The Speed of Poetry
Fragmentation came to mind again during the panel on "Poetics Consciousness" as publisher and editor Douglas Messerli of the independent press Sun & Moon presented a detailed genealogy of North American poetics from Pound and Stein all the way down to his own affinity group, the Language poets--a litany so white that I kept checking my notes, thinking I must have missed something. (Didn't the poets of the Black Arts movement say anything worthwhile about their aims and methods?) Messerli's discussion was witty and provocative; I enjoyed his impassioned defense of poetics, which he believes get slighted in the United States because of what he calls our poets' "Calvinist" attachment to "the word unadorned." I also appreciated his exhortation to pay attention to poetry's international context, an awareness he promotes by publishing an anthology series of poetry in translation. That is a focus shared by Weinberger, whose work as a Spanish-English translator has helped build literary bridges between Latin and North America. Yet their perspectives left me thinking that what Briccetti terms a "new awareness of multiplicity" coexists with a pattern depressingly familiar outside the literary realm: Formal equality masks and justifies the lopsidedness of privilege. We're all poets now, but some are born and bred for Guggenheims, while others get to juggle the day job with teaching poetry to "at risk" youth and scribbling lyrics on the subway.
More claims of persistent structural inequality surfaced at the workshop on the current publishing market for women. Amy Holman of the organization Poets & Writers urged her audience to beware of presses and magazines with an antifemale bias, citing highly regarded outlets like Granta and Farrar, Straus & Giroux as laggards in the publishing community when it comes to supporting women poets. Her comments, like González's, recalled the recent uproar over the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the Academy of American Poets' board of chancellors. Last year the academy, which bills itself as the largest nonprofit organization supporting US poetry and which administers an impressive range of prizes, readings and poetry education programs, finally added a clump of more "diverse" chancellors--but only after chancellors Carolyn Kizer and Maxine Kumin resigned to show their sympathy with mounting criticisms of the self-elected board's narrowness. One wonders whether the reconstituted board (including Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, Heather McHugh, Adrienne Rich and Rosanna Warren) will indeed promote cross-fertilization among poetic traditions, or whether, instead--like those who perennially dismiss insurgent poetic voices as saboteurs of literary meritocracy--the old guard will simply retreat into gated communities of the mind.
Two recent Manhattan readings offered intriguing hints that "outsider" literary ventures may provide significant occasions for poets espousing widely varied aesthetics to come within hailing distance of one another, maybe even converse. An event held at the New School celebrated first books by fellows of Cave Canem, a workshop for African-American poets founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. The striking range of the work--from Jamaican-accented narratives included in Shara McCallum's The Water Between Us (Pittsburgh) to the "asyntactic, non-narrative" poems G.E. Patterson has written since completing Tug (Graywolf) to Terrance Hayes's verbal variations on a theme by John Coltrane and Miles Davis (from Muscular Music, Tia Chucha)--hinted that Cave Canem must be the scene of energetic debates about poetics. And a reading at the Poetry Project at St. Marks in celebration of The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poets of the Next Wave (St. Martin's) included slamster Regie Cabico, Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy, "last of the New York School" poet Eileen Myles and Letta Neely (Juba, Wildheart Press), who read a moving narrative poem written in what she said some people call "Ebonics, but I just call it my first language." Is it possible that those poets who dwell in what Audre Lorde termed "the house of difference" are likely to be especially tolerant or even welcoming of formal variety?
What I've just described as the persistence of structural inequality in the poetry world persuades me that promoting cultural democracy is one of two major challenges facing poetry advocates. The second goes back to my point about the increasingly distracted conditions under which we receive and, let's face it, compose poems.
The speedup is ubiquitous, but one of its most striking manifestations is the proliferation of poetry on the Internet. Mindful of Amy Holman's advice that she who wants to be well published had better know what's out there, I've begun visiting Poetry Daily's website (www.poems.com/home.htm), which features a constantly updated menu of poems from current literary magazines. A few clicks will get you an embarrassment of riches, from R.T. Smith's excellent survey of decades' worth of books on writing poetry to poems by George Herbert and Thomas Hardy.
I'm quite ambivalent about this easy access. It lures me to read many things I might not otherwise see, but I find that poems read (or surfed) in this way feel alarmingly contextless--or, if you will, too fully contextualized. The individual lyric becomes an evanescent stanza, a floating portal to poems in general. On the Internet, a poem gets reconfigured as information.