Authentic ugliness

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

Mar 10, 2012

1. Young artists are supposed to find their voice. One of the nicest things you might hear, as a young artist, is that you seem to have found your voice. Or your voice is quite clear. Or, even better: your voice, among all the voices in your workshop, nee, the world, is unique. Let's say you are one of those lucky young artists who have a distinct voice. If you are even luckier, that voice goes hand in hand with your subject. Because, of course, you already have a subject! You are an adult, you have interests, your craft as a writer doesn't define you. So, maybe you need a subject. Go get one! (But let's assume you have a subject½) 2. In a student's final year of course-work at the University of Houston, that student takes a thesis manuscript workshop. I'm in one now. There seem to be three main benefits to the class: preparing a manuscript for book contests, a manuscript my program can use to assess whether I deserve a degree, a manuscript that offers both myself and my readers the opportunity to define my spirit/soul/subject/whatever you want to call it that makes me unique. Maybe what's unique is that voice that's been developing even since I was first told I had one. Only there's this one problem: people thought, after reading the culmination of my conscious and sub-conscious efforts to be a real writer--to write a book, no less--that I could be just kind of a dick. Not always in an interesting way; that would have been okay. To be a really interesting asshole is the fate of some of our best writers. In my worst poems, it turns out, I was just kind of uninterestingly off-putting. 3. For sheer self-improvement, I can't think of a more useful workshop than the manuscript workshop. There's something so fundamental I had to reckon with, as an artist, by being forced to say: here is the work that defines me. I tend to be fairly positive in the workshop setting. I look at a poem and want to figure out what is working and how the poem can improve. But when I presented my manuscript to my classmates, I wanted to know whether it held up on its own. Even if they didn't know me at all, would they want to read it? 4. Which leads me to the problem of authentic ugliness in poetry. I call it the Frederick Seidel problem. Lots of super-intelligent poets love Seidel's work, and to an extent I get it: He's funny, he's smart and he seems enviably relevant. When Seidel nails it, as in his poem, "Downtown," he really nails it. In general, though, Seidel doesn't really interest me. I tend to agree with Ange Mlinko's criticism of Seidel in The Nation a few years ago, "With Mercy for the Greedy," in which she writes, "½the repetitiveness of Seidel's autopilot rhythms is so grating: Seidel achieves a kind of mesmerism, but there's no range." Seidel's music seems intentional--if rhythm composes emotionally, then Seidel's voice is perfectly fitted to his subject--ugliness abounds. This is another mark of Seidel's authenticity. We tend to expect some kind of authenticity in poetry. At the very least we expect some kind of truth, even if not a too-literal truth, or reportage. But for me it's important that Keats writes "beauty is truth" before he writes that "truth [is] beauty." 5. When I read the entirety of the first draft of my manuscript, I realized that my poems had far more unlikable or at least conflicted narrators and characters than I would have guessed. Sometimes the speaker would say things that I as a poet disagree with. Ironically, the ugly personalities in some of these poems contrasted sharply with their music. My work often expresses my interest in orchestral movement; occasionally I found one of my unlikable selves enmeshed in a lush soundscape. Because the irony between the music and the subject hadn't always been intentionally realized, but instead was just kind of there, the poem could come off as in-authentically ugly. Or the ugliness was muddled. Then for revisions I was often faced with the choice of pursuing un-likability and whatever my point was, or trying to figure out if I had missed what the poem was really after. I was reminded time and again of how delicate a mechanism tone can be. Sometimes we think we've found our voice, or our subject, but we are constantly evolving. There is often a disconnect between who we are and what our voices say about us. People who know me read my manuscript and told me that they understood that some of my speakers were conflicted or unlikable, but they knew that had nothing to do with me, the poet. I hope they were right. These were some of the more beautiful poems.