POETS ARE EXPERTS TOO
On the question of who gets to be an expert and how "expertise" in publishing irks me.
I’m probably not quite ready to write this one, but who is ever ready to write anything?
I’ve been thinking lately on how we determine “experts.”
Mostly I’ve been thinking about how poets are rarely invited into conversations about larger social issues (for example, if NPR has a Here and Now episode on maternal mental health, or mothering through complex mental illness, Eugenia Leigh, author of Bianca, should absolutely be a part of that conversation, AND YET—it will be a panel of doctors, institutional academics, and one memoirist perhaps—the memoirist is debatable). Because often, we don't think of lived experience as a form of expertise.
And if lived experience doesn’t make you an expert, at least on your own body and mind, how will people ever get the healthcare they need, the emotional regulation they need, the therapies and equitable learning environments they need, and so. many. other. things.
Again, I drift.
The thing is, poetry lives in that fluid arena between fiction and nonfiction, it can be both, neither, hybrid. I can still hear the poetry workshop, “the speaker …” with no assumptions. (To be fair, I think this is a safe practice across genres because nonfiction workshop is often a dangerous place of dual targeting of craft and personhood, but that’s another newsletter altogether).
Some things that irk me about “expertise” across publishing (& media):
Expertise in publishing often requires institutional approval, institutions that are very broken.
Most nonfiction (from the big four) is not fact-checked unless the author pays out of pocket. Emma Copley Eisenberg has a great essay on this in Esquire. Academic and peer-reviewed presses live by different standards.
Publishing has conflated platform with expertise. Zoe was just telling me this morning that in the introduction to Rax King’s book Tacky, she says something like, “most of that research has taken place in and around my body…would you trust someone to talk convincingly about tackiness if that person had not dated an adult man who called himself viper?” (This is NOT a dig at Rax King who I find smart and funny, but an interesting aside about how her platform as cultural critic enhanced the belief that her body is the body of an expert).
I am interested in the point at which platform becomes expertise. I’m not sure. Publishing has predetermined numbers for social channels (ranges) but … there are nefarious things about virality, loudness, frequency, and more about platform that doesn’t equal expertise. (See: Caroline Calloway, though I will still watch every single Instagram story she posts). My head is spinning thinking of Alix Earle who Jack Mac of Barstool calls a marketing expert.
I feel like publishing is often more concerned with lived experience (and assumptions of what that lived experience should be) in fiction than it ever broaches in nonfiction.
This truth. And of course it’s a truth for all marginalized populations.
After I sent this to Zoe she said, and why is it that “funny men are serious, but funny women are unhinged? Add funny women to the academy!”
I get that poetry is often viewed as “inaccessible” to a wider commercial audience. I also understand that because corporate publishing rarely publishes poets, general audiences not only don’t understand the poetry market, but they don’t have access to it. Sure, you can walk into your nearest Target and perhaps find Rupi Kaur or Amanda Lovelace, but again—the marketing of that poetry is vastly different than the poetry communities idea of Poetry, capital P. (No offense to either writer, they know their audiences). But then, is Poetry, the way I’m thinking of it here, just another hierarchy of the institution—as in, who gets to be a Poet? Oof.
So, you have audiences who perhaps know of poets at Graywolf (because they’re large enough and their endowment is large enough to publish “bigger” books alongside poetry), same with Coffee House, Tin House, Catapult and its imprints, and Milkweed. Some of this is also reputation and continuing to put out good word year after year.
Then if you’re a poet or you know poets, you probably know of Copper Canyon (though I’m not sure they’re on the radar of general audiences) … but then what? Then it’s all … pastoral? I would argue after these (and I’m sure a few others), the poetry landscape becomes a sort of field where the hierarchies are harder to diminish and people who exist within the poetry community understand the dynamics (how exclusive would you say it is?), and those outside of those communities (general readers!) are doing what, are reading what poetry, are buying what poetry? How are we reaching them?
It’s hard to be an expert when you’re starting at unfamiliarity.
I do think the media plays a huge role in all of this. And I often believe if I just find the right way to pitch, I can convince a conglomerate like Hearst that a poetry collection IS, IN FACT ideal reading for their audiences. Bianca, for example, is a poetry collection that has that same simmering rage of Nightbitch, it might even be more in-your-face. And it features the duality of a self, a woman with an altered-ego due to trauma. I related so much to Leigh’s early twenties as she menaced herself. Every editor I talk to says they want “messy twenties” books. Okay, HERE YOU GO. But then add the craft of Leigh’s poetry. Add her experience being a mother, her writing about complex mental illness. It’s breathtaking, heartbreaking, unmaking, reshaping. I’m still thinking about the lines, tossing them over when I can’t sleep.
Let me give you a media example, Elle had one poetry collection on their most anticipated list of 2023 books. The collection is by Clint Smith, someone I think of as an expert in whatever he writes. Is that because I was introduced to him through a poem (this one!) and then continued to read him through his essays in The Atlantic and his nonfiction (How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America) which expands his reach outside of poetry?
My question is, I guess, was he an expert before the nonfiction? And would a general audience be familiar with his poetry if it weren’t for his nonfiction?
What we want, I guess, is poets+. Those who write poetry to write beyond poetry. Poetry as a craft pursuit, an academic pursuit, but not an expert’s pursuit. Poetry, not as a genre of deep research, but a genre of … what? As if poets don’t research? Media allows poets to be experts on writing, but often not experts on topics. Poetry as pretty, profound, but not proof. How frustrating for your genre to not be enough.
(I realize there are poets who have reached an echelon that makes them experts, and those poets have often been lauded by the academy or our large poetry institutions. I have NOTHING against this, I want poets-in-general to get those same opportunities, and the ones who are—DO IT. DO MORE. BE EVERYWHERE. TAKE UP SPACE TO MAKE SPACE).
I guess this newsletter is my plea to treat poets like experts in more than just craft. To treat lived experience as a tenant of expertise. To widen ideas of who should be a part of cultural conversations at the national level. Sure, interview your doctors, your researchers, your academics—but you know who really studies people, who documents, who gets the flame down to the finest grain of sand, who is meticulous in their description of the slow churn of a leaf changing, it’s a poet.
The last thing I’ll say is that there’s this idea that poetry is a gateway genre. That people write poetry as children, or high schoolers, and then pursue the other genres if they’re “real” writers. I think it’s time we put some respect on poetry for adults—outside of academia, outside of poets reading poets, and other writers celebrate collections like they would a new novel. It has to start with us before it can go anywhere else.
And poets, get those companion pieces written. Your publicist is going to ask you to write an op-ed, a few essays, a craft piece—do it. You’re an expert. You’re already a Poet+.
Coming up at Pine State:
Gayle Brandeis has her launch event for Drawing Breath essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss at City Lit Books on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. See you there!
As always, all our events are in this calendar! Eugenia Leigh and Jessica E. Johnson both have some exciting celebrations for their new books coming in March!
Dear Outsiders by Jenny Sadre-Orafai received its first review today, highly recommend you give it a read!
You can read a conversation between Jane Kuo and her illustrator Julia Kuo in SPINE Magazine! (And then preorder Land of Broken Promises).
Lena Crown wrote this delicious review of Jehanne Dubrow’s Taste a Book of Small Bites in Split Lip Magazines
Metabolics and Bianca were both reviewed in RHINO’s latest issue.
Melinda Coop reviewed Curing Season in The Rumpus
Lessons and Carols by John West got its first review in Publishers Weekly!
YES! Poets ARE experts! (though perhaps sometimes we prefer to keep that on the DL). Thank you so much Cassie for leaning into the work poets are doing!