Sunday, May 26, 2013

The misery of self-googling

This morning I made one of those mistakes it seems nearly impossible to avoid now and then.  A Whitman fan asked me about some essays I've published -- parts of a book-in-progress -- and I went searching to see if I could find links to them online. In other words, I googled myself, at least in reference to some particular pieces of prose. If you even a shred of a public life, self-Googling is risky business.  You may turn up a pleasant surprise or two, but it's almost inevitable that you'll stumble upon something you'll wish you hadn't read.

I found myself reading responses to an essay I published in GRANTA, a piece called "Insatiable" that centers on  Whitman, Bram Stoker, the character of Dracula, and the notion of desire as a continuous hunger for what the world has to offer, a hunger that can become boundless and self-perpetuating. It's a frank essay; I'm working, in this book, on a kind of liminal turf between criticism and memoir, and in order to use this method of reading (looking at one's own life through the lens of the poems that matter most to one) I have to talk about my own experience, and place it on the page next to what I read. I am finding this a peculiar balancing act, exhilarating when it works -- and then, every now and then, I find myself thinking, Oh, why am I talking about me?

To my considerable surprise, "Insatiable" was chosen for THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2012, a nifty honor that brings a wider readership. So there I am, in a widely distributed anthology that many people teach, talking about my own sexual adventuring, and the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of "feeding" -- like the hungry poet or the ravenous Count  -- on the energies of others. As one who has written often in affirmation of desire, and on the transformative powers of eros, it seemed important to examine a darker aspect. Why would Bram Stoker say that he based his famous character on "The Good Gray Poet"?

I myself don't think I said anything terribly shocking, but then I live in an urban gay culture in which frank talk is an everyday matter. There's nothing in my piece than isn't mentioned in "Howl," or in the writing of many others. And yet there are elements of the essay that seem to trigger a fair amount of discomfort for some readers, and thus the dollop of online vitriol I wish I'd skipped. Reading it feels like sipping a little dram of poison.

So I find myself trying to think through some of the questions the experience raises.

First, why do I care? I know perfectly well that -- as the wonderful fiction writer Gladys Swann once said -- if you stick your head out of a hole someone will either give you roses or swing at you with a baseball bat. It's in the nature of putting work out into the world, and therefore one just has to find ways to ride out the rough spots. My nature is to more-or-less dismiss the praise and pretty much memorize the condemnations, an old habit and not a useful one; because I know this about myself, there are negative reviews of my work I've never read, and don't plan to. Those voices get stuck in one's head, and truthfully I say enough negative things to myself already,

What I read today were tiresome, homophobic screeds. I know on a broad level there is nothing personal about homophobia; someone who's disgusted by the content of my work isn't disgusted with me, per se, but with me as a representative of a loathed, unacceptable category. But it feels personal, especially when one is writing openly, speaking with the sort of vulnerability that feels to me required for the making of art.

What is summoned up by random nastiness on the net is my own old, stubborn, never-to-be-entirely erased sense of shame. How could it not be? In a time and family where I grew up, the particular transgression that seemed written on my face was somehow simultaneously invisible and declared completely unacceptable. That was written in my nervous system very early on, and to this day there are moments when I feel a kind of internal tensing, a cringe, when I pass a guy on the street in tighter-than-anything pants and elfin boots, carrying aloft a shining aura of gayness. I used to think my response was some relic of internalized homophobia, but when I looked a little deeper I understood that what I felt was fear; I was afraid that boy wasn't safe; he was too visible, too endangered; to be like that was to be hurt.

Probably one of the ways I've responded to the climate in which I grew up -- and to that sense of worthlessness programmed into me -- was to make myself charming. Not an unusual strategy, to seek to overcome prejudice by making oneself likable in spite. There are times when I've viewed this, especially as a performer, as a political strategy. I speak and read in high schools sometimes, and it feels like a kind of mission, not entirely apart from the work of poetry, to say to those audiences, Here I am, a man who loves other men, committed to being direct and emotionally forthright with you. I know from experience that this can change attitudes, and that it can mean the world to a queer kid in Ft Worth or Omaha, who's never had anyone like me show up at school before.

But there are clear dangers in the quest for approval. Allow the decisions one makes about one's work to be shaped by what an imagined audience will enjoy, or worse, approve of?  In that direction lies sentimentality, false witness, and the denial of complexity. You simply have to put in the poem or essay what the piece requires; there is no way around that, though sometimes I wish there were. Actually, that moment when I find myself saying, somewhere into a draft, "Oh, do I have to say this?" is often a crucial one: when I begin to resist what I'm writing, when it feels unnerving or overwhelmingly charged -- well, that's when it's beginning to work.

But one price of that is living with a degree of disapproval, something I find easier to do in some parts of my life that others. When I go out traveling as a visiting poet and memoirist, giving readings and talks,, no one says anything homophobic to me. I'm sheltered by my position,  by politeness and social convention. If there are undercurrents of prejudice, I don't have to hear them. But go online, take a lok
at the anonymous comments, and there are. I'd be curious to hear about the ways others manage this, or fail to; it's a sticking point, and probably a potential place of growth, too. How not to be sideswiped by the nasty stuff,  how to accept a little battering and move on?

The single obvious conclusion: no self-Googling, particularly before noon.


Angelo said...

Thank you for "but when I looked a little deeper I understood that what I felt was fear; I was afraid that boy wasn't safe; he was too visible, too endangered; to be like that was to be hurt." A bit of unexpected illumination I find helpful.

annelies said...
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annelies said...

I've been talking with friends recently who are bloggers about the "gift" of comments online. Under the veil of anonymity, readers can immediately share feedback with the author of approval or disdain. I tend to think when the comment takes the direction of negativity that the commenters are forgetting themselves and the adage about sticks, stones and all of that. I liken it to envisioning a party where someone starts sharing a poem, recipe or stream of thought as in an essay to a group of people listening. When finished, how likely would it be to hear someone chime in with "well that was crap" or "you suck." They are paltry examples but meant to underscore that I think sometimes online comments and the anonymity they provide can be conduits of people not behaving at their peak.

Kimberlee Gerstmann said...

I just wanted to say that I know there aren't enough words to take away the sting of that experience (or the countless others). I don't have any profound insight. I can't say that I know how it feels to be afraid of letting the world know who you are. I can't even find the appropriateness to express how angry I am with the ignorance of people who say thoughtless or hateful things.

I simply send you a virtual hug and hope that those sorts of things will become fewer and farther between. It seems that our country may make tiny amounts of progress, but then we go screeching backward into the familiarity of fear. I hope hope hope that brave voices will continue to rise up and press forward, pushing discriminatory attitudes behind for good.

Kelly McQuain said...

I think any artist experiences self-doubt and is prone to feel like a fake from time to time, believing that praise is untrue, that harsh criticism is warranted, that no one truly understands. And it stems from the universal desire to be understood that no one ever fully achieves. We all share a fundamental loneliness that is our existential condition, one that unites and separates us simultaneously. But mostly when I hear harsh whispers behind my back I remind myself of what Oscar Wilde once wisely said: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." Mark, you always get your audiences talking! Keep at it!

Kelly McQuain said...
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Caroline M Davies said...

There is definitely a lot of homophobia out there, you just have to look at the vitriol (I’m not going to grace it with the name debate) stirred up by proposals in the US and UK to allow gay marriage. It is easy to be side-swiped by this level of nastiness and I’m not surprised that you were. What really made me sad was you mentioning ‘the never-to-be-entirely erased sense of shame’ even though you have nothing to be ashamed about but you probably know that already. The one time you were over in the UK and I came to one of your readings in London you were warm and inspiring as a poet so please don’t let anyone knock you off your stride.

No self-googling sounds like a good rule but if you do need to find something you’ve written in an on-line version then perhaps asking someone else to do it would be sensible.

Naomi said...

Hi Mark. I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award! Click on the link below to read my post about it and learn the rules you are asked to follow on being nominated. Nothing is obligatory of course!

Diane Seuss said...

Yes, we are wounded, sometimes deeply. And we wound. Not only by the stupid, blind things we say, but by what we don't say, or the people who are invisible to us. One of the most powerfully wise things someone asked me, when I felt especially victimized, was "When do you do that?" The fact was, when I kept the focus on myself, I'd done (to others, to myself) the very thing I was complaining about.

Robert Peake said...

Like you, Mark, I tend to memorise criticism and shirk off praise. That in itself is something to work on, to achieve a more Frost-like immunity to those who "carry praise or blame too far". I recently wrote a little expat-poets-eye piece on the Second Amendment that made the front page of HuffPo, and wow--the vitriol that rolled in. At least the death threats, I know, were filtered by moderators. But sometimes I think we poets are kind of the opposite of dentists--deliberately drilling for nerves. So why should we be so surprised when we hit one in the collective consciousness, and people want to take a swing at us? Still, that was a bad week. I have since disabled comments on my personal site, and limit my reading of responses online much more carefully than before this piece came to light. Still, I'm committed to drilling--not for shock value but in spite of it--since there is good stuff down there, and sometimes the way you know the quality of the question is by the quantity of reaction--the number of responses--that tell you what you made was a jolly good inkblot.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

My husband read me your Granta Whitman essay this week, me laying my head on his thigh.

So when Whitman came up again shortly thereafter, this time in the context of "Breaking Bad", I appreciated having your read in mind:

Daniel Hall said...

The first thing I remember about hatred when I'm getting slammed is that their response arises from a sense they have of themselves, not only is it not about me, it's not even about a hated minority they see I am a part of. Vitriol is personal; it is about their person. To them, I represent a piece of them or something that threatens the existence of their life they treasure. Remembering this helps compassion flow into me, which allows forgiveness to occur. They're in such pain, and they may be on the losing side, which is not to say their hatred is not dangerous and to be carefully handled.

I was struck also by your statement, "Probably one of the ways I've responded to the climate in which I grew up -- and to that sense of worthlessness programmed into me -- was to make myself charming. Not an unusual strategy, to seek to overcome prejudice by making oneself likable in spite." I'm one of those gay men who have been delivered into another level of gay pride by the book _The Velvet Rage_ by Alan Downs . The need for others' approval can be a slippery slope begun in childhood and often only increasing with worldly success. I'd be fascinated to know your take on this book's ideas. I recommend it to anyone who grew up in a consumer society, certainly to gay men and women of all orientations.