Friday, November 30, 2007

Photo by Ben Friedlander

Steve Evans

This is the time of year when newspapers that still have book review sections – a dwindling fraternity – run their “notable books of the year” feature in hopes of gaining a spike in advertising from publishers who hope to supplement sales with a few Christmas gift buys. In short, there’s a list for the same reason that this is the time of year when you can count on a big new coffee table book on some theme related to The Beatles, another to railroads, a third to covered bridges, etc. Most of these projects, like the one that will run in the New York Times on Sunday, are little more than attempts to move perfectly exchangeable product – there may be some great writers on the list (Rae Armantrout, Lydia Davis, Roberto Bolaño), but they’re there mostly to legitimate the rest of the roster.

Much more interesting is the fifth annual Attention Span survey conducted by Steve Evans. Evans asks roughly four dozen writers – mostly poets – to chart “their current interests in poetry and related fields” and then simply compiles the lists. One might be able to fault Evans for not having a perfect electoral college here – it sure is white & about two-thirds male – but he manages to include writers associated with everything from The New American poetry (Bill Berkson, Pierre Joris) to flarf (Kasey Mohammad) to even new formalism (Annie Finch). He includes Canadians & Aussies & generally ends up with a more democratic look at what contemporary English-language poetry looks like than almost any other cross-section I know.

This year’s contributors listed a total of

486 books, chapbooks, songs, films, magazines, websites, exhibits, and other cultural phenomena in their lists (the number increases significantly if titles embedded in comments are counted).

To give you some sense of scale, the whole of the Academy of American Poets website lists just 560 poets, stretching from Homer to Tony Tost. While Attention Span is capturing titles rather than individual poets, its focus is just one year of attention. Even there, it’s probably picking up only around 12 percent of the total number of titles published (even less, once you consider just how many of the works mentioned were published earlier), representing no more than five percent of all publishing English-language poets. So Attention Span suffers the curious problem of being both comprehensive and just the tip o’ the iceberg (pre-global warming).

The primary message here is diversity – less than four dozen readers nominated more than ten times that number of items, and exactly three books were listed on five separate lists, just over ten percent of this nominating committee. In a landscape that might be likened to Kansas, where even the smallest hill gets christened Mount Oread, these three books can claim to be the dominant works of poetry for 2007. They are:

Jasper Bernes, Starsdown, from Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni.

Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, from Atelos

Hannah Weiner, Hannah Weiner’s Open House, from Kenning, edited by Patrick F. Durgin

Unless you think this is entirely haphazard, consider that Juliana Spahr had the second highest total in 2005. Lisa Robertson has twice finished first – in 2006 and 2004. And Evans’ list of nominators demonstrates that this isn’t an accident of him using a cloistered group of respondents. These lists pass the sniff test and, by being public with individual lists, Evans also manages to bypass most of the methodologically dodgy aspects that would drive something like Foetry into conniptions. If somebody is being very strategic in thinking out his or her answers this year – viz. Meredith Quartermain – it’s perfectly up front.

There is a rather perfect symmetry in these three choices – one a first book by a grad student at Cal, one the midcareer masterpiece of a poet in her prime, a text that situates precisely at the intersection between memoir, essay and the prose poem, and the selected writings of someone whom the WOM-PO list would characterize as a Foremother. Perhaps the more amazing feat is the size of these three presses – Atelos, founded by Lyn Hejinian & Travis Ortiz & operating mostly out of Hejinian’s house in Berkeley, is by far “the most institutional.” Try walking into your local Barnes & Noble and asking which books they carry by Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni – if, that is, you can pronounce it.

Another way of looking at this list is to consider that FSG and Ecco/Harper – the two presses that hold down three of the four poetry slots in the New York Times list – are not nearly as influential as they might want to believe. FSG is mentioned seven times, which ties it for eighth place with Atelos, Factory School & Couch House. Ecco/Harper doesn’t even make the list of the 71 presses mentioned more than once. In short, all the editorial, distribution and PR muscle of Ecco/Harper cannot match even a fraction of that of Ingirumimusnocteetcconsumimurigni. This makes perfect sense of course if you look at the New York trade presses and their poetry lists for what they are – a small press scene no different from any other save for the one minor detail of vast amounts of capital magnifying everything out of proportion.

Five presses were listed ten or more times and it’s instructive to note who they were: New Directions, the University of California, Wesleyan University, Dusie and Subpress. The first three, which were also listed in double digits last year, for all purposes are the elite poetry publishers in the United States, with decades of experience and major backlists that are kept in print. If prizes were allocated by value, rather than by advertising or ideology, New Directions, UC & Wesleyan would pretty much dominate the poetry awards year after year.¹ That they don’t is one good metric for the role capital plays in such hoo-hah. Subpress is a collective, and I believe that Dusie may be as well. That these smaller ventures can obliterate such badly managed competition as Knopf is perhaps not surprising. That they can, in a good year, hold their own alongside these three other well-run institutional houses is even more impressive.

Unlike the trade presses, which are driven by profit, and the independent small presses, many of whom want to change the world of poetry to better fit their own vision(s), university presses often see their own role as one of stewardship, so it is not a surprise to see UC and Wesleyan in the top five repeatedly. But not all university presses are equal and one has to drop down to a large tie for 19th place to find the likes of Chicago, Duke, Iowa, Yale or Stanford on the 2007 list, each mentioned three times. Pittsburgh and Louisiana are completely absent from the multiple mentions list. Again, quality of editorial vision has a huge impact here, and it’s not evenly distributed among college publishers.

One very good way to use this list is for shopping at SPD or Bridge Street Books or Woodland Pattern. But another is to recognize what the patterns here are suggesting – the currently literary scene is very flat in the sense that no one literary tendency dictates what everyone is reading. That’s both a plus and a problem – the absence of a shared literary culture is an issue with potentially serious consequences. The other is that if you write the right book, you are just as well off with Factory School or a Dusie chapbook as with any of the major trade presses. FSG may be able to get a few copies of any printed matter onto the shelves of Borders, but it can’t actually get those same items off those shelves and into the brains of people who actively read and think about poetry. And who write it themselves.


¹ In fact, Rae Armantrout’s Next Life, from Wesleyan is on the New York Times’ notable list as well as being the lone book in the National Book Critics Circle “best recommended” list that is not from one of the New York trade presses.