Thursday, April 28, 2005

Diane Wakoski wrote me the other day:

I'd like to read on the blog, should you care to write one, your dissertation on how our poetics really are shaped by the people who are our friends when we are young writers. I think it's putting together the aesthetics/poetics of our friends and making some connection with our own, the we shape ourselves. Jackson Mac Low influenced me deeply in those days, though my work doesn't overtly show it. Spicer, of course. Thom Gunn, naturally, because I studied with him. Jack Gilbert, because of our talks. So much cross pollination that when received innocently can be used to its best purpose – to allow us to find our unique and richest voices.

And then somebody asked me – a question I get a lot – To whom should I send my manuscript of poems? Who will publish me?

I wrote that person, as I almost always do, that the truth is that you probably already know your first, second, third book publisher. They may not yet know they’re a publisher of books yet, but someday they will be. And when they do, the people whose work matters most to them will also include the people who themselves matter most to them. And almost invariably they will do the very best job imaginable getting your work out to the readers who actually want to know you exist. Building those social communities is what the poetry scene is all about – indeed, it’s why there can be so many productive & fruitful participants in the scene who themselves maybe don’t publish poetry, or do so hardly at all. When was the last time Larry Fagin had a big book out? Never is when.

That advice is a bit of overstatement of course. Some publishers do print people – even largely unpublished people – whom they themselves do not know, or whom they know only slightly. Laura Sims has had work in Fence magazine – that’s one way to get to know people – but I really doubt that the publishers of Fence Books could be called friends. Still, the word on the street is that a book is forthcoming. That’s good news, but it’s still one of those exceptions that proves the rule.

Then, on another blog, I saw a link to Chris Hamilton-Emery’s hard headed and generous essay on “Making Poetry Submissions” on the Salt website. His advice is slightly different than mine, but not really – his admonition to get involved in the literary community is exactly correct. The reason so many young poets run reading series, edit magazines & even publish books is that it gives them enormous access into a broader community & it’s out of that social network that writers find their publishers and their readers.

But it’s not always easy or without pain, as Gary Norris underscores in his comments to my blognote on Shiny. Gary’s note reminded me, in particular, of a period in my life when I had distinctly schizy reactions to the literary scenes in my life, precisely because they struck me as disconnected in different ways. This period was the early-to-mid 1970s in San Francisco. At the time, I had been publishing in small press publications since 1965, & had appeared in some strange places (Poetry, TriQuarterly, Southern Review, Poetry Northwest) as well in journals that I took far more seriously, such as Caterpillar & This. Yet during the period I’m thinking about, say 1971 through ’75, I found that if my work appeared in a journal that was published anywhere beyond the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area (which included The Chicago Review & Alcheringa, but also Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling anthologies, Baloney Street, Roy Rogers, Gum, Salt Lick, Shelter & Diana’s Bimonthly), it was as if nothing had happened at all. Certainly none of my friends in San Francisco seemed to read these publications, unless I gave them one of my contributor’s copies. At the same time, virtually nobody outside of my immediate circle of friends in the Bay Area seemed to have heard of This, L or Tottel’s, published respectively by Barrett Watten (with Bob Grenier’s assistance on the first issue or two), Curtis Faville, and yours truly. Language poetry was already in full flower in these latter journals, but nobody outside of us seemed to recognize it. Yet at the same time I was getting positive feedback – publishing, the most concrete kind – from the larger literary world. But these two social realms hardly knew about one another, and it would take a few years for them to really commingle. And much longer for them to feel comfortable with one another.

So I hear what Diane is saying. But I hear what Gary is saying also. Both sides of this equation are true, I think. You really do depend mightily on your friendships – when I talk about poetry & community, that first inner rung is central. I will always have been advantaged, greatly, by the fact that by the age of 24 or thereabouts I already knew Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, David Melnick, David Bromige, Robert Duncan, Robert Kelly, Jack Gilbert (somebody who shows up on both Diane’s list & my own, tho neither of us write anything remotely like him) & many others. I’ve had very different relationships with each of these individuals – Kelly & I have only met in person a few times, for example – but the impact of each has been profound. David McAleavey, who published my first book, came out of this same social network, someone I met at first through David Melnick, as we tried to convince the UC Berkeley literary magazine Occident to start publishing the likes of Bromige or David Shapiro. Ray DiPalma, who published my second book, was also somebody whom McAleavey had published at Ithaca House (as he did Melnick & Bob Perelman as well), which is how I first met Ray. Of all my books, I’ve known all but three or four of the publishers well in advance of the project of the book itself. Of the exceptions, one was Rosmarie Waldrop, who published nox because she supports the idea of new writing from unknowns, and the others were all people who knew who I was first: Manuel Brito, John Byrum, Tom Bynum.

I first met Bromige when I went to hear Harvey Bialy read back in 1968. After the reading, I was hitch-hiking back to my apartment in Oakland when I got a ride from somebody who recognized me from the reading, which was how I met David Melnick. But he had been the roommate in Chicago of Iven Lourie, who had published my work in Chicago Review. Paul Mariah, who I wrote about a few days go in relationship to the Spicer Circle, was the MC that night, a reading in the very same two-room library where, six years earlier, I had discovered William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music & realized I was going to be a poet. Melnick still tells me that my reading style is taken directly from Mariah’s (I deny it).

That seems to be an awfully concentrated amount of good luck. As a kid who functionally didn’t move from his home town until he was 48, I was fortunate in having my home be the SF Bay Area. The world of poetry came to me. For somebody born & raised on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, that same set of circumstances could feel like a crippling disadvantage. Today at least the internet erases the geographic gap if one makes the slightest effort. That’s still a big if.

Tomorrow, I want to address the other side of Diane’s question, which wasn’t about publishing at all, but about voice.