Carrboro Poetry

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A response to the vault

>> What exactly are you looking for though? I know that you've stated
>"non-slam/non-uni/non-mfa", but who do you expect those search criteria to

I don't have any expectations, really, which is why I formulated my search as a question for others to answer. I expect that I need to be open, and I know I will be pleasantly surprised. (I already am.)

Some excellent "outsider" recommendations have included John Olson, Russell Edson, Tom Beckett, and Laura Moriarity. There are many, many other excellent poets who have been recommended as well.

Lenard Moore and Teresa Church are excellent local recommendations. So too is Julian Semilian.

Prison poets might add a new public service dimension to the festival. I don't really want to exploit any notions of "second-class" citizenry, however. I'm open to prison poetry. I can only accept a prison poet's work after I find a prison poet's work that I think deserves the company of the other poets in the festival. Does that distinction make any sense? Allyssa was right to point out the potential dangers of such exploitation. I'm here for the poetry first.

My foremost goal is NOT to play the identity-poetics game but to find top-notch poetry within all walks. Much of my own correspondence and critical work, and, hell, even my, er, Lester's poetry, has attacked quota-driven poetics and the notions of voice and poetic individualism/solipsism. The voice of poetry is independent of individuals; it is at once a part of the collective unconscious and part of something suprahuman or even anti-human. (My Jeffers is showing.) One of the burdens I believe I must bear in organizing the festival is that I must identify and limit my own tacit gender/race biases so that I am able to do the work necessary to fully represent great poetry inside and outside of the community, which I think when discovered, will come attached to a radically diverse group of people. Quotas are for people who are blatantly prejudiced and too lazy to do anything about making a change, like universities that refuse to make that socially necessary extra effort in their recruiting or admissions policies to identify bright students in poor urban or rural migrant populations, for example. My own particular shortcomings--my personal/poetic relationships with academic-ish poets and scholar-translator poets--led to a strong bias towards white MFA'd or CW-teaching males. Last year's festival: 1/3rd of the readers from last year fall under that category, which I think to some extent reflects a failure on my part to do what it takes to be fully representative. It also reflects the power that particular realm of poetry world has over my own poetics, how I publish and interact with a poetry community.

What I do for the festival will never be perfect, but I can do better than last year. I've stated that a central goal of the festival is "cross-pollenation," and I do mean miscegenation figuratively, poetically, if not literally. (OK I'm not talking about organizing an orgy but I am certainly talking about a form of social & poetic congress.) The best poetry is necessarily diverse, and the bodies this poetry great inhabits will likely look different, and they will need to interact. After all, this thing is part social event, at least for us poets. A "coming together," if you will.

Quotas are tricky, and to some extent they are true of the festival. There's a grain of truth to it. But just a grain. In the back of my mind (now coming forward) I'd like half of the readers to be male, and the other half to be female; half to be NC-born/residents and half to be wholly outside NC; at least a handful of more international poets (not born and/or raised in America) and so on, and I'm going to strive to do what it takes to find poets whose work I consider to be of the best poetry has to offer. But I'm not going to start saying, "well, I'm missing a Hungarian-American, so quick, someone send me the name of a Hungarian-American so I can fill the Hungarian-American slot." If I come across a Hungarian-American poet in the process and the Hungarian-American's poetry stinks, then there won't be a Hungarian-American reading.

From my own personal experience as well as the experience of others, I know that poets in the US not operating within the MFA/academic circuit are at a great disadvantage when trying to publish a book, for example. To a large extent, such publishing opportunities are meted out through the profession of poetry by the professionals for the professionals, as has been suggested to me on a large number of occasions by very well-meaning professional poets. Even publishing in journals; I know my experience of being accepted in the academic-world-oriented journals is a rarity--I know I am very lucky. I'd like to do my part to tip the scales a bit, with this teeny tiny bit of "power" I have, to a more balanced & inclusive position. I want folks who suffer from that disadvantage, even those who already enjoy some attention (maybe they deserve more), to have some opportunities they may not otherwise enjoy.

Linh Dinh and Murat Nemet-Nejat are two fine examples of outsiders who read in the 2004 fest. I think Carl Martin might too be an outsider. Their work has remarkable energy and novelty; they do lots of things wrong and make mistakes everywhere, but there's no question about the upside of what they do. They've written some of the best poetry I've ever read.

Maybe I'm looking for a certain dose of accomplished focus is ultimately on the work (if I don't like the work I can't invite the poet no matter how many people like the poet's poetry), though the means to finding that work unfortunately requires I speak in terms of personal identity. The goal is poetic variety, which is not to be mistaken for poet variety.

Ken, it seems to me your words suggest there may be little to a notion of a poetics outside the workshop world. Regardless of your intentions, I feel obliged to respond what what I have gathered or even misappropriated from your note. There are many accomplished poets whose work found its genesis and nourishment wholly outside academia. I don't think anyone could reasonably deny this. But here I think is one basic supporting argument: poetry has done quite well enough for thousands of years without creative writing programs. And it still does quite well in every other country on the planet where there is little of any distribution of poetry MFAs or workshops.

For some, poetry should be judged, as it inevitably is, by often-aritrary judgments of quality. I think such judgments are informative, but when these judgments become part of the masonry of an institution, we poets might want to look for cracks. What IS the role of the poet? To write the "best" poetry? To educate other people about what the best is? What the forms are? What a dactyl is, what an acephalic line is, or what Old Icelandic verse looks like? Does a good poetry not also require the inclusion of a socially relevant poetics? The academy has not proven, or rather, has proven not to be a good place for the development of a socially impactful poetics. the socially relevant poetics produced by the academy remains above the swirling masses, abstract, general, idealistic. Neither Howl nor Doubled Flowering cam from the academy. Howl may not be the"best" poetry has to offer (as I've had to endure such statements from "serious" poets), but it made a huge impact on a poetic dimension. It worked as capital-P Poetry. Everyone has a heart, and everybody has some semblance of intellect, and so a fair challenge for a poet might be to write to those standards, while at the same time setting new standards for things like music and form. The academy isn't exactly conducive to such sensitivities.

The bottom line is that the MFA workshop is not the greatest thing that's ever happened to poetry. So what? OK, everyone knows that. For many, the point of the MFA is to spend two years writing. But there are underlying issues in the acquisition of an MFA that must be dealt with. The institutionalization of the MFA workshop has created an institution of power in the realm of American poetry that regularly rather unconsciously/collectively sleights those who are not a part. Workshops necessarily exert a homogenizing pressure--it cannot be avoided. What emerges, when this homogenizing force is wrapped in institutions and scholarship dollars and tenure-tracked careers is a power structure, one that no doubt generates its own excellent poetry, but one that also creates impediments to poets and poetry. To some extent this system even creates a sort of honey pot for poets who otherwise might disrupt the fabric of society with their poetry. You can be a better poet if you drop some of your iconoclasm. Group decisions ultimately make little sense for a pursuit that is at least partly, if not centrally, iconoclastic.

Some of the academic-related po biz is even downright corrupt, like so many poetry book contests: publishers require $20 for each entry to a contest and then the prize is awarded to a poet whose work they are already familiar, or poets with whom they are friends, co-editors, or collaborators. An ethical book contest would prohibit the entries of those who are either casually or formally affiliated with the editors or any element of the contest, and yet I've never witnessed any book prize that has taken steps to remedy the problems. Such contests are rampant within and around the MFA industry: The American Poetry Review is its bullhorn; the Paris Review, its fount of credibility; and Poets & Writers magazine, its catalog.

Peter Gizzi wrote in his introduction to Spicer's Poetry and Politics lecture (in The House that Jack Built, p.151):

Since war is perpetual, Spicer suggests that the dangers
for the artist are not just the Vietnam War. He' s more
interested in illuminating the politics within the poetic
community which form a dark correspondence with political
power structures, as he provocatively compares the visibility
and power of Olson [my note: Spicer also says in the lecture,
"Olson is probably the best poet we have in the country"] to
that of LBJ and argues that Ginsberg's popularity mars his
later poetry. He wants to call attention to the politics of
all self-governing bodies and to point out that the poetic
community is no exception; it has its own tyrranies of style
and personality which are equally debilitating to the rank
and file.

While I don't agree with the entirety of Spicer's talk (for example, there's a tradition among "serious" poets to trash Ginsberg for his exploration of politcal doggerel and other more accessible vaudevillian forms, and we may even be able to trace it back to Spicer and his personal resentment of the Beats "taking away his San Francisco poetry scene from him"; and there's an equal tradition to be prima facie skeptical of popular art), and while I don't agree with the entirety of Gizzi's interpretation of Spicer's talk either, I think the sentiment in Gizzi's statement is fair and correct: that we must as artist be wary of the influence of poetic power structures on the poetic community and strive to make it as open as possible. This means that when you open one door you don't close another.

Down a level from this high ground I promised I wouldn't take, there's something much more practical I must keep in mind as the organizer of a community-based, town-bordered poetry festival: audience accessibility. First, I don't agree with the sentiment popular among "serious" artists that the "accessible" or the "low" are necessarily outside the realm of good poetry. Due to the "tyrranies of style," some poets who are assumed to be great poets by the academic/MFA folks may not be all that interesting to those outside of it. And as a result, maybe they're just not that good. That is to say, sometimes, frankly, their work really stinks, unless the work is examined wholly within a supporting exclusionary framework. On the positive side, there's something to be said for a poet whose work is accessible to those outside the academic/MFA world while enjoyed by serious poets both within and outside of that realm. shirlette ammons' work, for example, has such an appeal. She does some things that really wows a lot of "hardcore poetry geeks" while appealing to someone who might go to one or two poetry readings a year. I understand I'm setting a rather high requirement for poetry: poetry that "does it all," that works on many levels, that makes the difficult seem easy (music analogy: Django Reinhart). Among us lucipoets, I think such a description is particularly true of Marcus' writing, and I guess he's an "insider" by my definition. For me, that's the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment: making the difficult seem easy, having "something for everyone." Hell, look at Willie the Shakes. And there's something to be said for the "low": Whitman's poetry was quite offensive at the time it was written; the Miller's tale is a hoot, and our own Gabe Gudding--his poetry is at once seriously grounded and lightly unfettered by the gaseous effluences of many a puckered starfish.

The practical line is that I think I need to draw from outsiders as much as I do from insiders in order to be able to find such poets.

>> What would've happened to [emily Dickinson's] poetry? Those that are familiar with her
>work know that when other folks (chiefly her editor) read her poems way
>back when that he (right?) felt the need to revise out of them most of the
>things folks now praise her for.
>> Do the people that you're looking for want to be a part of the fest?
>(Again, not meant to deflate the quest.) Would they benefit from being
>part of the fest?

ED would never have come to read at the festival. She regularly refused to publish her work. Hell, even I refuse to have my own work published from time to time (not my books, but certainly with journals it is true). I'm not the only one that turns down opportunities that aren't right for what I'm doing, and I'm definitely not the only one who has accepted an invitation to publish that resulted in something awful. ED sets an excellent example.

Would the outside poets want to come? Well, yes, in many cases. Obviously, I'm not going to shackle anyone unwilling to come to the festival. As for the poets who are marginally interested in participating, that was the entirety of my experience last year. Most poets still don't know anything about the festival, and so they will keep it at a "rational" distance if they are invited. Heck I remember before last year's festival when the festival was not a known quantity that a certain poet turned down an opportunity to pitch in and help me out when I desperately needed that help, because, he cited, it wasn't in his personal interest. Yet after the festival's success it suddenly was in his interest to help with the 2005 festival. It seems rather cynical from the outside, doesn't it? Some people have poetic motivations, some professional, some personal, some altruistic, and so on, in being involved with the festival, whether it be volunteering or reading. But I can't say it was cynical: I'm not here to unpack those motivations. That's between a wo/man and hir maker; these are things wholly private, and many times a person has absolutely no awareness of his or her own motivations. I'm only interested in whether a reader wants to come or not and whether s/he has something to bring to the audience and to the other poets. Motivations are ultimately beside the point.

Given that I am perhaps one of maybe two or three unenfranchised poets to read in the Desert City Poetry Series in the last two years, should I suspect that my inclusion is based on the merit of my work? The other is Carl Martin. His work seems to be wholly on a different level than anyone else's in the series (and I say that in part because he's in my estimation one of the smallest handful of best poets, period). So is the standard for non-professional poets that much higher for the poetry series than for the professional poets? OK, there's me, but from a professional standpoint my work really undercuts the polish of everyone else's in the series? Should I assume that I am part of it two years in a row because I run the Carrboro Poetry Festival? Or should I just shut up and be happy? I mean, I am happy, and I relish the opportunity, but if I'm forced to guess at motivations, it all becomes less pleasant.

>> The larger question, of course, is what benefits and detriments acrue as
>a result of being an "insider."

I've tried to answer that already. It's something I'm compelled to make into an issue. It is an issue, a very big issue: it is at the heart of the very means of poetic production, access, and institutionalization.

>>do folks who don't pursue degrees in english write, study, and read
>>poetry in ways that are comparable to their peers that have pursued
>>those degrees?

For one, the standards of comparison are regularly different "within" each group, and we have to consider who's judging who and how. "Within" is quoted because for outsiders there is no "within," not even figuratively speaking. There are no tyrranies of style in the outside, because there is no "in" there, by virtue of the very definition of "outside." So the very formulation of this question, and its apparent operating assumptions are at the very heart of what I am questioning here. Is the study, reading and writing comparable? This depends upon standards of judgment. You can't begin to answer this question without getting at the standards of (a) who gets compared, (b) how they get compared, and (c) who does the comparisons. So in an important sense the present question makes no sense as a litmus for comparison, namely because there's no loosely affiliated set of organizations forming the "outside." How they get compared and who does the comparisons: this is the very power and paycheck definition of the academic. Which is, I think, the point of what I've written. The academic community provides few if any "blank slate" opportunities for publishing, because these "tyrranies of style" dictate the bounds of what it deigns acceptable. I realize at the same time it isn't a monoculture, but I do insist its parameters, which are, to be fair, pourous, are at the same time discrete and real. My personal success, as little as it is, is somewhat unusual I have a hard time finding poets "just like me" and it explains why I have to take the risk of generating misperceptions about what I was searching for in my post to discussion lists such as Lucipo.

But then, am I really on the outside? I mean, in some senses yes, but in others no. For example, if I were to finish this book of criticism I hoped to finish three years ago, in some ways I would have fewer problems getting it to print than many "insiders" because of the length of my, ah, writing CV or because I have completed more academic credits at the university level than most people who have completed a doctorate or because I am working as an academic scholar-researcher to some degree. I've internalized many of the operating assumptions of the Ivory Tower, and it's nearly impossible for me to discern them within my self. But I know at the same time that on some level I know I'm going to be at a disadvantage for reasons wholly outside any questions as to the quality of scholarship. Outsiders don't even get a shot at having access to the means of production--most of those means are either housed in or run by the heavily degreed pedigrees.

If I performed and wrote a serious study of text mining while neither posessing nor pursuing a doctorate in the field, you can bet your ass I wouldn't have a shot in any of the journals. the same is true in poetry as it is in information science, but neither is beyond the possibility of accepting such work. It does happen, but the bar for the outsider is set very high, much higher than it is for the insiders. Fo the most part you need to be a paradigm-shifter if you're an outsider, and you better have friends on the "inside."

>>We can all come up with examples of folks that don't
>>fit the stereotypical mode I'm sure, but the question remains for me
>>beyond knowledge of specific cases.

I'm not sure what that means. I have knowledge of specific cases, and a sense of some general tendencies, but cases are in general not general but specific.

On several occasions I've heard that I should be happy with having that book of mine published in any fashion, namely because I don't have the pressure of getting tenure that my more "academic" peers do. I've also heard that I'm too young to yet deserve book publication, that I had to wait my turn behind others in acadaemia who are older and need it more. Meanwhile I'm in the very unusual position of having nearly every poem in my first three books already published in journals, most of them pretty damn good and run by the deeply enfranchised. The system deemed them individually sufficient. I run across many an academician who in four short years I managed to outpublish their entire 40 year career, and yet my number of published books remained at zero for years. It will change for me, but because I'm a pushy astard who makes a lot of noise. I think it's quite reasonable to say that this is evidence of an apparatus that is at beast far from a meritocracy, and people who've spent years in academia will be the first to agree with me. Because not only does it fuck the rank and file of the outside, it does so to the rank and file inside to some extent. Some who have pursued or are pursuing tenure can (quietly) attest to that.

From the Lucifer Poets Vault:


Actually I was going to suggest Maura and her Black Sox group. The other, obvious and already tapped, source is the noon poets.

What exactly are you looking for though? I know that you've stated "non-slam/non-uni/non-mfa", but who do you expect those search criteria to produce? I'm not asking this question to shoot down your aim (a very admirable aim I think.) Instead, I'd like to know what sort of model you had in mind?

The model that popped into my head was Emily Dickinson -- talk about outsider, right? But then I started thinking "what would Dickinson's poems have been like if she had a group to talk about poems with of ten or so people who all wrote and studied poetry?"

What if Emily Dickinson was a lucipo member??

What would've happened to her poetry? Those that are familiar with her work know that when other folks (chiefly her editor) read her poems way back when that he (right?) felt the need to revise out of them most of the things folks now praise her for.

Do the people that you're looking for want to be a part of the fest? (Again, not meant to deflate the quest.) Would they benefit from being part of the fest?

The larger question, of course, is what benefits and detriments acrue as a result of being an "insider."

The other question is to what degree do we/you/I believe the writing of poetry has been succesfully professionalized, meaning: "do folks who don't pursue degrees in english write, study, and read poetry in ways that are comparable to their peers that have pursued those degrees?" We can all come up with examples of folks that don't fit the stereotypical mode I'm sure, but the question remains for me beyond knowledge of specific cases.

The most productive non-slam/non-uni/non-mfa poets that I know are mostly in high school, you know what I mean?? (what can I say, they impress easy....

heading out,