In which metaphors for poetry communties, and for writing about them, abound

I'm hopelessly devoted to the downtown Oakland YMCA, with its spin classes spinning next to morning tai chi, basketball games in the gym followed by African dance class. I love the late afternoon afterschool program sounds, double dutch in the mind-body studio. There’s free childcare, coffee in the lobby, wheelchairs, a mentoring program, book exchange, elevators, and financial aid. It’s basically sliding scale, a utopia. Its members are multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, like the city it is part of. Bodies at the Oakland Y tend not to be all that beefcake, nor all that svelte. Or, there are as many bodies as there are genders and generations. In a culture that is so persistently fucked up around bodies, being in the locker room at the downtown Oakland YMCA feels like some kind of psychic survival tactic, being with so many other naked sweaty bodies, not images, blemished and muscular and round, people icing their knees, rubbing oils into the skin, blow drying their hair, not blow drying their hair, having conversations. It’s not a space where anyone can be only with others who are like themselves. I want to say it’s one of the only spaces like this in the city where I live, but that’s just an idea, anecdotal, probably my blind spots talking.

If Bay Area poetry communities were mapped onto a building, it would look very different from the downtown Oakland YMCA. There would be one ramshackle addition after another built off the back, private rooms requiring arcane passwords, some tents in the parking lot, a bank of classrooms by the locker rooms, actually I do not think there would be locker rooms, sadly, at least not a women’s locker room, but there would be roving one-person galleries, workshops, potlucks, stacks and stacks of chapbooks, lecture halls and theaters, reading groups, a BYOB bar, doors that don’t work. Access to one part of the building wouldn’t guarantee access to another. You could be spinning next door to a tai chi class and never even know it. Which is to say it’s totally possible, for example, to see Judy Grahn read at Moe’s Books one month, and then Steve Farmer and Ron Silliman in that same space the next, with little to no overlap in audience. (Something I will be doing soon, and reporting on here. UPDATE: due to scheduling vagaries I missed the latter, alas, but you can find Robin Tremblay-McGaw's excellent report here, and I'll be typing up my notes on the Grahn reading soon.) The Bay Area is probably not all that unique in this respect. The Bowery Poetry club in New York comes to mind as a particular example of very different programming and communities existing in the same building, one group leaving as “their” reading ends, another streaming in. And I am of course not at all unique in trying to think about these things--while writing this post I've been reading Sarah Rosenthal's book of interviews with Bay Area writers, A Community Writing Itself, where Robert Glück says many smart and tender things about writing communities in the Bay Area. And he talks about the 1981 Small Press Traffic conference he organized, Left/Write, which "brought together writers who were famous in their own scene and hardly known beyond it--like Judy Grahn and Ron Silliman speaking on the same panel." 1981.

The YMCA is perhaps not the best metaphor in the world for what I’m trying to think about, or at least a complicated one, given that organization’s history as a christian non-profit. Its political commitments might as well be the pursuit of happiness. And yet it seems remarkably successful at doing some things the local poetry communities I hang out in seem unable to do, despite talking and thinking together all the time about radical change and social transformation.

One of the things I am trying to think about, or through, is James Edward Smethurst’s excellent book on the Black Arts Movement which traces conditions and relations out of which that movement emerged, including popular front aesthetics, old left connections, and what Smethurst calls a multi-racial bohemian scene, especially that of the lower east side, but also north beach. (And it’s interesting to see how east/west coast differences show up, including a separatist impulse in the Bay Area inflected by geography, for instance: Bolinas.) Smethurst also traces relationships between the New American Poetry and the Black Arts Movement (and Chicana/o and Asian American writers), relationships between people but also between institutions and publications. Reading this book is renovating, once again, the part of my brain that received a friendship such as Baraka and O’Hara’s as individual, or exceptional. It’s the same part of my brain that is trying to think about the Jeffrey Joe Nelson poem at the top of this post, published in Try a few weeks ago. Here it is a little larger so you can read it:

So many parts of my brain need to be renovated again and again. Jessica Lowenthal’s invitation to write “about and around Bay poetics” for the next few months has prompted something of a crisis in renovation, especially my received ideas about community formations, schools and movements, and how the construction of these things inflect any view of the present, a view which can only ever be incomplete. Something of a crisis about what it means to do documentary writing around Bay Area poetry communities, around poets and reading series and presses, poems and performances and chapbooks.

Thus I’ve been wandering the back corridors as Jacket2 prepares to launch, talking to myself. It’s not unlike hanging out in a theater during tech week. People are warming up, embedding videos and sound files, doing their scales, playing around with the sidebar. It’s exciting. At first I’d turn down a hallway and see a block of latin placeholder text, but now every day I bump into a new review or article. I’m feeling very wow to be in such great company, very wow about a clear editorial intention to bring many different writers into the building, to think about many different kinds of poetry.

As I’ve thought about how to approach this commentary writing, which might have felt simple ten years ago and not so simple now, I’ve also been thinking about the important role Jacket (the first) and other online locations played in my early education as a poet, in mapping out scenes of contemporary poetry. Institutions played their part in this mapping, but looking at the internet and reading the journals and books I read about there, on listserv discussions and then blogs, was in many ways more helpful. In figuring out where I might fit as a writer. In the pre-facebook early aughts, it was still a national/transnational internet that helped me find my way into a local poetry community, one that’s wound up meaning an awful lot to me. Which is to say I sort of backed my way into the local room by way of figuring out a mostly national scene of experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing.  As I backed my way into the room, I carried in all my received ideas and inherited maps.  The maps were useful, they helped me find my friends and comrades, but they also told partial stories, as all maps do, were missing important information. Which meant for a long time I only saw a few rooms of the building, or only heard a few of the stories that got told about a room’s history. This seems like a not uncommon experience, I’m thinking here of my friend who found his way to his contemporaries by way of following the bio notes and publications listed in In The American Tree. Which was a great way in, one way in. You start with a map that’s meaningful, and feel your way into the present. Then it opens up. The maps keep moving. You have to keep renovating your brain.

Bay Poetics is an anthology I edited in 2005. In retrospect, editing an anthology seems like a slightly insane thing to have done. I’m not sure what sense of permission allowed me to wade into the troubled waters of map making in the first place.  Without a co-editor, even. Some kind of total joyful ignorance. As I worked on the anthology, the overwhelming complication of attempting such a project came into view. After the anthology came out I fielded a lot of questions about what might be particular to contemporary Bay Area poetry as constructed in the anthology, what aesthetic or formal impulses poems in the book might share, and I always found a way to dodge these. It seemed dumb, and impossible, to make regional claims about one’s current moment, especially when all I could see were my blind spots, the gaps, writers who weren’t included.

This was perhaps one way to avoid thinking about whatever it was I had made; how my editorial practice in Bay Poetics at moments inherited, and at other moments resisted, the logic of earlier maps and anthologies, exclusionary frameworks, contested histories, community institutions, MFA programs. It’s definitely a big book, with writing from 112 people. With this bigness I wanted to something about the way maps don’t hold, or are always drawn in the service of power, the way they gloss things, and must be re-thought at every turn. But in retrospect, Bay Poetics was too big to make a claim about anything other than the uselessness of map making (along with a comment on the proliferation of people writing and publishing poetry, and maybe also a comment on the proliferation of MFA programs.) Its size made certain things, like specificity, impossible. But neither was it comprehensive. It wasn’t nearly as large as it might have been. It didn’t venture beyond one or two rooms.

Lately I wonder how Bay Poetics might have been both more specific than it was, and larger than it was. Is there a way to do both. Is there a way to do that here.

Often I dodged the questions about regional specificity by talking about my obsession with social relations as embedded in the anthology, embodied in the book’s ordering. How sex might have as significant an impact on the formation and reformation of poetry communities as educational and community institutions. I want to say that this obsession with social relations might in fact be one shared concern in the local experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry community I mostly hang out in. Maybe I will start calling this local scene “my neck of the woods.” Where there’s a keen interest in sociality, exchange, power relations, group formations, the local’s interest in the local as such, the local talking to itself, basically, although a local that can include, at moments, individuals in Cincinnati and Brooklyn, Buffalo or Detroit. Perhaps that’s overstated. But experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry communities in the Bay Area are, after all, deeply informed by Jack Spicer, whose relationship to locality verged on the religious, by the primacy of gossip and liberatory sexual politics in New Narrative writing, by the project of the Grand Piano and the histories of collaboration it writes through, by the fallout of the poetry wars, the tensions and turf skirmishes from the last moment in which Bay Area poetry communities might have understood themselves to even be occupying a common building. (Shampoo Poetry’s calendar of Bay Area Poetry Events might come closest to suggesting this might still be the case in some way.)

Kaplan Harris keeps usefully complicating my sense of these overlapping influences in his recent papers “Causes, Movements, Poets” and “The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation,” both of which re-think maps and movements, received notions of conflict and division, often highlighting instead the uneasy and unexpected alliances within the experimental/postermodern/avant-garde/innovative tradition, including shared moments of activism and resistance, moments of “terrific argument” around aesthetics and political life. I’m interested in those moments, moments that weren’t a part of the maps I inherited. I’m not sure if that’s about the maps, or the way I read them, what I did and didn’t look at when I was looking my way in. I think and talk a lot about what’s changed since then. What might keep such moments from happening now. How perhaps more communication and alliance between parts of the building might be necessary if such moments are ever going to emerge again, however differently they might appear, in Bay Area poetry communities. What would that even look like. What terrific argument.

So while I’ll be reporting on my neck of the woods while I’m here, I’m also giving myself the assignment to check out other parts of the Bay Area, other scenes. There are many individuals who do this, show up in more than one place, and their movement helps trace the persistent bridges and tunnels between rooms. I’d like to understand more about those connections. Because if Bay Area poetry communities were the downtown Oakland YMCA, I’ve been doing pretty much exactly what I do at the downtown Oakland YMCA, 30 minutes on the elliptical machine by the window a few times a week, followed by some stretching and 10 minutes in the sauna. Sometimes a yoga class, but mostly that same deal on the elliptical machine. This is a great routine and helps with my generalized anxiety, but also it is never going to change my body in any radical way, it is pretty comfortable.

I almost just launched another metaphor here, about cross-training, but stopped myself.

Maybe it is simpler than I think, or, this sentence from the The Coming Insurrection: “The rule is simple: the more territories there are superimposed on a given zone, the more circulation there is between them, the harder it will be for power to get a handle on them.” Like Love & Rockets, No New Tale to Tell.  So I will look at very small things with my eyes. I will go to some events and listen. There will be some blurry photographs. I will say some things. In the internet of the Bay Area of one person’s reporting I will probably get some things wrong. Whenever I can, I’ll veer into the (my) blind spots. “We’ll see."