Monday, January 27, 2003

Two, no, three things this morning have me thinking about the value of the local. The first was a dream I was still in the middle of when I woke up – I was visiting some old friends whom I had not seen in several years, San Francisco poets, and I was irritated that my visit had been disrupted by waking. I wanted to return to sleep to see them again, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. One was Mary Tall Mountain, who has been dead for several years. As I got going, brushing my teeth & whatnot, I realized that she was the one person from the dream whom I could actually recall well enough to name. It bothered (bothers) me that I can’t recall now who else was there.


The second was reading some poetry in the second issue of Bird Dog, a self-described “lo-fi” magazine edited by Sarah Mangold out of Seattle. There is a poet in the issue, Nico Vassilakis, whose work I liked &, when I read his contributor’s note, I had to laugh:


Nico Vassilakis is living in Seattle. This statement continues to linger as you read it with your inner voice, in that i am continue to live in Seattle as you read this. it would amuse me to no end to think that you might be read this bio page aloud. perhaps on the bus or standing by the magazine section of a bookstore. or maybe you might scare your pet/s reading the bio section out loud. if you are reading it aloud, i am your new friend.


My son Colin didn’t seem at all scared when I read it to him, merely furrowing his brow in the way 11-year-olds do when Dad is being weird, saying, “What?”


Two of the new poets whose work I’ve similarly liked in little magazines of late, Thom Donovan & Richard Deming, have both turned out later to be students at Buffalo, so I noted that, whatever else he might be, Vassilakis is not that. & then I thought of how it might be for people like Vassilakis, Mangold or Laynie Browne out there in Seattle, and of all the people around the United States – I simply don’t have the information needed to make any assessments of what it might be like in, say, Canada, Australia or Ireland – who make poetry far from the major urban centers associated with the craft, principally New York & San Francisco in the U.S.


The third thing that made me think of this was a web site, a blog actually, Paper Bent, by a young writer who is using the internet to create her own scene as far in the United States as one could imagine from either the Bowery Poetry Club in New York or Small Press Traffic in San Francisco. Lola Ailina Laranang is a 28-year-old mother of five, a native of Hawaii living now in Louisiana, whose partner is a logistics engineer on oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. As rough as the pieces on the site seem –you have to hunt a bit to find them too – the energy & optimism of this woman are stunning.


Virtually everywhere I’ve traveled as a poet, I’ve found other writers doing good work, supporting other writers in their community, helping to create whatever local scene might be possible in a circumstance of scare resources. Over the years I’ve come across people such as D.F. Brown in Houston or the team of Chris & George Tysh, Glenn Mannisto & Kofi Natambu in the Detroit of the 1980s, Charles Alexander in Tucson, or Alicia Askenase in Camden, New Jersey, all of whom inspire me for the work they’ve done & do for poetry. Some of these writers – Alexander & Askenase would be examples – also publish more widely & have what I imagine to some degree must be dual lives as writers – one local, the other national or even international in scope. 


A poet such as Gil Ott is appreciated widely for both his poetry & fiction. In addition to his own writing, his publication of such poets as Harryette Mullen & Linh Dinh has significantly expanded the range of what is possible for the post-avant landscape. But I think that it’s only in Philadelphia that a person can get a sense of the full range & power of Ott’s influence on his peers. He is easily the most significant poetry institution in the community & has been for a very long time. In nearly eight years here, I never have met a poet who didn’t acknowledge Ott’s impact on their work. Me included.


Like the poet-teachers who find themselves as beacons of light in out-of-the-way small colleges, these people are the very heart of writing. Poetry literally could not survive without them. The genre would very quickly dissolve into a phenomenon of a handful of cities & from there would shrink into some kind of bizarre antiquarian behavior, the very thing that it is sometimes caricatured as by non-poets. The reality is that every last one of us is a local poet first & whatever else we might be as writers only after. Some of these people are responsible for local institutions, a reading series or small press, but in many instances they simply function as an example & by way of the verbal encouragement they offer to others.


When I was in Russia in 1989, the painter Ostap Dragomoschenko gave me a parting gift of an old Soviet medal that read, in Russian, Hero Worker. I was to keep it for a month, Ostap told me, then to pass it on to somebody whose efforts in some field inspired me, with these same instructions to pass it forward another month hence. I gave the medal to Michael Rosenthal, the senior member of the Modern Times Bookstore collective in San Francisco, who has managed to keep the vision of a politically progressive bookstore alive in a city that is surprisingly inhospitable to good bookshops*, who in turn passed it on to someone else (I forget who) with the same instructions. I’d like to imagine that, 14 years later, that medal is still circulating. I would love to award each of these poets just such medals for their efforts.







* Yes, I’m sure it’s worse in your town than in SF, but that doesn’t make San Francisco good.