The Protagonist: “Incensed” Featuring Poet David Lehman

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons

We often hear creative writers praise each other in and outside their own genres. They frequently shy away from direct, unforgiving critique, even refusing to publicly review any work they don’t admire. Leave that to career critics, they say. They’d rather politely commend other writers’ ingenuity, their…experimentation.

Some might say: rightly so — the last thing we need is for writers to feel more like outsiders. Furthermore, who wants to spit in the face of creativity, whatever its bent?

Here at The Protagonist, though, I’ve often wondered what raises writers’ ire, what gets them truly incensed. We know what they find repugnant in society, but what do writers abhor in each other? More importantly, how can we drag this out of them in a public forum — make their views known, not just murmured enigmatically into a bar top at 4 a.m? How do we delineate between visceral emotion and performance?

Why all the literary amiability?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several established writers I queried told me they “couldn’t think of anything,” “would get back to me later” or just plain didn’t respond. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt — they’re probably too busy being literarily productive to sit around literarily complaining.

Furthermore, who will promote your work — your latest chapbook of hodgepodge flarf, say, that keeps you up nights (but is it too weird?) – if you drag your vulnerable peers through the mud?

Bold, renowned New York poet David Lehman was open to sharing what gets his blood boiling, though, and it turns out it has nothing to do with literature itself.

“As one who gives poetry readings, attends them, organizes and moderates them, I have some pet peeves,” said Lehman. “It irks me when the poet is unprepared, talks too much, reads too long, begs the audience for approval, and puts himself or herself down.”

(Surely these “quirks” extend beyond the poets as well.)

Sometimes, the undervaluing is not immediately clear, but absorbed in a writer’s anxious tics, a general lack of self-awareness: “Even the commonplace formula, ‘Only three more poems,’ makes me cringe a little inside because it is as if the poet is pleading with the audience,” explained Lehman. “Why apologize?”

For this poet, it comes down to mutual respect, and a modicum of confidence. “It is true that the culture in general tends to belittle the poet as a figure of madness or eccentricity, impractical in some cases, righteously indignant in others,” he explained. “But the audience at a reading is there for a reason and you should honor the audience with your own best.”

He added, briefly: “It cannot hurt to rehearse.” (Collective, knowing cringe.)

The take-away? Writers, release your madness!

Submit your literary tips to The Protagonist: alissa.fleck@gmail.com

-Alissa Fleck 

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