At the beautiful Rockhaven retreat center, during the last segment of the inaugural Women Writers Weekend, playwright Joan Lipkin presented some of her work and spoke honestly and vulnerably about honesty and vulnerability: how important it is for artists to be courageous and squelch their fears. Fears of what, she asked. Why do we back down, or back away, or suddenly remember an important appointment elsewhere? And she said there's a Cowardly Lion in us all. As she spoke, I became annoyed and then angry, realizing that regularly, almost as a matter of course, I compromised my own artistic integrity, and why the hell did I do it? And do it a lot?
Just that morning I'd told a friend that I didn't bring certain of my works to workshop, fearing to offend or embarrass. I'd tried it, and it seemed to do just that -- poem not mentioned, eyes averted. But inoffensive material didn't get the rigorous criticism I need to strengthen my work. It was a lose-lose situation. What the heck am I doing? What kind of game am I playing? "Hide the Catherine"? For what? For whom? And if it's a lose-lose, why play?
I never wanted to be that way. My seventeen-year-old self, who wanted to become a great poet, sneers at me. I tell students never to compromise (understanding that sometimes a writer has to compromise not her honesty but her manner of expression if feedback indicates that her writing is sloppy or isn't communicating what she wants it to). I want never to compromise out of fear. But it's become routine! I have secret poems I shy from showing. I tell people who see them -- warn them -- it's not me who writes them, it's an alter ego. Let's see: did Mayakovsky play that game? Rimbaud? Whitman? Did Norman Mailer? Who wants to read poetry like weak tea? Exactly who is benefiting when I shield them from the real me? Who do I think is being well served when I compromise my art?
I've been re-reading and re-working unpublished poems and feeling that each and every one is hopeless, irreparable. Of course they are -- if it isn't the real me who is writing them, but the nicer me. The Cowardly Lion version.