Thursday, February 07, 2008
Completing the questionnaire sent by the Poetry Foundation.
3. How can the delivery of poems from writers to readers be improved?
The relationship between poetry and books never really has been 1:1. Even if we set aside for a moment the role played by all of the many oral traditions that feed into and enrich poetry, we can find instances of poetry – Emily Dickinson is the poster child – with only accidental relationships to print. And the role of the self-published book, the commercial object with perhaps the least prestige of all, has been important to poetry in the
We need, I think, to acknowledge that there is no particular “natural” relationship between poetry & print – the best poets are not those most likely to be picked up and promoted by the trade presses, important writers are allowed to go out of print, chapbooks and print-on-demand volumes don’t fit the distribution model of trade books, etc. Some cities are well-served by an independent bookstore – such as
I would love to see some of the money that is currently being misused by the National Endowment of the Arts to promote dead British playwrights redirected to ensure that each major metropolitan area has at least one decent retail outlet for poetry. What I envision is a program that would be open only to independent bookstores. The Endowment would offer annual grants to not more than one independent in each major metropolitan area that does not already have a bookstore with a substantial poetry section. By substantial I mean a minimum of 1,000 titles, not more than 25 percent of which are published by trade presses nor more than 25 percent by university presses, with at least five percent of the stock being chapbooks. The purpose of these grants would be to ensure that stores experience decent revenue per square foot for their poetry sections, and that each major metro develops at least one quality poetry outlet. This would also reward stores who have at least one buyer actively interested in the genre. Stores would have to apply for the grants and there would have to be a mechanism for ensuring that no current store in the area already met these criteria – I believe that neither Grolier’s in
A separate mechanism that might be created even by the Poetry Foundation itself would be a mechanism for the sale and distribution of chapbooks and print-on-demand volumes, perhaps coordinated by Booksense, but with a common front end on the web so that readers could turn to a single source for finding these difficult-to-obtain items.
Both programs would work to strengthen not just the distribution of poetry, but also independent bookstores. Any additional programs should likewise attempt to accomplish both things at once.
4. What hinders the discover, circulation, and celebration of poems in our culture?
The misteaching of reading, especially in the K12 curriculum, which causes so many students to think of language as instrumental and transparent, something to be skimmed rather than read. Whether you are a new formalist or a slam poet, a visual poet or a language writer, the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and of the graphic letter, is the one secret shared by all poets to which nonreaders of poetry seem literally clueless. It is “the news” that William Carlos Williams wrote about in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” for lack of which “men die miserably every day.” This is a larger problem than just one for poetry – it is one consequence among many of the larger issues confronting our schools in general. Dropping a few poets-in-the-schools into programs like a Marine strike force is hardly going to undercut the message students get continually, day after day, that language is to be mined for “information” that can be later regurgitated in test formats. It is more, even, than just the goal of developing critical thinkers, tho it is one important aspect of this. Until such time as our schools are given the resources they need in order to really address the whole child, not just managing to standardized tests, we haven’t a chance.
5. In what ways are poetry and the poetry community vital and thriving?
See my answer to number 1. There are more poets, and more good poets, now than ever. Tools like the web make possible modes of publication that didn’t exist even 25 years ago. Many of the “problems” of poetry really are the consequences of the abundance of writing and the needs of both artists and institutions to accommodate this new reality.
6. Other thoughts
It is worth noting how dramatically broader (and richer) the Poetry Foundation website has become since it began. It reflects the democratic vision that Poetry’s great editor, Henry Rago, had for the journal, and for the art, toward the end of his life. The journal itself is still playing catch-up in this regard, tho it too has shown encouraging signs of moving in this same direction. But the website itself is rapidly becoming one of the gems of the new world of poetry.
Labels: state of the art
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
The Poetry Foundation has sent me a questionnaire. It is part of a joint project on the part of the foundation and the Aspen Institute, and is intended to “inform discussion and debate at a Poetry Foundation-Aspen Institute conference” sometime in the future. It is very straightforward with six open-ended questions. No multiple choice or yes/no queries in which all the alternatives are atrocious (cf. elections, national, US 2008). So I’m inclined to respond. Herewith are my answers:
1. What is your connection with poetry (read, write, teach, buy books, publish, etc.)?
I write poetry and write critically about poetry as well as write a weblog on contemporary poetry and poetics. Sometimes I teach it, but rather rarely – I’ve turned down the majority of offers I’ve had to teach writing at the college level, including two tenure-track positions. Through my various interactions with poetry, I get something in the range of 1,000 books of poetry each year these days. I have edited small magazines and anthologies, as well as larger trade journals not directly related to poetry.
2. What are the most pressing needs of poetry and the poetry community?
The relationship between poetry and its possible audience(s) has changed dramatically in recent years, yet the institutions that package and process poetry – and especially the expectations both of poet and reader alike – have not kept pace.
There are presently at least 10,000 publishing English-language poets. There may in fact be twice that number – it really depends on what percentage of publishing poets you think have active weblogs dedicated to the subject (if it’s ten percent, then the number is 10,000, but if you think the percentage is lower – as I believe – then the actual census of publishing poets would be greater). There are over 400 creative writing programs turning out new graduates each year. The annual AWP convention sells out at a maximum figure of 7,000 attendees. These consist almost exclusively of poets in academic programs – a tiny fraction of the number of poets – their counterparts in the other genres of creative writing, and employees of the programs and presses that have sufficient critical mass to afford to attend an event like the AWP. If even a quarter of attendees are active in writing poetry, this would suggest that the actual numbers are much higher than we might imagine.
In the 1950s, there were at most a few hundred poets publishing in English. In 40 years, I have never even read one estimate that put that figure above 100. While I think that those estimates were almost all low – Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery suggests that a larger population of publishing poets existed who were not critically taken seriously even between the first and second World Wars – I doubt that the real number could have been much above 500. One of the poetry trade groups – I forget if it was Poets House or the Poetry Society of America – received over 4,000 different books of poetry in one year recently. The thousand I get really are just the tip of an iceberg.
The population in the
The consequence is that there are more active poets now than ever, but that the total addressable market for any given book of poems is likely to be much smaller. The trade presses have acknowledged this by largely abandoning the publication of poetry altogether, because for most the economics are not there to support the infrastructure required for a major trade publication.
A handful of poets have had the opportunity to break through and obtain generally large audiences, but the Billy Collins and Ted Koosers of today may well experience the same problems sustaining their audiences after they have gone that their predecessors, Ogden Nash and Edgar Guest, have had. From this, I do not conclude that we should think of such popularity as “dissing” Collins or Kooser, but rather suggesting that we might want to pay more attention to the fate and heritage of the likes of Nash and Guest. For those who are not a Collins, Kooser, Angelou or Giovanni, the experience of being a poet can be quite a bit different. Not only are there not enough colleges to absorb all of the new poets coming out of MFA programs with teaching jobs, there are not even enough college reading series for each of them to get one on-campus reading per year. Poets who may have published an early book with a trade press may well find themselves no longer able to do so, and may experience this as downward aesthetic mobility, like a terrific actress who turns 40 and discovers suddenly that nobody is interested in her skills going forward. Poets who publish with university presses often experience a parallel fate, finding themselves “reduced” to small or independent presses, moving from book publication to chapbooks. Poets who publish one or two small press volumes, may find it harder, or impossible, to find publishers at all. I know several poets who now self-publish small run chapbooks of their work that they simply give away to friends. Others are doing what is functionally the same thing over the web, using PDF files instead of print. Some of these poets experience this new potlatch culture as “failure,” even tho they are producing excellent writing, even when their audiences are completely appreciative of their efforts.
To speak in this social context of “the decline of poetry” strikes me as completely missing the mark. It is possible that fewer people are reading certain types of poetry and/or certain types of poets, but there has never been so much poetry being written in the
This I think changes many of the expectations that we have had about what a life in poetry might mean. I also think that it changes the roles and responsibilities that the institutions of poetry have.
I do think it is the responsibility of individual poets to become much more widely read than has been typically the case. My own sense is that they need to read more on more subjects, from science to linguistics to politics to literature to sociology to art history to you name it, but they also need to read much more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, than generally they have. I am not at all certain that any MFA program should admit a student who cannot name a minimum of 100 books of contemporary poetry – published in the past 25 years – and say a little about each. And I am not sure that I would graduate any student who did not then seriously read 200 more such books over the next period of time – some schools require as few as 25 – and again could say a little about each. This would lead to far fewer students coming out of these programs with only barebones knowledge of what is being done today, far fewer students having to reinvent the wheel, and a much richer sense of what is actually possible in contemporary poetry, from slams to the new formalism, from flarf to narrative, from the prose poem to visual poetics. In both cases, before and after, I would only permit applicants and students to use trade books for one-quarter of the requirement. And I would expect their teachers to be at least as well read.
Labels: state of the art
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Jeff Clark, book designer extraordinaire
Geoff Huth on Bob Grumman
Talking with Mairead Byrne
Searching for Frank Stanford
Chinua Achebe on the 50th anniversary of
Things Fall Apart
Arts Council pulls lit funding
Is the Arts Council out to kill literature?
Arts Council: we’re raising lit funding
Mary Oliver sells out 2,500 seat auditoriums
What freaks people out more?
Talking werewolf-dogs that bust up meth labs
or free verse?
This week’s death-of-a-bookstore piece
is the only general new book indie shop in Vegas,
“toward the resort’s younger audience”
may go nonprofit
A look at the Canadian retail book industry
A government study on the same topic
The fate of Charles Hills,
writer, editor, would-be murderer
Linh Dinh, Jessica Lowenthal & Randall Couch
discuss Adrienne Rich’s “Wait”
Talking with Major Jackson
Discussing dolls with David Trinidad
Stephen Burt on new Russian poets
& on Jasper Bernes
Six post-avant classics for the price of one
Of Özdemir Ince,
Poetry & voice
(yes, in 2008!)
How not to write a sonnet
Talking with Robert Hass
A bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay
3 funny poets
Science, art & literary criticism
Talking with Carlos Martinez
Remembering Marcel Martinet
A.E. Stallings on George Seferis
“the childlike wit” of Simon Armitage
The modern Byron
Robert Pinsky on Campbell McGrath
Dilip Chitre’s As Is, Where Is
back from the AWP, asks
”Can’t we get along?”
When they really, really
don’t like the poetry
The work of Luc Sante
Talking with John Steffler
Chain store pulls “Lolita bed”
What the Poetry Foundation’s editors
liked of their websites publication in ‘07
and what their readers liked
John Hollander’s imitation of Kenny Goldsmith
Kenny Goldsmith on outsider art
A short profile of Lee Sharkey
Jordan appeals court upholds sentence
of jihadist poet
Writers’ strike nears settlement
Two Guyanese poets,
read through the work of Derek Walcott
Celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns
Rieff’s first chapter
Folly & the will to live
The many lives of Lee Miller
Jasper Johns in grey
The Philly jazz scene
The Pound problem in music
One way to counter a bad review
Michael Chabon on Barack Obama
Erica Jong on Hillary Clinton
Monday, February 04, 2008
I’ve been reading Geoffrey Young’s The Riot Act very slowly. It’s one of those delicious books that you never want to end. In one sense, Geoffrey Young is the poet Billy Collins & Ted Kooser both would like to be, writing self-contained works that are narrative marvels and accessible to just about any reader of English. Dig:
Because of You
A few years ago
I charged into each day
for the game of it,
not sweating the past,
a future, but today,
because of you,
I want to drive
to Coney Island
in a light snow,
cross the beach
to the water’s edge
and watch the flakes melt
on contact with wet sand.
Riot Act is just studded with gems like this sonnet. It’s narrative in the same sense that the Eric Fischl painting on the cover of Geoff’s book could be called narrative, in that the simple juxtaposition of details convey vast worlds beyond themselves. Not only that of Brooklyn, love, of the way values evolve over the course of a life, all framed here against the limitless potential of nature – the ocean, the sky, even the land – but Young manages also to write the kind of poem we might have associated 50 years ago with the likes of David Ignatow, the poem flowing in a single movement to the utter closure of “wet sand,” a noun phrase every bit as soft as the image it presents.
Here’s another sonnet, “Down the Garden Pathology,” which confronts the implications of globalization & climate change:
After great pain a formal
invitation comes to return
to the sidewalks of daily life.
Dishes in the sink await our love
of verismo as fruit flies
await their apotheosis in garbage.
Share-croppers played checkers
with bottle caps; will our unborn
grand-children know orthodontia?
Our islands sink below the reach of satellite?
Each child of privilege shall hold
her guts in hunger, the way
a parking lot looks after rain,
The way they say you lose everything to gain.
The beginning of this poem is a little mysterious. It almost sounds Ashberyesque, not unlike the way much of the rest invokes, to my ear anyway, the work of Jimmy Schuyler – the way the scales tip awkwardly on a phrase like apotheosis in garbage, yet also perfectly poised. Note how the rhyme in the final couplet brings you right back to that same sound in the poem’s initial noun phrase, great pain. Or how that capital T at the head of the last line pulls you away from narrative closer to something like song.
A lot of Young’s poems are like this, contrasting some horrific – yet often unspecified (as tho we’ve agreed not to mention it) – event with the plainest details of daily living. Denial and its consequences – I almost wrote rewards – is an obsessive theme here:
After lies and torture the feds finally order
Lobster and bubbly for the detainees,
Retooling their bricked-in personalities
With freedom’s glaze and lexical radii
As payback for the orange-clad years
Of boredom, sweat and fear. You want
Emergency infusions of allegro juice? You got it.
Justice at last, country-less integers?
Persist, oh captured hard luck cases.
I bow before the cult of your resistance,
Its mission chair. Loose lips install chips.
Bill me for sorcery at the tree factory, Hill.
Historians who dig for truth in Harmsville
Must first breathe the stench of Living Death.
As ironic as that final sentence sounds, coming as it does after a line that slyly invokes both Clintons, at some level it’s absolutely literal. This is the War on Terror viewed as through a David Hockney painting. The mismatch is positively chilling.
It may seem odd that Young, a longtime gallery owner and contemporary art consultant, who lived in
But the move east appears to have been good for him as his writing has developed further into something that is at once reminiscent, say, of first- and second-gen NY School poets while at the same time surprisingly committed – imagine a political Ron Padgett or Bill Berkson tackling the themes of Kafka. The Riot Act comes in three parts, 34 sonnets – the jacket somewhat diffidently calls them faux sonnets, but there’s nothing faux about them – a series of prose works, only one of which extends past the second page, and a final suite of “occasional poems.” I’m not done with this yet and really don’t want to talk about the two final sections. It’s the sonnet sequence that has completely floored me – there are more varied and totally intriguing instances of what this form might be for the 21st century than any other book I can recall. Geoff Young is a sonneteer on a par with Bernadette Mayer or Laynie Browne. Here is, in his thoroughly narrative mode,
a child is trying
to draw the roiling
heave and swell
in a passage
of choppy waves
while a parent
at the kitchen sink
What strikes me is the degree to which these lines could have come straight from a poem by William Carlos Williams in his Spring & All phase – one of the section’s three epigrams is Williams’ “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no value.” Or consider how Young toys with Valery’s argument against fiction while simultaneously invoking Frank O’Hara in the sequence’s title poem, “Why I Don’t Write Novels”:
A man approaches a closet,
opens the door, reaches in,
selects a shirt, slips it off
the hanger, replaces hanger
on rod, turns from closet
with shirt in hand,
and without shutting closet
door, walks into bathroom,
stands in front of mirror,
puts shirt on, watches
his hands buttoning it, loosens
his belt, tucks shirt into pants,
tightens belt, smiles at
the glass, leaves the room.
There is a calculated austerity here – we don’t know the type or color of the shirt beyond its having buttons, many of the articles are clipped off – “walks into bathroom, / stands in front of mirror, / puts shirt on” – against which the sheer love of narrative construction scrapes. Yes, fiction has to get characters dressed & out the door, but it is true also – as Young shows us here – that poetry can do all these very same things with far greater concision & power. The Riot Act is a fab book and “Why I Don’t Write Novels” is must-read material for anyone interested in the possibilities of sonnet form.
Labels: Geoffrey Young
Sunday, February 03, 2008
photo © Charles Bernstein
Ted Burke on Rae Armantrout
Hank Lazer’s essays
are half price
until March 31
A profile of John Giorno
Todd Swift, shooting at canons
Having my cake & eating it too
Against scattershot editing in literary journals
The most valuable result of the anti-Milton campaign
Doris Lessing receives the Nobel
Edward Byrne on Galway Kinnell
Vietnamese writer released
Talking with Kevin Williamson
Robert Peake: Confronting Heaney
is a certified TV hit
Why it takes so long
for a (trade press) book
to be published
Self-publishers of the world, unite!
Why indie bookstores matter
Another obit for
Amazon buys Audible
A profile of Katrina Porteous
Beatnik days in
“a creature of shame”
What poet laureates actually do
Poetry on ice: The Sawchuk Poems
Saving “Spiral Jetty”
or maybe not
Barry Schwabsky on the New Museum
George Bush’s favorite work of art
Meeting Zhang Xiaogang
4,000 “new” negatives
of Robert Capa
John Cage has a secret
Detroit Free Press
drops its film critic
A profile of critic James Wood
Just how daft is Martin Amis?
The short list for the “Arab Booker”
The memoirs of Regis Debray
Robert Fisk’s “biography” of Saddam Hussein
The art of the phony book cover
Friday, February 01, 2008