I just returned from a reading of Cloudbank contributors, part of Portland’s Mountain Writers series at the Press Club. It was standing room only. I drank a glass of grenache and listened to ten poets read in the hush, clink of glasses and spoons. A tiny gray spider landed on my coatsleeve and crossed my wrist.
L and I both going on five hours of sleep, leaning on each other near the bar. I couldn’t always see the poets’ faces, but I liked watching the faces of the other listeners. Wednesday night, solstice night, longest night, and there we all were, crammed into this narrow cafe and steaming up the windows with poems and murmurs of appreciation. Even when we are tired, and broke, and often discouraged, there is a kind of wealth that is free for the taking, in a city where poetry is read aloud in packed rooms. We can stand in it together.
Vern Rutsala was there. I just discovered him in an anthology of mine, via “Words”. I loved it so much I left my desk and dragged L in from the shop to listen. We read it together in the kitchen.
If you click on the link above, you’ll see Rutsala’s poem was selected by Rita Dove for the Washington Post’s “Poet’s Choice” column. Dove has been a source of strength today, too, through an interview with her in The Writer’s Chronicle:
The alarm has sounded before and will sound again– it’s usually a signal that the world as the alarmist knows it is changing, and whoever is set in her or his ways feels uncomfortable with any shifts that threaten their easeful status quo… The more interesting question is… Why should an MFA degree… suddenly become an emblem of poetry’s decline?
Poetry is alive and well, and has been so through the latter part of the 20th century. There are more poets writing and publishing in America than ever before… At best, it’s premature– at worst, hysterically adversarial– to call our still rather youngish workshop culture an assembly line for the mass production of duplicates. There can never be too much poetry.
And if much of it cannot overcome mediocrity, so what? Aren’t there hordes of amateur painters and pianists populating our civilization, bringing pleasure to themselves and those around them with no detrimental effect? Shall poetry be the only art form ordained to play itself out in the Elysian Fields? Although I wouldn’t be terribly surprised should the number of truly great poems remain fairly constant, rather than increase exponentially with the number of poets, I believe that among the growing stacks of well-intentioned, lesser specimen will be poems that can also entertain, nurture, and sustain the lives of their readers.
Dove is getting a lot of press these days both because of her recently-published Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, and her powerful response to Helen Vendler’s appalling review of the anthology for the New York Review of Books. Even without the professional background of either Vendler or Dove, it’s easy to spot the weaknesses and pettiness in Vendler’s review.
The Chronicle also prints listings of deadlines for submissions to journals, contests, and residencies. Submitting to and publishing in literary journals helps a poet gain publicity and collect credentials in the publishing world. A list of publications shows that you’re active, read, and that a collection of your poems might sell. The publishing world is changing all the time, of course, and there are lots of young poets taking a different path: self-publishing chapbooks, e-publishing, organizing their own readings, editing lit blogs.
There are some truly incredible opportunities out there, including the Montreal Poetry Prize, a new award which grants $50,000 to a single poem. Asa Boxer, who organized the first round of the prize by soliciting donations, points out “that people must take initiative building institutions for their communities,” and that “if we use prizes to inform people of the high value of writing, then writing will earn that high value in the minds of those who disagree. At various points in history, it was culturally decided that music, painting, sculpture, and even professional sports (all forms of highly specialized aesthetic and physical expression) were highly valuable to culture.”
I’d like to be part of the community that values poetry and doesn’t shove it in a corner, calling it dead. I want to create and publish and know what my peers are creating and publishing. And I’d like to support myself doing it. Maybe you’ve noticed my new buttons in the left hand column over there. My goal is to submit to at least three journals a month. Most general submissions are free, and some journals pay their contributors. Entries for contests with prize money usually have a fee of between $15-$20.
As a nice counterpoint to all of this, I’m finishing up Roger Lundin’s Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, a biography with wonderful close readings of her poems and a thoughtful exploration of this prolific writer’s reticence to publish. Dickinson published no more than 20 of her poems when she was alive, and these after considerable pushing from editors and friends. She was more interested in producing the best work she could, and looked toward posthumous fame rather than the buzz of being the next voice in the newly-minted American publishing world. Lundin cites William Charvat, who distinguished among the mass poet, the public poet, and the private poet. The private poet, he writes, “creates a vocabulary which the world must learn as it learns a new language.”
This is certainly the case for Dickinson, with her strange and beautiful dashes and capitals.
But there’s no reason the world can’t learn the new language of poets actively reading, publishing, engaging with an audience. (See Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees.) Okay, and then there’s the Poetry Brothel. (A nice counter counterpoint?) This is a Brooklyn-based project, in which poets adopt personae and recite poems in private readings for individual, paying guests. I cringe at their use of the word whore, but find myself drawn to the project of subverting usual ways of experiencing a poetry reading. I love reading my poems to one person, or a few friends gathered around a table after dinner. And being read to.
Last bit of encouragement: Running After My Hat! The lovely John Simpson included one of my poems in his weekly “whiskey river Fridays” blog post. Check him out.
The poetry fairy godmothers are at work…