I spent an afternoon with a bunch of poets. Two of the people there are some of my favorite poet-people in the world, and the third one is on the fast track to becoming another. All the poets were women, and so everyone was a bit overpolite, hesitant to start eating, etc. But when I cracked an Indy-like joke (remember, in real life, I balance the Indy with the [real name redacted]), the older awkward woman said, “I like you.”
I was the youngest there by maybe five (?) years. Very few of you have met me in person, but I looked twelve throughout my twenties, and now I look about 22. (This is a lie. I think I look older, but I do dress pretty casually, and someone made a joke about kids in their twenties, and two of the poets I didn’t know well looked at me. I’m turning 39 in a month.)
The truth is that I am awkward, but try to be endearing, and people construe that as young. We went around the table and read our poems and talked a tiny bit about the context of the poem or where we were when we wrote them. When it was my turn, I confessed that I had been on a two-year poetry hiatus while I worked on “a prose project” (see how [my real name redacted] says “prose project” rather than “The Fucker”?). “I felt as if my poetry and my prose covered the same ground.” But I told them I had recently started writing poetry again.
And I read my poem about exoplanets and Venus and the intensity of the solar winds, which ripped away Venus’ atmosphere and ocean, and explains why Venus is a dry wasteland and Earth is a thriving (more or less) ecosystem. “Please read more slowly” they said. And I did. One poet said that my language was “stunning” and made her want to understand the concept I was talking about. (This is the woman on the fast track.) I told her she made my day.
Then I explained a little bit about how I was inspired to write the poem by a paper I worked on that discussed how to determine the habitable zone of planets. Basically, a planet near a sun the size of ours needs to be slightly farther away from the sun than Venus and slightly closer to the sun than Mars. This is the habitable zone.
“That’s not right,” one woman said. And I stopped to think because sometimes I misspeak and say something stupid. “It goes Mars, Venus, Mercury…” she paused. “That’s not right, never mind. I never said anything.” I had forgotten how people don’t know anything about science, because I am so used to being the one who didn’t know anything.
Some people gave me advice I neither wanted nor needed (again because I think they thought I was young), but I smiled and said thanks. They were processing the poem, weighing what they needed to understand and what they didn’t. We talked a bit about how much to explain and whether we should trust the readers or not. (Consensus was yes.) We talked about poetry of ideas, and how some people hated it and thought poetry should be word splatter (my words, they’d probably say word dancing) on the page. I remembered that this is why I started writing prose. I needed to explain my work and to go into the kind of depth that kills a poem.
Always I (and I think many writers) struggle with a critique and respond to the reader by saying “you don’t understand.” It’s easy to reject a critique that way. But I think that is too easy. I have done the research to understand my poem. Others have not. I think I have captured exactly what I meant to say. But have I left out those who need the context? This question is as old as my writing.
How do people perceive you? How do they perceive your work?