Risky Biz

I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?

So little subject matter is risky these days – we’ve encountered poems by now about just about every potentially taboo subject. So what is risk?

A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway? … I just want to feel inspired by the guts and honesty and curiosity of the speaker, real or implied, to get out there and do the same. It’s something I have to say to myself over and over when I’m trying to write a poem, ‘Who are you shitting? Get real for a minute here. What’s the point? No, seriously, the real point, under all this tapdancing…Be honest!’”

I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual. Now, how to translate this for my own self and my own poems is the trick.

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3 thoughts on “Risky Biz

  1. It was always your concern, the concern whatever.
    You didn’t just start asking this question. But I think you can’t scold yourself into the answer and I think the answer is different everyday anyway and different for each poem.
    I like the idea of a mind in motion, but a mind at rest might be ther real risk.
    I just don’t think “get real” is the right stance.

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  2. Hmmm, hmmmm. Risk is different for different poets, isn’t it?

    So right now I’m thinking of Dorianne Laux’s poem “The Landromat.” Here are the last six lines.

    Back in the laundromat my socks are sticking to my
    sheets. Caught in the crackle of static electricity,
    I fold my underwear. I notice the honey-colored
    stains in each silk crotch. Odd-shaped, like dreams,
    I make my panties into neat little squares and drop them,
    smiling, into the wicker basket.

    Okay, for her, are the “honey-colored / stains in each silk crotch” risky? Would they be for another poet? Maybe.

    As far as emotional risk goes, I’ll bring up the tried-and-true “risk sentimentality” standard. It is so easy to cross the line from sentiment to sentimentality. You have to walk right up to the edge and look over. Otherwise, the poem doesn’t get the “lift” of great poems.

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  3. So little subject matter feels really risky any more, although certainly it may feel so to the writer. But readers are a hardened lot now, I think, and risky subject matter is no longer interesting in its own right. I see a lot these days of risk-taking in terms of trying to skate the edge of meaning/meaninglessness and order/chaos. I feel generally irritable about this, as it seems like too much tumbles over to meaninglessness and chaos, and yet is published anyway as something interesting. But I know I have a lot to learn in order to appreciate it. Still, I have a lurking emperor’s-new-clothes feeling about much of it. Risking sentimentality is more interesting to me in general. But I’m also pretty crankily ruthless in my perceptions of what poems slide into bathos…

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