Commentaries - May 2011
On April 8 and 15, J.C. in his NB column in the TLS took up one of the keynote essays in Attack of the Difficult Poems, “Against National Poetry Month as Such.”
The poet Charles Bernstein once declared: "April is the cruellest month for poetry". He was referring to the designated US National Poetry Month, sponsored by what Mr Bernstein called the ARF – Artificial Resuscitation Foundation. We gather this was his own April Fool's joke, but Mr Bernstein finds nothing funny about National Poetry Month. ''The message is: Poetry is good for you", he said with distaste. The exponent of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry disapproves of the appropriation of verse by the therapy industry, as a medium for uplifting messages. "I want a poetry that's bad for you." It's hard not to admire the sentiment. Bernstein points to an NPM promotional campaign which involved placing poems in new Volkswagen cars to raise drivers' self-esteem.
The special supplement in the April issue of O: The Oprah Magazine takes the feel-good duty of poetry for granted. Among twenty-one "poetic souls" asked to affirm the inspirational power of verse are Bono, Sting, Steven Spielberg, Wynton Marsalis, Demi Moore and Kate Capshaw. All follow the "deeply moved" approach. Capshaw "broke down and wept" the first time she read "Self Portrait" by David Whyte, about the "fierce heat of living". It is left to Mike Tyson to toy with the idea of poetry being bad for you (or for the other guy). "At age twelve, I was introduced to a poem called 'Don't quit'. The last lines are: 'Stick to the fight when you're hardest hit / It's when things seem worst that you must not quit'.”
The closest O comes to acknowledging the Bernsteinian avant-garde is to photograph eight enchanting poetesses in spring fashions, and invite them to yoke together the heterogeneous ideas of wardrobe and work. Anna Moschovakis admires dissonance in poetry, but "when it comes to clothes she prizes ease". Her tiered silk chiffon dress (Candela, $359) "floats over her figure". Stephanie Ann Whited wants to question "the boundaries of self. I like experimenting with new things". Mr Bernstein's ears surely pricked up. Alas, the new things are a "suede miniskirt (H&M, $99) . . . comfortably balanced by a long-sleeved oxford (J. Crew, $78)". No issue of 0 would be complete without the thoughts of Maya Angelou. "Does your humanitarian work influence your writing?" a disciple asks the sage. Of course, mere earthling. "I don't use vulgarity, and I won't have it around' me, and no pejoratives, because those words are meant to dehumanize people." Ms Angelou's poetry is bad for you, but maybe not as Mr Bernstein intended.
From The Times Literary Supplement (April 15, 2011)
Since last week, we have been mulling over the remark we quoted from Charles Bernstein on the marketing of poetry as a medium for "uplifting" thoughts. Mr Bernstein was reacting to US National Poetry Month, which comes round each April. "The message is: Poetry is good for you", he said. "I want a poetry that's bad for you."
The rhetorical force of this is clear, even if it doesn't stand much scrutiny. Obviously, Mr Bernstein doesn't want poetry that will cause actual harm; he wants poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. The Waste Land might be one example. T. S. Eliot would not have been asked to dress in spring fashions for a special poetry supplement of O: The Oprah Magazine in 1922. Some of Ezra Pound's early verse was uplifting and good for you; later he wrote poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you; eventually he wrote poetry that was bad for everybody, especially him. "Howl" used to be poetry that's bad for you, but a recent tame movie, with a cool dude miscast as Allen Ginsberg, turned it into poetry that's good for you (and therefore, in Bernsteinian logic, bad for you). Some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry is bad for you. Some of Robert Frost's is good for you, but more bad for you than it seems. The best of Hugh MacDiarmid is bad-but-good; the worst is plain bad. Sylvia Plath's poetry is bad for you; so is Ted Hughes's Crow.
These brief reflections on Mr Bernstein's dictum have brought home to us how much good sense there is in it (good as in good). The above is intended as a step towards a canon of poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. Further suggestions would be welcome.
WAY IN 1 WHY ALWAYS THIS WAY? It’s that week at the college where I work. Lawn blowers commenced on Monday. Weed wackers, riding mowers. Symmetrical rows of white chairs began to appear yesterday, radiating outwards from a mound of flowers planted in the shape of a giant M. This happens every year. I’ve got something like 6 cases of wine in the trunk of my car for tomorrow’s year-end celebration. I do not know if I am coming or going. Last Saturday I met with the spring poetry workshop to discuss their final projects, chapbooks. We ate cookies. Laceys. Today I had that weepy moment when you meet a person’s family for the first time, having come to know the person for what seems like a second, two years, and now she graduates and moves away. At next week's department retreat, meetings will be held, don’t laugh the email said, in a yurt. In the office across the hall my workmate Jess, also, alternates. I always say I am a hybrid vehicle. Dumb jokes. Spreadsheets, RSVPs, grant applications, menus, the unused balance on a Costco card is apprehended with great joy and undue affect. Towards a budget near its limit. When after all the tuition is—hysterical laughter. Emails regarding program order. Meanwhile she’s working on a guerilla powerpoint. I’m writing this. We unload wine from the trunk, trundle it up by elevator, Jess cleans out the refrigerator so that it may be chilled. That sentence makes it sound like the refrigerator needs to be chilled inside the refrigerator. In the trashcan, a tableau of rotten grapes and half and half gone bad. Via facebook I'm reminded that I could have watched a Kenneth Goldsmith poetry workshop at the whitehouse on live streaming video. I don’t know. It’s the next day now. Cranky exchanges. The flutes get delivered way earlier than expected. I can’t stop thinking about how it was Common who Fox News & Palin found so objectionable.
WAY IN 2 ABRUPTMENT
I just re-read Kenneth Goldsmith’s critical evaluation of Silliman’s Blog, Death of A Kingmaker, and it is so depressing. The cautionary tale. The easy love, the bounce. The tangled muck of community service, career, power, time, labor, marketing, the figure of the artist versus the figure of the blogger, the one identity eating the other, fish eat fish. The “excellent criticism” poets might write all the time versus the “not particularly reasoned or informed” criticism. The emblematic list of books received.
ALL ROADS LEAD HOMAGEATHON
They make me feel a little crazy. The top ten, the best of, the bestseller, the map, the syllabus, the recommended reading, the overwhelmed feeling while browsing reader-compiled issues at AAAAARG. (Activism & Activist Subjectivity-131 texts, Feminism-446 texts, Grrr: South Asian Scholarship-44 texts, Manifestos-58 texts, Poetics-115 texts, the UC Strikes and Beyond-34 texts.) Can be of great use, like an anthology, symptomatic, or both. If written down for public often anxious and revised. The dread of being forgotten. The dread of leaving someone or something out. The pressure-feeling that one must be or do something particular with each, each after all so much more than an item on a list, more than a record of itself having been written, produced, put in an envelope, passed from hand to hand, purchased with money, accidentally lifted. The list cannot be comprehensive. Always misses. Falls apart if too long.
What does it mean to receive? To be received? Represented in parts. To take the list too seriously. To be somewhat precious, or self-important about it. The list says nothing. The list says everything. Indicates. Is suggestive of. A latency. A synonym for delay. A placeholder. Anyways the only poems I seem able to write anymore always wind up being list poems. The time I left my to-do list at Erin Morrill’s house, and she skimmed it in order to figure out whose notebook, and thus saw my lists of books to buy, titles carried forward from list to list. She returned the notebook along with her copy of Coeur de Lion. It was on my list for forever. The runs of nouns that so often show up in flarfishness work. Harper’s Index. The Totality for Kids index. Indexes and lists in new work by Cynthia Sailers & Dana Ward. The relationship of list to sentence. Attention Span. David Buuck’s monthly lists of reading.
The record, the diary, the photograph.
WORK RECEIVED FOR FREE FROM OTHER POETS WHILE AT POETRY-RELATED EVENTS IN THE BAY AREA THE LAST FEW MONTHS:
West Wind Review 2011, ed. Sarah Cunningham, faculty editor K. Silem Mohammad
Abraham Lincoln No. 6, ed. K. Silem Mohammad (if this were a post with content I would really really want to say something about Lindsey Boldt's poem "Duh," the one that says "But this is a poem about my community / and the tusks I use to defend / what gate? / if you ask me where the gate is / i will deny the existence of the gate / but you will know it by its position / behind my back / it'll be easy to spot / because it will be closed / and when doors are closed to you / you can see them more easily")
Eunoia, MIchael Nicoloff & Alli Warren, Abraham Lincoln Press
Try!, April 21, 2011 issue, ed. David Brazil & Sara Larsen
Cityscape Scattershot, Del Ray Cross, taxt
“At the Small Bar in the Embassy,” Rodney Koeneke broadside coaster, Cuneiform Press
Every Cook Can Govern, a Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece, Its Meaning for Today, C.L.R. James, Decentralized Publication No. 1
Bread of the Earth / The Last Colors, Brenda Cardenas, Roberto Harrison, Decentralized Publication no. 2
"Dispatches & Correspondence, Wisconsin/Berkeley, Feb-Mar 2011", Decentralized Publication no. 3
Perfect Circle, Roberto Harrison, Wisconsin March 2011, Decentralized Publication no. 4
THINGS I WANT TO BUY WITH NEXT PAYCHECK:
Home/Birth, Zolf and Greenberg
Imaginary Syllabi, ed. Jane Sprague
Diwata, Barbara Jane Reyes
SOME THINGS I AM READING OR HAVE READ RECENTLY FOR POET-ORGANIZED READING GROUPS:
Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, Richard Kempton (Durutti Free Skool)
Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, Raul Zibechi (tr. Raymor Ryan) (Durutti Free Skool)
Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici (Durutti Free Skool)
The Song of Solomon, the Bible, translations various (Allegories group led by David Brazil)
The book of Luke, the Bible, translations various (Allegories group led by David Brazil)
Raw Materials for a Theory of a Young Girl, Tiqqun (reading group org. by Anne Lesley Selcer)
Probably I also need Lacan for Dummies (upcoming group / film & psychoanalysis org. Cynthia Sailers)
BAY AREA FREE / FREE ISH / NEGOTIATING FREENESS SCHOOLS:
San Francisco Writers University (the flier I saw said all classes free or $10)
West Marin Free Skool
East Bay Free Skool
Free School SF
Nathan Brown’s note on Facebook re: a proposed Autonomous Educational Collective in Oakland
Race, Poverty & Media Justice Institute at Poor Magazine
CHAPBOOK TITLES, ENG 056, POETRY WORKSHOP I, SPRING 2011
By the Way
Figures & Turns
The Frog Prince
Godspeed in the Infinite Abyss
heart of the valley
The 12 Step Program
Thinking in Images.
What is love worth?
What Lies Underneath
When There Were Eight Katies on the Soccer Field I was Jack
Who & Where Am I?
THE ONLY SONGS I REMEMBER FROM THE HIP HOP 101 MIX CD MY FRIEND MADE IN 1999, IT MEANT A LOT, I OFTEN TALK ABOUT IT FONDLY, I SEEM TO RECALL THERE WERE MORE SONGS FROM THE SOUTH
Common, The Light
Missy Elliot, Hit ‘em wit’ da Hee
Missy Elliot, All in My Grill
DMX f/ Mary J. Blige, Coming From
Tupac Shakur, California Love
LL Cool J, Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag
Missy Elliot, Friendly Skies
Dr. Dre f/ Eminem - Forget About Dre
Notorious B.I.G., Juicy
For last year's AWP, I was supposed to be on a panel called "Poets and Editors on Race and Inclusivity." Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend the conference due to back problems. Since the issue of the panel is important to me, I've posted the talk I was going to give below. Please feel free to share:
My name is Craig Santos Perez, and you may remember me from last year’s acclaimed AWP panel “American Hybrid and its Discontents,” where I presented a paper titled “Whitewashing American Hybrid Poetics.” I asked: why would white poets want to be hybrid when hybridity theory is soooo nineties. The answer was simple: if you weren’t hybrid then you had no choice as a white poet but to become either Ron Silliman or Robert Penn Warren.
You may be asking, when did I become such an expert on White-American poetics? Well, I have a B.A. in Literature and MFA in Creative Writing from USAmerican institutions, which means that I’ve only been required to read White-American poets.
With that background, I’m delighted to be on this year’s panel, “Poets and Editors on Race and Inclusivity,” with Rich Villar (director of Acentos), Barbara Jane Reyes (editor of Doveglion), Don Share (editor of Poetry Magazine), and Dan Chiasson (Editor of the Paris Review).
For my talk today, I will not only explain to you [smile modestly to the mostly white audience], how to make the poetry publishing world more racially inclusive, but I will also reveal the root cause of this inequity.
Some people have asked me why there isn’t an equivalent organization like VIDA for racial minority poets that can provide numerical data proving racial inequity actually exists in the poetry world. Rich Villar explains it best at his blog in which he diagnoses what he terms “Table of Contents Anxiety”:
Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists. I know I am not alone in this TOC Anxiety. I know some of you in this room suffer in silence. I know some of you in this room haven't shut up about it since the 1970's. However you deal with your particular anxiety, know that is it very real, and it goes to the heart of this perceived mistrust within the literary community…
So that leads me to the complex, difficult, and soul-searching question of this panel: how do we make the poetry publishing world more racially inclusive? The answer is also complex and difficult, and may seem incomprehensible to many of you, some of you may even laugh at its seeming impossibility, some may scoff at my hubris for even mentioning such a utopian dream. But I’m going to say it anyways: Publish More Writers of Color.
I know, I know, you’re asking yourself how we can achieve this dream. Together, my friends, together.
First, we need to understand why so few writers of color submit to your journals. The reason is because you most likely have published very few, if any, writers of color in the past. A vicious cycle. We don't like being the only person of color at an all white party.
So how can you make your party more attractive to those who can actually dance? 1) Have a special race issue! You know, the kind where you invite an editor of color to bring other people of color to the party. This always gets our attention because we like feeling special.
What? You’ve tried this before and it didn’t sustain long-term submissions from these special people? Hmmm…how awkward.
Okay, how about this: whenever your submission period opens, you send an email to the leaders of each racial community (as in the folks at Kundiman, AAWW, Cave Canem, Acentos, Letras Latinas, IAIA, or the many emerging editors of color) and politely ask them to circulate your submission call to our respective communities. Sustain these relationships long term and over time you will get more submissions, you will find more work that fits your journals’ aesthetic/mission, you will cause less TOC anxiety.
Of course, we can’t solve the problem completely until we get at the root of the problem.
To get at the root of the problem, let me tell you a story: a few months ago, I gave a workshop at an elementary school mostly populated by students of color. After our workshop, I showed the kids many copies of different poetry journals, including Poetry Magazine and the Paris Review. One kid, after he flipped through several Table of Contents pages, asked me:
“Professor Craig, Why are white editors so mean?”
I didn’t know how to respond, but I knew what he was feeling. I tried to soothe his anxiety:
“White editors aren’t mean, it’s just very hard for them to publish writers like us. It’s hard and often unrewarding work being an editor.”
He responded: “But you’re an editor, Professor Craig. And you’re not mean.”
So I reflected: is there something essential about being a white editor that makes them mean? Something inherently mean about whiteness?
Later, I reflected into a mirror: What makes editors of color, like myself, and writers of color in general, such nice people?
Have you ever noticed that even though writers of color are rarely published in mainstream journals, rarely receive major prizes or awards, rarely reviewed in major venues—and moreover all we write about are our difficult and traumatic histories, our oppressed cultures, our forgotten stories—yet we are such jolly people.
Have you ever been to an Asian-American, African-American, Latino, or Native American poetry reading? The poems are fucking depressing and people sometimes cry during the reading. Yet before and after the reading is a party! Everyone’s so happy, so friendly—there’s sometimes singing and dancing too!
Have you ever been to a Pacific Islander reading—the most underrepresented group in American poetry--? We always have a ton of food at our readings, and we spend more time talking story and laughing around the food than we do actually reading our depressing poems!
Perhaps if we can understand why writers of colors are so happy, then we can understand why white editors are so mean.
Despite everything we’ve been through, writers of color are happy for one reason, and one reason only: anthological loving. The word, “anthology,” comes from the Greek “anthos,” meaning “group hug.”
That’s right, every month a new anthology for writers of color is published: New Latino Writing, African American Nature, Queer Native American, Diasporic Pacific Islander, Asian American Women, South Asian American, Old Latino Writing, Experimental African American, Global Indigenous, Midwest Latinos, New Generations, Next Generations, Emerging Generations, etc, etc, etc.
Every time one of these anthologies is published, a historic publication gets its wings. We gather, celebrate (with lots of food), and embrace. We finally arrive. Or arrive, in a different way. Again and again.
We love the Anthology (to the point of fetish), and the anthology loves us back.
And the anthologies sell like tortillas, like frybread, like dumplings, like Spam.
Now, let’s return to our question: Why are white editors so mean? They are so mean because there has never been an anthology of White-American Poetry. Think about that: white poets have never had an anthology to call their own. They have never experienced the unconditional love of an anthology that is just for them. This sad exclusion has made them bitter and mean to the point of displacing their feelings of exclusion onto writers of color.
White-American poets, hear me: you have come a long way since your barbaric yawps and mystic circumferences. Through my education, I’ve watched you evolve over the last century and develop your craft. It’s time. You’re ready.
Today, at AWP 2011, I call upon you to submit to Manifest Destiny: The First Anthology of White-American Poetry.
Just like in the formation of other emerging literatures, the first anthology needs to be edited by a cultural outsider (me) and a cultural insider. Don Share, I invite you to co-edit this historic anthology with me!
I believe this anthology will settle upon the canon and breed other anthologies of White-American poetries and, over time, white poets and editors will feel more loved, more included, more celebrated—and thus less mean.
And they will sell, like white bread.
Now, let us anthos.
The J2 week began, as it usually does, in Philadelphia at Kelly Writers House, with a parcel from Belladonna* books (which I opened while listening to PennSound's new Belladonna* reading series archive, spanning 1999-2009). And then, I went on the road (thinking of it as, instead, "The Wide Road") to do some poetry readings and workshops in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Iowa City, where I met editors from Rescue Press and Lightful Press who handed me review copies. Now, back in the J2 offices, I have a lovely stack of new titles from presses including Shearsman, BlazeVOX, continuum, Reality Street, FSG, Carnegie Mellon and Starcherone (pictured below) I'll post details about shortly.
The Wide Road by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian (Belladonna* 2011)
Looking up Harryette Mullen: Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and other Works by Barbara Henning, with an introduction by Juliana Spahr (Belladonna* 2011)
To Be Human Is To Be A Conversation by Andrea Rexilius (Rescue Press 2011)
Events Films Cannot Withstand by Zach Savich (Rescue Press 2011)
There Is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out by Madeline McDonnell (Rescue Press 2011)
-Michelle Taransky, Reviews Editor