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Moving Past the But-but-but-let-me-explain phenomenon

When a mommy blog, Brain, Child, published my poem, “The Art of Saying No,” I did not expect the backlash from some readers. One woman commented on their Facebook page – “I wholeheartedly disagree with this post…Encouraging someone to say no to volunteering at school simply because you didn’t have a good experience? That’s pathetic.” What? Honestly, my first response was shock. It had never occurred to me that this tongue-in-cheek poem would incite anger or debate. Of course you should join the PTA, right? I mean come on people, I’ve written about a pot-smoking Jesus and this is what gets you worked up?

It all started with an imitation exercise of a Naomi Shihab Nye poem, “The Art of Disappearing.” Like Nye, I wanted to start with an idea contrary to what I would normally automatically say yes to, something so unexpected it becomes absurdly humorous. Her poem begins, “When they say Don’t I know you?/say no.” Nye’s poem explores the cost of individual meditations for social interactions. She says, “It’s not that you don’t love them anymore./You’re trying to remember something/too important to forget.” My poem is not a literal “don’t ever volunteer again” just like Nye’s is not a “don’t ever spend time with other people.” Her abrupt exaggerations add humor. Then, at the close she punches you in the gut with a gentle metaphor of a leaf about to tumble (what most poems and stories ultimately lead to – impending death). While my poem is not near the skill of Nye, it was a craft exercise that I thought turned out pretty good –good enough to share with others and maybe get a laugh. Brain, Child accepted it on October 7th and ran it January 8th.

The shock that my poem triggered some readers’ anger, quickly spiraled into a self-defensive “But, but, but….let me explain!” I wanted to unleash a deluge of my numerous volunteer experiences with three kids. I’ve been Room Mom for a decade and a half people – even grade level lead – so put that in your Vera Bradley tote and smoke it! They were all going to eat their keyboards after reading the lengthy tally of my generosities: Let me describe in excruciating detail that time I climbed inside the popcorn stand to clean it after the end of year picnic, filled hundreds of water balloons for 2nd grade field day, supervised 5th grade musical rehearsals, prepped and worked at a billion school parties from pre-school to high school, wrote the high school newsletter, filled an infinite number of goodie bags, coached my 4-year-old’s soccer team, hell, for several years I was even Volunteer Committee Chair, in charge of recruiting parent volunteers for the entire elementary school, and the list goes on and on… See? See? I can be just as self-righteous as you!

After the Shock and Self-defensive phases, I entered the OH-MY-GOD-I’m-So-Sorry-I’m-a-Horrible-Person phase. I questioned that maybe I was sending the wrong message, more negative crap into the great-wide world of negative crappiness already out there, instead of the go-be-a-strong woman message I wanted (what I’m really sorry for are all the hyphens in this paragraph). I delved into the self-pity pit of maybe I’m not only an awful writer but also a sad case of humanity and, of course, womankind. Eventually, I reigned myself in a bit and clamped back down to reality. The reality is that over 200 people presumably “got it” and liked the poem on the Brain, Child blog and only one person felt the need to post a negative comment. Almost 50 readers liked the Brain, Child Facebook post and a handful posted negative comments.

In the end I decided not to reply to any of the comments. It’s generally considered bad form for an author to enter into the fray. This was my moment to take public criticism and apply it like a salve of courage on my writing journey. As one of my supporters told me, “You are nothing until some people on the internet hate you.” We all bring our own perceptions into each story, poem, social media post, and, hell, even interactions in line at the grocery. You see things how you see them. What I do want to say is this – What good is poetry if it never gets us to moments we gloss over in our everyday lives? Allen Ginsberg said, “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.” With three school-age children, I would never not join the PTA. But I have had many, many moments of feeling so desperately overwhelmed trying to juggle everything that goes along with three kids and society’s expectations that a big, fat NO needed to be expressed. I wrote this poem for those women who don’t ever say no, not to start some “slacker” revolution like my naysayers fear.

I did reply to the over-zealous woman who sent me 7 personal tweets like this one – “Why is someone coaching the 5th grade math team? Because my tenured husband volunteers his time.” I sent a conciliatory tweet that I understood how she felt and that the poem was meant as one overwhelmed moment only, not as an anti-volunteering essay, to which she replied with 3 more rants (impressive limited to 140 characters) about how much she and her tenured husband do for their school. I let her have the last tweet and left it at that – maybe she needed that moment of saying NO (or maybe she’s just crazy).

Do I feel bad I caused anguish in a few hard-working moms? Actually, I do…but I’m trying to quiet that nagging voice that wants to please everybody and listen to the one (in a husky Italian Godmother accent) that’s murmuring - out of the readers who “got it,” perhaps someone found solace and her own small moment of peace. Or, maybe it’s the voice of the poet Tony Hoagland, who said, “I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes. I think poems can be too careful. A poem is not a teddy bear.”

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