The first recollection is this: my sister, slamming down a book of elementary poetry and nursery rhymes for young children onto our kitchen table with all the authority two years and five inches gave her over me. At the age of four, I watched everything my sister did and absorbed all of it—felt her emotions and passions as my own; appropriated her language and mannerisms, shrugging and cocking my hip and letting words over three syllables flow off of my tongue with all the glee and delight I could have. She was done with the book, my sister solemnly declared. It was mine to borrow, if I wanted. I stared at it in the corner of my eye, body still cradled in my mother’s lap. I remember gripping my knobby knees to my chest so as to physically restrain myself from leaping at the book, devouring everything my sister had, clawing my way up to her unreachable intellect. I wanted. So bad.
I’ve wanted many things in my life. I look back on a hazy memory of that first book of rhymes, vaguely remember one about a little man lamenting the beat of the rain over his head. I’ve grown since—developed a nice even height with my sister (her claim of 5 ‘5’’ is FAKE) and read more poetry. I started writing poetry with a naïve, bumbling sincerity in middle school. My obsession with Edgar Allan Poe bled through unnecessarily dark, obvious lines that strained to rhyme. Even then, I was racing after my sister: I read her artfully obscure pieces and shamelessly cut out some of her metaphors to glue into mine. Even now, I marvel at her deft hand twisting images into emotion as I awkwardly press memories together.
I write poetry because it’s a part of me, creeping underneath every brimming thought. I catch the coattails of lines of poetry whirling out of me, scrambling for a paper to immortalize them for a moment. The roots deep in my lungs contract with every breath; exhaling in rhythm and rhyme, I toil with poetry’s escape from my imagination. If I’ve written a line of poetry I might consider to be decent, who am I writing for? Was this all a selfish ploy to examine my own desperate attempt at creativity? To glitter under watching eyes and bathe in their attention?
I brush these creeping anxieties away to convince myself that what I’ve made is good—enough to define it through my own judgment. It’s mine, I say to the worries puddled on the ground. I’ve made it. No one else needs to see it.
The masses look upon the artist and deem it an instrument for creation: a way to produce something they deserve to look at. Good, they say. Make more. Quickly, so we have something to watch. This is their economy of efficient creation, of the rapid consumption of art. The masses shout: who does the work benefit, if not for the people consuming it?
Admittedly, at some points I’ve written poetry for the sake of submitting them to a competition, or for a project, for my carefully selected words to be seen and scrutinized by others. I copy and paste a poem into the blank box of a Google Form and think of when I wrote for the sake of writing. When I stuck my chin on my sister’s shoulder and saw a smoky vision curl out from under her fingers, gripped tight around a pencil I was never allowed to borrow. I watch the blinking cursor waiting for the next stanza and curse myself for not being better than I am.
Here is where I look back upon everything I’ve written and wonder if artistry is inherently selfish. I create because I think of it. I create because it was within me, and about me. I make something because I told myself I was willing. I write poetry because a prompt told me to, and I submit it because I want to be told it is worth something.
My work is my own, yet nothing of determined value without an audience. Who am I to judge my own creation, to assume I’ve made anything of worth? Look at what I’ve done. Make me certain it’s not my delusion in believing my words to be art.
Who is your art for?
I’ve wanted attention for my own intellect since I was four years old, poring through the book of childish poetry; since I wrote an awful poem about death and wondered if that made me a poet; since I wrote some slightly better poetry last week and wondered if it counted as art. I don’t think I can call my own work an art without the validation of others. What does this say?
It would be easier to say I write poetry for myself. To boldly claim, as an earlier draft of this piece did, that every artist has a definitive claim over their creations that make them “art.” It is theirs, and theirs alone, and no other has a hold over it. I said I was an artist, and thus was so.
Who says I have the power to speak anything I think into truth? I don’t. Neither do you. Not the artist, nor the audience. Nothing I create is real until it is not of myself. But everything I make is of me, despite—or because of—the selfishness and need for validation for it all.
Look back on the child, now: sitting with a curved back to her mother’s stomach, staring at the book her sister gave her permission to read. The words seemed to take property within her still-malleable mind as she devoured every page. When the child begins to write, watch her carefully. Look at her when she says yes, I made this—how could it belong to anyone else?
Who is your art for? Or perhaps this is the wrong question. Why, then, do you make art? The child scribbling on green construction paper does not look up from her stubborn quest. It was something about running, or cartwheels, or a sister, but that is irrelevant. You nudge her once, in a bony shoulder that will grow with scars from her own fingernails, as to prompt the question again. She does not look up, but pauses from scrawling another uneven, childish, wobbly letter. Because I like it, she says. Because it came out of me. And that will be so.