In the May/Summer 2017 issue of “The Writer’s Chronicles,” AWP’s writing magazine, it featured an essay titled, “You Are Making God Now: Writing God as a Contemporary American Poet” by Joy Ladin.
Yeah, the title’s kind of a mess (but so is the article) and it’s not accurate for what the enter essay is really about, but I’ll get into that in a moment. I’m just going to start this article by saying, when I received this magazine, it had a large paper taped to the front telling me, “This could be your last issue!” with information on how to buy more. A couple months back I wrote a post Chronicles’” where I addressed the insane amount of social justice that was in just one disgusting issue. I’m sick and tired of ‘white guilt’ and blame being thrown around by people who can’t take responsibility for their own failures but are more than happy to glorify themselves for their successes. In that issue, at least two to three of the featured essays shit on white people and how they ‘kept black people down.’ Some even continued to say white people still stopped black people from writing with some claims as ludicrous as, “Well, we aren’t doing it… so obviously white people. We don’t have a language, so obviously white people are stopping us.”
Though I’d been receiving The Writer’s Chronicles for two years, I really hadn’t been paying too much attention to them (shame on me). I’d get them, skim for the submission information, and pretty much ignore everything else, but this issue had blaring titles of blame and racism, so I had to read, and I was severely disappointed. It was at this point that I said, unless they change their tune, I’m not spending any more money on this stupid magazine.
Then I went to #AWP17, what’s supposed to be a huge writing conference with panels, book sales, indie publishers and retreats, and a place to just network with other professional and aspiring writers. Instead of meeting a lot of cool people with a lot of cool ideas, I was met with more social justice. More than half the panels and events were social justice related, the book sale was interrupted by a random group of #NotMyPresident protesters, disrupting everyone, graffiti to a men’s publisher table, and nasty comments toward anyone with opinions that weren’t #WithHer wearing a pussy hat. Read my summary of the events here at Why I’m Disappointed in #AWP17.
After AWP I decided, okay, well, people said this was a huge, helpful event, but I didn’t feel like it was that helpful and I felt like I could spend the same amount of money somewhere else, meeting people that would actually be helpful for my growth. If AWP doesn’t turn it around, I’m not going to spend money on them anymore.
Well, if I was on the fence before, I’m not anymore and it’s all thanks to you, Ms. Ladin and your terribly self-justifying excuse of an essay.
The title “You Are Making God Now” is less about writing and more about replacing absolute truth with relative truth because Ladin rejects all forms of reality so she can replace it with her own. She’s “Making God Now” because she’s decided she is god now and she wants to convince everyone else that they are too.
The essay starts:
“Why is it so hard for American poets to write about God?”
My initial response was, and still is because a majority of popular, self-proclaimed poets are nihilistic atheists who vehemently hate God. Why would someone who hates the subject matter not only want to write about it but be good at writing about it?
“American poets continue to “thirst or the Absolute” to the present day, but the voice of the thunder has grown even harder to hear. In most American poems that represent the Divine, God is reduced to an empty concept, a toothless patriarchal caricature, a generalized wonder at nature, or, sometimes, a disappointed wish for something beyond us, something that is not us, something that could unlock the prison of individual consciousness.”
I don’t think Ladin realizes that this isn’t just a problem for poets, but it’s also a problem for prose writers. In March I reviewed Paul Trembley’s novel, “A Head Full of Ghosts,” which is basically a leftist fanfiction remake of “The Exorcist.” I say ‘leftist’ because Tremblay makes political leaning a point in his writing and even goes so far as to state there’s a difference between “conservative horror” and “progressive horror.” Based on his argument, the best way to summarize it is that conservative horror doesn’t suck–but I digress.
In my review of Trembley’s novel, I state how atheists only know two types of ‘religion’ or ‘Christian.’ It’s either the Catholics for the exorcisms that appear on just about every horror or ghost show ever made. The exception to Catholic exorcists is when they’re Catholic pedophiles instead. The other is the fire and brimstone, damn you all to hell style Baptists. Many people associate Baptists with the Westboro Baptist Church, which is neither Baptist nor Christian.
Because religious identities and relationships are stereotyped into these two directions, a majority of nonreligious people have trouble writing them, not just poets, and that’s because they have no interest in religion, and even hate it. My assumption is they hate it so much, they don’t want to research it to write better. You know, like, most good writers will research crimes, ways to create a bomb, how to build a plane, lots of things just to be accurate in their descriptions in the books, but when it comes to religious relationships, nonreligious people, more often than not, refuse to any additional research in order to better understand the ‘religion’ they’re going to write about. That’s why it comes down to the ‘toothless patriarchal character’ Ladin mentions. They just don’t care, so they insert whatever image they already have in their head.
If I was going to write a story set in Japan, but really had no interest in being accurate or fully dimensioning the characters, then I’d just make something up based on whatever stereotypes of Japan I have: yakuza, school girls, rape trains, business as usual. Those might be present in Japanese culture, but there’s no dimension to writing the most basic cardboard cutout of those aspects. There’s no culture, there’s no character, and the shallow presentation shows a lack of interest.
The same can be said about anyone who writes about God or religion but truly has no interest or loyalty in it. Even a religious scholar who studies world religions for the sake of culture would have more respect and interest in God, His character, and his presentation than most nihilistic “modern American poets” who try to write him.
Ladin never actually addresses this as an interest level. She never addresses this on a research level or making God a fully developed character, but rather, turns this into a personal confessional essay.
“I used to take it for granted that American poets couldn’t, and shouldn’t, represent God as a living presence. In every workshop, at every level, it was understood that although the occasional snarky, skeptical, or angry representation of God was acceptable, poems that portray God not as a human projection or convention but as existential fact, were considered, by definition, subliterary, “devotional verse” that might have a place in church newsletters but were unworthy of consideration by poetry workshops or literary magazines.”
So earlier she asked,
“Why are our portrayals of God so empty and bleh?” and just a paragraph later she says, “we, the self-proclaimed literary community, rejected any portrayal of God that wasn’t a caricature because that shit belongs in church, not in our writer’s circle.”
Do you not see what the problem here is? You’re saying there’s a lack of deeper character, deeper meaning behind God in modern American poetry… while actively rejecting poets who write a deeper God in modern American poetry.
This assumption was so pervasive that it took me decades to wonder why American poets disdain subject matter that has inspired some of the greatest poetry in English,”
I’ve got an easy answer for you: because many atheists, nihilists, and the like, despite God with all their being. Because He stands for an Absolute truth and their relative version of life doesn’t fit with the Absolute truth. The only way to reconcile this is by rejecting the Absolute to make way for themselves. I listen to more than a couple atheists across social and political viewpoints. Don’t think I’m lumping them all together because some aren’t as vicious towards Gods and Christians, but they also have no interest in writing about God. I can tell you immediately when someone is too invested in their hatred of God to write about Him or religion with skill or accuracy. I have people I respect for their opinions, but when it comes to religion, they are so emotionally invested in hatred and anger they can’t think or argue straight, though they’re completely knowledgeable on other subjects. American poets disdain the subject because they disdain the Absolute truth and they don’t want to surrender to what is, but they want the power to write about it anyway and they can’t. They’re limited by their own anger and vehement denial.
“What we know today as American poetry grew out of the early 20th-century overthrow of ‘genteel lyricism,’ a set of poetic conventions that codified cultural and aesthetic assumptions, which dominated American poetry at the end of the 19th century.”
Again, this is just a paragraph after Ladin states all religious poetry that wasn’t basically angry at God and calling him fake, was rejected from literature as ‘literature.’ American poets didn’t ‘grow out’ of writing genteel lyricism, but mainstream people stopped accepting it. Additional styles also were experimented with, but Americans didn’t just ‘get over that phase of life.’ They were straight up rejected if they continued to practice it.
This essay goes on for far too many pages, so let me summarize what it’s truly about, and gets to the passages that prove it. This isn’t a history of religion in poetry, it’s not about how to write God in poetry and be truthful to the religious spirit. It’s about replacing what is truth with what is personal. It’s about pushing the idea that ‘relative truth’ IS the truth.
“Whereas genteel aesthetics promoted the depersonalized absolutism we saw in “The Flight of Youth,” the aesthetics of relative truth prompt us to “go in fear of abstractions,” as Pound once said, and price instead the “relative truth” of individual perception and experience. As Ginsberg put it, the aesthetics of relative truth make the “behavior of the mind [the] model, subject, and measure of literary form and content,” fostering poems in which assertions are presented as products of the flux of individual consciousness. In poems based on the aesthetics of relative truth, no knowledge or perspective is absolute, save, perhaps, skepticism toward any discourse that claims to stand above or beyond the relativizing hubbub of humanity.
“Thanks to the triumph of the aesthetics of relative truth, genteel lyricism rapidly receded into the mists of kitsch;”
Regarding “Vespers” by Louise Gluck, Ladin argues, “The speaker experiences God as both absolute, transcending human time and space, and as her own relative truth, someone who ‘appears’ occasionally, and is aware of her ‘need,’ her situation, her feelings:”
This argument is made only by Ladin because the poem reads, “you appear to me.” She uses this as a dismissive opportunity, saying “that appearance is both relative and Absolute” basically arguing that while the speaker might have had God appear to them, no one else had that experience, so it’s relative, so maybe it didn’t happen, but it happened to her which makes it truth to her even if it’s not truth to me.
However, in the following example of the same poem, the speaker writes more specifically about God’s appearance unto her, showing that this isn’t about ‘relative truth.’
….As you anticipated,
I did not look up. So you came down to me;
at my feet, not the wax
leaves of the wild blueberry, but your fiery self, a whole
pasture of fire, and beyond the red sun neither falling nor rising–
I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.
“As the speaker tells the story of God’s appearance to her, her language becomes more concrete, more rooted in specific time- and space-bound experience for a moment, that specificity–the implications that her perception of God’s “fiery self” was as clear and immediate as her perception of “the wax/leaves of the wild blueberry”–seems to irreversibly violate the aesthetics of relative truth:”
She continues to argue that for the most part, relative and Absolute truth can’t be reconciled at the same time (though later she argues sometimes they’re the same thing?). You can’t have two truths. You can have multiple perceptions, but perceptions do not equal the truth of the situation. If I saw Man A punch Man B in the face, and that’s all I saw, I’d have a perception Man A was causing unwarranted trouble. Meanwhile, someone who had been standing there who witnessed Man B making the first assault would have a different perception that me. Because I perceived the first Man A casting the ‘first blow’ doesn’t make it true because I experienced it and the person who experienced Man B and Man A fighting has a different version of the truth. There is one truth: Man B started the fight, Man A hit back. There are multiple perceptions based on what individuals experienced, but there will always only be ONE Truth. To argue your experience = the truth is insane.
Talk to just about any psychiatrist or people who have study perception in humans. Crowds of people go through the same experience and remember it completely different based on personal experience, perception, and focus. If a purse was stolen and there were five witnesses that all claimed a different appearance for the thief, that doesn’t make that ‘the truth’ in any way. They might be telling what they ‘think’ is the truth, but that doesn’t make it ‘the truth.’
“But what if modernized American poets–I am one–are not willing to abide by the terms and the aesthetics of relative truth by representing God’s presence as the “behavior of the mind” rather than Absolute truth? Do we censor ourselves, avoid writing or sharing poems that represent God’s presence so as not to betray our truth by not-saying what we are saying? Do we represent God’s presence only through persona poems, so that we can plausibly deny our investment in the experiences of the persona? Or do we allow the aesthetics of relative truth to shape our representations of God, writing about God only in terms we are willing to not-say, because they don’t reflect our own experiences?”
First, thanks for the reminder that you’re a ‘modernized American poet.’ That felt totally necessary there because at this point in the essay because I forgot where your authority on anything came from… Secondly, the rest of that paragraph just reads as denial. “What if what I want to say isn’t the truth, but I wish it was the truth? Should I not say my lies, and censor myself? Should I say my lies in a way in which I can deny it being lies because it’s my experience and who is anyone to question my experience?”
The desperation in this argument is so rancid and it makes so much sense once you get to the last third of the essay. It was never about poetry, craft, religion, or the truth. It was about justifying her life and decisions to herself and making a public declaration of them to receive pats on the back of “You’re so brave!” from her peers because that’s exactly what the people of The Writer’s Chronicles would do.
“But for the most part, I censored myself, rarely writing and never sharing poems representing God as a living presence. Censorship came naturally to me.
If you choose not to write about something because you’re uninterested in it is not censorship. If I choose not to write stories about dogs, I’m not censoring myself. I’m choosing subjects in which inspire and motivate me. If you can’t find the willpower, skill, or inspiration to write about God or spirituality, it’s not censorship to not do it. It’s also not censorship to decide the world doesn’t need another poem where God is an angry old man. Those are about as unique as angry feminists vagina poetry and emo songs about cutting because your girlfriend broke up with you.
“I began censoring myself when I learned to write, monitoring my behavior of make sure I avoided doing anything that might reveal that despite the fact that I was physically male and lived as a boy, my gender identity was female. Because I was terrified of revealing my transgender identity, my life was a constant exercise in simultaneously saying and not saying the male identity that to me was little more than a persona. The life I lived as a male–the life my workshop teachers urged me to mine for memories, images, and experiences–was a lie, a performance from which I was so dissociated that it was hard to perceive or experience anything vividly, because perceptions and experiences came to me through a body that didn’t feel like mine. As a result, for me, common poetry workshop exercises in memory or description–the simplest forms of relative truth–were exercises in imagination: I would try to describe experiences as though I had been the boy who lived them, to imagine what I would have felt if I had been in my body, rather than floating outside it.”
This is where Ladin first tells us what the essay is about, and I’ll get to why in a moment. I want to decompress this paragraph quick. So Ladin says she couldn’t possibly write poems about what her life was like in her boy body because she wasn’t a boy, she didn’t ‘experience’ it, however, she has no problem reaching into ‘imaginary’ situations, in which she ALSO didn’t ‘experience’ the situations, and write based on those? I’m sorry, I smell bullshit in the water. You can’t claim you can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a little boy, experiencing things in your own body as you experienced them, and then say, but I can totally make shit up. Look, you experienced stuff your body whether you were comfortable with it or not. You still had those experiences and to pretend “well, I didn’t actually have those, but my imagined experiences of pretending to be that kid were real,” is garbage. If you were pretending to be that kid, you were either reaching into your real memories as that kid, or you were dissatisfied with how those situations were turning out, so you made stuff up. You broke one of the rules of nonfiction writing.
You might as well call yourself fake news.
Two, I’d like to just mention how Ladin also makes it seem like, ‘imagining’ she was another person through these experiences is this incredible and difficult feat. Hate to break it to you honey, but you’re a writer. That’s what writers do. I can’t tell you how many characters I have all with different backgrounds, ages, experiences, whatnot, and I’m constantly reaching to discover their childhoods, how they experienced the world as kids, and how they experience it now. Changing perception might be hard for new writers or for people making new characters, but it’s not an impossible trait for gifted writers who are good at what they do. You’re not special or different for ‘imagining life as if I were another person.’
That’s literally creative writing.
In this essay about craft, Ladin can’t help but reach for more sympathy points as she goes on, “My lack of a real self-was not only a problem in poetry workshops; it made for a miserable existence, marked by frequent bouts of suicidal depression.”
Tell me what this has to do with craft or the subject of this essay. You’re off topic. But the next part of the essay reveals why she chose to write about God and religion to craft her world of relativism.
“But dissociation had one definite advantage: it made it easy for me, as for it does for many transgender children, to experience God as a living presence. The point of many spiritual disciplines, like fasting, is to dissociate us from the noise of our bodies and the chattering vanities of our social identities so that we can more readily experience God’s presence. Since I don’t identify with my body or male persona, to me, God was always there, as real as I was, the only person I could talk to honestly, the only other person I knew who, like me, couldn’t be understood in terms of human categories like gender.”
This sentence alone shows Ladin’s complete biblical ignorance or rejection of the truth. The Bible refers to God as God the Father, as Him and He. Jesus is a part of God, he is the Son of God, he is the human manifestation of God. He was in every way, male. The Bible makes it unquestionably clear that God is ‘male’ by all ‘terms of human categories like gender.’ What Ladin was, and is, trying to do is recreate God in her own image to justify herself for the decision to transition and the lives she ruined with the selfish decision. She had a 20-year marriage and two kids. To divorce and run away for this is no different than a man having a midlife crisis and running off with a mistress.
“I don’t have to feel weird or resentful for having a mental disorder. God is like me and I am God which means I have the ability to do whatever I want with my body. If I’m god, then I create my body,” is how I’m reading this.
Ladin then further proves this point of her transformation to her own version of God as she shares parts of a poem she wrote in this essay. The poem is titled “The Old God at the Urinal.”
She introduces the poem by stating it presents God in physical, masculine terms, “that couldn’t be further from my experience of God as a disembodied, genderless presence:”
There’s that word again, “experience.”
Not truth. Not reality.
The poem describes God first here:
“What does he look like? Huge, I’m sure, / like the trunk of an old elephant.”
Further down, the description shifts to:
“He can’t tell where he begins or ends.”
Ladin says this more echoed her idea of the ‘genderless’ god. She writes,
“I was using the aesthetics of relative truth as cover for representations much closer to what I felt and experienced, as when the speak shifts from imagining God’s male body to imagining God’s disassociation from that body.”
Her final passage from the poem reads:
“God has firm white breasts and a large womb. / Goad has no beard, only a fragrance.”
And she introduced this comment by saying, “By the end of the poem, I carry this mock-heresy even further, subjecting God to a rhetorical version of gender transition.”
This character is not God. This character is Joy Ladin, but she desperately wants to liken herself to God because if God is a creator, and she is God, then she is a creator.
Doing a little bit of research, Ladin’s profile says she sought gender reassignment surgery in 2006. She was born in 1961. This means she was at least 45 by the time she at least started her transition–at least that’s how it reads. So, going back to the poem of “The Old God at the Urinal,” at 45, Ladin probably saw herself as an old man because she didn’t experience life as a young woman. She’d been married for 20 years, had kids, had a life as a man, and was going through the old age comforts with a decade or two left before retirement. She claims at the beginning of this that she always imagined God as genderless, but this poem transitions God from male to female, so she clearly doesn’t think of God as genderless. She thinks of God the same ways she thinks about herself.
She admits to this in the following paragraph stating,
“I knew what I was doing. Like many closeted artists, I was hiding in plain sight, using socially sanctioned means–the aesthetics of relative truth–to say while not-saying things about God and gender that I was afraid to write openly.”
This sentence literally says,
“God was a replacement for me because I was too afraid to say me in this poem.”
This poem, and likely many others that have to deal with God (and especially gender), are not religious poems at all unless gender is Ladin’s religion. These are poems about Ladin and how she considers herself God.
In the final page of the essay she adds,
“During my decades of hiding my transgender identity, my relationship with God was the only one in which I was sure that when I said “I,” that pronoun would be understood as referring not to my male persona, but to my truest self. This assumption–that when I speak to God, I speak as my true self–is the basis for all these poems. That’s why, despite the rage many of them express, my address to God is neither ironic nor sarcastic; however angry I feel, I assume that God is there, an absolute you who literally gives life and substance to the “I” of my relative truth.”
And earlier in this essay, she stated that when he thought of God, she knew God was like herself, experiencing gender ‘like she did.’
Ladin’s final paragraph reads,
“To declare in a poem that God is making me now, without irony or other relativizing techniques, clearly violates the terms of the aesthetics of relative truth. But I couldn’t have written these psalms without the aesthetics of relative truth, aesthetics that not only gave me the poetics I needed to write them, but which taught me that I and my relative truth are constantly changing and growing, as is my relationship with the God who is making me now.”
It still comes down to relative truth. Absolute truth means nothing to Ladin because to her, the truth is in experience. Whatever she experiences is the truth. Whatever you experience is the truth. I reiterate, at this point, that a more appropriate title for this essay would be, “I am God Now Motherfuckers” because that’s really what she’s saying. “God who is making me now” is she who is ‘taking over’ being the ‘creator’ of her body through transition.
This story has literally nothing to offer a majority of writers and it certainly benefits me, a non-poet, who would like to know more about reading and writing poetry. This is an article for a sociological magazine, not something for a writing magazine. This was a shallow excuse to talk about transgenderism when the last two or three issues were about race.
AWP, please pre-tell, what does gender transitioning, gender and God have to do with a majority of modern American poetry? This essay was started under the discussion of how do modern poets write about God and why does modern religious poetry seem so empty compared to classical religious poetry. The end result just seemed to be you, talking about yourself. Your answer wasn’t straight-forward, but in the body of this essay, you said modern poets write themselves as God and that’s why modern religious poetry is so empty. If that’s not what you’re trying to say with this essay, I can’t imagine what this has to do with writing, let alone how it helps anyone become a better writer. This is not about craft, this is about helping me, special oppressed, virtue signaling and brownie points. This isn’t interesting, this isn’t helpful, and this certainly isn’t literary.
I find it laughable that earlier on in this essay Ladin talks about heartfelt religious poems being rejected from workshops as ‘subliterary,’ but diary confessions from someone having a midlife crisis and trying to justify it to herself is seen as literary gold to be praised and celebrated.
You are the types of organizations in the arts community that need to be removed. You’re not teaching craft, you’re not teaching art, you’re trying to brainwash people with your social justice morals. This essay had nothing to do with writing God as a contemporary American Poet unless by “God” you meant, “Self.”
For future reference, a better subname would be, “Writing Yourself as God as a Contemporary American Poet & How to Design the Universe with My Experiences = Truth.”
I know it’s a mouthful, but at least it’s honest.