The Art in Odd Places Indianapolis exhibit, the Indianapolis Museum of Art opened The Office of Art Grievances with two locations in the downtown exhibit space. The project provided a fun way for patrons to tell art curators and programmers of the city’s prestigious museum what frustrates them about art.
According to event promotional materials, complaints filed would be processed and attempted to be remedied. All complaints would then be “permanently filed.”
“The project creates a feedback loop between audience and institution, ” museum representatives wrote, “and an opportunity to examine the things about art that cause us distress and angst.”
Distress and angst. Not only does art cause distress and angst, it’s often born out of those same conundrums in the artist herself. In other words, without distress and angst would there even be art? But if artists deal with their inner turmoil through their expressions on the stage, canvas, or paper, how does the art patron or consumer deal with his distress and angst?
And what about poetry specifically? Surely the line would wrap around the city if there were an Office of Poetry Grievances?
I decided to find out.
On a recent sunny morning, I opened up my own little Office of Poetry Grievances right in the back room of our home by asking this simple question on Facebook:
Do you hate poetry? Why? Be honest, but be nice. If you could file a formal complaint with The Office of Poetry Grievances, what would your chief beef with poetry be?
I’ll admit I was nervous about the post. In my narrow-mindedness, I thought only poetry detractors would show up. I doubted my limited mediation skills could handle a barrage. But what happened instead surprised me.
True, a couple of poetry haters came. I hesitate to call them that, though, because they were just being honest. One friend, an engineer, called poetry “an inefficient use of words.” When I tried to remedy her complaint by sharing a sparse poem I thought was also just funny, she said it was “annoying.”
That same engineer later recalled a childhood rhyme she used to sing in school, “going to first and your pants start to burst . . . ”
“I thought that was funny, ” she said. “Is that considered poetry?”
I said yes, I thought that could be considered poetry—albeit crude. I considered her complaint resolved and permanently filed it.
Another friend lodged this grievance against poetry: “If it can’t go on a spreadsheet, I will never understand it.”
I offered her this haiku by Dave Gledhill:
Work is a prison
filled with white spreadsheet walls
and blank, empty cells.
When I didn’t hear back from her, I filed her complaint, too. Permanently.
The surprise came, though, by how many poetry lovers showed up. Friends and relatives I didn’t even know liked poetry defended its merits, including my own sister—though she did confess that she “sometimes think(s) people are trying too hard to be weird and deep.” A former coworker told me she writes poetry. I never knew. And many others I did know loved the genre lodged real grievances about the ways poetry is misused—“opaque, off-putting, poetry I can’t find my way into . . . makes me feel dull, ” one friend wrote. Some issued grievances against the culture of poetry, the way poets read poems aloud “really slowly and oddly, emphasizing words in strange places” or against the “tedious approaches” to teaching poetry. Some lamented poetry of the past, longing for its language and form and soul.
I responded to each complaint, trying to listen and ask questions and providing suggestions but not answers. When the discussion died down, I realized how many conversations I could have with people now around the issue of poetry, conversations that began as grievances. And I marveled over how very much like poetry itself was this process of waiting and listening and responding.
At the IMA’s Office of Art Grievances, there were forms and lines and desks. It was formal. It was ironic. At my Office of Poetry Grievance, it was all about the rhythm that emerged from the give and take of the conversation, and way we danced around the comment thread, engaging then retreating, embracing yet being careful not to step on each others toes.
Even our complaints became a poetry of their own.
Photo by Gemma Stiles, Creative Common license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
Do you have a list of “poetry grievances”? Maybe it’s time for you to explore poetry through the gentle guidance of NEA Fellow and published poet Tania Runyan.
How to Read a Poem offers delightful advice on how to explore poetry for enjoyment and meaning. Uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology included.