Oh Poetry We Love You Get Up!
by Philip F. Clark
Has poetry, like Frank O’Hara’s Lana Turner, collapsed? In a world in which commodity and celebrity are the ubiquitous passwords into culture, has the art form kept its own good counsel, and kept its head above water? Why should we care—what does poetry do for us that we can’t find in other, more accessible outlets, with more immediate satisfaction? The nature of poetry is often seen as that of the mysterious and over-mindful; its magic is too often accorded the taint of the exclusive and the academic. Then how does one explain the exuberant and prolific regeneration year after year? What causes the occasional fainting spells which worry us so much? Do we think that poetry has met its match in the digital age, or are there simply more new horizons for its expression, as well as new formal iterations for the craft? What are the singular tenets of poetry that define its seminal discourse, its consummate and undeniable beauties, and its confounding individuality? If it dies every so often, it is also a testament to the power of resurrection. Its global reach ever wider, poetry takes on its many new identities with aplomb. We shouldn’t blame its occasional exhaustion—it’s hard work making people think and feel and reconsider the world. And there is a whole new generation of ardent and industrious poets who absolutely are determined to keep the corpus breathing. Dissecting and discussing the state of the art with me are poets Richard Foerster and Tony Leuzzi, who examine, shed light on, and give breath to the art’s particularity, its resilience, and its fabulous makeup.–PHILIP F CLARK
Gentlemen, a pleasure to speak with you. In the past few years, there has been an uptick in the idea that poetry is dead—or at least, in David Orr’s words, “Beautiful and pointless.” Alexandra Petri, in her piece a while ago in the Washington Post, posited that poetry is dead because it can no longer essentially “change anything.” Not all forecasts have been Cassandra-like about their warnings to the art. Much earlier, in 2002, the poet Dana Gioia, in his 10th anniversary edition of his book of essays, Can Poetry Matter? cites the populist as well as academic revival in the art form. Interestingly enough, at that time he thought “No one today would dare claim that poetry is dead.” Perhaps some people missed his point:
“A skeptical critic might justifiably claim that never has so much bad poetry been presented to so many people, but that observation misses the bigger and more important fact. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a broad and diverse coalition of Americans has created a public space for poetry. This huge populist revival happened almost entirely outside the university. For the first time in half a century the academic poetry world is balanced by an equally large amount of activity in the general culture. The quality of these new enterprises is very uneven, but that is also true of most academic activity, and one can reasonably hope that competition between the two spheres will eventually make both stronger. The new populist revival is now transforming literary culture with such speed and reach that one wonders what the future will bring. It is a time of enthusiasm and experiment. No one today would dare claim that poetry is dead. The ancient unkillable phoenix has risen from the ashes and magnificently taken flight.”
Your take on this? Is it all just dead beauty? Or, indeed this “unkillable” bird?
Aren’t obituaries always more fun to read than birth announcements? Poetry is dead, network television is dead, CDs are dead, printed books and newspapers are dead, classical music is dead, God is dead . . . It’s amazing how many cultural corpses we have stalking the earth. The fact is, as Dana correctly points out, poetry is thriving everywhere, well beyond the confines of MFA programs. It can be found in community reading and discussion circles, library readings, open mic gatherings at coffee shops, slams, high school Poetry Out Loud competitions, and so on, in cities and rural communities alike. Print lit mags persist even as online sites flourish. Look at the list of books received on the Poetry Daily website; there are many hundreds in the course of a year. In comparison to baseball and the NFL, of course, poetry is small potatoes. It is not a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but it survives nonetheless across cultures and centuries. Its essential responsibility is to language and beauty (in whatever way that might be defined)—nothing more; it exists as a gift to be freely taken, not as a dose of medicine forcefully administered. Indeed, it is a phoenix.
What I think Orr means by his title is that readers shouldn’t have a predetermined destination or point in mind when they embark on a journey through a poem, but instead allow the unfamiliar territory of the poem to puzzle, trouble, bewilder, and/or delight. In other words, to remain open to the vagaries of discovery. In another context, when I stand before a painting in a gallery, the first thing on my mind is not “What’s the point?” but rather to lose myself in the artist’s vision. If it’s good art, if I am suitably receptive, the “point” will reveal itself.
Alexandra Petri, in her article, asks if she is being too harsh in her criticism. Since she asked, I’ll answer: yes. She’s right when she says the medium is no longer loud enough. But think a moment, and put it in perspective: How many people are involved in creating a movie? Sit through the credits and count. There are thousands. The same is true for pop music. It takes more than a village to create a rap star; it takes an empire. But a poem? One person, and perhaps a handful of others to usher it into print. The cynic in me would counter Petri by asking: So what does a blockbuster movie change, other than the living standard of those involved in it? Most movies today are indeed “beautiful and pointless.” But I wouldn’t dismiss them outright for being so. We live in a sprawling, technologically evolving media culture; poetry will remain vital and will continue to influence our lives if we let it.
The change that any art brings about begins within the individual, and it spreads from there. A few years back, I read my poem “Double Going” at SUNY-Brockport; it’s a sequence that examines my childhood relationship with my alcoholic father by imagining him as a doppelgänger of me as an adult, and it essentially moves from resentment toward forgiveness. Afterwards, two women came up to me. The first, in her 50s, said, “People don’t understand when I tell them what it was like growing up with an alcoholic father. Thank you for giving me a way to show them,” and she bought a copy of my book. The other, younger, came up to me in tears to say that her husband was like the father I had portrayed and, because of that, their teenage son committed suicide. I was able to embrace her and at least give her some momentary comfort. Did my poem change nothing in her? Did it not perhaps help both these women deal with their resentments and grief?
Poetry will never die. “Poetry” may die. Certain notions about what poems can and should be may die. But poetry itself, which begins—for most of us—in a moment of concentration and apprehension, is eternal. There will always be people who are compelled by some necessity to utter or write poems. The urge to express that necessity is as essential as breathing. There is a corresponding urge for people to search out poems that say for them what they themselves cannot. As one who reads and writes poetry, I find one urge informs the other, and the ways in which writing fuels reading and reading fuels writing are so circular and inseparable I wouldn’t try to untangle the process.
I will say this: even if we weren’t experiencing what Dana Gioia calls a “populist revival,” even if poets were the only readers of poetry in the world, it would be enough to justify its existence. What’s wrong with writing for oneself and for a community of people who share a passion? Thankfully, I don’t have to make this argument because there is ample evidence that poetry has always drawn in readers or listeners who do not compose poems. People look to poems for all kinds of reasons. Even if one of those reasons is to articulate something beautiful and pointless, the “beautiful and pointless,” as Orr calls it, is not pointless. And even if it were, since when did beauty have to have a point? Must we content ourselves with beautiful things from the natural world? Why not make beauty too? Pygmalion’s dissatisfaction with women in the world drew him to create the perfect woman, who then, thanks to Venus, came to life and married him. It’s a creepy story, but isn’t this what all artists, to some extent, do? We create to assert a change, to usher in some made thing that wasn’t there before we made it. It’s existence, we believe, serves to balance an imbalance that existed in its absence.
And then there is the sheer enjoyment of the made thing. If I look at a painting by Mark Rothko and am awed by it; if I read a passage from Rumi and swoon; if I roar with laughter at a bawdy passage from Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Sjvek; if I feel a heightened sense of vigor mixed with agitation when I listen to Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances—aren’t my responses enough? True, none of those artifacts will solve world hunger or mass murder, but do they have to? Whether they exalt or baffle, their presence makes the world more complicated and rewarding—and my interactions with these made things influence how I interact with others.
Another example: I recently received an email from a PhD candidate in Australia asking to use a poem of mine about bowerbirds in her dissertation. An English Lit dissertation, you might presume? No. Here’s what she wrote:
I have used your poem “Satin Bowerbird Blues” in my thesis to organize and display my research. I have created a new methodology called the Satin Bowerbird Bricolage. Weaving theory, methodology and my reflective thoughts together to create “research bowers”. I have then placed the bluest of trophies (word trophies) from my data analysis around the bowers. It was my unique way of visualizing my research. My topic was to locate shared meaning for “spiritual health and well-being” for the international home economics community.
I’m a great believer in the “butterfly effect” of poetry: that a small occurrence somewhere (i.e., a poem), via a chain of events, can have a meaningful if not profound effect somewhere else. Every yes or no decision we make (i.e., to read or not read a poem) changes every subsequent event in our lives, exponentially.
Thanks for that anecdote, Richard. It reminds me of a related story. I once found a poem of mine, “Driftwood at Durand Beach, Lake Ontario,” was featured, without my permission, on an informational website about driftwood. I don’t know who put it there but I was flattered someone thought my poem–which included references to screaming children and runes carved on slivers of wood from broken-down ships–was in some way informational and authoritative, or that one’s understanding of driftwood could be enhanced by reading my weird little poem. Apparently, I had unwittingly created a key to driftwoodian mysteries! Another time, the musical director of an orchestra in England once contacted me to include a sonnet I’d written called “Resurrection” in the program notes for that orchestra’s performance of a Mahler Symphony. I was floored. Of course I said yes.
How does poetry stay relevant, and have the ability to “change anything”? Political poetry for example, or the poetry of social conscience? For example, the most recent horrific killings of the Muslim students? In writing a poem about them – my only reaction to the grief I felt – it is hard to see what words can do to alleviate such events. But perhaps that is what we must do: give these events our words, no matter how meagre that may seem as response.
I’m not particularly worried about relevance. If I were I would have to consider function and use. I am drawn to poetry for reasons beyond whether or not it is socially or politically relevant.
I remember spending an hour studying a piece of driftwood that was crawling with lice and ants. I was drawn to the piece because of its unusual shape. But when I saw the ants and lice moving in and out of it, the focus of my attentions shifted. I began to examine life instead of art. Nonetheless, it was the wood’s lyrical shape that drew me to it. Some art and poetry is like that: a dazzling surface that dazzles us; but any sustained attention upon a thing made or found will yield moments of new perception. Whether these new perceptions are political or related to social justice I suppose depends on the thing itself and who is doing the looking. I love political poetry, by the way. I love social justice poetry. June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” is one of my favorite pieces. But I don’t think a poem has to overtly change anything. That would suggest that it’s someone else’s job to spur change. You can write the most “relevant,” world-changing poem imaginable and if those reading it are not predisposed towards openness, it means nothing. People have to want to change. While poetry can inspire change through its beauty, its message, its rhetorical power, or whatever, we must ultimately look to ourselves, and in ourselves, to effect change.
Poetry will always stay relevant because it is a means of expression at our disposal, and it effects change by touching our minds and emotions. Your elegy, Philip, for those three Muslim students killed in North Carolina cannot undo that horrific event and most assuredly will not prevent similar horrors from occurring in the future. Hatred is simply too well taught and tolerated to be eliminated after the fact by poetry. However, your elegy, when shared, can soothe, attempt to make some sense out of senseless tragedy, and help others become aware that we are not alone in our bewilderment, anger, and grief, that we all can share in certain ideals and aspirations for a society where such evils are far from commonplace. Imagine if the confessed killer had been a devotee of poetry and art rather than, as his ex-wife has claimed, a fanatic of the shooting rampage movie Falling Down. If poetry cannot “change” the Craig Hickses of this world, perhaps an early and ongoing education grounded in the arts might have prevented him from becoming the kind of man he became.
Change, as Tony says, requires a predisposition towards openness. As readers, as audience, we merely need to remain open to poetry’s possibilities and become engaged. In the hands of its better practitioners, it continues to make things new or to refocus our attention to matters we may have forgotten or overlooked. For newness, look at how James Merrill invigorated the epic by anchoring the entire cosmos—past, present, and future; the living and the dead—to the movement of a teacup on a Ouija board. Or more recently, Carl Phillips’ idiosyncratic syntax and metaphysical musings. Or D.A. Powell’s explosions of form which make me think of Hopkins reincarnated without the clerical garb and, oh, so culturally hip. Or Sean Thomas Dougherty’s street-wise and bluesy riffs. Just as great painters and composers change our way of seeing and listening, great poets change how we read and thus how we imagine and think. I have in mind Picasso with his ever-evolving styles or Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon; supreme symphonists like Gustav Mahler and Allan Pettersson, so reviled in their own day but ultimately earning an enduring audience; and within the last century, the later Yeats, Eliot of Four Quartets, Robert Lowell of Life Studies, Galway Kinnell in The Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. That continuum is ongoing.
As for political poetry, America has never been a nation in which poetry has brought about radical political change, and yet, at a protest rally, you’re more likely hear a poem or a song lyric through a megaphone than a paragraph from a bestselling novel. People often cite Allen Ginsberg as America’s last great political poet, but I wonder: Was it his poetry alone that had an effect on attitudes toward the Vietnam War or the fact that he was willing to show up in person at protests, to stand on the front lines and make his voice heard? In our day, I doubt the media would take much notice of a Ginsberg type if he turned up at an Occupy Wall Street event or a candlelight vigil for an unarmed black teenager gunned down by police. But in many other nations, poetry is vital to political discourse. Just look to where poets are imprisoned or routinely get tongue-lashed in the official press. I recently typeset a book by the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri, The Oasis of Now, translated by Kazim Ali and Jafar Mahallati. In their introduction they observe:
Many of Sepehri’s deeply personal lyrics have become mottoes and slogans for individual freedoms espoused by younger Iranians, particularly those who became involved in the environmental movement and in the 2009 election protests. Just recently, when doing some research for this book, we found a line of Sepehri’s used as a headline for an editorial in a Persian-language newspaper in Afghanistan that was criticizing religious fundamentalism.
Poetry of social conscience, I think, is more likely to provoke change for an American audience. Lucille Clifton’s poems of race and womanhood—her great humanity—are widely popular, especially now that her Collected Poems has appeared. Of our more immediate contemporaries, there’s Janice N. Harrington’s The Hands of Strangers, a poignant and harrowing exploration of nursing homes; Adrie Kusserow’s Refuge, which delves into the recent horrors in South Sudan; Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, which is more social witness than a political protest to the Iraq War. The list could go on and on.
Where do you think gay poetry is on all this at the present moment? Why are the larger publishing houses not choosing to publish more LGBT poets and helping to promote them on a larger scale?
I think a distinction can be made between poets who, on the one hand, happen to be gay and whose primary literary concerns are not sexual identity and gender politics and, on the other hand, those who more narrowly explore issues of gay identity. Of course, the spectrum here is very fluid, and pigeonholing is often less than helpful and, at worst, discriminatory. My favorite gay poets have always been those who write broadly about the world: James Merrill, Marilyn Hacker, Mark Doty, Carl Phillips, C. Dale Young, Mary Oliver . . . At the present moment, I’d have to say that LGBT poetry is quite healthy and thriving, in both small publishing houses and large. This is due in great part to a growing tolerance within society in general, but in particular to a growing demand by gay readers for books that address their lives and aspirations. If there is sufficient market, there will always be publishers to cater to it. If, as you contend, the large publishing houses aren’t stepping up to the plate, I think it’s more a matter of economics than anti-gay bias. After all, look who publishes Hacker, Doty, and Oliver—all large houses. Their books sell because they appeal to broad audiences.
When I was editing Passwords Primeval: 20 American Poets in Their Own Words, which is a collection of my interviews with well-known poets, I noticed that three of my interviews were with gay men. I asked myself if this were too much. Would the book be considered biased or skewed? Then I asked myself if I was worried about publishing 10 heterosexual men—because that is how many appear in the book. Looking at the issue this way, I realized there are certain norms in publishing. For one, there is a heck of a lot less LGBT-related literature published by mainstream presses than there is literature by and about heterosexual people. If a mainstream publishing house devotes more than a minimum space to LGBT titles then it begins to look suspicious or imbalanced. But by what standard? Naturally, there are a lot more non-LGBT people in the world but I don’t think that means only one-in-ten books—if that is indeed the ratio of gays and lesbians to heterosexuals—is the “right” or necessary ratio to how many books see print by a mainstream house. Richard mentions Hacker, Doty and Oliver. They do publish in large houses but for the most part they are exceptional cases. And not a heck of a lot of Mary Oliver is lesbian-related anyway—at least not explicitly so. There are a number of gay and lesbian poets who are being published through smaller, well-respected, competitive presses, such as Alice James Books, Field, etc.
Has the self-publishing initiative helped or hindered poetry? Will it always be an orphan of the publishing industry? How does it change the standards of critical excellence, if at all?
So much self-published poetry to date has been dreck from the rightly-called vanity presses. Personally, I think a book of poems should go through the traditional vetting process, with the individual poems finding homes in various literary magazines. That process allows the poet to winnow out the chaff from a collection, to make sure only the best poems remain. Only after garnering a healthy list of credits should the writer begin the task of finding a publisher. Oh, yes, I know, that can take time and be frustrating and demoralizing, but I see it as a refining process. (My first book was turned down by dozens of publishers over a course of several years, but I kept revising and revising.) As self-publishing becomes easier and more affordable, it fosters impatience, in my opinion, and hasty art is seldom good or enduring art. Self-publishing also assumes that the opinions of editors are of no value, that their role as literature’s midwives is a quaint anachronism. A good editor can make a good book better and help make it look better in its final physical form as well. Admittedly, many small poetry presses don’t have the staff or wherewithal to market their books efficiently, but most do make some sort of effort. With self-publishing, however, the onus of marketing and distribution falls entirely on the author. Bottom line: it hinders poetry, should remain an orphan, won’t be taken seriously by most serious reviewers, and should be a last resort if the writer insists on persisting after all other doors have been slammed shut.
Self-publishing has always existed. There is a great tradition of classic texts that were initially self-published. One of my favorite poets, Charles Reznikoff, did this repeatedly in his life. He also happened to be an exacting, ruthless editor of his work. He never rushed anything into print. He consulted with other poets, let versions of his work sit for months or years and then, with a clear head, returned to them. So, yes, I think if writers without any other outlet feel strongly enough about their work that they want to publish it themselves, that’s great. Nonetheless, I have often recoiled from the shabbiness of many self-published books. Not all of them are shabby, of course. There are some exciting things going on with self-publishing. One just has to discern, as with anything else, what is quality and what is not.
And what of an ethics of poetry: the business end of it at least? How do we make sure that professional standards are adhered to, rather than the “It’s who you know” aspect of glad-handing often associated with awards and publication, and “blind” readings of submissions? What other issues of professional ethics are a concern to you, if at all?
I’m not sure “we” can do much to make sure that professional standards are adhered to, except to behave ethically in our own personal dealings. I might question Greywolf Press’s professional standards when they published James Franco’s Directing Herbert White, but I wouldn’t say they behaved unethically. Theirs was a business decision, most likely with an eye on their bottom line. I can justify that even though I don’t think poetry was well served by Franco’s book.
When I served as a literary magazine editor or have judged a blind competition, my only criterion was excellence. Of course that’s determined by one’s personal aesthetics. As a result, I’ve had to turn down some “big names” over the years. On the flip side, I always got a special thrill when I was able to accept someone’s very first work for publication—and watch them on occasion develop into “big names.”
As for the award-givers when I have been on the receiving end: in my experience, the vast majority of the judges and panel members were known to me only by reputation; none were friends, colleagues, or close acquaintances. For the most part, I think award-givers go out of their way to be impartial. That’s certainly the case with the NEA and state arts agencies.
TL: Who you know will always be an important part of getting somewhere in the publishing world. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. If you’re a good poetry citizen, one who actively promotes others’ books, writes reviews, volunteers to read manuscripts before they go to press, invites poets to readings in your areas, etc., then you will naturally establish a lot of connections that are genuine. Those connections may pay off. I’m not saying one should be a good citizen in order to reap rewards later on; but if such opportunities present themselves, why not take them? I get people writing me all the time asking if I will review their books. I don’t always review what someone asks me to, but if I am moved by the work sent to me, or feel I have something to say about it, why not? Again, I am my best regulator.
With regards to awards, I’m with Richard on this one. My experience on either end of the awards equation–either as judge or contestant–has been positive. I’ve been impressed by the rigorous standards applied to the contest. This doesn’t mean I’m a fan of, say, book contests, which I feel are, by their very nature, unethical. When a press promotes, for example, a contest for a first book and hundreds or thousands submit the required reading fee along with their manuscripts, those submitters are expecting that the publicized contest judge will read their work. This is rarely the case. Most manuscripts go through a tier system of judges, beginning with office interns and volunteers who weed out the piles for first the editors and then the visiting judges. I understand the system, but built into it is certain failure for an overwhelming majority of the submitters. Meanwhile, that press makes money to cover its operating costs. I sympathize with presses that need to hold contests in order to stay solvent, but the solution is not as clean as it should be.
Contrary to reports of its death, poetry is going through a very strong surge right now, in all areas: e-publication, M.F.A. programs, national organizations, prizes (Nobel winners!). Is this proliferation a good thing or a bad thing? Can there be too much poetry?
I tell my students there are now more avenues for publication than there have ever been. Many writers will see their work in print or in electronic publications that did not exist twenty years ago. Of course there is too much poetry out there, but the problem has more to do with a lack of self-regulation and an obsession with fame than with e-publications and micro presses. I know a lot of writers whose main goal is to become well known. I find this goal appalling. Real writers write because they have a call to do so. They struggle with poems or fiction or whatever because doing so gives their lives meaning and purpose. But if fame and recognition are the endgames of all that effort, I’d say stop. Immediately.
There is too much poetry! But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means the average mortal can’t keep up with it all and will often miss the really good stuff. It’s daunting, like entering an ice cream parlor with dozens of traditional and exotic flavors and not enough time or chutzpah to sample them all before settling on the usual death by chocolate with perhaps a scoop of mango.
Like heaven, poetry has many mansions to explore. I’m grateful for that.
What do you think about prizes and prize-givers? Are laurels all they are cracked up to be? Why or why not are prizes and recognition important? What are the pitfalls?
Having garnered a fair share over the years, I can attest that prizes are a good thing, especially when they fall like manna and bring both spiritual and physical nourishment. In 1985, I had just gotten home from the hospital after a nervous breakdown and a time of general despair over my personal life and lack of success as a poet. At the bottom of my stack of mail was something that looked like junk, but it was a telegram from Grace Schulman at the 92nd Street Y asking me to get in touch ASAP: I’d won the “Discovery”/The Nation Award. What better encouragement could a relatively unpublished poet get at such a critical time in his life? It screwed my head on straight and pointed me in the right direction. And more recently, in the midst of our last recession, after much of my freelance editorial income had dried up and I was forced to take a soul-sucking day job managing the front desk at a rundown hotel, my cell phone rang: it was the NEA announcing I’d been awarded a $25,000 fellowship. That unexpected income literally prevented foreclosure on my home. And, yes, the laurels are nice, as long as you don’t go strutting about wearing them everywhere you go. The pitfalls of prizes are 1) feeling deflated when you don’t get them and, 2) when you do get them, allowing your ego to swell to such a degree that other people want to stick a pin in you.
Prizes are obviously wonderful for those who win them. They can also provide some financial security for those who otherwise might not have it. On the other hand, contests are, by nature, divisive. On paper, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Male Poetry, for example, is a great thing. I believe the writers who win—and many of the ones who do not—should be recognized and celebrated for their efforts. But the minute the application of any standard comes into play, the whole thing is a mess. It’s impossible to judge Stephen Mills’s He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices against Richard Foerster’s Penetralia. Both these books accomplish such different things! It’s like comparing a St. Bernard to a poodle. Not a heck of a lot of overlap there. You either prefer one breed or the other. You may even like both. But you’d never dream of expecting the same kind of behavior from them.
Prizes can and should exist, but they should neither define nor dictate why or how we write. Nor should one’s abundance or dearth of prizes determine critical reputation. Rane Arroyo won a number of respectable “industry” prizes, but never really major ones. His poetry is of a consistently high standard and is possessed of a truly distinctive voice. If I used prizes as an indicator of whether or not I should read him, I would miss out on a hell of a lot. Some people are going to win prizes; others won’t. Hopefully all writers will have at least some opportunities for validation, be it through publication, book sales, audience reactions, or aesthetic success.
Poet Laureate. Inaugural Poet. Do national representatives for poetry make a difference? Does anyone remember Richard Blanco’s amazing Inaugural poem? Can anyone name their state poet laureate?
I suppose such official titles are good. They give credibility to poetry for people who need the label (“Laureate,” etc.) to understand that poetry is credible.
My view on this is similar to my views on gay marriage. Most people will not see gays and lesbians as equal citizens under the law until they can be legally married. Once this right is bestowed upon them, others who have always had that right will begin to see gay and lesbian relationships as a reflection of their own legitimized relationships. While I can personally care less about the institution of marriage, I recognize that legalization of gay marriage on a federal level—I suspect it is inevitable—will usher in a wider public acceptance of LGBT people in general.
State and national representatives for poetry serve a similar function. It’s good to have them around; good, too, that poets are trotted out for national ceremonies, like a president’s inauguration. For many, Blanco is the first poet they ever heard read. His being on stage reading “One Today” allowed millions of people to create a space of poetry in their heads and hearts that wasn’t there before they saw and heard him.
But, as a poet, I’m not terribly interested in such offices.
This question makes me laugh. Richard Blanco is now a fellow Mainer, living in the rural town of Bethel, and I know for a fact that being the inaugural poet has brought a lot of attention to him and his work, to the extent that he needs a personal assistant to help him keep up with the flood of correspondence and requests for appearances. So, I suppose being a national representative can make quite a difference, and not just for the poet. He has a new audience out there. And yes, I do know the Maine poet laureate: it’s Wesley McNair, and he’s literally been everywhere across the state promoting poetry, getting it in newspapers, and even publishing an anthology of Maine poets, called Take Heart, in which I am represented. We’re lucky hereabouts to have a thriving poetry culture. Portland, Maine, has a poet laureate program, as does nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Both laureates are extremely active within their communities, organizing various readings, symposia, and long-term projects.
I agree with Tony: It’s good having state and national representatives for poetry to promote public awareness.
Do you feel there is a need for more critical standards in poetry? Has it opened itself so wide that it has lost an essential self-assessment?
This is a perennial topic of debate—and dismay. Certainly, there has been a disastrous decline in the number of critical reviews of poetry appearing in our national media. As a result, readers are left unaware of what is being published. And, if we are to grant that critics are, at best, avid educators, teaching us how to read and to discern what is good, then we are currently sorely uneducated when it comes to the current state (or states) of poetry in America. When I assumed the editorship of Chelsea and later became the founding editor of Chautauqua Literary Journal, I insisted that a substantial portion of each issue be devoted to critical reviews. That so many magazines don’t publish reviews nowadays, especially of books from small presses, does a disservice to literature, for without opinions from reviewers there can be no reaction, no well-informed motivation to either buy or not buy a book.
That said, I don’t believe that there can or should be any “essential self-assessment.” There are too many diverse schools and voices in American poetry, too many distinct audiences, for any one “essential” standard to be applied. I like to think of myself as some mandarin of good taste when I venture to apply the label “great” to a poem—we all should have our critical standards—but when I’m listening to slam poetry in a pub or attending an open mic reading, I prefer to suspend those standards and be “in the moment.” It is good that poetry has opened its doors wide; let’s apply different standards to the various rich modalities of our language—yawp, drawl, warble, and all.
Who would be setting these critical standards? The moment we say “this is the standard” we begin to shrink what is possible in poetry. The gloriousness of contemporary American poetry is that it’s all over the place. There is a poem for everyone. I wouldn’t want imposed standards to dictate what “should” be in print.
At the same time, the self-assessment issue you bring up is very real. Many beginning, emerging, and seasoned poets crank out poem after poem and seek publication while the work is still wet. There’s a certain excitement to this. But I do think, overall, people need to see the writing of poetry less in terms of “production” (a consumerist model) and more in terms of process. Too few poets self-regulate. Too few poets realize not everything they write should be published. There are a number of well-known contemporary poets who are simply writing too much, and the quality of their work has suffered for it. I could name names. I won’t.
I will name Elizabeth Bishop and Stanley Kunitz—two poets who lived long lives and published slim volumes of collected poems. For both, a gap of 10–15 years existed between some of their books. But everything they published—including a handful of flawed and awkward poems—is of significance. I was really annoyed when FSG released Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments. She would not have approved of this. The work, which is comparatively feeble to her legitimate poems, shows she was her best editor, her best regulator. FSG should have honored that. Instead, they wanted to make some money. In doing so, they damaged her posterity.
I had a couple of chapbooks released in the late 90s that are still floating around in some places. The writing in those chapbooks embarrasses me. I am tempted to buy back all those chapbooks from the various used bookstores selling them for outrageous “out-of-print” prices and burn them.
But Tony, isn’t that very vulnerability in our writing of juvenilia also an important aspect of how we get to the place we grow to as poets? I am glad to read the very early work of many now well-known poets, because it provides some insight – no matter how embarrassing over time – to the very first ideas and expressions that helped those poets become who they are. It’s a bit of an archeological dig, no? Not everything found may be a jewel, but everything provides some context to the present.
In some cases, this might be very rewarding. If the writer approves of this, for example, or if, in hindsight, some well-made poems surface from a writer’s early career, great. I think of Blake’s early poems that resemble certain aspects of the 18th-century Graveyard School poets. There’s an interesting link there–Blake writing sonnets and odes, thereby connecting him to writers we would not have associated him with had we not had access to those early poems. So, yes, I see what you’re saying. In Bishop’s case, I would not agree that releasing Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box was a sound idea. In life, she established herself as someone with impeccable standards, someone who exerted a good deal of control over how her work appeared in the world. The poems in that book are not juvenilia, per se, they are roughs and out takes. She did not want others to read them. Why not respect this?
As for my little chapbooks, there are two chapbooks I stand behind. One is called The Joey Poems and was written in 1996. Those are some intense, really charged poems. I was young and impetuous, but the poems do possess genuine power, perhaps due to the heat of attraction I had for the titular subject of the book. Another collection I stand behind is called Tongue-Tied and Singing: it gathers poems I wrote from 1999-2004. It’s uneven but largely pretty solid, I think. The other two chapbooks, which I will not name, are embarrassments, and I hope no one ever sees them. I am to blame for putting them into the world. Like a lot of youngsters, I thought anything I wrote was worth publishing. Lesson learned.
I have been struck deeply by poems of children, prisoners, the homeless, etc.—the body of “outsider artists” let us say, who still find in poetry a great expression, no matter how unlearned the execution is. This speaks to the idea of the poetic impulse, rather than a particular craft. How do we find a place for everyone in poetry?
If by “find a place for everyone in poetry” you mean, “create opportunities for everyone to discover their inner poet,” I don’t think it is possible. And, more crucially, even when such opportunities are available—in the classroom, or through various other forums—many balk at the idea of writing poems or discovering their inner poet. Writing poetry isn’t for everyone. Reading and enjoying poetry is. Creative expression is, too. The man who rebuilds cars in his garage is doing what a poet does. So is the gardener. They are both involved in their passions and are transformed by the sustained concentration they give to the work.
But you’re right. There are loads of people who could do amazing things if given the chance and support to write. What makes poems by the “outsiders” you speak of so powerful is that these people, against all odds, have written what they were compelled to write. The real writers, the true poets, are those who cannot not write. They will find a way, do it for their own reasons, and in their own way. They might not write all the time. They may only write three poems in their lifetime. But those three poems were meant to come into the world. Indeed, they had to come into the world.
I think I’ve already addressed this issue above; however, when you ask how do we find a place for them, aren’t we pigeonholing them, aren’t we, from the outset, already applying our critical standards? Those “outside” artists might just as well think we are the ones on the outside.
As a poet, what is the single most important aspect of your work that sustains you right now? Current projects?
That soul-sucking job I mentioned earlier: I quit it well over a year ago, thus freeing up my days to devote more time to writing, reading, and getting out in the world to seek inspiration, while continuing to work as a freelance editor and typesetter. So, it is having the time to work that is sustaining me right now; I’m wallowing in the bliss of it.
My project for the last several years has been assembling a new book manuscript, called River Road, which Texas Review Press will publish in September 2015. It picks up on themes from my last book and maps the troubled path of a man as he struggles to dispel the cloud-boil that poisons his heart following the death of his lover and the start of a new relationship. The speaker, who is both me and not me, is torn between longing for an idealized past that never truly existed and realizing he must remain vulnerable to love despite the possibility of further disappointments and pain. I hope that doesn’t sound gloomy! I assure you the book moves steadily toward the light and ends in a major key.
On deck is a prose memoir, which I’ve only very recently started to draft, which charts my growing in moral and sexual awareness between the ages of 3 and 11.
I’d make a lousy role model for young poets who are often told to write everyday. When I’m not writing, I am usually reading heavily, painting (I’m a collage artist and painter), or noodling on my electric piano. I keep up with journaling, too. Writing poems requires sustained concentration and I have occasionally had too many commitments. I write a lot of book reviews, do interviews, and recently completed a critical article on Gerald Stern for a book on him to be released in late 2016. All of these other commitments and interests take time, but they also nourish the poems when I do return to them.
I work in passionate bursts and am driven by all sorts of things, usually contingent upon the project I’m completing. No matter how diverse the project, how unlikely one grouping of poems might seem from another, I am, at such times, driven to make poems. This is not the same as saying “I write.” For me, making a poem is like making a dimensional object, something forged as a metal sculpture is forged. Its density may elude touch but, as with music, one hears in its shape an instance of form asserting itself in space. I am not all that interested in pushing certain feelings or ideas on people. I let the language guide me.
If you were writing Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, what would you say?
One could expand on this question for days, but I might start by saying “Read the Letters.” There’s so much truth there. But for me, I would advise young poets to read widely and to react thoughtfully to hone one’s own critical standards. And read not just poetry and the other genres, past and present, in English and in translation, but also the natural sciences, history, anthropology, mythology, politics, medical treatises—anything that will inspire and provoke you into writing. Learn to look deeply into things to absorb not just their surface but their inner resonance. Learn the precise names of things: what tree (or flower or bird or insect or fish . . .) is that? what distinguishes it from that one, and why? what does its scientific name mean, and what do those Latin and Greek roots reveal about its essence? Look deeply into paintings; listen closely to music; discover their patterns of light and sound; know them intimately, now step beyond your comfort zone. Read the dictionary—for fun! Study religions, whether you believe in God or not; learn their signs and symbols, as much arcana as you can. Travel, exile yourself in the unfamiliar till you begin to feel like a native—if not physically, then through the books of great travel writers. Remain vulnerable to all things, especially opportunities to love and be loved. Practice not allowing your ego to cloud your judgment. Repeat this process. Now sit down and write.
I am 44 years old, have been writing poetry for 20 years or so, and still don’t think I have the authority to write a verse letter addressed to young poets. I am always searching, constantly putting myself in the position of student, constantly dying and being reborn, if you will, forging a new aesthetic to suit a new project, experimenting, playing around. I’m a kid in a sandbox. I suppose my verse letter to a young poet, if I wrote one, would ask, “What can you teach me?”
Do I have advice for young poets? I’d say write only if you feel a calling to do so. Also, be prepared to write a lot of bad poems and be told by others that they’re bad. Be prepared, too, to keep going even when you keep failing. Embrace failure. Once you do, the successes will come.
Philip F. Clark is currently an M.F.A. Creative Writing/Poetry degree candidate at City College, New York. His poems have been published in Assaracus Journal, the anthology Between: New Gay Poetry, published by Chelsea Station Editions, Lyrelyre, Poetry in Performance, and The Good Men Project. His poetry reviews have been published in Lambda Literary and The Conversant. He is also the editor of The Poet’s Grin, a blog which presents the work and words of emerging and established poets. He was recently invited by Sibling Rivalry Press to be one of the guest poets at the Central Arkansas University AIDS Memorial Quilt reading. He is currently at work completing a first volume of poems, The Carnival of Affection. A chapbook, A Beggar’s Welcome, will be published in the spring of 2015.
Richard Foerster was born in 1949 in the Bronx, New York, the son of German immigrants, and holds degrees in English Literature from Fordham College and the University of Virginia. He is the author of seven poetry collections: Sudden Harbor (1992) and Patterns of Descent (1993), published by Orchises Press; Trillium (1998), Double Going (2002), and The Burning of Troy (2006), published by BOA Editions; Penetralia (2011) and River Road (2015) published by Texas Review Press. He has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize, a Maine Arts Commission Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships. Since the late 1970s his work has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, The Southern Review, and Poetry. He has worked as a lexicographer, educational writer, typesetter, teacher, and as the editor of the literary magazines Chelsea and Chautauqua Literary Journal. Since 1986 he has lived on the coast of Southern Maine.
Tony Leuzzi teaches and writes in Rochester, New York. He has written three books of poems, including Radiant Losses, which won the New Sins Editorial Prize in 2010, and The Burning Door, released by Tiger Bark Press in 2014. In November 2012, BOA Editions released Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi’s interviews with 20 American poets. A painter and assemblage artist, Leuzzi is a review writer for Lambda Literary and The Brooklyn Rail. He won The National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development Award in 2004 and The Wesley T. Hanson Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2010. He also received the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Creativity and Scholarship in 2014.