By Keith Wilson
Maybe the stories most worth sharing are the ones we cannot stop ourselves from playing over in our minds. Crystal Wilkinson says we write about our haunts. Stories that will not leave us.
To the point: I oversee a computer lab at Chicago State University where students of English come for tutoring or help with the actual technical aspect of formatting a paper on a computer. After one of the classes let out, a lady perhaps a little older than my mother came to me in tears, and shaking, because she could not figure out how to add her name to the header of her Word file. I helped her, all the time wondering why she acted as if I might suddenly abandon her to utter failure.
It turns out, this is exactly what she was afraid of.
I won’t speak too specifically out of respect for her privacy, but the woman shared with me that she is completely computer illiterate. She doesn’t know how to turn on a computer, how to type, or how to open or save files. And she is being required, now, to write her take-home essays and finish her tests, format them correctly, attach them as emails, and send them to her professors by due dates which are of course designed around the reasonable time it would take to complete such a task if you were able to work a computer. This, or risk failure.
She has asked her much younger classmates for help, but the responses she has received range from her being completely ignored (sometimes for that student’s own paper’s sake), to being treated with rude impatience. There are kinder students, too, who take on the good-natured-but-ultimately-unhelpful roles of magicians who click through her menus in a fury, never teaching anything.
But not to be too harsh on her classmates: it is not any student’s responsibility to teach this woman, who, I would learn, is back in school because of a disability that prevents her from teaching. She was a teacher herself, for over 20 years, teaching a second language to students. Part of her story was spoken in this other language, then again in English.
This is writing. Why do I write, if not to share her story, or my own; what I feel to see an elder beginning to see her own abandonment?
Poetry is a privilege. All of art is. Societies which are starving do not, on the whole, create a significant body of art. I keep that in mind when I write. As necessary as it feels, as poetic as it feels to say that I would die without poetry, (how many times have I read this in an interview with an artist?) it just isn’t true in the ways I think we imply. I would die without food, or water. When my writing leaves this plain of feeling, gets too far from what is actually life, what I am writing (already a privilege) becomes even less immediately necessary.
But if poetry itself is a privilege, then abstract or difficult poetry is something like a peacock of privilege. It can become dangerous, it is so un-dangerous. If I feel what I felt as I listened to this former teacher’s story, and I write something which is not immediately accessible (and yes, poetry needn’t always be plainspoken or ‘simple’), am I writing about this woman at all? If not, why not? What is more important than her, and why?
If I am, if my poetry reflects actual experience and emotional difficulty, I am fine with it being ‘difficult.’ But again, if I am not, who am I writing for? I pray it is not for the poets.