Thursday, March 14, 2013

Subtlety or Self-Censorship?

Currently I am engaged in producing a revised and expanded edition of my self-published poetry book, 'Where the Opium Cactus Grows'. In the original 2010 edition, I sometimes dealt with some embarrassing words and phrases from my older poetry, written in my Youthful Marxist Phase, by frank self-censorship.

In the revised edition, I am generally restoring the original forms. But sometimes, the choice between an older version and a newer one is not so simple. Like in the poem currently called 'undercover'.  Here it is:

undercover

they cant really tell with my clothes on
i think
them nasty
jokes wouldnt keep on coming if
they knew
i think
if i told them they'd say
you dont really look it
i think
then they'd look very close
because they're sure you can tell
     its the eyebrows george says
     you can tell them by the eyebrows


This poem expresses the experience of a person who feels like an outcast, who wonders if others know the secret thing that makes her an outcast. We don't know, in this version, what kind of outcast the speaker feels herself to be, and so we can't really evaluate if it is something that others really could detect.

The original version, which will be given below, is not subtle at all. It tells what kind of difference we are talking about right in the title. And so, perhaps, persons who otherwise might sympathize with the speaker of this version of the poem might not with the speaker of the original version.

The newer version, thus, may have wider appeal. But is it because of self-censorship--- or, perhaps even cowardice? Am I afraid to speak out on what the poem is really about, and be rejected by people I respect because of it?  I will give you the original version, below a break (you will have to click on 'Read more' to see it.)


undercover lesbian

they cant really tell with my clothes on
i think
the faggot & dyke
jokes wouldnt keep on coming if
they knew
i think
if i told them they'd say
you dont really look it
i think
then they'd look very close
because they're sure you can tell
     its the eyebrows george says
     you can tell them by the eyebrows


There's a little personal story behind this poem. When I was in high school, and long before I began to seriously think about topics such as my own sexual orientation, if any, I had two persecutors who rode by on their bikes every day as I walked to school. They threw rocks at me and called me a lesbian--- the first time I had ever heard that word spoken out loud. When they boys were finally identified, I was called with them into the principal's office and had to sit there while he expressed some sympathy with the boys, who, in his opinion, were provoked by the 'strange' way I dressed. (I wore informal long dresses to school while most of the girls wore miniskirts and halter tops.)

When later I finally admitted to myself that my orientation was less than heterosexual, it made me wonder if somehow those boys long ago had actually known something about me that I hadn't then known myself. Which brings up fears--- what stuff do other people, even strangers, just know about me that I don't even know myself?

The original version of the poem is less subtle, less universal--- does that make it stronger or weaker? It's hard to tell, really. The specifics on the original poem mean that the reaction of readers will be all caught up in their feelings about gay people, and the current social requirement that one either accept gay marriage as a governmental sacrament or be cast into the outer darkness.

I think the poem is about more than that single issue. The character speaking in the poem would not be in the least reassured if people told her 'no, dear, we don't care that you are a lesbian, we despise you because you are Catholic, or Jewish, or have an autism spectrum disorder, or wear an overly modest dress, or speak Esperanto in public....'

So, with much trepidation, I am asking for input. Which version of the poem do you think is more compelling and why? If I get more than seven intelligent responses (excluding spam and hate comments, in other words), I will take them under consideration in deciding which version of the poem will be included in the new Opium Cactus.  (I also could use a little feedback on the book title: should I stick with 'Where the Opium Cactus Grows' or prune it to 'Opium Cactus'?)

This post has been shared on Poetry Pantry #142

14 comments:

Mary said...

Nissa, I like the old version better, though I GOT what you were talking about in the new version. I, for one, appreciate the total openness in the old version. I also think that people CAN, if they want to, use the poem as a springboard to other differences if they wish. It doesn't have to only relate to being gay. But I do like this poem in that perhaps you will make people think if they THINK they can tell someone's sexual orientation by his/her clothing or actions or eyebrows or whatever. And I think you also get into the mind here of the lesbian as she wonders if the clothes she is wearing are hiding the fact of who she is inside. Lots of depth here.

I have a few suggestions. I would change the title to just 'undercover' as the lesbian aspect comes out soon enough, and the word 'undercover' makes the reader curious and want to read on.

In the phrase " because they're sure you can tell " I would change the 'you' to 'they.'

Your blurb above said you didn't want LONG comments. Sorry...you asked a complex question, so I gave it my best.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

Nissa, I am totally with Mary. I understood the first more general poem but I applaud the original, which is far stronger, a wonderful write which also makes the reader think about the narrowness of vision and the judgment of the kind of people who speak that way about other folks. I also think the title simply "undercover" is BRILLIANT. Good one, Mary.

So you have two votes for the original, kiddo. Loved your backstory explanations too, very much.

I think I like Where the Opium Cactus Grows best. Glad you are putting together a book.

Do you really have 32 cats? Well, animals are generally much better company than humans. Enjoy them!

McGuffy Ann said...

I agree with the above comments. It is open and accessible in the fist version. Your story was a very poignant explanation.
I have to wonder about the 32 Cats! I am an animal (cat mostly) rescuer!

Gretchen Leary said...

I also like the original version. This is a very interesting topic of discussion. I am always leary of making it know in my blog posts and I'm never quite sure why. Maybe I already feel judged as a woman with ASD that adding lesbian can at times make me feel very vulnerable although I've never had any nasty comments. I would go with the original :)

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm another, in agreement with what Mary said, including change to title, and with the similar agreements of everyone else. I do understand your reasons for wanting to broaden it, though, and if you feel you must, you need a much stronger line three than your current second version. Many people who make such jokes don't even think they're being nasty (though they certainly are); they think they're being hilarious. So that is what is wrong with version 2 and why version 1 is more powerful:you swapped a strong, uncompromising line for a vague, weak one. Also version 1 is necessary to set up the line with the dumb comment about the eyebrows. (Now, that IS hilarious, and not at the expense of gays.) Probably what the boys picked up was that you weren't flirting with them or trying to impress them. I doubt it was your eyebrows!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm another, in agreement with what Mary said, including change to title, and with the similar agreements of everyone else. I do understand your reasons for wanting to broaden it, though, and if you feel you must, you need a much stronger line three than your current second version. Many people who make such jokes don't even think they're being nasty (though they certainly are); they think they're being hilarious. So that is what is wrong with version 2 and why version 1 is more powerful:you swapped a strong, uncompromising line for a vague, weak one. Also version 1 is necessary to set up the line with the dumb comment about the eyebrows. (Now, that IS hilarious, and not at the expense of gays.) Probably what the boys picked up was that you weren't flirting with them or trying to impress them. I doubt it was your eyebrows!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm another, in agreement with what Mary said, including change to title, and with the similar agreements of everyone else. I do understand your reasons for wanting to broaden it, though, and if you feel you must, you need a much stronger line three than your current second version. Many people who make such jokes don't even think they're being nasty (though they certainly are); they think they're being hilarious. So that is what is wrong with version 2 and why version 1 is more powerful:you swapped a strong, uncompromising line for a vague, weak one. Also version 1 is necessary to set up the line with the dumb comment about the eyebrows. (Now, that IS hilarious, and not at the expense of gays.) Probably what the boys picked up was that you weren't flirting with them or trying to impress them. I doubt it was your eyebrows!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm another, in agreement with what Mary said, including change to title, and with the similar agreements of everyone else. I do understand your reasons for wanting to broaden it, though, and if you feel you must, you need a much stronger line three than your current second version. Many people who make such jokes don't even think they're being nasty (though they certainly are); they think they're being hilarious. So that is what is wrong with version 2 and why version 1 is more powerful:you swapped a strong, uncompromising line for a vague, weak one. Also version 1 is necessary to set up the line with the dumb comment about the eyebrows. (Now, that IS hilarious, and not at the expense of gays.) Probably what the boys picked up was that you weren't flirting with them or trying to impress them. I doubt it was your eyebrows!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm another, in agreement with what Mary said, including change to title, and with the similar agreements of everyone else. I do understand your reasons for wanting to broaden it, though, and if you feel you must, you need a much stronger line three than your current second version. Many people who make such jokes don't even think they're being nasty (though they certainly are); they think they're being hilarious. So that is what is wrong with version 2 and why version 1 is more powerful:you swapped a strong, uncompromising line for a vague, weak one. Also version 1 is necessary to set up the line with the dumb comment about the eyebrows. (Now, that IS hilarious, and not at the expense of gays.) Probably what the boys picked up was that you weren't flirting with them or trying to impress them. I doubt it was your eyebrows!

nissa_loves_cats said...

Thanks for the help. More backstory: in the years since I wrote the original version, I discovered I had Asperger Syndrome which explained a lot of the hostility I'd gotten from others over the years, hence my attempt to broaden.
As for the 'eyebrows' thing, it totally just popped into my head, but now, years later, it occurs to me that the straight girls were more likely to pluck their eyebrows and use an eyebrow pencil. So maybe 'George' was right? Or had good gaydar, anyway...

nissa_loves_cats said...

And, yes, I do have a lot of cats--- barn cats mostly. I'm not sure it's 32 because they come and go and some can't be caught. Certainly it will rise to the 32 level if some of the unneutered ones have kittens.

Sabio Lantz said...

I vote for the original. Clearer, direct and speak loudly. It communicates, where as for your newer version just makes be guess more than I'd like to.

Eyebrows? Damn, I never knew! :-)

Kim Nelson said...

I prefer the original. It is clear and intentional. The revisions feels stymied. Never stymie yourself!

You might also consider including the explanatory prose with your poems. This makes for an interesting, informative read. That is a book many would enjoy and learn from.

Serena Helriot said...

I prefer the older version because it feels more real. It not only touched me, it kicked me in the gut. It felt like you peeled a part of your soul back and let me look inside and thus, I got to feel your feelings... I felt the inhumanity, the horror in the specifics that isn't there in the generalized version. I think a great poem like yours will invite the reader to consider the generalized experience quite naturally. I can understand your trepidation; however, the older version was more powerful to me.

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