Flirting with toxicity

green stinkbug on striped maple

As I drank my coffee this morning, an odd, almost repulsive idea occurred to me: wouldn’t it be awesome — or something — to interview people who hate me or my work for an episode of the Woodrat podcast?

acid mine drainage

This is a seep of acid mine drainage (AMD) in the midst of an otherwise gorgeous boggy wetland that my hiking buddy L. and I explored on Tuesday. It’s just below the Bell Gap Rail Trail in State Gamelands 158 at the top of the Allegheny Front, Central Pennsylvania — the same place I visited last October 31 with a much larger group of people, who were unfortunately more interested in hiking than in dawdling along taking pictures (see The Shining Season).

An artificial wetland uphill from the trail is designed to remove the heavy metals from the water through a series of ponds, so things are much better than they could be. But I was struck by the garish beauty of the AMD, that lurid reddish orange, here with an oily blue sheen from (I think) decomposing plant matter. It may not exactly belong, but it is an almost literal red flag, reminding us that the site is nowhere near as pristine as we might otherwise assume. And this is not irrelevant, since L. was actively considering a return visit in a couple of weeks to harvest some of the abundant mayapples and wild strawberries on the site. Would they be safe to consume?


In the wetland and in other spots along the trail, we were treated to a profusion of late-spring wildflowers: starflowers (above), Canada violets, Canada mayflowers, wild columbine, Jack-in-the-pulpit, dolls’ eyes (below), a pink ladyslipper, toothed rockcress, and more. As usual, I snapped way too many pictures, and when I got home and looked at them on the computer monitor, I was disappointed by how thoroughly conventional most of them were. A too-obvious approach to beauty is one of my real weak points, I think.

false hellebore

It was the foliage of the highly toxic false hellebore (remember the poem?) that offered the most visual interest, I thought, both in the flesh and in the resulting photos. Being toxic often licenses extra showiness in the animal kingdom: think of red efts, monarch butterflies or poison arrow frogs. It’s probably fanciful to attribute the flamboyant style of false hellebore to its unpalatability, but who knows?

orange fungi

So with this idea of interviewing people who hate me: what lurid, painful, grotesquely attractive things might emerge from such a conversation? Would conversation even be possible? How would I find such people, and having found them, how would I convince them to participate? What would I hope to get out of it — just some kind of masochistic pleasure, or genuine insight into my shortcomings as an author or human being? Would the results be at all interesting to other listeners?

dolls' eyes (white baneberry)

Yesterday I read the sad story of the decline and fall of Bill Haley (“Falling Comet” by Michael Hall, Texas Monthly). In a way, it seems, it was the adulation of fans that frightened, confused and ultimately killed him, a great performer beset by extreme social anxiety. He kept returning to the stage, mesmerized, and then to the bottle. He obsessed too much about what his fans might want, Hall claims, and was therefore ultimately unable to evolve as an artist.

I am obviously in no danger of ever receiving the kind of adulation Haley did, but still, any bit of praise can be dangerous if taken the wrong way. A wise writer friend recently wrote (and will I hope tolerate my unattributed quoting): “Hype fogs up the mind. This is not about humility. If you believe the wrong things about your work, you won’t grow.”

Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars

But words of censure and detraction too can be crippling, as any abuse victim knows. Pace Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill you hardly ever makes you stronger. Why on earth would I want to invite it into my blog? To feed a perverse sense of self-importance, perhaps, by saying, look, see how great and articulate my enemies are? As an exercise in empathy, to try to see the world through the eyes of those who have absolutely no interest in returning the favor? It’s not a hairshirt thing, I don’t think, but I don’t know. Maybe I should ask them

50 Replies to “Flirting with toxicity”

    1. That’s one of the stumbling blocks. I guess I’d use social media, ask FB “friends” and Twitter “followers” to repeat the request to their networks. Also, I do already know of several individuals I could ask, people who have heaped scorn or vitriol on me in the past. Not sure what would be in it for them, though.

  1. You will have some difficulty locating people who hate you or your work. Of that I am sure. Nor is your work likely to stagnate in a pool of murky adulation. When good things can be said about another person’s work and those things are of varied nature (across the board, it would seem) it is not adulation but praise. That never hurt any grounded person.
    And the photos are beautiful, by the way!

    1. Heh, thanks! You’re right, I thoroughly blurred the line between helpful and unhelpful forms of praise. I have received excessive praise from certain individuals from time to time, the kind that feels unearned and uncomfortable. It’s not common, though. I’m a very small fish in a very large pond! For the same reason, my enemies are probably not legion, but I assure you they do exist.

      1. I agree with Paul. And you’re not 19; it’s not going to knock you over. Even when we get praise, the shine does not last long!

        You sure it’s hate? Sometimes it’s not dislike but jealousy–as though the world might not be big enough to hold us all, and our little scratchings on the cave.

        But I also question the process. Having now met you in person, I would say that you are frank about everything, including what you feel to be your own negative characteristics. It seems you would have your feet firmly on the earth and not be likely to be shaken.

        And yet the desired effect would be, indeed, to be shaken. And that might not be good for you… It might be (as you hope) utterly different from what you expect, and it might tear at you in some way. I’m against it!

        1. O.K. Thanks for weighing in.

          I don’t know if I desire to be shaken or not. Might be more accurate to say that I desire to to prove that I can be unshaken. In which case there’s a kind of unattractive machismo at work, isn’t there?

          Maybe you’re right — I am already a fairly merciless self-critic.

          1. Yes, but self-criticism we know how to live with–we’re throwing the spear and we’re also armed by ourselves against it–the other can be an entirely unexpected kind of wound.

  2. Dave, I think I get the underlying motivation here, a desire to see the broadest range of perspectives on who you are, so that you have as much information as possible to do your work with. It’s a noble aspiration, maybe. I probably have a much better chance of finding people who dislike me (hate is a bit strong) than you do, I’ve lost more than a few jobs as evidence. Not that you aren’t able to find naysayers, if you look hard enough, but, to me, you are doing your thing with a great deal of insight and humility, not to mention great talent. So I’m lending you my own personal aphorism for just this situation:

    “Don’t hang out with people who don’t like you as you are. Many people do like you, but if you hang out with the ones who don’t, you will start to believe you are a horrible person, and then you will become that horrible person. ”

    Good luck in your search. May you find only poets.

    1. Thanks, Risa. That’s probably good advice in general. For the project I’m contemplating, I don’t picture hanging out with any of the interviewees for longer than it takes to interview them.

  3. That false hellebore is really striking, all that texture really appeals to me. I’ve been shooting wildflowers lately, trying to learn them by studying pictures at home, and finding it’s damn hard to take interesting or at least unconventional pictures of flowers and plants.

    I wonder about the idea of talking to people who hate/dislike you. It seems it would be very hard to avoid getting defensive, unless such an interviewee could talk without being offensive.

    1. Yeah, it is hard, isn’t it? Not that there’s anything wrong with blogging merely informational photos, of course — the nature blogosphere would be a much poorer place if everyone were as uptight as I am about posting less-than-artistic shots.

      I think part of the appeal of the idea for me is seeing whether I could in fact be dispassionate — kind of a corpse-meditation thing.

      1. Please write more on this?
        Dispassionate depictions of nature. This interests me enormously.
        Dispassionate depictions of nature are depictions that leave the ‘audience’ to come to conclusions that you, as an artist, have come to. Isn’t that powerful in itself?
        I think so…

        1. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known, a Chinese student of Heidegger, once made a simple observation that’s stuck with me: the artist has to have plenty of ego in order to possess the motivation to create, but has to know how to set the ego completely aside in the process of creation itself. So being dispassionate is crucial to being an artist, but so’s being passionate. Not over-interpreting one’s work, keeping it open and trusting the audience is also critical, and perhaps you’re right: it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to do if we can’t maintain an objective or critical eye toward our work.

          1. Some of the least egoistic people I know are amongst the best artists I know. Perhaps the most important thing an artist can bring us is an authentic response to the world? That may be passionate or dispassionate – it matters little.
            Unsigned paintings and ‘anon’ poetry is out there in abundance!
            Is your interest in those who are not fond of what you do the start of a battle to establish the boundaries of ‘good taste’ or stylistic supremacy?
            If someone does not enjoy your work, is that a sign of a lack of aesthetic judgement?
            Your work is authentic, and of a high standard technically (it is never sloppy).
            I guess it would be interesting to hear how people respond to it and why it may find off-chords with them, but in the end you have created things that are authentic to you and resonate with others too.
            What more could one want?

  4. It’d be a fascinating series of interviews if you manage it… although I think it’d be really hard for someone to maintain their anger if they were face to face with you. Unless you’d known them personally for a long time ; ) always easier to be angry at family members…..

  5. Hmm. Typing into the comment box here, so likely to be more unstructured and rambling than usual. However I find this post very interesting, and of course you end with a series of questions about motivation etc which are the obvious questions to ask. Like… why? So I’ll ask others (I hope)… like what? What would this be? An interview? In other words you’d just ask questions? So it would be like… “what do you like least about me?” “why x in particular?” there would be no attempt on your part to answer any of the points raised by the ‘hater’? (Hate is, as I think someone else has pointed out, a very strong word/emotion.) So you would go deeper and deeper, one question after another, drawing out this enormous strength of negative feeling, probing into its byways, sounding its depths? It wouldn’t be a discussion, no exchange of views? you would be the talking head dispassionately extracting information on the topic of the day, which happened to be you? That would be potentially a pretty powerful experience. But would you then broadcast it? and if you did would it be likely to be of any interest to anyone else? My experience of people who hate is that the strength of the emotion and its subject matter are far more often the product of their own personality/projections/egos/experiences which have found a convenient symbolic other to be hung upon than any accurate reflection of the recipient of their (toxic) bile. What’s the old saying… “hate is a poison I drink hoping you die”.

    People who disagree with you, now that’s a different matter. But I still wonder about the “interview” bit. Discussion would be interesting. A thorough exploration of difference. But that’s not toxic, is it?

    The use of the word “toxic” is interesting. Toxic to who? to you? In which case it becomes a sort of ordeal by poison… how much bile and venom can Dave deal with before he unplugs his mic and throws it at his interlocutor? Perhaps a form of performance art like putting staples through your chest and being hung by them from hooks in the ceiling.

    See, what we have here are my projections :-) I find hate so very terrifying I can’t imagine wanting to go out and look for it. I’ve never had to go far.

    1. No, these aren’t just your projections; they’re very good questions which help me see what it is I would most like to do. Thank god for friends with more analytical minds than mine!

      I guess I would hope to keep the interests of the audience uppermost in mind, and move rather soon beyond the fact of their antipathy toward me and my work (see how easily I duck the hate vs dislike question?), to an exploration of what sort of thing they do like, who they are in general and what they’re about. It would be in all likelihood no more of an interview than any of my other podcast discussions — except perhaps that I’d probably have to email a set of questions in advance as a trust-building measure, to get them to agree to do it, with the caveat that we’d be free to explore any interesting digressions. And I’d probably feel a bit more constrained than usual with enthusiastic responses to their points.

      Understand, this is all fantasy or thought-experiment at this point. I may not be at all the kind of person I think I am: someone with interesting enemies, or someone able to engage in this kind of exercise without ingesting the poison.

      1. So a sort of yin-yang thing, an exploration of “anti-me”, photographic positive looks at negative (what loaded terms) where the negative/anti-me is defined as an individual who hates/dislikes “me and my work”. Are you your work, btw? Would “antipathetic” be a useful term to kick around? I think if the emotionally loaded enmity and hate are taken out of the equation there could be some really interesting terrain to explore, landscapes which wouldn’t be exfoliated in the process :-)

        My router has made its usual evening decision that I’ve had enough access to the internet, you’ll probably be relieved to hear.

        1. Are you your work, btw?
          Not at all. Which is kind of why I think I might not have too much trouble talking to people who merely dislike my work.

          Would “antipathetic” be a useful term to kick around?
          Useful? Probably not. But entertainingly confusing, for sure.

          You need to talk to your ISP. This is ridiculous.

  6. So how does this fit in with the concept of Via Negativa? Are you trying to understand not what you are, but what it is you are not? Is there a metaphor here?

      1. Great photographs, Dave. A balm against toxicity, nevertheless.
        Interviewing enemies? Had a lot of that when I worked with the defunct United Press International.
        Arrogant politicians, pseudo academics, posturing wannabe writers, et al. Added dimensions to my
        otherwise small life.
        BTW, hope you’re not thinking of interviewing me as a correspondent from the North. (:–P) Or as the poet with the dripping, abiding irony.
        I enjoyed reading the comments and rejoinders. They are rewards for your efforts, I suggest. And thank you for your providing us with creative space.

        Cheers, amigo.

  7. I think it would be difficult to find people who would stand still for it. It’s an interesting question to me. Where would I go to find people who hate me? People tend not to. But people have, at times, of course. Could I find them? Would they still hate me now? It’s interesting just as a thought-experiment. Who *would* hate me, and why? I’m not sure I know, and it seems like a thing a person ought to know.

  8. No matter how self-critical, I think we all have blind spots, faults that we don’t know we have but that others see plain as day.

    And I can see that your environmental stance could garner you enemies as could your views on open source art.

    Once back in college when I had received a piece of hate mail and was fuming about what poor harmless little me could possibly have done to deserve this, my husband — who was not then my husband — said “There’s always going to be somebody who hates you.”

    The question might be whether those people make the best mirror to gaze into. Hate is irrational.

    Your friends might be a better source — if they would be honest. I know what you mean about over-exuberant praise.

    1. I’m with Sherry. Irrational, yes, and so can be criticism that comes from that place.

      Artists of all kinds take enough body blows from invisibility and people who don’t grasp what they do without deliberately making themselves into St. Sebastians. Yep, call me definitely opposed to anything but this as a thought experiment.

      And asking friends for criticism is dangerous, unless they are mistresses and masters of tact. Although I do think you could take those comments, Dave. Think. Not utterly positive. Testing how strong we are can be a devilish thing… Testing our friends can also be dangerous.

    2. The question might be whether those people make the best mirror to gaze into. Hate is irrational.
      But isn’t that the attraction of the carnival Hall of Mirrors? Self-distortions can be fun!

      1. OK. Now you are utterly vindicated and destroyed.
        It’s time to pick up the measly pieces and start again.

        This time, after every posting just sign it ‘Kitten’.


  9. Dave, this is a tailor-made reality show premise. They’re all about humiliation anyway. You and your critics will be sharing a sprawling suburban ranch house, you’ll share meals and one deficient bathroom. Celebrity Roast meets Big Brother, we’ll all get to watch.

  10. I can see the interest in getting people to openly express what they think of you, your work, your outlook, whether they see any of it positively or negatively. But to specifically request hate-comments? Most hate-speech or responses to a person are fast, emotional and generally unreasoned. And they give the hater some kind of instant gratification, like a sneeze. It’s actually quite a lazy substitute for real engagement with what the hatee is saying or creating. That takes more time and effort and deeper thinking.

    1. That’s a very good point. I do admire people who are capable of prolonged, deep engagement with works or authors they don’t like, though I’ve never been one of them and imagine they are a small minority. The Twitter user I link to above, judging from his comment, may have that kind of relationship to my Morning Porch posts. Or he might just be a guy with way too much time on his hands.

  11. “Hate” is a term that has a lot of room to wriggle in. Heck, I hate you for being able to read a chapbook a day for a month without getting aesthetic indigestion, and for having more equanimity than I do. But real settled, identity-forming antipathy — shoot, who do I hate like that? Probably only Richard Nixon, and he’s been dead for quite a while.

    People who hate you because you’re an open-sourcer, or an environmentalist, you could find, but they wouldn’t be very creative haters, I think. Really they just hate your category. How to find someone who hates you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair?

  12. I’m with Marly on this one, Dave. Your idea smacks too much, for me, of Opus Dei-like self-flagellation. If you were some sort of arrogant bastard in need of coming down a few notches, or a blind egotist who seldom engaged in self-analysis, I might be more in favor, but you aren’t. Going and looking “to be shaken” just seems self-destructive. Are you feeling bored? Or wanting a push out of old patterns, wanting to go beyond the arguably “conventional” photos of beauty? I guess I’d suggest trying to find the deepest root of this impulse first, and then maybe those of us who love you can start doing some constructive shaking!

  13. Seriously, this is one of the most bizarre posts I’ve ever read, and the supportive comments are to be expected (and yes, they are here in abundance).

    You are probably one of the most liked people I know of, on the Internet and off [so I’ve heard]. So the fishing motive, ditch. No-one in their right mind is going to come forth and say, yeh, interview me, I’m all those toxic things because I dislike. So why did you write this post? Triggered by some toxic sludge, yes, and then the mind roams to other toxicities. Perhaps?

    Ok. Reading the post, and all the fabulous comments, some quite philosophical, I’d really suggest not a traditional podcast (is the form old enough to have a tradition? she wonders) but a Samuel Beckett sort of play. Recently I saw ‘Krapp’s Last Tape.’ Beckett dealt in this world of self-questioning with incredible dexterity as a playwright.

    Sometimes you write poems in response to other poems that you are reviewing. How about a play called, ‘Flirting with Toxicity.’ Woody Allen generally creates a theme and a story, but lets his actors create their own parts. How about letting some of your commenters write their own parts. You’ve already outlined a story of finding who dislikes us, our work, and getting those nay-sayers to tell us their issues with our whatever in an interview/podcast so we can hear it and then like, scram out of there. (Or whatever it was you said above about not wanting to spend too much time with these negative folk.) Take it from there.

    It could be entertaining, though with depth, with stuff to make us think.

    Or you could just become a politician.

      1. The other idea that I had was one that suggested itself because it seemed to grow naturally out of your post with its multiple, thoughtful comments.

        How about a post, a call for a podcast, something not dissimilar to the Emily Dickinson one, only this time a response to the issues raised in your post?

        For instance, you put out the post you have here. And those who would like to participate write a response that they can post in their blogs, but also they are to record it -with some sort of time limit obviously- and send it to you.

        Like, toxicity, the result of careless uncaring behaviour, or the shadow, the dark unacknowledged underbelly of us all, or the critic who is capable of being a saboteur… your post raises all sorts of interesting considerations and thoughts and can become a diving board for a collection of responses that’s not quite a conversation but can become one in comments to the podcast (or grows out of comments, like here).

        So then you get all these 5 minute segments of responses, essays, poems, songs, whatever, and put them all together for a podcast. It’d be dynamite.

        1. Yeah, one way or another, I do want to do another multi-contributor podcast. Those are fun! The problem with this post specifically is it’s too much about me. If I went with your second idea, I’d probably frame it a bit more broadly: “speaking with the enemy,” let’s say. Maybe something for Hiroshima Day…

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