Dear Laura: Stop Pretending You’re James Joyce.

19 Feb

Been trying to shake this little disturbance in my heart the past day or so. I guess I’ve been grappling with a question that isn’t simple, that involves a funny mix of the professional and personal.

The other day, I was officially un-offered a gig to feature and workshop at a conference that’ll be happening this summer. I attended the conference for the first time last year, and a friend of mine, who’s on the planning committee, really loves my work and thought I’d be a great fit.

For the first time in the years she’s been spearheading the conference, her suggestion was vetoed. Based on my behavior at last year’s event, it was decided that I’m not “collegial” enough to be a representative of University X.

The decision was based on two major factors: my bad-mouthing the major showcase of the conference from the back while it was happening, and my missing a workshop (with a phenomenal poet) for which I’d been given a coveted slot.

The major showcase of the conference really bothered me, no point in trying to hide that now. This was a very typical auditorium Q&A with an author of note, the headliner of the conference, and it drove me crazy. There seemed to be no effort or attention paid to staging or lighting, the questions felt really dull, and in general, nothing dynamic was happening. As someone who’s grown accustomed to poetry slams and performances meant to grab one by the throat, this interview was very disappointing. I had no qualms about saying (far too loudly, apparently) that this sort of reading was verymuch indicative of the split between academics and everyone else, and it was no wonder people had such a low opinion of literature if this was the best we could do.

This is the point where you get to mutter, “Shouldna been talken shit.”

Yes, I was rude. I could have kept my mouth shut, if only for the sake of the people in the audience who’d worked hard to put the event together or/and paid to attend the conference. Some folks in the audience were really excited to hear what the speaker had to say, and I was so caught in my reaction, I was essentially disrespecting all of them instead of offering constructive feedback to relevant parties later on.

As for the latter complaint, I stayed out too late at the bar after my friends had left, then, in a kind of nightmarish wonderland, my phone died and I couldn’t find my way home. I was in a small, unfamiliar Southern city, and, although I still own a vagina, perhaps it wasn’t properly on display: I couldn’t get a cab to stop for me over the course of several hours. Five or so cabs did drive right by me when I tried to hail them. I tried stopping at gas stations to ask for directions, given the little map my host had drawn, but no one I asked had any idea where I was going. I also tried to borrow a cell phone from a number of different kids who were wandering around (being fraternal, I gather), but no one would even make eye contact with me.

The sun was up by the time I ran into a cabbie who agreed to take me and who knew the area where I was going. My friend stopped by to take me to that morning’s workshop about an hour later. I honestly thought hard before saying no, but I was too exhausted on all levels.

Hours of wandering. I feel pretty nauseous even remembering that night, honestly. I did drink too much, which was an awful call in that situation. I should have taken the rides home my fellow poets offered earlier in the night, and I should have charged my phone before going out. I was overconfident in my ability to navigate a city I’d just arrived in. I own all of this, I seriously do. But there’s a certain kind of unpleasantness that was afforded me that night, as a strange brown girl in a Southern city. It was invisibility. It was like being a ghost shouting at the top of her lungs in an effort to commune with the living.

The other day, when I spoke to my friend (who was incredibly sweet and apologetic about having to rescind her offer to feature), she mentioned some of the amazing people I’d met after slamming at the conference on the first night. She mentioned speaking to several women who’d been blown away by what I did, who said, “I want to know how to do THAT.” Somehow, that part hurts me more than the rejection itself. Because of my recklessness, I won’t get a chance to teach these women what I’ve learned. I’ve stolen an opportunity from them that they might not find again.

I don’t know quite where to go from here. One of the reasons I hated academia was because I don’t much like diplomacy for its own sake. I’m not a huge fan of political machinations, or the necessity to conform to someone else’s code. My ability to speak and live freely, as politically incorrectly as I like, has been hard-won, and I don’t want to surrender that. But it’s apparent to me now: if I want the freedom to go wherever I choose and to teach whomever I like, that means limiting my freedoms in other ways.

I honestly don’t know what this means for my future. I don’t know exactly what lesson I want to take from all this. For now, it just feels good to be honest, to share with you what’s on my mind. Thanks for listening.

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6 Responses to “Dear Laura: Stop Pretending You’re James Joyce.”

  1. greatriverart February 19, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    This post rings very true to me right now, having just moved to a small town that is very politically and socially conservative. It’s like becoming a part of a large family that keeps lots of secrets. I am second guessing things that I post on my facebook and sort of walking on eggshells. Trying to decide how and if and when to censor yourself is a weird new reality. Part of me is like screw it, I’m just going to be me. And the other part of me is like, if you think you might want to do this kind of job in your life, and this is a stepping stone to either starting your own organization or working for one in a big city, you’re going to need to not get fired and be able to get letters of recommendation in another 3 years.

    But yeah, strange. uncomfortable.

    • Laura Yes Yes February 19, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

      Yeah, that’s exactly the dialogue I’m having with myself. Trying to maintain my own integrity and self-respect, but also trying to be a better citizen, I suppose…

  2. sonya February 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Hey Beauty,

    Quite the candid account. Hard lesson learned. I think about freedom as a spectrum we slide across depending on the situation. Given the lives we are currently afforded, we indeed have some pretty high level freedom. We get up when we want, we read poems for money, we lay in our pj’s some days and ponder the purpose of the planet. Ultimately, that translates into rent. CRAZY! We exist in freedom at the high level of the spectrum. On occasion, for the sake of building more opportunities or expanding our reach we slide down the scale, put on the more traditional trappings of the world and play the “game”. Just like 98% of the world has to. But only for a minuscule portion of time. Then it is back to our cushy lives. In those moments, try to remember that the true freedom is that we get to return to the high end of the scale. Most folks don’t and will never even see it. We should honor them by respecting the lives they have to lead daily. Love you babe.

    • Laura Yes Yes February 19, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

      Thanks for the wise words, Sonie. I definitely don’t want to take my blessings for granted.

  3. Kevon February 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    Honest is a double edged sword. It seems it was your honesty that got you here, but your honesty in this blog that you use to help get you out. Being that your an awesome poet and performer I say they are idiots. Take whatever you feel is necessary or just recall when something that familiar feelings comes up during the time of another one of these events. I say we live and learn. You can’t grow being perfect. That’s no way to live.

  4. Cole Sarar February 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Dear love,

    All is not lost. Perhaps just postponed. If this is important to you, attend the conference, if you can, as an observer– if not this year, then the next. Prove to them (and yourself) that you can adapt to a situation without compromising your outspokenness. Decide if it’s that important to you.

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