The Mark Blog

Why Poets Aren't Just Artists on Paper by Mehnaz Turner

Bukoski, Dickenson, Whitman


Harold Terezon and I are the two participants of the Mark Program in poetry this year, and I'm totally stoked! I feel like I'm being offered an opportunity to get serious about my creative work, and I don't have to give up my day job to do so. I hope to conveniently fit in the demands of the fellowship with my weekly routine as a high school English teacher.

Now as the program is headed underway, I feel grateful for having a structured editing schedule ahead of me, one that includes workshops and critical reading. The fact is, this rigorous five-month program is designed to kick my butt and get me working toward revision and excellence. It is daunting, exciting, and terrifying. And it’s just what I need.

The first challenge, however, came last Friday when I had my "Defense," a formal one hour session where I had to dodge questions about my poems, my manuscript, and my writing style.

Let’s face facts: the word defense is not a pretty word. It conjures up messy courtroom dramas and schoolyard bullying. So I have to admit that when I thought about having to sit before a panel of four accomplished writers to field questions on craft, I wasn’t exactly bouncing through the door. In fact, I arrived Friday afternoon at the PEN office with these thoughts weighing on my mind: why should any free poet have to defend her work to others? Were Dickinson, Bukowski, or Whitman ever subject to such a defense? Did a poet also have to be a scholar of her own process?

The whole concept of a formal defense seemed to be counter-intuitive to the poetic spirit. And as a free-verse poet, I felt uneasy about launching into a critical discussion of my line breaks, or busting out metacognitive observations concerning the themes of my manuscript. I wanted to leave such musings to the critics.

A defense....really? Wouldn’t Bukowski be dropping F-bombs all the way through?
Wouldn’t Ginsberg be howling until his face turned blue?

As a poet, I see my job as bearing witness to existence, seeking inspiration, and inking out a few authentic lines from time to time–maybe having a sip of wine between stanzas. But the conversation on Friday challenged my perspective on my more romantic notions of what it means to be a poet. As Gabriella Calvocoressi, Libby Flores, Anna Journey, and Michelle Meyering posed their varied and well-meaning challenges to my work, and as I fumbled out my half-formed responses, I sensed a shift taking place inside of me.

I hadn’t expected I might enjoy this conversation. I hadn’t expected the defense might be a story of sorts...a rap session...a chance to jive. There was something poetic about talking poetry, I realized. Something kind of refreshing about it. During this sixty-minute conversation, I was asked to read a couple of my poems aloud, discuss the visual layout of a few of my pieces, and defend my definition of humor. And during this exchange, it occurred to me that there’s something radical, even sexy, about being able to defend one’s work articulately, passionately, and creatively.

The fact is, we live in a time period where writers have websites, get interviewed, and go on book tours. The digital age has impacted the role and identity of the contemporary writer. For better or worse, these days we are not only expected to be artists but also mentors of the craft—communicating what we know about writing and what we’ve discovered about the process. Is this such a bad thing?

The truth is...

I have a personal blog where I routinely post my thoughts on poetry.
I listen to poetry podcasts hoping to get inspired by poets reflecting on their work.
I want the writers I admire to be able to clearly communicate their thoughts on the writing life.

How is a defense much different? I believe that in order to be a great artist, one need not be someone who can cogently defend their work to others. This isn’t mandatory. However, being an artist who is able to generously discuss one’s work is a good thing. It’s both a practical and poetic asset in today’s world. And in order to refine the is not only helpful, but artful, to think about the process.

So the truth is, the act of participating in a formal "defense" of my work has inspired me to defend the defense. Talking craft can be daunting, but it need not be viewed as counterintuitive to the poetic life. In fact, I’m starting to see it as an organic extension of the work we do on paper.