Please don't pee in the pool: ethics and swimming the backchannel

Since returning from the NWP annual meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which I engage with the backchannel.  First of all, I believe that the ways in which the backchannel functions depends on me and the responsibility I take for my own actions.  I need to evaluate every tweet to make sure that it is not noise, know when it is important to validate what others are saying by sharing links or posting comments, and also when to just be quiet and watch the backchannel flow by.  In short, I have to make sure that I am not the one peeing in the pool. This year at the NWP annual meeting, we were all encouraged to engage in myriad digital spaces,  including twitter, where we engaged by hastagging with #nwpam09.

For the most part, I am an avid surfer of the backchannel and enthusiastically encouraged my fellows to engage there with me.  But there was one moment where I felt the little pangs of an ethical dilemma during my Philadelphia conference experience.

It was Billy Collins’ keynote speech to NWP.  After meeting Mr. Collins that morning, I was truly excited to hear him speak.  I am, after all, a poet at heart and loved what he accomplished as poet laureate with his Poetry 180 initiative.  Billy Collins is a dynamic speaker, and he takes unapologetic aim at all manner of societal annoyances.  Because I find Twitter a bit clunky for a key note, I switched over to to live blog the keynote.  A few people joined me there as I followed the keynote.

Here is where it got tricky for me.  Billy Collins began to discuss the discourse practices of young women, what is commonly known as the “OH. MY. GAWD.” phenomenon.  He skewered this phrase and followed it with a poem about a young woman on a date who overused the phrase into absurdity.  The whole room laughed.  Shortly thereafter, he read his poem, “Simile” in which he responds to what he described as what “women truly want…to be compared to things.”  The poem, if you are not familiar with it, is a satire of love poetry, in which the woman is compared to more and more ridiculous things.

As the self-elected live blogger for the keynote, I felt a responsibility to maintain an objective voice, to not editorialize too much and to certainly not criticize.  But here was a man who was mocking the discourse practices of young women, who indicated with his comments and his poetry that women care for nothing more than to be compared to something, anything.  I squirmed under this mockery and struck me that if Billy Collins were mocking the halting English of a recent immigrant or any other non-standard English speaker, that we would not be laughing with him.  We would find it racist.  But here we were, a room with a majority of women, laughing as Billy Collins mocked women.  We did not name it as chauvinist.

Meanwhile, in the backchannel, I wrote “Billy needs to take it easy on us girls.”  But I felt the ick in my stomach.  Because what I wanted to say was: I am offended by this.  I am tired of young women being characterized in this manner.  It’s too easy.  You can bemoan the destruction of the English language, but that is a tired topic. Don’t dress up this chauvinist rhetoric and call it poetry.  Don’t make me laugh with you at myself (who, admittedly, blogged this phrase only moments before he took aim at it, “OMG. I am getting teary-eyed.”)

In the end, do I think that Billy Collins is anti-feminist? Not really.  Was it really so bad? Again, not really.  But if I had some of my young female students in the audience, I would have wanted to shield them from that.  Because it is hard enough to be a young woman sometimes, without the poet laureate making fun of the ways in which you speak, these little discourse practices that are used socially, as jokes, as a way to engage without thinking too hard.

So in the end, I keep questioning my role in the backchannel.  I want to keep it a place to learn, to play, to splash around and laugh. I don’t know that there are always easy answers to this, because before the back channel, I would never had to have considered my response.  It would not be immortalized in a live blog or on a twitter feed.  What we as teachers have to realize is that the way we are growing writers these days is to also grow ethical contributors to the conversation.  And for me, being an ethical contributor can be fraught: to comment or to stay silent?  Does my silence indicate assent or apathy?  I am still struggling with both the questions and the answers.

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5 thoughts on “Please don't pee in the pool: ethics and swimming the backchannel

  1. Andrea
    I’m glad you wrote this because you made me remember the session in a different light and you are right to be wondering about the response we all should have had, and then your own response as a blogger behind the scenes. I don’t have an answer for you … sorry to say … but I think your reflection has me wondering about my own role in covering events. I used to be a newspaper reporter, and I was skilled in the world of objective writing. I don’t feel that way as a blogger — I use work through my own views through reflective writing. But when we think about audience, then your question comes into view. What do we owe our audience at that point? I guess I would say, you owe it to the poeople listening in to be true to your perceptions and if they don’t like it, or disagree with it, then they have the option of leaving the space or mounting a defense.
    But really, your post has me thinking.
    So, thanks.


  2. OH MY GOD, Andrea, I cannot believe how wholly you erred in processing Billy’s words. I hope that all who read your blog also read this, and I hope that you remember the names of everyone you told about this afterward so that you can correct yourself. What you wrote above borders on libel. It is so NOT what Billy said, meant, or meant to say.

    Billy Collins is not a misogynist, nor is he remotely belittling women and/or girls. He is most assuredly NOT a chauvinist (a word you misspelled). I am thinking that you were so busy being the “self-elected live blogger” for Billy’s keynote address that you missed his tone. You were so busy trying to make sense of what he was saying that you truly weren’t able to listen.

    I’m someone who has known Billy for quite a long time, count him among my friends, and have entertained him in my home and been entertained in his on any number of occasions. I am not telling you this to show my bias in his favor no matter what he does or says– I am telling you this so you will know I truly know the man and what he stands for. I do not have only one experience of hearing him speak, one in which I was busy thumb-tapping as his words came rolling out. I also know Billy’s work very well, and I have heard him speak to audiences many, many times.

    You incorrectly said that it was Billy’s poem “Simile” in which he was basically putting down women by saying what they want is metaphors. “Simile” is, in fact, the poem with the refrain “I was like give me a break,” and in that poem, Billy is making fun of an overused phrase. You were talking about “Litany”– “You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine…”

    What Billy said, and what you missed because of your thumb-tapping, is that wrong-headed poets mistakenly assume that what women want is to be compared to things. His “Litany” is a parody of that mistaken idea. Don’t you remember Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”? “Litany” is in that vein of parody against the idea that women have to be compared to things, though Billy’s approach is different. Shakespeare defends his beloved by saying her breath isn’t sweet, but he still loves her kisses. Billy makes fun of the whole idea of simile and metaphor by making up wild and crazy metaphors the world would never hear or see otherwise.

    Billy’s poem is actually in defense of women, because he is making fun of what the male poets mistakenly believe women want and in their simplification of their needs, disparage women in the process. Billy’s poem is a criticism of how women are portrayed in traditional love poetry. He is making fun of the idea that the way to a woman’s heart is through flattery.

    As for “Oh My God,” Billy is again making fun of an overused phrase. The narrator of his poem is, as he says, “a rather naive fellow” who is so naive as to think that these young girls are actually praying. He just doesn’t get the phrase; he’s out of the loop of pop culture. Billy is making fun of the language we use, not the people who use it. My teenage daughter doesn’t think the poem is funny– but her brothers sure do. She says “Oh my God” ad nauseum, and they don’t. This fact is something Billy has observed in the schools he visits all over the place, all the time– middle schools, high schools, and colleges alike. Usually, teachers think he hit a bullseye with this poem. But then again, they’re not out to tie his lecture to a chair and torture a confession out of it.

    You misjudged Billy Collins. He is a defender of women, a champion of women. And he’s a really nice, polite, sincere person. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be his friend and I wouldn’t care to defend him here. (At such length.)

  3. Andrea,

    You’ve raised some very interesting questions. Two years ago, during a NECC session, I joined a backchannel discussion (can’t remember who was blogging the session) and noticed how rapidly negative comments, which were meant to be funny, could escalate into a pretty mean-spirited conversation.

    I think it’s possible to “be true to your own perceptions” (Kevin’s words) and still be “ethical contributors to a conversation.”

    Still thinking it,

  4. Oops, meant to say “still thinking about it.”

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. Lawyerpoetgirl is absolutely right: I did reference the titles of the poems incorrectly. Blogging doesn’t always lend itself to editing: another thing I agonize over.
    To address the issues Lawyerpoetgirl raises, that my “thumb-tapping” prevented me from really understanding the comments and the poetry, she could be right. This was another reason I felt that I had to go home, listen to the keynote again after it was posted, and re-read the poems. I stand by my initial feeling of “ick” about “Simile,” the poem in which Mr. Collins takes aim at those aforementioned discourse practices of young women. I had read “Litany” before and have read the Shakespeare sonnet which he is satirizing, but it was really the comments Mr. Collins stated before reading the poem in conjunction with “Simile” that gave me pause. Re-reading my post, I did not state that Mr. Collins was a misogynist. But a whole society which finds it amusing to make fun of the discourse practices of young women might have a ways to go in terms of avoiding chauvinism.
    I purposefully stopped typing to listen to Mr. Collins read his poetry when I was live blogging. I have read and studied Mr. Collins’ poetry. I still had this reaction. When analyzing poetry through a feminist theory lens, or a queer theory lens, of an African-American studies lens, one often unearths things that may or may not have been intended by the author. Just like with this blog post, you read ideas into it that I may or may not have intended. This is what makes publishing so terrifying. This is also making the point that the backchannel can initiate unintended consequences when contributors state ideas without thinking them through. Even my well-thought out blog post brought forth consequences in your response (the need to defend him against my statements) that I had not intended. I am sorry if I offended, but I stand by my reading of “Simile,” and the larger issues the backchannel creates. Backchannels at keynotes are not going away, and as ethical contributors we have questions to answer.

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