Allison Cobb is an innovative culture worker who deftly blends rigorous research with a poetic sensibility to create thought-provoking writing. Her interdisciplinary, cross-genre book Green-Wood(Factory School, 2010) is a prime example of her ability to write complex texts that weave together personal narrative, political history, and environmental considerations. This book draws from scholarly research on the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to open up the field of inquiry to wider social processes—such as war, death, and life—and personal experiences—such as attempting to have a child with your partner. This book, which expertly flings socio-political history through the discriminating filter of Cobb’s agile mind, also demonstrates her adeptness at writing both verse and prose. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she is at work on a new book-length project, The Autobiography of Plastic.
Recently I had the good fortune of engaging in conversation with Allison about the role walking plays in her work, how space matters, and why she concertedly pushes for the relevance of poetry in the instant-gratification-is-too-damn-slow zeitgeist.
“A Fair Field Full of Folk”: OTHER British and Irish Poetry since 1970
The British Isles have long been, self-evidently, crowded, complex, and packed with chaotic overlays of cultures — local, imported or created — which develop and intermix constantly. Langland's fourteenth-century “fair field full of folk” was already an intensely plural society, where elements of Saxon, Norman and Cymric were evident alongside each other, with strong elements of Latinate church culture, and, never far away, mainland European culture jostling alongside the other elements of linguistic mix. Diverse cultures sometimes conflict violently, or sometimes make uneasy alliances, and sometimes, perhaps by chance, give rise to the creation of new forms or achievements. About the only thing which is not possible in such a pluralistic, fragmenting, evolving society is a unitary, closed-system approach to culture, an insistence on a single “great tradition” which can justify any degree of cultural domination. And yet at present the organs of this culture — from opera and literature to government — remain unshakably monolithic and centralised: to look at the central products of this culture is to be reminded just how assertive the “mainstream” has been, and how marginalised its alternatives have seemed at times.
The essay below will serve as the introduction to the Green Integer publication, due out in early 2007, of The PIP Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative Poetry in English 2005-2006. I felt that readers of Jacket might be interested in this introduction because of my comments on the current reception by the larger newspapers, awards, and prizes concerning what might be described as innovative or — I think a far better term — exploratory poetic and poetics. Obviously, most of the writers of the kind of poetry with which I am concerned have long ago recognized the absence of discussion and acceptance of their poetry in the venues I describe; but I think it is important to reiterate the increasing hostility of the national media and other self-proclaimed arbiters of contemporary poetry to the wide range of poetic writing today—not only in the US, but throughout the world in English. To me it still remains utterly shocking—particularly because it has been so longstanding — that publications such as The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous other places available for reviews and recognition of poetry remain so narrowly focused in their definitions of poetic expression.
... Poetry’s unpopularity, or anyway the unpopularity of the kind of poetry I want, is part of its cultural condition and so part of its advantage. Its unpopularity may even be popular; that’s poetic logic for you. How about saying that poetry is the research and development wing of verbal language, better understood as collaborative thinking and investigation, at least for some of the practitioners? It doesn’t necessarily express an individual author’s biographical feelings in a conventionally lyrical manner—a great deal of poetry does that, but a great deal doesn’t. The elitism is not poetry’s, but commodity culture’s, which says that value comes exclusively from the market or audience share. Forms of culture that are not immediately accessible to a mass or popular audience also matter. Difficulty is not an obstacle, it is a material means for engagement with the social real. Yes we can.
I want to backtrack a bit and link to some recordings related to earlier commentaries. Rather than update the older posts, I’ll periodically add new tracks to expand previous playlists. I’ll also make some new unthemed playlists of singles segmented from longer recordings that I came across while browsing PennSound’s reading series pages.