by Austin Segrest
I got my first smartphone about a month ago. I’m old, but not that old (42). I’m also an author with a book out, so when my flip-phone started breaking, I mean really breaking down, I finally decided to give up the dumb-phone fight and see if I could devise more exposure for my work, the wildly popular work of poetry.
Two guys growing up—in retrospect, kind of like the blond and brunette nerds in Dazed and Confused; remember the kegger in the woods? the blond gets with the 9th-grader, the brunette gets his ass kicked—these were friends who aced their SATs and also as it happens liked to weigh in on what I should do (I would show them my poems in Physics). The lanky brunette told me if I just enjoyed the small things in life—like an apple, he said, which I will forever think of every time I eat an apple—that I wouldn’t need Prozac (no Zoloft yet); then without telling me, he turned in one of my poems as his own in his Creative Writing class.
In the early oughts, just after college, the somewhat shorter and stouter blond friend, who in middle school was programming games on his TI-82 calculator as soon as it was out of the box, started getting onto me about how I should publish my poems on the internet. I barely used email and was suspicious, to say the least. I heard there could be copywrite issues: that once it was up there, it couldn’t be published anywhere else. He said but this is the future. He said exposure, exposure, exposure (friends from the early 90s, for us the worst burn growing up was to be called a poseur). Needless to say, I didn’t do it, and my old friend took my refusal personally, as if I were condemning his computer lifestyle and livelihood.
I opted instead—not that it felt like a decision—to keep my nose to the poetry grindstone. I didn’t get a cellphone until 2004 (for a girl), didn’t really text until 2018. By then, my blond friend on his big white couch in his condo in Manhattan was telling me not to get a smartphone or to get on social media; there was indisputable evidence it was making everyone miserable. During lockdown, a Lawrence student-worker helping me with my website said she could also help me with social media, but it was a such a warzone she worried for me.
Before my smartphone, my angst to be accepted and liked was already well- developed by all the ways I’d applied and submitted, been ranked and rejected. Even before creative writing opportunities, before schools and programs, there was high school, there was “popularity.” I’ve come to see that popularity for the socially-mediated is baldly, shockingly quantified. Where you used to could guess it in a person’s looks and carriage and style, now there’s a report card off the bat that everyone sees.
The quantification of followers and likes, of popularity, extends into college, I’ve realized, which, being a professor since before the rise of social media, I’d never appreciated—the virtual fame, the shame and envy trailing these young people through their classes and activities, a pseudo-melodrama—like 90210, having grown up, as I did, not allowed to watch tv—that everyone else was watching. Of course, the quantification is professional, too: an editor says, lemme just look this person up—oh wow, look at these numbers, I think I do like these poems.
I’ve joined Instagram. Why that platform? I think I got the sense that it was the only one people had any love for anymore. As it happens, I’ve been emailing people photos for years! The process of “creating content” harkens back to my blogging duties at a literary magazine, which I came to really enjoy. It even harkens back to show-and-tell, an old forte.
I see how people curate and project their awesome lives—especially their love lives. And I’ve felt the twinge of envy, even with minimal scrolling (is it ethical, or possible, to create but not consume, content? is there a difference between wanting to be wanted and not wanting to not be wanted?): that my own life doesn’t measure up, that I need... “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,” goes Shakespeare’s sonnet 29,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least...
At first glance, Marianne Moore seems to be doing something similar in her mid- 20th-century poem “By Disposition of Angels”: “...like some we have known; too like her, / too like him...”
While this is a poem about messages (speech bubble icon), it’s also, importantly, about “Steadfastness” that “praise cannot violate,” “steadiness never deflected,” “steadier than steady.” Here’s the poem, in all its rhetorical, mysterious, lapidary glory.
Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it.
Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit?
Something heard most clearly when not near it?
these unparticularities praise cannot violate.
One has seen, in such steadiness never deflected,
how by darkness a star is perfected.
Star that does not ask me if I see it?
Fir that would not wish me to uproot it?
Speech that does not ask me if I hear it
Mysteries expound mysteries.
Steadier than steady, star dazzling me, live and elate,
no need to say, how like some we have known;
too like her, too like him, and a-quiver forever.
Maybe the most disturbing aspect of social media for me is what I might call the accelerated diversification of attention (heaven forbid we put all our eggs in one basket). The irony is not lost on me that attention, a steadfastness of which literature specializes, is everywhere deflected and commodified in the “attention economy”; that “the instant,” in the sense of the present, is reduced to the briefest buoyance before the need for the next instant, for the accumulation of instants. I worry that a smartphone life will compromise my patience, presence, discipline. I’m not the wittiest, the most knowledgeable or creative, and I’ve never known much patience, but I do have focus, as those who’ve seen my annotations know.
Once, I worried antidepressants would blunt my art. Now I think they help me compose more fluidly. Maybe there’s a way that I’m again choosing fluidity over edge.
For edge I have Marianne Moore, with all her “edges out,” her “edgehog miscalled hedgehog.” I wrap myself in her fire-proof salamander skin, I take up her shield, her “undermining armor” of fortitude, humility, grace, and freedom.
When we obsess over what it means—if they saw it, if they heard it, if they responded, if they didn’t; when we try to explain, to explicate and expound what it means about us, about our meaning; it is then we must look up from our messages to the heavenly messengers, to art’s evergreen “that would not wish me to uproot it.”
Originally from Alabama, Austin Segrest holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry) from The University of Missouri (2014) and an MFA from Georgia State University (2009).
Austin has received fellowships from Ucross Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the NEH. A former poetry editor of The Missouri Review, Austin currently teaches at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI.
Austin’s first book, Door to Remain, won the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. His poems can be found in POETRY, The Yale Review, The Threepenny Review, Ecotone, The Common, New England Review, Ploughshares, and many other journals. His essays on poetry can be found in APR, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Southern Humanities Review, On the Seawall, and Pleiades.