Wednesday, December 11, 2002

The Poker has arrived in my mailbox, with an information rich (a.k.a. busy) blue cover that lists, along with all the first issue participants, a roster of contributing editors aiding chief poker Daniel Bouchard that by itself should raise some great expectations: Beth Anderson, Kevin Davies, Steve Evans, Marcella Durand, Cris Mattison (the one person here whose work I really don’t know), Jennifer Moxley, & Douglas Rothschild. Interesting, edgy, brilliant are all adjectives that come to mind with that list.

The Poker has some terrific work in it & a great interview with Kimberly Lyons that includes an especially insightful & sympathetic comment as to the sacrifices that one must make to become an academic & why she is psychiatric social worker instead. The interview, conducted by Marcella Durand, also includes some discussion of the resentment felt by younger New York poets in the early 1980s toward language poetry:

M: Really?

K: Oh, God, yes. The reaction against the Language school and against L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Some sense of them taking over poetry – what are they doing? That was really in the discourse at that time and it was definitely in the social interactions, a kind of charge. It was a really charged time. Those were not such productive years for the New York School.

I’ve commented before on how that same phenomenon was perceived from the other side of the fence, including the anger people felt at the Poetry Project Newsletter’s habit in those days of “disappearing” certain language poets from lists of contributors in its Magazines Received columns. While langpos clearly tended to see the older, far more established & institutionalized NY School as all powerful & totally unwilling to share, younger NYS poets might well have had a very different fantasy about these dynamics. The problem of how to develop a scene without generating such paranoia on all sides remains an unfinished task for poetry as a collective & shared activity.

All of which makes it interesting to read the following first paragraph of Chris McCreary’s review of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts 1-38, Toll:

Lately I find myself groaning at the announcement of yet more books from many of the poets who’ve been publishing for several decades – more of the same, I often think, as what was once innovative is now being rehashed again and again throughout these careers. And it’s one more book not getting published by a younger up and comer, too!

McCreary goes on to except DuPlessis from this desire for all older poets to hurry up please & die, which makes it an even more bizarre note to start the review on, ungenerous & replete with an implicit ageism that can only come back, if McCreary is lucky, to haunt him.* In fact, I like McCreary & his poetry. The Effacements (Singing Horse, 2002) is an exciting book. What he is doing, I think, is expressing an all too human emotion, one aspect of that same “charge” Kimberly Lyons is referring to in her interview, an emotional exhaustion that is a consequence of the absolute difficulty any poet has & how it is experienced, how it is felt & framed when the writer is relatively young. In a sense, I almost suspect that this “charge” is also what is intended by the otherwise cryptic tagline The Poker runs underneath its title: “Half with loathing, half with a strange love.”

The truth is that it is difficult & it is getting harder daily. From 1911 through 1955 – roughly the age of modernism – the number of books published annually in the United States remained relatively static at 12,000. But since 1955, that rate of publication has ramped up dramatically. By 1975, that number had more than tripled to 39,000. According to Dinitia Smith’s column in the December 6 New York Times, the figure for 2001 was 114,287 titles. In short, a book by Ezra Pound or Gertrude Stein in 1912, or even Howl by Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1950s, represented just eight one-thousandths of one percent of the titles in the new book market for that year. Today, a book by Chris McCreary, Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Kimberly Lyons has to compete with more than 14 times that number of titles for attention.

What nobody to my knowledge has done is to calculate in any reliable fashion whether this same rate of growth in the number of titles overall applies proportionately to poetry. It wouldn’t particularly shock me to discover than there are more than 14 times the number of poetry books now than there were in the mid-1950s. Also unexplored, let alone answered, is the question of whether or not the absolute number of poetry books – books, not titles – bought & read has grown over that same period.

There is a hidden presumption behind McCreary’s groaning, Lyons’ “charged atmosphere” & the mutual paranoia of the New York School & langpo in the 1980s – and this is a gut feeling that poetry is a zero sum game, that there is only a fixed amount of poetry attention to go around. By that logic, a book such as Chris’ The Effacements must have “won out over” or “shoved aside” some other possible volume, either in publication, in reading attention, or in both. But that’s an untested &, I would argue, suspect presumption. Suspect not only because with the absolute number of titles expanding, it is reasonable that the list for poetry should increase as well, but also because the inference of this presumption, that eliminating some future book by, say, Michael Palmer or Ron Silliman will lead to more readers for X, has no basis in fact.**

But if the other possibility is true, that the number of poets, poetry readers & poetry books is expanding in the United States, a very different economy & set of issues would then follow. The problem would not be one of competing over a fixed ration of assets – books, readers, awards, stars on the Poetry Walk of Fame, whatever – but rather a question of how best  to generate & organize an actually existing audience for one’s own poetry.

Kimberly Lyons has a wonderfully insightful perspective on this, which, in her interview, she ascribes to the poet & composer Franz Kamen:

Franz Kamen was an influence and friend. He was on the scene in the ‘80s in New York and was collaborating with Mitch [Highfill] on the 10 Leonard Street reading series when I met Mitch. He writes prose work like Scribble Death (Station Hill, 1986) and poetry, and put on performances – he is a natural teacher and a really original thinker and a really useful thinker about how to be an artist and he lived like an artist, in a German romantic sense and suffered greatly particularly in those days. So Franz was been somebody who’s been very helpful, somebody you could call any time of the night or day and jump right into your conflict or problem, your agony, and he was able to think through a set of dilemmas, as well as all those soulful problems of “why bother?” and how to keep going. And Franz always had this great idea that there is no need anymore for the poet or three contending, competing poets, or whatever, that there can be poets and poets can have their constellation around them, He even thought that no poet need more than 75 engaged, interested readers, which I thought was really a nifty way of thinking about it, that your work could be useful to those people.

M: What about 7 engaged readers?

K: We’ll take it!

All humor aside, Lyons & Kamen are absolutely correct. Further, that need for a core group of engaged, interested readers also points out what in a way always seemed so sad about the giant poetry readings that Allen Ginsberg was forced to give by virtue of his celebrity. I remember thinking, although not necessarily in these words, at some point during almost every reading I ever heard Ginsberg give, just how very few of the people in the audience really were engaged & interested in his writing itself. All that fame did relatively little to expand that base of serious readers beyond what it would be for any of the senior New Americans – Michael McClure, for example, or Phil Whalen – but it did ensure that he would never be allowed to just read to his core audience. He was forever the satirical poet forced by circumstance to play the oracle, the Gandalf of Naropa & the Lower East Side. I’m not convinced that Ginsberg’s experience of poetry in America was any less lonely than that identified by Chris McCreary – it was just different in how it played out.

These questions take on a special poignancy for me in The Poker with the inclusion of George Stanley of all people, contributing a six-page excerpt from “Vancouver, Book One,” a new poem that I’ve been told is on an epic scale. Here is a man after all who turned his back, for all purposes, on precisely that which so many other poets appear so hungry to obtain & so fiercely defend. As a key figure in the Spicer Circle, Stanley is an all but official representative of Disappeared Schools of Poetry. Yet he appears to have real fans & advocates from Cambridge, MA, to San Francisco, from British Columbia to Pennsylvania. Allen Ginsberg may very well have sold far more books than George Stanley, & he certainly had more titles, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Ginsberg had that many more “engaged, interested readers.”  

The Poker can be reached via its editorial address at P.O. Box 390408, Cambridge, MA 02139. Individual copies are $10 each, two-issue subscriptions cost $16. Make checks payable to Dan Bouchard. The Effacements Chris McCreary is half of a double book published by Singing Horse Press, the other half being A Doctrine of Signatures by Jenn McCreary. You can get it via SPD. We hear that Franz Kamen will have a new recording out from Innova Records sometime in early 2003. & Kimberly Lyons’ Abracadabra (Granary Books, 2000) is a book you need to own. Click on the link & take a look.

* The most difficult position for a poet to be in is not among the young & unpublished, but the mid-career (or older) writer who finds that the scene has somehow moved on & that interest in his or her work appears to have waned. Anyone who knew Ronald Johnson will remember his mass mailings of angry, bitter letters denouncing what he felt to be his exclusion. Yet his situation was better than that of many poets. One of the reasons why I began this blog with a reconsideration of Actualism & the lost poets of the 1970s was precisely to highlight this issue.

** Where does the audience of a poet go if & when he or she dies? Do they continue to read the poet, the way I still read Olson, Stein, Berrigan or Spicer? Do they turn to other poets? Do they stop reading poetry or eventually die off themselves? The answer I think is a little of all of the above, but there is no reason to believe that those who turn to some degree to other poets would not be doing that anyway, which is, after all, how everybody already reads.