Behind the poetry curtain
A post on friend and fellow poet Christine Swint's blog Balanced on the Edge and a phone conversation with BFF&P (that's best friend forever and poet) Cherryl Floyd-Miller last week has me thinking about the state of my own work -- and poetics in general.
If you've followed the blog or my Facebook page, you'll know that I have not abandoned poetry. As a matter of fact, I've got two readings coming up in Atlanta in February (check the sidebar of the blog for all the upcoming readings) and I'll be attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in March and sitting on a panel with Jericho Brown, Dan Vera, Francisco Aragón, Samiya Bashir, Reginald Harris and Joseph Ross. I've also been writing new poetry and made my first submissions of 2010 last weekend.
I'm continually asked if I've given up poetry for fiction now that Conquering Venus has been published and I'm working on the other two books in the trilogy. The answer is no. I was writing poetry long before plays, fiction,and American Idol recaps, so I have no plans to ever abandon poetry.
I have a completed manuscript that's about 60-odd pages long and I plan to submit it this year. Not to any contests, because I refuse to play that lottery anymore, but to presses with open reading periods and micro-presses looking for new manuscripts by established poets. Self-publishing remains a viable and increasingly attractive option. Nearly every poem in this collection has been previously published in both print and online journals. It's been vetted by editors I trust and who liked the work enough to publish it and nominate it for Best of the Web and Pushcarts.
I am outside academia, outside the current "movements," outside whatever Mary Oliver is writing. My poetry remains personal, confessional, sexual, profane. I still enjamb with "the". Now, more than ever, I have nothing to lose when it comes to poetry, and that is a very liberating feeling. I have achieved more than I ever thought possible with poetry. I've published a collection and two chapbooks I'm still quite proud of, flaws and all. I've had the opportunity to travel and read all over the country and abroad. I've had the pleasure to meet and befriend many of my poetry role models.
So, where does a poet like me go from here? Since I have no desire to teach, obtain an MFA or compromise my work so that maybe a big or well-regarded indie press will publish me, the only goal I have is to continue writing poetry that resonates with me and putting it out through any means possible so that it might resonate with others. I have been writing prose poetry, experimenting with form and drawing more and more of my inspiration from music, film and literature other than poetry.
I read a good bit of poetry – much of it doesn't move me. If it does, you'll see a review or mention on Modern Confessional. I'm not wasting my time -- or yours -- on books that I don't like or would never recommend. I still firmly believe that the notion of "good" and "bad" poetry is impossible to quantify, that it comes down to gut emotion and personal aesthetic. Many get practically weepy over the light verse of a Hallmark card, while others rhapsodize over Jorie Graham's "difficult" poetry.
I'm sure some of you have already read Patrick Gillespie's hotly debated blog post called Let Poetry Die, where he makes this bold statement:
The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.
As to be expected, this has caused a howl among the academic set, but it's a spot-on summation of poetry today. Poetry is far from dead, nor is it on life-support. It's just been spirited away from public consciousness and into the halls of universities and MFA programs. It is, as I have stated on this blog more than once, become a big circle jerk.
There are dozens of comments on this essay -- many generated because Andrew Sullivan linked to the post -- and Patrick has done a grand job of responding to the often angry and indignant poets who hate when the curtain is pulled back on their Oz-like existence. In response to a comment about self-publishing and those who publish online, Patrick has this to say:
But there’s considerable contempt, if not hostility, directed at self-published poets and on-line poets. And my experience has been that most of this derision comes from poets and editors who are vested in the institutionalized venues I criticized. I can only speculate that their hostility is self-interested. Some of the better known poets have been quite successful in playing the game (and actually having to test their merit outside the system might not go too well). They’ve established themselves as tritons among minnows, so why spoil it?
I couldn't have said it better. My late new year's resolution is to continue running in the other direction from all of this. To embrace what the establishment pushes away, to appeal to readers outside the insular world of poetry, to help push the minnows upstream.