The other day, I was having a getting-to-know-you conversation with a new acquaintance via text messaging, which presents a certain amount of social handicap in and of itself. The conversation was actually going fairly well until it got to the so-what-do-you-do-for-a-living point. This one is always a tricky point for me, as I’ve tended toward unemployment (peppered by random odd jobs) while working on my degree. Usually I just say I’m a bum and give a good-humored, nonchalant shrug. In person, it’s charming (or so I prefer to believe). Texting? It doesn’t work. So I just came right out and said I was a full-time Creative Writing student, more specifically a poet.
Which is surprising, according to the reaction I got. And unusual. Because most people I know already know what I do, I’d momentarily forgotten that “I’m a poet” is an odd declaration. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily make the best impression.
The conversation went on from that point, of course. Aside from surprising my new comrade, I came away from that exchange uncertain whether I had gained or lost points by that admission. Nothing overtly judgmental was said, but my inclination was to assume that I hadn’t gained any sort of advantage there (and that in any future encounters I’d be working under a certain degree of social handicap). It dawned on me that in most cases I am more likely to say that I am a writer who happens to write poetry, but not necessarily that I am a poet. In short, I paraphrase what I do.
What is the distinction there? It seems for me that the word poet doesn’t have the best connotations, and I often assume others share the same aversion. It’s an issue of semantics, of course, but an interesting one. Of course, I can tiptoe around the issue by saying it’s a matter of specificity – poetry isn’t all that I write. I thoroughly enjoy the playgrounds offered by fiction and creative nonfiction, and I’ve been known to salivate (ahem) when working on a critical essay. I’m a word-nerd, a jargon junkie, a scribbling slut. I’ll take my writing fix any way I can get it; by hand or by laptop (I’m also a shameless euphemist). But all that does nothing to address the hurdle I’ve made of the word poet.
I can’t take complete credit for my semantic aversion (the first step to solving a problem is shifting the blame elsewhere). On a societal level, there are many negative stereotypes of poets. While a lot of these stereotypes are amusing (some of the most amusing can be found here), it does point to the fact that the field of poetry is considered a pretty dubious profession…even by those who are willing to consider it a profession at all. Unless you are famous and prolifically published (and let’s be honest, most likely dead), being a poet is not necessarily the most respected thing. When we think of poets, we tend to think of badly dressed, overemotional people who isolate themselves in dark coffeehouse corners. We expect them to be self-loathing, pretentious, and prone to behavioral eccentricities. Nothing about a poet hints at any sort of economic stability, or any real-world skills. Young poets are oversexed and immature; older poets are stodgy prudes (and the in-between poets are, of course, sexual deviants of some sort or another). Naturally, there are too many of them – we poets are the un-neutered stray cats of the creative field, overrunning cityscapes and blogs, spraying the world with incomprehensible and unnecessary babble while littering the populace with pest-ridden philosophical kittens. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration. But as a recent Google search has proven, not by much.
The generic “writer” fares only slightly better. Writers are strange, too, but slightly more socially viable. Being a writer seems to be more concrete an idea than being a poet. If you say you’re a writer, people will usually ask questions about what you write. If you say you’re a poet, there is a high possibility that they will look at you awkwardly, ask you why on earth you do that, or just change the subject. “Poet” is a word with incredible potential to make people uncomfortable. I’ve seen it happen – the slight raising of the eyebrows, the tightening of the upper lip as a person decides whether or not to mock you outright, and the subtle facial struggle for some semblance of polite interest. Rarely do they ask to see your work. Thus, when people ask, I’ve been more likely to say I’m a writer (or maybe even a verbal contortionist if I’m feeling feisty), but not specifically a poet.
I have a few theories about why ‘poet’ has certain unflattering social implications. Mostly, I think it has to do with the fact that poetry isn’t an everyday thing for most people – overall it’s something of an insider’s circle that many people don’t see themselves fitting into. Which has to do with the prevalence (or lack thereof) of poetry in the public education agenda. It’s treated like a superfluous subject… and therefore, the insinuation is that poets are superfluous people…
…Which is why, of course, we wear weird clothing and mope about in coffeehouse corners, breaking the tedium with occasional acts of sexual deviance, and rubbing up against the bounds of social normalcy like abrasive, mangy cats.