The State of Poetry
"That’s why I like ars poetica—they’re reflective. I’ve an anthology of this form: What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill. Amazing stuff! Stuff not made less amazing by Kwame Dawes’ tweeted “Memo to Poets” which advises: Only one poem about writing poems a year. Or by Diane Lockward’s credible blog post on this form, which further admonishes: I allow you one in a lifetime.”
“I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, like I’d asked if it would be okay to read in my underwear.”
“Poetry is still one of the least-selling genres by publishing standards, but for many, the book is the ultimate goal. And how much does the tenure track play into the career path of an emerging writer trying to secure employment, maintain a personal life, and feed their creativity? There are more reasons not to be a poet some days.”
“I quickly discovered that the prose written about both language poetry (its predecessor) and my jokingly-coined post-avant poetry was itself opaque. This disturbed me. Combined with falling into the rabbit hole of post-avant poetry and its criticism, was the vehement and sometimes shockingly angry reaction I was getting to my essays from poets responding on blogs and through email."
“America is best when it recognizes its inherent plurality. Americans are best when, embracing plurality, we move toward and seek to understand those around us. Americans are best when we are engaged and dialogic. Not presuming sameness paradoxically allows us to arrive at shared qualities. It allows us to see that, though different in many ways, de Crèvecoeur, Wheatley, and Lazarus, were each immigrants or the daughter of immigrants. They were bicultural, and bilingual, if not speakers of several languages.
“Read anthologies from, say, the 1920s, and see how much seems really alive to you. Or search the whole of the 19th century, so many poets and poetasters in our new country, and find anyone to match Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Emerson, Whittier (in “Snowbound”) and Longfellow (in “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”). That’s it, I think. Out of all those hundreds, nay, thousands of poets . . . including Abraham Lincoln (whose oratory was his poetry, admittedly).”
“Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, “the skittery poem of our moment” may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland’s nominee for its replacement—what he calls “narrative,” especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?”
“The state of poetry in Massachusetts is alive and well. Western Massachusetts is the home to many great colleges and universities, all of which have their own reading series. There is a vibrant community poetry scene, holding festivals and reading series in coffee houses and restaurants.”
“It’s a sad fact of our own myopic culture that all too little literature from abroad gets published in the United States. We are very much a culturally deprived nation. . . . That’s the bad news. The good news is that poetry from around the world is now more easily accessible than it has ever been before.”
“I remember coming to Boston to go to college in 1973. Back then you basically had (according to my recollection) the academic poetry crowd, fed by the plethora of universities and colleges in the area, and the alternative crowd of non-academic barbarians in the Stone Soup Poetry group founded by the late Jack Powers.”
Richard Hoffman: The State of Poetry
Good afternoon. Let me start with a poem I wrote for a fellow poet, Baron Wormser. Baron and I are about the same age and have been writing a long time, and for a number of years we were teaching together in Maine, right next to a cow pasture.
This is called AT WOLFE’S NECK FARM:
Some days a poet
is like a cow, a yellow
tag: N365 affixed
to a twitching ear,
shit on its haunches,
flies on its eyes,
who thinks, “If only
I’d been born
in India I’d be a god.”
And so, “The State of Poetry.” Looking out at this room full of people, I’d say that the state of poetry, the interest in poetry, is pretty healthy. The fact that we are here at a three day poetry festival speaks for itself. And so I really want to talk about poetry, not “the poetry business.” I warned Jennifer that I would do this. I hope you will also indulge me, because the fact is that I am the wrong person to give any advice about a career in poetry. I am not a successful poet, at least not in the usual sense. Like most poets, my books are published by a small press, seldom reviewed, and never in those few publications that seem to matter. You won’t find my work in anthologies or in discussions of contemporary poetry. This is not a complaint, only a way of offering you my credentials for NOT talking about a career in poetry: I don’t have one.
But I have a life that is largely made of poetry, of the poetry of others, both the dead and the living, and the poetry I try to write. I would not exchange that life, that ongoing education, that continual growth, for anything. Poetry returns to me the things I know and have forgotten, and among those things there dwells the deepest and oldest and least distorted version of myself: that consciousness that first looked for the right words, the right nouns, verbs, adjectives — the right sounds — to make sense of the world.
ALL the words that I utter,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night.
–W. B. Yeats
I don’t quote these lines to suggest that poems are merely personal communications; they are that, at least often they are, but there is a larger social and political dimension to that intimate exchange. I believe it is this special kind of colloquy — one author to one reader, one heart and mind to another— that Czeslaw Milosz meant when he wrote that poetry is the last rampart against tyranny. It is this exchange that affirms us as individuals. In the words of Max Horkheimer, a German social critic of the 1930’s, later put to death by the Nazis: “To organize people as objects, you must first disorganize them as subjects.”
Another way of putting it is to think of the poet’s work as peeling people one at a time from the mob, steering them by the elbow to a table where, just the two of you, you find the radical quiet to honor that desire to be understood, that yearning to communicate one’s experience of being alive to another, which is the antidote to the massive, poisonous, ongoing objectification sweeping the planet today.
Poets are as archaic as candles to some people. Still, they’re useful when the power is out. Poetry is a handmade art, one that doesn’t require wealthy investors, costly materials, tools, and equipment. And so it has the potential, requiring no agreement from the powers-that-be, to say what must be said – to bring us back to the truth, to a consciousness of what we need, to those deep desires for justice and meaning, for respect and commonality, for freedom from debt, from the monomaniacal ideology that creates the plantation and calls it the world. I believe it can be the foundation for a real culture, an alternative to the pseudo-culture around us that is only a by-product of corporate profit-seeking.
Poetry is also a living tradition, a deep broad river of other human voices who have lived and thought about and felt life before us. An ongoing tradition that, if you are a poet, or a reader of poetry, you are a part of. It is full of agreements and arguments, celebrations and misgivings, blessings and curses and laments. It is a tradition that does not require belief, or ideological purity, or even reverence. Respect for its complexity and variety is all that is required, and that is only, after all, a respect for one’s own humanity, one’s own human potential to live life fully and fully aware. To drink from this river, whether as reader or writer, is to be refreshed by the reunion of head and heart, if only for one thirsty moment, and to be returned to a state of wholeness which we all feel was ours once as children when thought and feeling, mind and body, head and heart, did not feel separate, before the demands, legitimate and inexorable, of ego and socialization, required us to learn how to use first one then the other.
There are moments when I’m writing a poem — when a poem is coming to be on the page and I am trying to assist it — when the language, which has been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, calls forth that part of me that has also been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, and those moments are powerful, rejuvenating, and reassuring on the deepest level.
Poetry, both reading and writing it, can keep the spirit supple and viable in a time of rigidity and despair and helplessness, insisting on the importance and integrity of the individual consciousness in a time of mass delusions and sociopathic politics, clearing a little quiet space in the din for that singing in the night that I, for one, with my sad, sad heart, could not live without.
Richard Hoffman is author of the Half the House: a Memoir, and the poetry collections,Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Storieswas published in 2009. His new memoir, Love & Fury, is just out from Beacon Press. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.
Doug Holder: My Perspective of the Ever Changing Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
I remember coming to Boston to go to college in 1973. Back then you basically had (according to my recollection) the academic poetry crowd, fed by the plethora of universities and colleges in the area, and the alternative crowd of non-academic barbarians in the Stone Soup Poetry group founded by the late Jack Powers. Before 1998, at least for me and many others I knew in the world of the small press, you made poetry chapbooks the old fashioned way. This was a xeroxed affair, with actual cutting and pasting the text on the page. You would take your primitive booklet to the old Copy Cop on Boylston Street in Boston and hand your baby to the clerk. You hoped for the best. Our first issue of Ibbetson Street was handled by a friend of mine Jim Resnick—an employee of Copy Cop. Also during the 70’s and 80’s poets were generally unplugged, not hooked up, for the most part low-tech creatures. They were not adorned by earphones, Google Glasses–their fingers did not expressively dance out text messages. A poet would walk down the street—taking it all in—a regular Walker in the City—as Alfred Kazin aptly put it.
Well, I am going to do something that poet shouldn’t do and use a well-worn cliché—The times are a changing. All the books, etc. that we publish now are basically done digitally. No more ungainly paper manuscripts to mark up. Everything is in digital files; electronic word documents, the graphics and formatting etc. are done by my tech savvy designer Steve Glines. Although we still do traditional print runs, many of our books are print-on-demand. We now publish books when they are actually needed. Before, we would order a whole bunch, and they would wind up collecting arcane species of mold in some nook in the basement. I remember at the Mass. Poetry Festival some years back, a rather haughty editor of a tony literary magazine turned her nose up at our POD books. Today many of that editor’s ilk are embracing POD technology.
And there seems to be an explosion of poetry venues, camps, etc. For instance in 2004 a Somerville-based literary group the Bagel Bards ( that meets every Saturday morning at the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square) was founded by Harris Gardner and yours truly. The group puts out a yearly anthology and has a online literary journal, the Wilderness House Literary Review founded by Steve Glines. There are also the Carpenter Poets in Jamaica Plain, the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, which host poetry slams every Wednesday evening; the Out of the Blue Arts Gallery hosts a number of poetry and fiction readings hosted by literary activists Timothy Gager and Chad Parenteau. And of course since I love all things Somerville I must mention our new Arts Armory that houses the Cervena Barva Book Shop and Reading Series, as well as the First and Last Word Reading Series founded by Gloria Mindock and Harris Gardner.
One thing that I see that disturbs me (and this may be due to the fact that I am flirting with sixty) is how plugged in younger poets and the creative writing students I teach are to today. I find they are often texting, clogging their ears with multi-colored plugs, and answering the siren call of cell phones. I always tell my students–for the most part 18 to 20 year olds, that they have to unplug to be open to their senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, etc. I tell them they need to observe–not have their head buried over the sacred cell to see what the latest LOL or whatnot is about.
But of course I always have my cell in the deep pockets of my carpenter pants, and my laptop is at my beck and call…and yes, I still write poetry. I am anxious to see what the new generations bring to the plate because after all we feed off each other, and I am glad to be part of that continuum.
Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, Mass. http://www.ibbetsonpress.com. He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. For over thirty years Holder has worked at McLean Hospital, and for many of those years he has run poetry groups for psychiatric patients on locked wards and in other settings. Holder is the Arts Editor for The Somerville News, the director of the Newton Free Library Poetry Series, the producer of Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer on Somerville Community Access TV, and the co-founder of the Bagel Bards, a Somerville-based literary group. Holder’s poetry and prose have appeared in Rattle, The Boston Globe Magazine, the new renaissance, Istanbul Literary Review, Hazmat, Toronto Quarterly, Long Island Quarterly, Wilderness House Literary Review, and many others. Holder’s website is http://www.dougholderresume.blogspot.com
J. Kates: Knocking on Your Door
“Somebody knocked on your door, carrying news –
a strange bit of news, that your wall is a window.”
Mikhail Aizenberg, tr. J. Kates
Zephyr Press displays a table of the books we publish at many small book festivals. Curious passersby stop and glance at our bright covers. Some pick up a book and attentively read the blurbs on the back. A very few open a book and read a page or two of the poems inside. An all-too-common reaction to our spread of titles and writers is expressed in a tone of surprise or even, yes, grievance, “But I’ve never heard of any of these!”
And that, I answer as politely as I can, is the point. We try to bring together the work of good poets from around the world with readers in the United States. We engage award-winning literary translators to do their best work in the process. We take it as a given that the works we showcase will be unfamiliar. We hope that readers will want to meet the unknown, discover the world. All too many want only those writers they already know and are comfortable with; or those writers who, they can be assured by back-cover references, are like the poets they’re comfortable with? “X is the new Y,” well-known Z reassures them, so they’ll risk buying the book. And, in the words of an Englishman’s translation of a Persian poet, they come out by the same door wherein they went.
Nevertheless, it’s gratifying how successful we are at these festivals in selling our books. We do find readers hungry for contemporary poems from China, Poland, Romania, Russia, Israel or Korea.
Readers, by the way, who didn’t always realize how hungry they were — because it’s a sad fact of our own myopic culture that all too little literature from abroad gets published in the United States. We are very much a culturally deprived nation, third world in the arts. In a national market where most book sales now are fueled by personal appearances, commercial publishers have little stake in publishing foreign writers, and even less stake in fronting their translators. And it’s another sad fact that too many American readers are comfortable with that deprivation, don’t even notice it, or think it’s unimportant. Only when a Vincente Aleixandre or a Tomas Tranströmer wins the Nobel Prize do we suddenly get pinched awake for a moment long enough to ask, “Who the hell is he?” before subsiding into our teapots again.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that poetry from around the world is now more easily accessible than it has ever been before. With a flick of your thumb you can read reams of the latest Russian poetry onvavilon.ru — if you read Russian. Other languages have their own sites. (In the 1980s, it took me months and years to learn about the poets I wanted to read in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now I receive interesting poems from Kazakhstan on the web at my fingertips.) For English translations, you can go not only to our own Zephyr Press and a few other traditional small independent publishers and pick up lively translations, but a burgeoning crowd of on-line magazines like Words without Borders, Jacket, Asymptote — need I continue? Find them for yourself, they come from all around the globe, and they travel all around the globe. Recently, a whole generation of international poets you’ve probably never heard of looked to John O’Hara as an inspiring influence. There’s no reason why American writers as well as curious readers can’t find reciprocal excitement in Adonis, Bachmann, Bei Dao, Calaferte, Gandlevsky, Huerta, Kielar, Madani, Ristović and a thousand others….. Go on — look ‘em up. You have a world to win.
J. Kates is a poet, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry in 1984 and a Translation Project Fellowship in 2006, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts in 1995. He has published three chapbooks of his own poems: Mappemonde (Oyster River Press) Metes and Bounds (Accents Publishing) and The Old Testament (Cold Hub Press) and a full book, The Briar Patch. (Hobblebush Books). He is the translator of The Score of the Game and An Offshoot of Sense by Tatiana Shcherbina; Say Thank You and Level with Us by Mikhail Aizenberg;When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree and Secret Wars by Jean-Pierre Rosnay; Corinthian Copper by Regina Derieva; Live by Fire by Aleksey Porvin; and Genrikh Sapgir’s Psalms. He is the translation editor of Contemporary Russian Poetry, and the editor of In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era. A former president of the American Literary Translators Association, he is also the co-translator of four books of Latin American poetry.
Lori Desrosiers: The State of Poetry in Massachusetts
The state of poetry in Massachusetts is alive and well. Western Massachusetts is the home to many great colleges and universities, all of which have their own reading series. There is a vibrant community poetry scene, holding festivals and reading series in coffee houses and restaurants. Book stores and libraries have some reading series as well, which vary between poetry and prose.
Here in western Mass, we have a bit of a dichotomy between the community poets and the colleges, and I wonder if it’s the same in Boston. UMass has their own locus poeti (circle of poetry), with the MFA program’s readings, a small press at Flying Object bookstore in Hadley, and Juniper Institute in the summer. Amherst community has a separate but thriving poetry life with Amherst Writers and Artists, along with workshops and readings at the Jones Library. There are also readings at Mt. Holyoke and Amherst colleges. The students there seem to stay mainly in Amherst. I’ve been to some poetry events at Mt. Holyoke and Amherst, and they were relatively well attended.
Northampton is a different animal than Amherst in many ways. There is more interface between the poetry community and Smith College, whose monthly poetry series is very well attended by everyone. Northampton also has a poet laureate, and there was a laureate’s reading at the MA Poetry Festival this year. Hinge (a bar/restaurant) in Northampton is the home of a weekly open mic, run by young poets who are from many places and programs, and it attracts the college crowd from Hampshire College as well as Smith. Many community poets attend as well, because they are just a great crowd to read for, warm and fun in the slam tradition, but open to all.
Northampton is also the home of the Florence Poets Society, of which I am a proud member. This is a group of community poets, founded by two unlikely gentlemen, a firefighter/poet, Tommy “Twilite” Clark, and a lawyer/poet, Carl Russo. Carl, sadly, passed away last October. There are a combination of well-published and newer poets, and they welcome everyone. Florence Poets Society has had a small festival every year at Look Park in Florence, which has always been well-attended. They also produce a journal, Silkworm, annually.
North of Northampton, if you drive up 91, you will find Greenfield, Montague, Shelburne Falls and Wendell, who all have their own reading series, thanks to some amazing and active poets. Shelburne’s Collected Poets series brings in national and local poets to read together at a coffeehouse once a month. Greenfield is the home of the Greenfield Poetry Festival, held each October thanks to Paul Richmond, a poet and former juggler, who is involved in theater as well as poetry. It features two days of readings at multiple venues throughout Greenfield. There is also a word stage at the annual Garlic Festival in Wendell. Paul also helps to coordinate a poetry series in Wendell at a restaurant there. Montague Book Mill recently started having readings in their lovely venue. Northfield has a series and open mic. Just over the Vermont line is the Brattleboro Poetry Festival, attended by many western MA poets.
Let’s go further west. Poetry in the Berkshires is hopping, with Pittsfield holding the record for an annual festival WordXWord and a vibrant poetry community. Down in Great Barrington at Bard College at Simon’s Rock they have a Women’s Poetry Festival. There are many presses and journals in the area as well. Don’t forget to look northwest at N. Adams and at Williams College, who have their own poetry scenes, sometimes connected to the museums there.
Westfield and Springfield are somewhat disconnected from the Northampton /Amherst scenes, but they know about each other and there is some overlap (perhaps thanks to my Poetry News). Springfield has some great venues, including workshops and open mics at the library, run by Maria Luisa Arroyo. Magdalena Gomez has an amazing group of young poets in Springfield she works with, Teatro V!DA. I read at the Springfield Library recently and was impressed with the series, as well as the readers on the open mic, some of whom wrote in both Spanish and English. There are a few more evening performance-oriented venues in Sprinfield, combining music, spoken word and even comedy. Those seem to have their own, mainly local audiences.
My hometown of Westfield has readings at the college, Westfield State University, but the students are somewhat isolated from the regional poetry community, probably more due to lack of transportation than anything else. WSU has participated in intercollegiate slams with the Springfield area colleges, American International College, Springfield Technical Community College, Western New England University, Holyoke Community College and Springfield College, who also mainly stay in their own area with their own events. I saw a few WSU students at the MA Poetry Festival, so that is great. Each school has poets featured there every year, but mostly faculty and students attend their own in this area.
The MA Poetry Festival has the potential to bring all these various groups, all dedicated to the love of poetry, together each year more and more. I wonder if it would be possible to perhaps consider having the festival more centrally located one year, just to see what happens (Worcester would be a good place, it’s about an hour away for most of us)? Another idea would be to have the festival travel to various cities in MA, the way AWP does in the US. It would highlight the poetry and culture of each city. Massachusetts is a great state for poetry, that’s for sure.
Lori Desrosiers has a book of poems, The Philosopher’s Daughter (Salmon Poetry) and a chapbook, Three Vanities (Pudding House). Her poems have appeared in New Millenium Review, Contemporary American Voices, BigCityLit, Concise Delights, Blue Fifth Review, Pirene’s Fountain, The New Verse News, Common Ground Review, and many more, including a prompt in Wingbeats, a book of writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press. Her MFA in Poetry is from New England College. She is editor and publisher of Naugatuck River Review, a journal of narrative poetry and also edits Poetry News, an online events calendar for western MA and vicinity.
Stephen Burt: The New Thing
An excerpt of the full essay originally published in Boston Review.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play . . .
—W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to
—George Oppen, “World, World—”
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.
—Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare”
For much of the past decade, the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’s famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, eleven years ago, called “elliptical,” what other (sometimes hostile) observers called “New Lyric,” or “post-avant,” or “Third Way.” Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine’s Debt (1993), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1998); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say.
Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them. And yet the pendulum has started to swing. Tony Hoagland, whose effusive comic poems might have seemed, a few years ago, to represent that Third Way, attacked it in a 2006 Poetry magazine article, taking examples from Matthea Harvey and Mark Halliday and then excoriating their epigones: there comes, he wrote, “a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.”
Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, “the skittery poem of our moment” may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland’s nominee for its replacement—what he calls “narrative,” especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?
I quote a young poet in a recently published interview with a more famous one:
I usually duck out of a book before I read ten poems, especially if it’s just soft-surrealist cotton candy. . . . I had a helpful conversation with a friend the other day about contemporary poetry and all its entrenchments and trivialities. My friend has been reading ancient Athenian poets whose work is known today only in fragments, much of it lost forever. The implications of that really restored a sense of perspective for me.
In their exchange, the poets may sound like cultural conservatives: New Criterion types, or apostles of “narrative.” But they are not: the younger poet is Jon Woodward, published by Wave and by Alice James, presses strongly identified with that Third Way. The older poet is Rae Armantrout, whose compact, sharp work, too-long conflated with Language-writing-in-general, now seems to some younger poets worth emulating on its own.
Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor at Harvard with eight published books, including two critical books on poetry and two poetry collections. His essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other works include The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010), Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler (University of Virginia Press, 2009),The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry(Columbia University Press, 2007), Parallel Play: Poems(Graywolf, 2006), Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (University Press, 2005), Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002), and Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999). His new collection of poems, Belmont, is currently available on Amazon.
Alice Kociemba: Notes on the State of Poetry
Maxine Kumin, in her poem; “The Final Poem” (Still to Mow, 2007, W.W. Norton & Company) quotes this advice from Robert Frost,
“Look/up from the page. Pause between poems/Say something about the next one. Otherwise the audience/will coast, they can’t take in/half of what you’re giving them.
Reaching for the knob of his cane/ he rose, and flung this exit line:/Make every poem your final poem.”
In the past ten years on Cape Cod, I have heard Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Maxine Kumin, Marge Piercy, Jorie Graham, Tony Hoagland and Martin Espada (among others) read their work to appreciative community audiences. Their poetry, styles of reading and relating to the audience differ dramatically. Yet what each of them does effectively is to engage the listener in the best of the oral tradition of poetry.
This reflection on “The State of Poetry” is based on my experience of directing the poetry reading series, Calliope, (www.calliopepoetryseries.com) and facilitating a monthly poetry book discussion group at the local public library. We are listeners, not in the mainstream of the poetry world, who come to hear established and emerging poets read their work. We are avid readers of contemporary poetry. Many of our group are not poets. In other words, I am conveying the perspective of the general public. Poetry can and should become a cultural event on par with a concert, a play or art opening. We can and should widen and diversify our audience.
At Calliope’s readings, the most frequent negative feedback audience members give me is, “Can you teach the poets to read better?” These are some of the ways readers disconnect from the audience: reading poems too fast, swallowing endings, packing a reading with as many poems as possible, either overly explaining what the poem is about, or not setting the poem in any understandable context.
What is clear to me from hosting over one hundred and fifty featured poets is that the ability to read one’s own work to a live audience is hit-or-miss. I have had some fine poets read poorly, and some not so fine poets read very well. “Page” poets need support and techniques to perform well. Open mic readers, too, with the pressure to read one or so poems, need to learn how to read more effectively. Some are terrified, others hold the audience hostage, wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame.” You can hear a tiny “thud” when someone falls out of your poem. I use the open mic to test my latest revision and try to resolve an obsession over an aspect of craft in a poem-in-progress.
I think the increased popularity of performance poetry is a reaction to accomplished “page” poets who are not masterful readers, as the poets I listed above. My experience with “stage” poets is that many perform better than they write—or that the tone of their work is sometimes off-putting—leaving me feeling scolded for not being politically correct enough, or angry or clever enough. This is not true across the board, of course. For both “page” and “stage” poets, the craft of the poem is essential to the meaning, and the performance is essential to conveying it to an audience.
In the past ten years, there also seems to be a shift away from the narrative poem toward a lyric, without much or any storyline. The narrative poem needs lyric elements (rhythm, refrain, internal rhyme, and other “sound” strategies) to veer away from prose. But on the other hand, the lyric needs narrative threads to hold its beautiful sounds together. One comment that poets seem to take as a compliment is “What an intriguing, evocative poem, but I don’t know what it is about.” I believe it is possible to use both the left and right side of the brain, and to appeal to both the head and heart of the listener. We need narratives that move us. We need lyrics we can understand, and maybe even remember.
I have read Richard Hoffman’s wonderful essay, and he has spoken so rightly: “To drink from this river, [the ongoing living tradition of poetry] whether as reader or writer, is to be refreshed by the reunion of head and heart…and to be returned to a state of wholeness…” Wise words. Treat your audience as though they were thirsty for your poems. In fact, they are. They give us their complete attention. In return, we should give careful and effective readings, heeding, as Maxine Kumin reminds us, Robert Frost’s advice.
Alice Kociemba is the director of Calliope – Poetry Readings at West Falmouth Library. www.calliopepoetryseries.com. She facilitates a monthly poetry book discussion group at the Falmouth Public Library, an outgrowth of “What’s Falmouth Reading?” selection of the Favorite Poems project in 2009. She is the author of a chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware (2010). Her recent poems have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Off the Coast, Roanoke Review, Salamander, Slant among other journals. Alice is a member of the Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the Jamaica Pond Poets.
Michelle Gillett: Traveling through the Dark
It was late when my friend Barry and I left the poetry reading, already dark, and the hour- long drive home was mostly along back roads. Barry was using the time to vent his opinions about the state of contemporary poetry, something he is inclined to do whenever he has a captive audience. My job was to make sure we didn’t miss the signs for our turn offs, and to occasionally respond.
“The problem with poetry today,” Barry said, “is that it is too self-conscious. As L.E. Sissman put it, every poet should take a vow of ego-chastity — placing the self as writer before the self as personality.”
“Agreed,” I agreed.
When Barry was done opining about “confessional whiners, male and female alike,” he moved on to the politics of contemporary poetry. “Who wins the big prizes?” he asked me.
“Sharon Olds?” I guessed.
“It’s a bureaucracy — too much about who you know, and not enough about the actual quality and lastingness of the work. Mediocre poets become deluded with publication, accolades, and prizes, all thanks to what Kay Ryan calls, ‘the deadly white threads of the great creative writing fungus powerbrokers.’ “
“You think Sharon Olds is mediocre?” I asked.
“She has a few very successful poems,” he admitted. “”But was Stag’s Run the best choice to win the Pulitzer over Jack Gilbert’s Collected, the unique achievement of a lifetime?”
We continued traveling through the dark, Barry ranting, me looking for route numbers.
“Do you think we are lost?” I asked.
We were heading in the right direction, at least literally. But by the time Barry dropped me off at my house, I was feeling a little lost about how I should think about the state of poetry these days. True, there is a proliferation of poets, poetry programs, print and on- line publications. True, sometimes I get discouraged because what I write tends not to be ironic or clever or oblique. But I am nothing if not a Pollyanna. “ It can’t be all that bad,” I said to myself. I have discovered wonderful poets to gratify my need for reading new poetry—Jessica Greenbaum and Heidy Steidlmayer, Patrick Donnelly, and A.E. Stallings among them. I loved the MFA program I attended at Warren Wilson College, and am grateful for the people I met, the education I received, and imagine many others are getting the background and support they need to work at their craft in their graduate programs.
The next morning, Barry sent me links to essays he thought would enlighten me further about the state of poetry. In April, in The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein acknowledged that he continues to believe that the academicization of poetry did a lot to help kill it, and that too much poetry continues to be produced “with Gresham’s Law relentlessly at work, in this instance the crappy driving out the second-rate. “
Now, he wonders, “if quite as considerable a reason for the death of poetry is that the international attention span has been much reduced by so many fresh distractions, leaving fewer and fewer people who have the patience and intellectual curiosity to work out the rich complexity of a well-wrought poem—that is, if anyone is around who could actually produce one.”
These same thoughts were conveyed by David Yezzi in an essay in the April issue of The New Criterion, where he wondered how the subject of poetry came to be “the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings. …
The range of expression in contemporary poetry has been narrowing for years, “ Yezzi concludes.
As I read the essays, I began to feel less lost than exposed. Are my poems self-conscious, genial, mediocre or worse? Could there be a worse? Am I a confessional whiner, the kind of poet there are too many of?
Despite the abundance of places to publish, there is an absence of good criticism. Where we lack balance in poetry today is in the number of poems being written and the dearth of sharp reviews. The distinctions between what is great, good and terrible are becoming less noted, making it easy for poets to lose their edge, or hone their edge, or even aspire to have an edge. Poets tend to be a support group for each other rather than providers of honest assessment. We have lots of poets, lots of positive blurbs and reviews, but not many poet-critics.
Mark Edmunson warns us in his essay, Poetry Slam Or, The Decline of American Verse, “Now the poem is a pinhole in the massing darkness, not part of a grand illumination in the making. Any modern poet who thinks of himself as creating a full-scale map of experience would be dismissed as hubristic and probably out of his mind.”
We might be traveling through that massing darkness right now but that doesn’t mean there isn’t light at the end of the road. I am in David Yezzi’s camp on the state of poetry– “the best poets,” he says, “never forget that the path to light often leads through the dark.”
Michelle Gillett won the Backwaters Press Poetry Prize for Blinding the Goldfinches, selected by Hayden Carruth and published in 2005. The Green Cottage won the 2010 The Ledge Magazine Poetry Chapbook Award. She has won a poetry award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. A graduate of the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers, she writes a regular column for the Berkshire Eagle and teaches writing workshops.
Alan Feldman: A Citizen of the State of Poetry
If I’m introduced to people as a poet they may respond, apologetically, that they don’t read much contemporary poetry. Some may even ask what I’d recommend reading.
Which is a hard question to answer, since so much depends on one’s temperament, taste, preoccupations, love of (or suspicion of) clever language etc. . . .
Often I suggest that they should browse in anthologies, in book stores, or online on sites like poems.com or poetryfoundation.org. If they find a poem they like, search out more poems by that poet, read a book of his or her work. “It’s sort of like shopping at a thrift store,” I often say. “You’re hoping to find that one priceless item among so many others.”
But if they question me more closely––what do I really think of contemporary poetry?––I might be tempted to complain that I find much of it uninteresting. Though maybe it’s the same as trying to meet interesting people––I just need to get out more? (A young poet like Tara Skurtu, with a talent as easily detectable as radium, is on a program with me. She’s passing up medical school to be one of our country’s poets.)
I do read everything my friends write: Carl Dennis, Jeffrey Harrison, Bill Zavatsky, Linda Bamber, Tony Hoagland, and Jessica Greenbaum––I read their poems to find out what they’re up to, what they’ve been thinking and doing and creating. But I find so much of contemporary American poetry too impersonal. I don’t feel I’m touching a person when I read most poems. (Personal-seemingpoems, where the language is too oblique or formulaic, don’t help me either) Sometimes I venture to guess that there’s a code imposed by MFA writing programs (I’ve never taught in one, and never attended one, so I really don’t know) that restricts personal references. Or sometimes I think that so many poets are going to graduate school to write before anything much has happened to them. Or sometimes I want to blame a baleful fashion, caused by, say, the influence of John Ashbery or Jorie Graham.
Or sometimes I think it’s simply the age-old norm of the conventional. Read anthologies from, say, the 1920s, and see how much seems really alive to you. Or search the whole of the 19th century, so many poets and poetasters in our new country, and find anyone to match Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Emerson, Whittier (in “Snowbound”) and Longfellow (in “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”). That’s it, I think. Out of all those hundreds, nay, thousands of poets . . . including Abraham Lincoln (whose oratory was his poetry, admittedly).
If foreign poets seem more thoughtful and inventive, that’s probably because poems that translate well are rich in thought and metaphor: Neruda, Tranströmer, Amichai, and Szymborska for example.
While there are not many poets I keep up with (other than my friends)––of these I’ll mention Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dobyns, Robert Hass, Wendy Barker (especially her wonderful poems about teaching), Jennifer Grotz, though there are more––I do often find poems I love by poets I don’t know. Maybe one or two in a magazine that might have more than a hundred poems by 50 or more poets, almost none of whom I’ve heard of. Maybe I’m excited by one reading out of five or ten I go to, like the one by Henri Cole and James R. Whitley at AWP, or those by Sharon Olds and Terrance Hayes, or Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatahil at this year’s Mass Poetry Festival.
Been to AWP lately? Swarms of poets out there. Enough to make one feel the way lawyers feel these days: a field that seemed fresh and promising that suddenly seems to have too many practitioners. Recently I was invited to read ekphrastic poetry in a celebration of an anthology of poems about paintings in New England museums. So many poets were invited they had to divide us into two groups, and we didn’t get to hear half the poets we were to read with!
The worst (or best) effect of this overcrowding was to make me swear never to write another ekphrastic poem for the rest of my life, though I love art and am in museums constantly. But after awhile all the poems seemed so much the same, including mine! (Describe what’s in the painting but tell it slant, with arch implications.) Few of the poems (including mine) made the connection between the painting and the personal experience it evoked. The notable exception all night long was Stephen Dobyns’ poem (ostensively about a Balthus painting) that recounts the stunning effect of falling in love with a poem for the first time in one’s life. As Kenneth Koch said more than a half century ago in “Fresh Air”:
Once you have heard this poem you will not love any other,
Once you have dreamed this dream you will be inconsolable,
Once you have loved this dream you will be as one dead,
Once you have visited the passages of this time’s great art!
(And how interesting to compare the dullness of his generation’s poetry scene with the somewhat different––but also academic?––dullness of our scene now!)
And then, since nothing I’ve said here is particularly encouraging, I must mention my friend Martha. She’s a prodigious walker, novelist, best selling author of a memoir, professional fund raiser, member of a bank board, and selectman for her town. Walking the mountains of Mt. Desert Island (each of which she must climb each year) Martha memorizes poems, mostly contemporary ones. Martha is a citizen of the elusive State of Poetry, someone who finds something she loves so much she likes to carry it with her on her walks. Last time she gave me her list she was approaching thirty poems (about one a month since she started) and she’s still walking, still reciting in the crisp mountain air.
Alan Feldman is the author of two prize-winning books: The Happy Genius (SUN, 1978), which won the 1979 Elliston Book Award for the best collection of poems published by a small, independent press in the United States; and A Sail to Great Island (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) which won the Pollak Prize for Poetry. His work is represented in a number of anthologies, including Best American Poetry (2001; 2011), Best American Erotic Poems 1800-Present, and To Woo and To Wed: Poets on Love and Marriage. He was a professor of English and department chair at Framingham State University, and for 22 years taught the advanced creative writing class at the Radcliffe Seminars. Feldman lives in Framingham and, in the summer, in Wellfleet, and currently offers free, drop-in poetry workshops at the public libraries in those towns. (Check the library websites for dates and times.)
Steven Cramer: Communal Reading
Whenever I’m asked for my opinion about the state of contemporary poetry, I recall two lines by Dennis Hinrichsen, a wonderful poet not enough readers know. They go like this: “Here are your books alphabetically arranged/to suggest the gaps in your learning.” How can anyone hold an informed viewpoint about the condition of contemporary poetry? No matter how much one reads, there will always be much more one hasn’t read. Every poetry reader today is like a cartographer who barely knows his maps, let alone the terrain they represent.
When we’re young—in high school and as college students, say—we read our elders, most of them assigned and deceased. Through our mid-twenties and thirties—and perhaps into our forties—we’re often reading our contemporaries. One hopes we continue to make discoveries among the dead; the true state of poetry always lies with them, and the dead are dynamic. At some point—where I am now, at 60?—we realize that much of the new poetry we read was written by people younger than us. This comes as a bit of a jolt, like first recognizing that we’re older than the President.
It’s a laudable goal to become as generation-blind as possible in one’s reading, but I suspect that the ways poetry changes are better understood by those changing it, that trends are grasped best by the trendsetters. Recently, I chatted with a forty-year old poet, who praised as essential reading two poets of his generation whom I hadn’t read; I advocated two similarly indispensable poets of my generation, likewise unknown to him. I wondered how he could have missed these favorites of mine; I suspect he wondered the same about the gaps in my learning. In this conversation at least, the state of contemporary poetry for a forty-year-old wasn’t the same as for a sixty-year-old. Maybe he’s gone on to read my recommendations. I confess I forget his.
On reflection, even this tentative observation about a poetic generational divide doesn’t hold up to a closer look at my particular experience. A few months ago, the three members of my writing group agreed to each select one poem we’d read on our own and found memorable, and to bring it to our next meeting for a quick talk-about before moving on to our own work. Two of the poems we discussed you can read online— “A Noun Sentence,” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah and the title poem from Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage—and I’ll assume you’ll read them before moving on to the third poem, by Erin Malone, which appeared in Field, Spring 2013, and which I reprint here:
LETTER NEVER SENT
As for the weather, it’s fair to say
fine. The cherry trees are rioting.
I got your note
two dishtowels and the small white
mixing bowl. In my dresser
your ring is in a box.
to the sound of bicycle wheels
and a voice warning on your left.
The trees are an industry.
There’s too much of more
and my thoughts.
I walk to the sound of a bird
Another goes, Potato chip.
And because the dead are never out of work
you’re up to your soapy elbows
calling, Well hi there!
when I’m coming in the door.
Darwish’s is an extravagantly surreal hymn to sensory amplitude; Gregerson’s a complex lyrical and social meditation, piercingly smart about race, about deep attachments, about nature; and Malone’s a deeply felt elegy, personal and accessible, despite its structure of sly indirections. Darwish died in 2008 at the age of 67, Linda Gregerson is a poet of my generation, and Erin Malone (I gather from her web site) is significantly younger than I am, author of one chapbook. The three poems I discussed with my friends have almost nothing in common other than they are very good of their kind. Bringing them together into one discussion created a cross-generational “state of contemporary poetry,” healthy as the quality of our conversation about them. “To have great poets,” wrote Whitman, “there must be great audiences too.” That’s a bit grandiose, but then Whitman believed the first edition of Leaves of Grass would avert the Civil War. I especially like his plural “audiences.” Reading poetry to oneself is a little less secluded than writing it (at least there are two interior lives involved), but it’s still—and too often—a solitary activity that needn’t be. Sharing poems with others turns an audience into “audiences,” into a society of readers, which guarantees at least two benefits. First, two or more heads scratched over a text become better informed than one. Second, by virtue of having been read by a group rather than by an individual, the poem will be less lonely.
Collections of Steven Cramer’s poetry include The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987); The World Book (1992); Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997); Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize and was named an Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book; and Clangings (2012), a book-length sequence the deals with psycho-linguistics. Cramer has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former editor at the Atlantic Monthly, he currently directs the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University.
Danielle Legros Georges: Let America Be America Again
American writers (by that I mean U.S. writers) have long pursued the identity and idea of America (by America I mean the United States). The Frenchman-turned-American, Jean de Crèvecoeur, writing in New York shortly before the American Revolution, asks “What is an American?” in his Letters from an American farmer. Published in 1782, his book is written from the perspective of a fictional character corresponding to an English friend, in letters, or essays, ranging in subject matter from slavery to an emerging American identity. De Crèvecoeur writes:
What then . . . is this new man? He is either an [sic] European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American . . .
Phillis Wheatley, a Gambian- or Senegalese-turned-American woman, published her first and only volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. In it appears the poem “On being brought from Africa to America,” one of her rare comments on slavery. Wheatley, whose Americanness was not chosen by her, but whose dark Americanness (or perhaps Un-Americanness) was central to the nation’s economic development, writes as an American non-citizen (prior to 1776 because the U.S. had yet to be born; and after its birth by virtue of her race and gender). She writes out of the precarious state of enslavement in Boston:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
While Wheatley credits slavery and the Divine for bringing her to Christianity, she employs that very Christianity to buttress a subtle argument for a more critical stance on the part of the reader toward slavery, and more obviously, a more favorable understanding of enslaved Africans and African-Americans.
Emma Lazarus, an American poet born of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish parents in New York, also writes America. In her 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” she places in the mouth of Liberty the recognizable words, “Give me your tired, your poor, [y]our huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Engraved on a plaque mounted in 1903 at the base of Liberté éclairant le Monde—the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France—the poem transformed sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s statue from a symbol of intercontinental republican ideals and liberty to the Mother of exiles, the Mother of new Americans.
Lazarus, Wheatley, and de Crèvecoeur, while participating in the articulation of America, also demonstrate its multiplicity; that which has always marked Americans but presented a threat to the nation’s early theorists. The founding Fathers eschewed, at a critical moment in U.S. history, the considerable promise of a multicultural America for a monoculture constructed around Protestant Anglo cultural and political values and aesthetics; assigning freedom, citizenship, and agency to those most closely aligned with them. Any discussion of a national literature is underlain, I believe, with the often-tacit and long-standing tension between what America is and the idea of America.
American poet Langston Hughes, in a poem published in 1935, explores the distance between the American Dream and poor Americans: the poor white, the Negro, the Indian, the immigrant, the farmer, the worker. “Let America Be America Again” unyieldingly holds a mirror up to American inequity. At the same time it does not abandon a national ethos. Conveyed at the poem’s very end is the hope for an America that can live up to its expressed principles of democracy, and freedom for all. Through the poem, Hughes unites the aforementioned and various communities and identities within a framework of social justice.
America is best when it recognizes its inherent plurality. Americans are best when, embracing plurality, we move toward and seek to understand those around us. Americans are best when we are engaged and dialogic. Not presuming sameness paradoxically allows us to arrive at shared qualities. It allows us to see that, though different in many ways, de Crèvecoeur, Wheatley, and Lazarus, were each immigrants or the daughter of immigrants. They were bicultural, and bilingual, if not speakers of several languages. Wheatley and de Crèvecoeur shared in common the fact of publishers and great celebrity in Europe. Wheatley, Lazarus, and Hughes all engaged in literary translation (Wheatley of Roman poet Ovid; Lazarus of French and German poets; and Hughes most notably of Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain). Each writer read widely. Each pursued and maintained literary connections in the broad world. Each looked inward to America for a vision of it, and themselves. In the same spirit, American poetry as a body is best when it reflects America’s inherent pluralism and defies the monoculture America never truly was.
Danielle Legros Georges is a poet, essayist, and associate professor at Lesley University. She is a visiting faculty member of the William Joiner Institute Summer Writer’s Workshop, University of Massachusetts, Boston; and a Solstice Magazine consulting poetry editor. Her work includes a book of poetry Maroon (Curbstone, 2001) and poems in many journals and anthologies. Her poems are forthcoming in Callaloo, Transition, and World Literature.
Joan Houlihan: The Role of the Poet-Critic
This is an excerpt of an interview with Joan Houlihan conducted by Garrick Davis, originally published by Contemporary Poetry Review.
GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism?
JH: I’m disappointed by the present situation of most poetry criticism, from book-length studies to single reviews. For example, when I delved into so-called avant-garde poetry (which I re-titled “post avant-garde” or “post-avant” for short, or, post-post avant, to indicate—jokingly—to the general reader that this was even more avant-garde than “post avant-garde”), I searched for some clear-headed criticism from contemporary poets and critics that would enlighten me as to its genesis and, most importantly, would guide me toward an appreciation of it. At that point, I still believed there was a “there, there” and I was missing it. I quickly discovered that the prose written about both language poetry (its predecessor) and my jokingly-coined post-avant poetry was itself opaque. This disturbed me. Combined with falling into the rabbit hole of post-avant poetry and its criticism, was the vehement and sometimes shockingly angry reaction I was getting to my essays from poets responding on blogs and through email. My inquiries were obviously stirring up dust, but what was the cause? I had hoped for a clear defense/apologia or simply an idea of how to read such poems as the ones I cited in my essay on post-avant-ism (“Post-post Dementia”), but instead I got vitriol (even threats) or an urgent gratitude (from people who did not want me to “use their names”). What was going on here? A nerve, as they say, had been hit.
Some poetry critics (and poet-critics) I read and admire and, most importantly, can understand well enough to agree or disagree with are: Adam Kirsch, Ernest Hilbert, Jan Schreiber, Stephen Burt, Helen Vendler, David Orr, Tony Hoagland, Glyn Maxwell, David Yezzi, and lately, Rusty Morrison. I enjoy reading William Logan and more recently, Michael Robbins, as much for their wonderfully clear-eyed and fearless opinions as for their wit. I leave it to VIDA, by the way, to discover why there is a general dearth of female reviewers and critics, but I hope we don’t settle for anything that is merely gender-based just to increase the numbers. I’ve never been democratic that way: i.e. there’s a lot of negligible criticism by men so let’s have an equal amount of negligible criticism by women.
Joan Houlihan’s most recent book of poetry, The Us, was named a “must read” book of 2009 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. She is also author of The Mending Worm, winner of the Green Rose Award from New Issues Press, and Hand-Held Executions: Poems and Essays. Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at Bostoncomment.com, and she is managing editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry–Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press). Houlihan is founding director of the Concord Poetry Center and the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She has taught at Columbia University, Emerson College, and others, and is on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
January O'Neil: The State of Poetry
I am writing this article from my desk at The Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, NY, one of two writers’ retreats I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of this summer. Last week, I took a class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA with poet Marie Howe. So when asked, “What is the state of poetry,” the honest answer is, “I’m not sure.”
During the past two weeks, I’ve had many conversations about poetry and its various states. From speaking with people who write it and read it, poetry has never been better. Never have there been more opportunities to get poems directly to the reader or listener. From large-scale festivals such as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, to readings at coffee shops, workshops, library events, web zines and the rise of the small press, poetry is expanding the boundaries of what it means to go direct to market.
There are moments when even the most experienced poet notices a wrinkle in the fabric of normalcy. Case in point: Patricia Lockwood’s long poem “Rape Joke” went viral in a matter of hours. A poem going viral? Goes to show that words matter. Whether you like or dislike the poem, it has stirred a dialogue about an important subject. Poetry did that. Poetry.
But the reality is there are too many poets and not enough readers. Maybe it’s because of the profusion of MFA programs, or technology and the Internet making poetry as accessible as posting on Facebook. Poetry is still one of the least-selling genres by publishing standards, but for many, the book is the ultimate goal. And how much does the tenure track play into the career path of an emerging writer trying to secure employment, maintain a personal life, and feed their creativity? There are more reasons not to be a poet some days.
I realize I raise more questions than answers, none of which are easy or satisfying. Let me, in turn, I offer these lines that one of my friends reminded me last night at dinner after a long discussion about the state of poetry. It’s a quote from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”
Unequivocally, the answer for me is yes. If the answer for you also is yes, then nothing I’ve said here matters.
January O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press 2009) and executive director of Massachusetts Poetry Festival as well as Assistant Professor at Salem State University. She is also the author of the forthcoming Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press 2014).
Charles Coe: An Open Letter to Poetry Reading Organizers
A couple of months ago I gave a poetry reading where I’d been paid no appearance fee and no one but the event organizer bought a copy of my book. (I don’t know whether she really liked it or was just embarrassed; I suspect a bit of both.)
So I’d spent my entire Saturday afternoon to make $13.95. Actually less than that, since I buy copies from my publisher. Plus, it was a three-hour round trip; while grinding my teeth on the drive home I did some hard thinking about how I believe presenters should approach poets to read at their events.
1. Mention money early in the conversation.
I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, like I’d asked if it would be okay to read in my underwear.
If you have no budget, say that right up front. NEVER ASSUME AN ARTIST IS WILLING WORK FOR FREE.
2. If you can’t pay an appearance fee, find other ways to compensate the poet.
If the reading’s a grassroots, volunteer-run affair, take up a collection. After all, the audience hasn’t paid admission; most people can certainly afford to drop a few bucks into the hat.
If the presenter’s a non-profit organization with a low (as opposed to no) budget, even a twenty-five or fifty-dollar honorarium—gas money and a meal–would be appreciated. Or board members and volunteers could solicit tax-deductible donations from local businesses (restaurant or bookstore gift certificates, fruit baskets, and so on.) in lieu of cash.
“What about bookstores?” you might ask. “You don’t make any money there.” Well, that’s not exactly true; you make whatever royalty off each copy of your book the store sells. But that tiny bit of cash obviously isn’t the motivation to read at bookstores; the store will have the poet’s book propped up near the door, prominently displayed for a month or so, and that visibility is a form of compensation. And besides, people who run bookstores—especially independents—are heroes, and authors need to do everything they can to support them.
3. Support book sales.
Point out when promoting the event that the author will have signed copies of books available for sale. (I’m amazed how often reading announcements neglect to mention this.)
Repeat this while introducing the poet. Tell people that buying art is the most tangible way to show your support for artists. Tell them books make great presents and encourage them to buy an extra copy. Heck, tell them they can buy a bunch and cross a half dozen people off their holiday shopping list. Don’t be shy.
I do a lot of gigs at series that include an open mic, and I realize many of the regulars come mainly for a chance to read their work. It’s probably not reasonable to expect those folks to buy a book every week. But remind your audience that never isn’t often enough…
Poets need to take a stand.
Some people get squirrely when a poet talks about money; they seem to think we’re happy to read for free as long as someone can scare up a dozen people to sit and listen. No one expects a mechanic to change their oil for free or the vet to worm their dog, but it doesn’t occur to some folks that a poet is like anyone else who’s put in time and effort to learn a craft and has a right to be paid to practice it.
In my opinion, poets who feel “uncomfortable” at the thought of seeking compensation for their work and aggressively marketing their books should ask themselves one question: is poetry a hobby they’re willing to subsidize out of their own pockets or are they professional artists running a small business?
To those who simply enjoy sharing their poetry and don’t really care about making money I say, “Live Long and Prosper.” But I urge poets who want to be compensated for their time and effort to stand up and raise these issues the next time you invite them to read at your venue.
After all, if poets don’t value ourselves as working artists, if we don’t take ourselves seriously…who will?
Charles Coe is the author of the poetry collection Picnic on the Moon as well as All Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous newspapers and literary reviews and magazines, and his poems have been set to music by composers Julia Carey, Beth Denisch and Robert Moran. Charles also writes feature articles, book reviews and interviews for publications such as Harvard Magazine, Northeastern University Law Review and the Boston Phoenix. In addition to his work as a writer, Charles has an extensive background as a jazz vocalist and has performed and recorded with numerous musicians in the Boston area and throughout New England.
Jennifer Jean: The State of Poetry
Jennifer Jean produces and facilitates the annual State of Poetry panel for the Mass Poetry Festival.
The State of Poetry panels during each Mass Poetry Festival, and these essays curated by Jackie Malone, necessitate rooting. Meaning: digging in. Seeking. The “rooting reflex” is one of about ten primitive reflexes and without it an infant would not find nourishment. Rooting means, also: establishing equilibrium. If the root is deep, strong, then the tree is more likely long-lived and as beautiful as it’s meant to be. As below, so above. The state of our roots determines our health. And don’t we, dear Poetry Family, want to know where we’re at? Gnôthi seauton as the Delphic saying goes: Know thyself. The act of rooting keeps us flexible, full, dynamic—though digging is dirty work. If we root out and bare what is in shadow—that could be dirty work. But, as the kindergarteners say, Dirt don’t hurt!
That’s why I like ars poetica—they’re reflective. I’ve an anthology of this form: What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill. Amazing stuff! Stuff not made less amazing by Kwame Dawes’ tweeted “Memo to Poets”which advises: Only one poem about writing poems a year. Or by Diane Lockward’s credible blog post on this form, which further admonishes: I allow you one in a lifetime. Alright, maybe. Anything overdone is self-indulgent, is tiresome. Still, we need to look and re-look at what we do, how we do, why we do. (Though, one hopes the poem doing so has merit!)
I wonder if any folks have resisted writing these State of Poetry essays. I’ll have to ask Jackie. I know I did. I don’t want to look at the State of Poetry (in capital letters)! It is, for me, reflective of the state of the world. Which is not as beautiful as it’s meant to be. And yeah, I believe in a “meant to be.” So, I’m heartened by folks who keep rooting, keep shining a light on murky reality: by VIDA’s absolutely necessary annual count; by Lindsy Yoo’s NPR essay on “Feminism and Race” and Mark Doty’s Poetry Foundation essay on 9/11,“Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” (where he sites Wislawa Szymborska’s striking ars poetica “Photograph from September 11th”). These folks are rooting and rooting because, as my mentor Pat Defletsan tells me—quoting Jung: What you resist persists. In other words if we don’t root, if we don’t look and discuss, we shrivel, and hobble, and atrophy.
Here’s some resistance: poetry has a mind/body unity problem. It’s been coming to light a lot lately. When I was putting this essay together, I came across an interview with Robert Pinsky in The Daily Beast where interviewer Daniel Bosch says, “Every word of [his new anthology] Singing School is pitched against the decapitation of poetry’s head from its body.” This seems right in so many ways. Pinsky says, “If you want to write well, it helps if you think about vowels and consonants, which are an important element in making what someone else would want to read or hear aloud.” Great! I just hope the body doesn’t overcompensate, and equilibrium isn’t undercut as a trend, again. Neither body nor head need be sacrificed. Mr. Pinsky agrees and has called poetry acentaur. Ok. That’s quite like the poetry as mermaid I’ve occasionally mused about. Neither of us chose as totem anything like the evil tikbalang from Philippine folklore—which has the body of a man and the head of a horse. Likely because: all magical creatures, like poetry, are perceived to be less apocalyptic when the human face/head/brain is intact.
But anyways, what do you think? Any poet can root, can weigh in. That’s what I always say at the start of each State of Poetry panel—which is a haven, a public conversation. This here is a spark to conversation. Dear Poetry Family, you’re thinking what you’re thinking and I hope you chat that out with the affinity groups closest to home—root and shed light together on shadows, on unlit niches. Also: take to the net, chop it up a bit, check out what’s going on outside your familiar theatre. Your writing can only benefit. Or, better yet, take to the page—hash out the state of the state in a poem:
~for Pat Defletsan
Root for the nipple, root for the home team,
root your foot
when crisis strikes. Root in your trash
for treasure. But, the root of all evil
is uprooting—and always thinking,
I’ve got no trash, or, I come from me.
Fool—this means you’re numb
to the root
that binds our family.
Jennifer Jean’s most recent poetry collection The Fool is forthcoming from Big Table in Winter 2013. Other collections include: The Archivist, Fishwife, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared in: Drunken Boat, Tidal Basin Review, Denver Quarterly, Caketrain, Poetica, and The Mom Egg. She’s a volunteer blogger for Amirah, a website advocating for sex-trafficking survivors, and she teaches writing at Salem State University.