Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 10

When I interview artists for my day job,  at the end of the interview, I generally ask whoever I’m talking to if there’s something they wish I had asked them. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed an actor who was in town playing a Shakespeare villain. He was deeply thoughtful but also quite funny. I thought for sure that his response would be something that would set us both to laughing. He surprised me by responding that the question he thought of was, “Is what I do worthwhile?”

I always joke that I only ask questions I would never want to answer, but this one truly took me aback, and I was glad he was the one answering it. (To any artists to whom I ask this in the future, please feel free to blame Jonno Roberts.)

I have found myself thinking about that question in regards to my own work. And I think the answer depends, in part, on how you define success. I posted a poem* on Facebook the other day because I thought it was a throwaway poem, something that was okay but I didn’t think I’d be sending out to literary magazines. I was stunned by the response, how many people connected to that poem, how it resonated with people who follow me on Facebook. Which success was more important, more valid? Acceptance in a literary magazine or a poem that actually connected with an audience. Ideally, a poem does both I suppose but if one has to choose…

Which doesn’t answer the question of, “Is what I do worthwhile?” exactly but that answer comes back to connection as well. Years and years ago—by which I mean 16—I was on a seven-month fellowship in Provincetown. Though I was one of only five poets accepted for the residency, I still allowed myself to be intimidated by the fact that I was the only poet who hadn’t yet earned an MFA. To make it worse, though I did write a lot of poems during that seven months, I was more interested in wandering up and down the bare sidewalks of Commercial Street and signing out tall piles of books from the local library than I was in sitting at my desk editing poems. Which made me think I was doing it all wrong.

Somehow I was invited to do a reading a few towns away from Provincetown. I’m not sure how I got the invitation since, at that point, I had published in journals but I didn’t yet have even a chapbook. At that reading, I read the poem “Poem for Two Jemimas,” which had been inspired by a story quilt by Faith Ringgold. The poem was a blues about a woman who had lost a copious amount of weight and in doing so had lost her sense of who she was. It reads in part:

Has anybody seen my voice?
Has anybody seen my voice?
What used to sound like canary singing
Now’s a jumbled pot of noise.

Was supposed to be a song ’bout something else.
Was supposed to be a song ’bout something else.
But I threw so much of me away
Seems I ain’t got nothing left.

After the reading an older white woman came up to me and asked where she could find that poem because she had a friend that she wanted to read it. It hadn’t been published, so I gave her my copy, the first time I’d ever given away a poem at a reading.

I want my work to be published. I want an editor to think it’s worthy to send out into the world to hundreds (or tens) of people I don’t know. But that’s not what makes the work worthwhile. That’s not what makes it worth it to shove a pen into the fleshiest part of my heart and root around for something that will bleed itself into a poem. And I’m saying this not because I think you don’t know it, Patti, but because I’m in constant danger of forgetting it myself. Yes, what I do is worthwhile, it is worth it. Because 16 years ago some woman I never met, who I’ll never meet, read a poem I hadn’t even sent to publishers yet and was, I hope, comforted by it. At the very least, she knew she wasn’t alone. And if that’s not what we’re doing with our art, then what then?  If the bottom line is not about making some sort of connection, then why bother?


  • If you’re interested, here’s that poem I posted on Facebook


Hello body. I’d like to talk to you.
You of the screaming hips,
the lazy breasts.
No, wait, I’m joking, I’m joking.
I kid because I love you–
not so much that I want to marry you
but maybe some sort of civil ceremony
where I pledge to tolerate you (sort of),
you pledge to stop finding so many ways
to break down… Seriously,
get a sense of humor body!
I love you so much I threw out the scale.
And ordered those three pairs of stretchy pants.
And I’ve stopped writing poems about
the self-important pendulums of flesh
flapping shamelessly on the underplanes of your arms.
(If you could make them burst
into wings, however…)
We’ve been through a lot you and I:
pneumonia, the tumors, thinning corneas
(seriously, eyes, who does that?)
I’ve stuck with you through thick and thin
and thick and thick and thick–
Well, you know what I mean.
I lotion you, I feed you, I buy you nice sheets.
And I really like that thing you do where
you go all concave at the waist though,
if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t mind if you
didn’t throw the hips so far in the other direction.
But I didn’t come here to complain, I mean,
this is just to say (do you mind if I borrow from
Dr. Williams here? I mean, you make me
all tongue-tied sometimes–) this is just to say
so much depends on you the way the sea
depends on the moon to tame it,
the way the rock depends on Sisyphus
to care for it, the way the rainwater always
finds its way back to the red wheelbarrow.


Posted on April 1, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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