do we see our audience to be everyone? Do we see them as those people in that room, the interested few? For those of us with purchaseable products (i.e. books), in our writing do we cater to those who would buy it? Or do we not consider it at all – do we just write?

The more I think about this, the more important I feel audience is, especially since there is always an implied audience whenever we write. It calls into question the role we see poetry or art as having in our world. The wider we consider our audience to be, the more impact our work can potentially make. But does the widening of our audience limit us creatively? It seems it would, just as it would the musician attempting to sell a million copies. And does the purpose of our work overshadow its creativity?

I can only speak for myself, but I personally think little about audience during the actual writing. I often write about topics that interest or speak to me,  but it isn’t until I am faced with the ‘business’ of sending work to be published or preparing for a reading that I consider the response that my words would create. This is when a fair amount of editing occurs. I add things such as repetition and remove things that don’t sound as good as they look. I have even changed poems completely after reading them once at an event. I guess that means, though, that the primary audience of my work that I see in my head is pretty small, the ‘poetry crowd.’ I don’t think that I am alone  when I say that I wish I had a  wider audience, but searching for that wider audience while balancing creativity with appeal seems to be a challenge.

As someone who spends a lot of time discussing rhetoric, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that audience often goes hand-in-hand with purpose. If your goal in writing something is self-exploratory, your audience is going to be relatively small. If your purpose is to raise awareness about mental illness through your work, your audience will appropriately be comprised of people interested in and struggling with mental illness, but it may also consist of people who ‘don’t know what they don’t know,’ and you are trying to inform them of the struggles that people with mental illnesses face. In this second case in particular, it seems that how effectively you achieve your purpose relies somewhat on how much you consider who you are writing to.

I guess I have two core unanswered questions:

  1. How do you perceive the audience of your work?
  2. Collectively, as poets, do you feel there is a way we should or should not be viewing our audience?


I would love to know what you think about this. Thanks for reading!

Readings this week

So this week I went to two great readings:

On Sunday 7/23 I was one of the featured readers at the Pen and Pencil Club, along with Stu O’Connor and Brooke Palma. Thanks to everyone who came out. I should have a video of that reading soon.

on 7/24 I went to Venice Island in Manayunk to see Nathalie Anderson and M. Nzadi Keita. What a great reading! Loved hearing their work, and a great open mic followed.

Decorating Apartments: Autonomy, Aesthetics, and Art

This is the post excerpt.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Pablo Picasso:

“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

In this quote, Picasso implies that the artist is inextricably bound to their context, that they are shaped by the events in their world, and as a result their work is a response to it. The fact that he calls the artist a ‘political being’ seems to suggest that he feels it is the artist’s responsiblity to consciously address the events around them, thus becoming more of a particpant and less of a mere observer. This quote has had a huge impact on how I view art, and my poetry has certainly been informed by Picasso’s sentiment.

While his quote has been very influential to me, I acknowledge that there seems to be a narrowness to the quote, largely because he attempts to define art itself, not just the role the artist plays. Is art only an ‘instrument of war?’ This is a tough question for me because I know the answer that I want to give. However, it taps into a larger discussion about the autonomy of art. For the purposes of this posting, I’m gonna talk about art in general and use some examples from visual art, though the implications of autonomy affect all forms of expression, including my chosen form, poetry.

Simply put, autonomy refers to the ability of art to stand on its own. According to Oxfordscholarshiponline,  “aesthetic autonomy refers to the idea that art (literature, music, visual art) belongs to a realm of its own, separate from ordinary activities and everyday concerns.” The intepretation of these ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ concerns varies, but it seems that there is debate as to whether art should address social concerns. Can art merely be aesthetic and non-political, removed from context? Can art be produced with the sole purpose of decorating apartments?

There is little doubt that art CAN be these things. There has been a long history of artistic movements that prove this; from the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th Century to the guy spray painting space-scapes at your local flea market, ‘art for art’s sake’ has long had a place in our society. Art in these categories requires skill, knowledge of material, and creativity. It also makes art a more populist endeavor. Even if you don’t have an avant garde, ground-breaking idea, even if you are not trying to make a political statement, you can still create something emotionally meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. Bob Ross made a career of this, empowering people to create and teaching them to paint while creating pretty and realistic naturescapes. In this view of art, it is divorced from concept and relies heavily on the practice and skill of the artist. It suggests that art is therefore judged by these skills, and good art is that which is aesthetically pleasing.

The question, though, is whether or not art SHOULD be these things. Picasso clearly thought not. He didn’t think that art for decoration or ‘art’s sake’ was legitimate. In his mind, it seems good art was art that pushed boundaries. It responded to society, either by addressing social issues or by challenging the definition of art itself. What made art good was its ability to break from convention and explore society and art in surprising and innovative ways.

I liken it to paradigm theory in science, developed by Thomas Kuhn and others. According to paradign theory, a new idea is offered to explain a phenomenon that couldn’t be explained by science previously. After the new idea has been offered, scientists test that idea and continue to test it through what is called ‘normal science’ until someone discovers a test that it can’t pass. Once that test has been discovered, scientists attempt to find a new idea, a new paradigm, that passes the test, and the cycle goes on. This theory has been applied to everything from business to government, and even art. The avant garde artist or writer is proposing a new idea about art, but by the time that idea has been accepted into mainstream culture, it has become ‘normal’ and ceases to be good art because it is imitating what has come before. In this vision, only the artists on the cutting edge are producing good art. Only the artists outside of the mainstream (aesthetic or political) are producing anything worth looking at.

There seems to be a strong desire for us to value the innovative artist who marries art with concept and social awareness. However, I don’t know if that is all art is or should be.  Every year I give my students an assignment in which they have to interview people and ask them what their favorite poem is and why. The vast majority of the people interviewed select poems that are or were not ground-breaking, but rather poems that held meaning for these individuals. Who am I to discredit that? Who am I to say that their emotional responses to these poems are invalid because the poems are not cutting edge?

Further, can we even have ‘cutting edge’ art without ‘normal’ art? Is it not the normal art that makes the cutting edge stand out more?

In the end, to me, it seems that limiting art and poetry to Picasso’s definition also limits who participates in experiencing and producing art. As someone who feels everyone should be encouraged to embrace their own creativity and expression, this idea does not sit as well with me as it used to. While I certainly accept Picasso’s model as valid and influential to me, I certainly don’t feel it is the only show in town.

Can art ever be truly autonomous, removed from context? Personally, I’m not so sure that it can. Even Bob Ross, in his own way, was challenging the idea that art is reserved for the elite few with specialized talents. The poet who comes to a poetry open mic and reads a poem, however personal or sentimental, is still challenging the idea that only highly skilled and popular writers should write. Seeing these as aesthetically autonomous seems to negate the statement that these acts unto themselves represent. After all, not all wars are fought on battlefields.

What role do you feel autonomy plays in art or poetry? Let me know your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!