I just got out of a very tedious academic seminar. I was thinking, as the seminar progressed, just how wide the gulf is between loving literature and studying it (especially in a formalized setting, such as we in academia have become accustomed to). Rather than hankering after what I know must be an exciting time in London right now, I have decided to look at the advantages of public spectacles like poetry festivals, in comparison to poetry, as it is taught to PhD candidates, MFA students, and the like. One could ask a very obvious question: did Shakespeare need an MFA? The stock answer would be that no, Shakespeare was a universal genius and thus did not need an MFA. Why, then, are so many poets (myself included) caught up in an academic rat race? Why are we collecting degrees? The most obvious answer is that we, poets, like everyone else in society, need to make money to earn a living and take care of our responsibilities. We need cars (I don’t, living as I do in center city Philadelphia, but many do), homes, clothes, food, drink, all the accoutrements of civilized life. Academia offers us a route that has at least a tangential relationship to creating poetry; we may not be making money from our books or our public appearances, but a knowledge of literature, if applied conventionally, can be parlayed into a decent living. Yet, all of us poet/academicians know that there are many things missing from the academic equation. Excitement, certainly; spontaneity, definitely; freedom to explore where there are no boundaries, of course. If we want to retain the essential excitement of the creative moment, we who ride this balance between poetry and academia will have to create a space somewhere else, in a different kind of terrain.
This is the beauty of an International Poetry Festival; it gives free spirits a defined, circumscribed, yet fundamentally open play-space, a vista with the right combination of bounded and unboundedness. If things aren’t defined enough, they fall apart (“the center cannot hold”); if they are too defined, as in the academy, one’s breath is stifled, one’s heart beats too slowly, one’s limbs are constrained. Despite aesthetic scrupulousness, despite qualms we might have with the notion of being “public artists”, I think that all of us, as poets, would like our work to reach a wide(r) audience. The Festival atmosphere (as I imagine it) is conducive to public displays that yet evince no vulgarity; to reaching audiences without strain or undue clamor; to broadening one’s consciousness without being hemmed in by a sense of competition, rivalry, fractiousness, or intimidation. It is a manifestation of the melting-pot impulse, in which all of the arts may take wing, blossom, develop, settle, and then be shaken up again. We are, all of us, at the mercy of different forces at work within our lives: of duties to family, physical or emotional handicaps, limited funds (that’s a big one for poets), societal pressures (to conform and thus to submit, to be safe and thus be controlled), and of our own limitations. Making one’s way in the world, in this Digital day and age, with the world economy collapsing and war escalating, is a tiring fight. A Buddhist once told me, you must know that everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle, and he was right.
Back to the seminar: I have a stipend from my University, I am being paid to be there. Yet, as the second hour drags painfully into the third, I am heartened that I can speak and that some of you may listen. This is in spite of a physical distance that I cannot surmount, in spite of cultural differences or aesthetic differences or any other differences that can and will obstruct proper communication. It means that as I sit there, trying to absorb things that have very little ultimate meaning for me, I am a little less at the mercy of those great, soul-killing impersonal forces than I otherwise would be. I, Adam Fieled, am a part of a whole that is greater than myself (even if this whole is temporally bounded and impermanent). It makes me more able to bear up against the waves of stifled boredom that pound around and inside my head. Simply put, it gives me hope. Maybe hope is fragile, maybe it is fleeting, maybe it will inevitably wind up being pounded to death by the too-concrete facts of all of our lives. Yet we may carry with us little tokens, little reminders that there exists another world within this world, a world where (finally) we have the space to create the way we want to, where our works pays dividends (material and otherwise), where we speak and someone listens. It is this imagined world that got me through the tediousness of another day in academia, and it is this world that I hope you are creating in the London of my dreams.