Essay: Both Voices Are Valuable; Both Should Be Heard by Susan Yanos
Susan Yanos was selected last year as our Frontier Fellow—she is a wonderfully insightful writer and represents a voice and perspective not heard enough in our shared creative spaces. We proudly publish this essay of hers, on the inclusion and nuance of age diversity, with the happy announcement that her debut collection has just been released. Order The Tongue Has No Bone from Finishing Line Press today!
A friend of mine, a family therapist, continues to meet clients although she is long past retirement age—at least I think she is. She never reveals her age because of the insufferable questions she gets from, I suppose, well-meaning others curious about why she’s still working: does she have to, does she really want to, is she still competent to? Now that I am approaching that age barrier myself, I am noticing such attitudes. Just the other month, a 30-something member of my writing group said after reading my draft, “You put two spaces after a period.”
“Yes,” I said, “I was taught to do so.”
“Yeah, my mother does that.”
Nothing about spacing and meaning, or about punctuation and the experience of reading the poem. The rest of the group, all younger than I, nodded their heads knowingly, making me feel I’d done something wrong. Apparently no one spaces after a period anymore, thanks to word processing programs. I had no idea my typing skills signaled my age.
So it’s a bit embarrassing really to admit that I am an emerging poet with my first collection being published this winter. I feel like I’m at a meeting of some twelve-step group: Hello, I’m Susan, and I’m a first-time poet at age, well, never mind what age. Now I’m not suggesting that writing poetry is a disease, although perhaps in my case it is. But everyone, it seems, assumes that any self-respecting poet of my years would already be established or—heaven forbid—might be starting to lose her sharpness with words or her relevance to what’s current in literature.
I came to poetry late because the experiences I found myself writing about did not, would not, reveal within the genres I usually worked. I needed a different way of being with language. But I’m finding that in today’s publishing world, age does matter. A recent essay I read claimed that writers are at their most powerful in their young adulthood. I politely disagree. It has taken me decades to hone my skills and just as long to understand my experiences. In my youth, I figured I wouldn’t come into my stride until I was at least fifty, needing years as an apprentice to the craft.
Differences between the professional expectations and work habits of millennials and my generation are the themes of television sitcoms and films. Other differences also exist, such as between the literature courses offered at my daughters’ colleges and those offered when I was a student, trained by New Critics who taught that an author’s gender, sexual orientation, race, political bias and so on were not important to the study of literature, that good literature, in fact, transcended those classifications. I’ve kept up with trends in literary criticism, but I’m learning that editors do see differences between my work and that of younger poets, and those differences are as subtle as how I type or how I write about the body or how I discover identity.
Perhaps a major factor separating me from younger poets is that I am in that stage of life when the journey becomes very different from what came before. During the first half, we work to strengthen the ego, for without a strong ego, we would never leave our parents’ basements to build careers, families, and identities of our own; we’d never survive writing workshops and editors’ rejections. We discover and claim an “I” that shouts its existence, sees its pain as unique and avoidable, and believes its dreams are still possible—thwarted, altered, or delayed as they may be.
At some point, we realize that we do not possess a large enough cache of unlived years to achieve all those dreams, and we have the opportunity to step from behind the ego to discover another sense of self. Scott Russell Sanders wrote beautifully about what this means for a writer’s point of view in his essay “The Singular First Person.” He says the “I” is no longer the subject of the work but its eye—the way to witness a reality outside the self which can be known—to some extent at least—and to which one is accountable. The second half of life may become a period of disorientation and dismantling, when we realize that we have built our beliefs, opinions, and values upon a perspective which turns out to be unavoidably biased and upon memories which are, by their very nature, unreliable and flawed. What we once held as certain, we now question. Ways of knowing we relied upon fail us. What we considered merely ordinary and temporal reveals the sacred and eternal—or may mire us in ennui if we cannot step from behind the mask of the “I.”
Anger is often problematic during this journey, especially if long buried. I’ve found in my work that anger can fuel and inspire, but it can also silence and destroy. The challenge has been to find the literary techniques which will hold the anger without letting the work become a howling complaint—the reason, I’ve come to realize, I turned to poetry with its constraints of space and line, meter and rhyme. And whereas anger is expected, even tolerated in the young as they rebel against injustices real or perceived, it can sound bitter and defeating in the old. Yet both voices are valuable; both should be heard.
My undergraduate students did not much care for Scott Sanders, finding him a bit “too old” for their taste, and I wonder if that is not also sometimes the case for readers selecting works from the slush pile for possible publication. I am grateful to Frontier Poetry for having the vision to create a fellowship for emerging older writers and for giving me the opportunity to reflect on how age may indeed influence how one sees, how one writes.
Susan Yanos is the author of the collection of poetry The Tongue Has No Bone (Finishing Line Press), Woman, You Are Free: A Spirituality for Women in Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press), and is co-editor and co-author of Emerging from the Vineyard: Essays by Lay Ecclesial Ministers (Fortuity Press). Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared in several journals and publications, including Saint Katherine Review, Presence, Bearings, Dictionary of Midwestern LiteratureVolume Two, and the on-line journal Atrium. She is also the recipient of the 2018 Frontier Poetry New Voices Fellowship. She has been a professor of writing and literature, pastoral minister, spiritual director, and editor. She lives with her husband on their farm in east central Indiana where she tends to her hens, fruit trees, and gardens.