The Ploughshares Round-Down: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Its Backlash

Writing MoralsOkay writers, it’s 2014. And what better way start a new year than with an enormous media controversy surrounding a Scorcese film? I KNOW: perfect.

If you’ve missed it (I’m sure you’ve had your noses to the ol’ writing grindstone), here’s the deal:

The Wolf of Wall Street is a Martin Scorcese film based on a true story. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the debauched Jordan Belfort, who got his start “peddling penny stocks to the poor and desperate,” and wound up swindling over $100 million from thousands of investors—many of whom didn’t recover. But apparently criminal schemes and unconscionable excesses make for good cinema; The Guardian described the film as “throwing off sparks,” and luring viewers with its “infectious fun.” Hooray!

Except that the “fun” this movie has via Jordan Belfort’s despicable behavior is creating a massive uproar. Does it glamorize criminality? Minimize suffering? Or merely testify to reality? The debate has implications for storytellers everywhere, so I’m bringing you into the fray.

Columnists have accused! Bloggers have ranted! Moviegoers have walked out! This makes for a mid-January win for all of us. Read up, weigh in, and then go write your way into controversy.

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Chucking “Art for Art’s Sake” – Writers and Social Impact

will write for social changeOne morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.

audrelordeLeaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:

We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…

Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?

is this gonna get political

(No.)

Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.

But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-”activist” writers can take to dive in:

  1. Identify Our Stories
  2. Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
  3. Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”

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Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public, Part Two

A couple months ago, my blog, “Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public” nearly caused a riot. Teeth were bared! F bombs thrown! I wanted readers to learn from pop music’s ability to connect with more people. Readers translated this as a suggestion that poetry be like pop music, sell like pop music, sell out like pop music, and compete with pop music. But actually (gasp!), none of these is necessary for one to learn from pop music. So, dear poets, you can climb out of your bunkers.

I can’t help but think this ruckus was inspired by the very Myth my post was blasting: that merely discussing “audience”—particularly one as large as pop music’s—will cause all poetry to suddenly and irrevocably mutate into “California Gurls.” 

We’re afraid that if we admit we want (more) readers, we’ll start writing what we think they want… or measuring the validity of poetry by its sales. Dear poets, this doesn’t have to be. Yes, writing-for-sales spells creative death. But once a work is completed? Perhaps the gracious thing then is to put it where it can be found.

Unfortunately, here we often encounter a similar myth: that wanting readers isn’t a noble enough desire for “real” poets—that we should instead write strictly “because we must,” or because “the muse has us.” Nobody wants to actively seek a readership and thus prove herself a disgrace.

But as George Orwell has famously illustrated, there are (valid!) motivations for writing that actually require a readership. And if our work is driven to any degree by its potential human impact, as Orwell’s was, it’s irresponsible to eschew the work of reaching out. This was what I wanted us to translate from pop music: Its gritty determination. Its insistence on being heard. Its put-our-stuff-where-folks-will-find-it creativity. Its refusal of insularity.

It’s time for writers to stop feeling shallow or guilty for wanting what only makes sense: to be read. It’s time we stop policing each other’s motives and frowning on self-promotion, and instead empower each other to explore where our poetry can go. Why? Because if readers are required to want and seek poetry in order to find it, we’ll never get beyond each other. If the wider world’s not reading poetry, it’s at least in part because it rarely encounters it. That’s what we can change.Continue Reading

Why Poetry Can’t Find its Public

Hey Poets.

I was in LA last month for music work, and I think I found something you dropped:

The public. There, there.

So—Maybe you weren’t sure when you lost it, but you seem pretty certain music stole it. Or film perhaps? Or YouTube cats?

Meanwhile, poetry’s stayed alive. It’s been breeding and cloning; there are more of us all the time! (Thank god; someone’s gotta read our poems.) We’re like the Duggar Couple, happy we’ll always have at least our 19 fans.

But for all our liveliness, poetry’s not exactly on speaking terms with the public. By which I mean, we don’t speak to it. Except in English class.

So anyway, when I found your public, it was like, “Idk, I never hear from poetr—Oh hey! I love this song!”
And then I knew: We have to snag lessons from a genre that beats us out for public love. What can we learn from pop music? Continue Reading