Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Post in which the Poet Admits to Being a Fragment
36º ~ sun that bodes well for spring
No matter how much I try to slow down, take deep breaths, and really notice the world around me, I seem to remain fragmented, bits of my mind mulling over the home improvements in the works, other bits making sure nothing has slipped through the teaching cracks this morning, a few more bits of gray matter worrying about some family members whose problems I wish I could solve with a magic wand, a scolding bit that chastises me for not writing a poem last week and for not focusing more intently this morning on my poetry world, and bits and bits and bits...
This is week eight of our 16-week semester, and while I have done a much better job of saying "no" and not over-extending myself this spring, I'm still feeling quite rough around the edges.
I haven't submitted any poems to journals since January. I have a stack of printouts of calls for submissions waiting for me. I even have new poems to send. What is the delay? You can't win if you don't play!
Last night, I attended a presentation on The Oxford Project, which is a photo-journalism piece based on the residents of Oxford, Iowa, a tiny, tiny town just west of Iowa City. In 1974, photographer Peter Feldstein set out to photograph as many of the residents of his own town, Oxford, and the surrounding rural township as he could. At the time, he took one single shot of each resident who volunteered and displayed the results in town. Twenty years later, he returned to the project and ended up re-shooting anyone who was still around and willing to participate. He also brought in journalist Stephen G. Bloom to interview the residents and write about their life stories. This eventually turned into a book.
Let me begin by saying, the photographs are amazing records of the changes people go through in a span of two decades. During the presentation, Feldstein and Bloom showed about a dozen of the paired photos with text and talked not only about their process, but also about the people themselves. And this is where I began to have some trouble. Bloom interviewed each subject and then boiled their lives down to the "killer quotes" from the interview, often focusing on the sensational moments in their lives. There was a sense of amazement on his part that folks from such a small town had experienced such "interesting" lives or had such "rural wisdom" to share.
As the evening wore on I began to worry that the audience was not chuckling and laughing with the people of Oxford, IA, but at them. The people in the photos who told their stories to the world were largely working-class men and women, and there seemed to be a sense of them being "Other" as they were portrayed by the text. These are the people from whom I come, my roots, my heritage, and I felt a bit like we were being studied as some "primitive" group. Now, let me say that some of this reaction could arrive from years of having to defend a rural and agrarian way of life in the face of educated urbanites. Yet, I do believe there was a class issue at play. Here were the learned scholars from the University creating art and commentary from the raw material of the joys and heartbreaks of the manual laborers, the hunters & fishers, the house cleaners and veterans.
All of this brought me to the question of artistic responsibility. I do not believe that the purpose of this project should have been to revere its subjects, and I do believe that Feldstein and Bloom genuinely care about these people, but I also wonder how the text in particular might have been different if written by someone from within the group, someone who had grown up among these people. And yet, I do not believe that an artist must be tied irrevocably to his or her own community only. Once again, I remain fragmented.