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I'm A Believer
Heather Neale

'If art and real life are two separate and disconnected entities, one "interrupting" the other, what is the point of art?'

An Indian woman clad in a violet silk sari sits before a room full of poetry aficionados in a dismal hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. Her gold hoop earrings sparkle, illuminate the silver spun into her hair like tree garland. She sighs into the microphone, pauses for effect, and reads her story:
Man meets and marries woman, man beats and carries woman to the bedroom, man is an idiot, unconscious of his own physical strength, and simultaneous lack of power.
Woman has power (and intuition) but no comparable physical strength to exert it. Her mother tells her she must be a "good Indian woman." He wins, she submits. Same old Song, play it again Sam.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, screaming ensues. We first hear arguing, a booming voice followed by a high-pitched retort. Then a slam. A drunk black man has stumbled in off the street and has picked a fight with the Latin waitress. We run to her aid, try in vain to help, grab the man as best we can and tell him to "get the fuck out." The man proceeds to strangle the waitress, then throws her to the floor, leaving her to sob. He pushes us off him into the wall, kicks me and yells, "I’ll deal with you later, I’ll get you later." Then he runs. Fast, away, like a spooked saskwatch out the back door, far from accountability and the law - far from sobriety and remorse. Away from the waitress whom he loves…most of the time in his unconventional way.

Only then does the Indian woman stop reading her story, storm into the kitchen and scold the waitress for interrupting the poetry - the "words." It’s the words that matter after all, not the waitress’s safety and well-being as she lies beaten on the floor, holding her knees like silent babies. And the Indian woman understands this because she has been beaten too, by the man who met her, wed her, beat her and carried her to the bedroom. By the same man she wails about on stage now with her "words." This is the man she curses at night as she curls herself into the fetal position in bed, locks her doors and checks them twice, keeps 911 on speed dial, and awaits the safety of daylight.

This scenario left me shaking. I listened after the fact as the Latin waitress explained that this was nothing. "In my country, you get beat up everyday; you have to learn to be smart." I think she refers to my cocky presumption in grabbing the man. The thing was, it was all I knew to do. Fight or flight. I had no wings.
But fighting and abuse and hurt and safety aside, it was the Indian woman that got me upset. Among other things, her reaction brought into question for me the whole purpose of writing poetry. Why write words if you don’t mean them? Why try and hash out the emotionally damaging and sometimes fatal implications of domestic abuse through your art if you are not going to fight for its termination in real life? If art and real life are two separate and disconnected entities, one "interrupting" the other, what is the point of art?

Like sports fisherman who kill merely for the sadistic pleasure, writing about life’s atrocities and then standing back to enable - and even encourage by omission- their perpetuation, seems a trite hypocritical to me. There was a knot in my stomach following the beating, but there was a lump the size of my stomach, kidneys, lungs and brain put together when this woman finished scolding her poetic deterrent.

Poetry in its ideal form is created to act as a tool for public awareness on larger world issues. It seeks to explore the consequences of our decisions as human beings and to hold us accountable for our own actions. It does this by capturing minute life instances: a young boy gazing into soporific clouds, a mother watching her baby die of measles on paisley linoleum, war rallies in xanadu parks, pretentious dilettantes staring at each other from across café tables, or even ladybugs walking the periphery of leaves. These instances can all comment on something grander than themselves, just as we can comment on the universe, of which we are certainly not more grand. They can capture our humanity in their simplicity, and help us to glimpse ourselves from a point of triangulation- like stars, (and not the Hollywood species.)

And then, on the other hand, there is poetry that serves as a vehicle for recognition. Poetry earns you respect. Publication gets you laid. We’ve all tried that line at a party. To be identified as a poet is a status symbol, a way of being revered and praised under the compliment "artist", an association that in our academically hierarchical world holds clout. But then, can you categorize yourself as a poet if you don’t live your words? Where do the lines of imagination and testimonial meet? And is it necessary to believe what you write? There are so many answers to these questions.

During this ignominious juxtaposition of events and all the irony associated with them, there was this clear and even anger-ridden distinction being drawn between art as realist social commentary serving to make the public aware of another being’s heartache and ensuing struggle to overcome, and on the other hand, art as sport, as a means of spouting syrupy egotism from the top of the champagne glass pyramid, turning the other cheek to what’s really going on, and inhaling the superficial praise. To have the audacity to claim one’s adoption of the selfless poet motive, and simultaneously not practice it, is just wrong.

I guess that is the answer to the question: write what you live, or don’t, but either way, own up to it.
The Latin waitress stayed coiled up in the corner that night, waiting for the fear to end. The Indian woman went home and waited for her own hell to start.

© Heather Neale September 2003

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