The Speed of Poetry
This year's Showcase featured more than 1,200 books, including nearly a thousand full-length volumes of poetry and several hundred chapbooks. Scattered examples of other publication formats such as videocassettes, CDs and CD-ROMs also found their way to the shelves, along with prose books about poets and poetry. According to Poets House managing director Jane Preston, small and university presses produced about 90 percent of the books, a statistic that has remained relatively constant over a number of years. Trade publishers, she said, "are great at using marketing tools when it's a safe investment. The independents take risks." Briccetti added that distribution, always a stumbling block for small presses, has improved perceptibly since 1993 with the maturing of several independent-press distributors. (Attrition among independent booksellers, traditionally more receptive to poetry than the rapidly multiplying chain outlets, remains a worrisome trend.)
In August Poets House will publish a Directory of American Poetry Books, an annotated listing of titles from previous Showcases; an online version including this year's titles is already available at www.poetshouse.org. At the American Library Association conference, staff held a two-day training for librarians from across the country, a first-time effort to replicate at a national level the success of a program called Poetry in the Branches, which involves nine community libraries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Participants receive advice on how to boost the circulation of poetry titles, poets give readings and workshops in local libraries, and administrators develop dedicated poetry budgets so that the Jorie Grahams needn't compete head to head with the John Grishams for scarce purchasing dollars.
In observing many Showcase-related events, including public panels on "Anthologizing the 20th Century" and "Poetics Consciousness," I was impressed by the variety of aesthetic approaches on offer, a pluralism in keeping with the goal of welcoming and supporting the full spectrum of contemporary poetries. But I also came away confirmed in my opinion that creative interactions among these different schools or movements are nowhere near the ideal envisioned in metaphors like "ecology" and "biodiversity" with which Poets House staffers sometimes describe the current poetry scene.
Speaking at the event on twentieth-century anthologies, poet and editor Ray González painted a far less optimistic picture, in fact, noting that today's expanded poetry audience seems to be at its "most fractured ever." He illustrated that fragmentation by analyzing the makeup of four recent poetry volumes: An Anthology of New (American) Poets, edited by Lisa Jarnot et al. (Talisman House); The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, edited by Michael Collier (University Press of New England); The New Young American Poets: An Anthology, edited by Kevin Prufer (Southern Illinois); and his own Touching the Fire: 15 Poets of the Latino Renaissance (Anchor/Doubleday). The three "American" volumes actually represent quite distinct tastes and tendencies (González pointed out that Jarnot's selection, oriented toward Language poetry, is "blessed by" Rosmarie Waldrop, while Prufer's more conventional roundup sports a foreword by Richard Howard); at the same time, however, they resemble one another in that all are weighted in favor of prizewinning white poets associated with prestigious academic programs.
González characterized the anthology as a basic tool of literary politics: It campaigns for the editor's aesthetic and establishes reputations, thereby helping determine which of today's poets will be read in the future. He said he'd managed to get an "outsiders'" anthology into the public eye by taking advantage of the "brief Latino boom." In contrast, fellow panelist Eliot Weinberger, who spoke bitterly of the criticism he'd received for the lack of diversity in his own American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (Marsilio), seemed to feel that universal standards of poetic excellence can and should govern anthology projects; he lamented what he called the prevalence of "demographic" selection criteria. Although the two editors never explicitly addressed each other's positions, the obvious divergence in their views strikingly evoked the fragmentation González referred to. It's a fracturing most poets take for granted by now, its effects observable in controversies over the editorial slant of this or that edition of The Best American Poetry (assembled each year by a different guest editor) and in the juxtaposition of important poetry events whose audiences scarcely overlap. (For instance, last year's People's Poetry Gathering, held in Manhattan, took place the same weekend as a Barnard conference titled "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women"; in a recent issue of Fence, the organizers of the latter admit that "if cross-pollination occurred as a result, it was mainly in retrospect and from afar.")