Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Do people openly mock your subculture?

I recently had a friendly conversation, mostly via email, with a coworker who takes some interest in poetry. At his request, I recommended a few journals (both print and online) that I tend to enjoy and thought he might too (knowing nothing about his tastes). A few days later he said that for the most part he didn't understand what he'd read, that it seemed like the audience for poetry was mostly other poets, and that the whole enterprise felt like a competition "to see who can be the most obscure and inaccessible."

I took this in stride; it's of course not a new suggestion; similar complaints are levied from the inside by the Dana Gioias and Billy Collinses of the poetry world. It's certainly true that mostly poets read poetry, and I agree in some sense that obscurity can be a crutch or a means of fending off criticism. But I don't want to get into an argument about difficulty right now (for the record, I am pro-difficulty when difficulty has meaning and purpose, and anti- the kneejerk assumption that all difficulty is smoke and mirrors; difficulty is obviously relative).

For the time being I'm interested in the fact that I wasn't immediately offended. Even if he'd only been inquiring about my hobby (and poetry isn't a hobby … IT'S A LIFESTYLE), shouldn't I have been a little miffed when he basically dismissed it as a charade? (If it's not clear, his intentions were good and he was genuinely trying to engage on the topic; this wasn't like a live troll situation.) I guess I'm inured to comments like this from non-poets and people who only dabble in poetry. But I'm wondering if members of other subcultures have to confront this kind of pseudo-insult head on.

Let's say you're a birdwatcher. Has a coworker ever asked you what your favorite birding blogs are, and then said, "Wow those were boring. It's like it's just a competition to see who can claim they saw the most obscure rare bird."

Or a cellist: "I went to hear some contemporary chamber music and it was like they were actively trying to sound bad."

Or you practice yoga: "Yoga is so flaky and 'spiritual.' I'm into real exercise."

Actually I can totally see these happening. (Except for maybe the birding one. That's just mean.) I guess the question is, if you take your subculture seriously, are you offended when people dismiss it from the outside? Is it ever worth going on the defensive? Or do you just dismiss them right back?


  1. "Birdwatching? You seem really young to enjoy that."

    I think it's very rare to be in a conversation in which nobody's subculture (or culture for that matter) is stereotyped and mocked. And that's even true for "dominant" subcultures like, say, baseball fans (although significantly less so; the more a minority of any sort you are, especially non-white or non-male, the more you hear it).

    It annoys me every single time I notice such a thing (I don't always; they happen fast and thick). But I suppose I pick as carefully as I can the instants of arguing back, trying to choose those moments when some good might be done by it. Otherwise life is just too tiresome and annoying. But sometimes I just react before I've even had a chance to consider what I'm saying. Those have been some of my very best moments too; nothing like the uncensored comeback.

  2. Re: the uncensored comeback...agreed.

  3. I'm going to tell you a secret. It's always the MEN who blah-blah-blah about yoga not being a "real" exercise. I wear low-cut tops and mascara to yoga class. I kick their asses, and they have no trouble confessing they were wrong. If I'm in a really tough spot, I ask my dad, who also teaches, and happens to be very athletic and look the part, what kind of poses I can add to challenge my nay-sayers. :-)

    The spiritual side of it comes after we're all in class together, doing our thang.

  4. turns out Lost fans are a subculture. that's just the way it goes with sci-fi i guess. i've gotten so used to it with star trek that i just don't worry about other people. they can go watch american idol, i can watch Lost, we don't have to get along. sure i get defensive sometimes, but the best defense really is a well-honed sense of moral superiority.

    a non-poet person i know was once curious about a copy of cannibal i was carrying. after reading a couple poems, she had a similar reaction to your coworker's. she asked me what i liked about that kind of poetry. i liked that she was genuinely curious about it. anyway, it's nice to know there are open-minded people out there. (later i showed her a book by laynie browne and she really dug it, and i had nothing to do with it!)

  5. It's even more annoying when they're your students! No but really, it is. :) And then you have the tough job of convincing them otherwise actually as your JOB.

    Half the time I think intimidation re: "figuring poems out" is what's causing these seemingly condescending reactions (which are probably rooted in defensiveness a lot of the time?). Again it comes back to teaching for me -- so many people's exposure to reading poetry came in the form of poetry-as-puzzle-for-10th-graders, and so I find it helpful to say things like, "Oooh I just love the SOUND of this poem, all those l's, I just want to roll it around in my mouth!" as a sort of modeling for another way to react to a poem. Not that that will make everyone "get it" -- but since we all have idiosyncratic ways of reading poems, might as well put them on display. After all, they asked! (Or signed up for the class....)

  6. Matt: Lost is sci-fi?? I had no idea. Love the moral superiority quote.

    Becca: Yeah, I guess the mocking comes out of insecurity. Geez, grow up people.

  7. why yes it is. did you think it was just Survivor with actors? (i did, before i saw it.) actually, Lost is sort of what would happen if the fake situation on the reality show Survivor was a real situation on the fictional show Lost, with the addition of paranormal shenanigans and a "fate of the world hangs in the balance" kind of vibe.

  8. I thought it was just "unrealistic." :)

  9. a rule of thumb i have is: if time travel is involved, it's sci-fi. it's a rule i live by. like "love your neighbor".

  10. EXACTLY like 'love your neighbor.'

    Hurley is basically Jesus/Socrates.

    Subculture, and offense:
    Poets are used to it. If you're super sensitive to it, you're probably heavily ensconced in a poetic community and insulated from the general public.

    I get more offended when people link the work to sexuality.

    Then again, I think football is dumb. (Go Saints?)

  11. go saints? wrong answer, my friend.

    the work

  12. Yes. Wrong answer. This comment thread is, like, 50% Hoosier.


  13. The real problem is that most poetry IS read by other poets. It's really wonderful when a reader 'gets' what you're trying to do (and poets do more often than a nonpoet reader), but we're losing a lot of potential poetry lovers when we make it too esoteric for anyone but another poet to understand.

  14. Hi Pris,

    My friend Chris Marstall is not a poet but he's an incredibly insightful reader of poetry (especially mine!). He renews my faith that there are non-poets out there who are interested in poetry and capable of reading it thoughtfully.

    But yes, I had to agree with my coworker that poets are largely their own audience. I think this is true of some other subcultures too. (E.g. mostly musicians listen to "classical" music.)


  15. Re: (E.g. mostly musicians listen to "classical" music.)

    Aaaaaahhh! This bugs the hell out of me!!! And it's probably one of the reasons I married my ex: neither one of us is a musician, but we share a love of classical music- and not just he Boston Pops stuff.

    Still, there are way more classical music lovers who don't play than readers of poetry who don't write. Thank god. :-)

  16. I'm not a musician, but I love classical music, too. I'm not an artist, but I love all sorts of art, even going to the MOMA twice in one week, as well as two other art museums last time I was in Manhattan, drinking in the wonderful presence of those artists. But poetry....why can't we find a larger audience? If we're not speaking to the souls of those who don't write it where are we missing the boat?

  17. I like it when a person disses my subculture. It just means I'm cooler than them. I don't go for a comeback. I just smirk and ignore. It's amazing how easily you can unseat a person's ego by saying nothing. Is that passive aggressive? ;-)

  18. Passive aggressive in the best way!