Monday, January 28, 2013

10 (Better) Reasons Poetry's Not Dead

Here I responded to a list of ten substandard examples of great American poetry.

I was then called out by my friends at the Cambridge Writer's Workshop to produce my own list. I ought to be wholly arrogant and just say my book, With Rough Gods, but I assume you folks are getting tired of that. Besides, there's better work than mine that was published in 2012.

So let me give my own ten reasons poetry's not dead in America, with explanations.

#10: Poetry jams/slams/open mikes.

Yes, you're going to hear a pile of offal verse at one of these. But that "pile" is the very reason poetry isn't dead in America. It may be a bit soured by our off-base educational system and the industrialization/academicization of poetry but it's alive and kicking in the trenches which is where it counts most. In a similar vein:

#9: Poetry journal slush piles.

Lit magazines get somewhere between 10-1000 times more submissions than they can publish, let alone want to publish. If we assume (from my own experience as an editor and making up numbers anyway) that 75% is crap, 20% is okay, 3% is good but doesn't work and 2% fits the publication, we can again see that folks are writing and writing and writing. Now, are they reading? Well--let's look at the best of what they have to read and then ask some questions about why they're not reading it.

#8: Broetry by Brian McGackin.

No, it's not Tennyson. But who cares? Broetry is the most fun you'll have reading poetry as an adult. It's like Shel Silverstein's Uncle Shelby books but a bit less mature and secure. Whatevs bro. Read it and have a good time. Laugh out loud when you read a poem. When's the last time you did that?

#7: Sixty Sonnets by Ernest Hilbert.

Sixty Sonnets is to Broetry as The Story of O is to Fifty Shades of Grey. They're both about the same sort of characters but Hilbert is being literary whereas McGackin is simply enjoying himself. What does this mean, exactly? It means that Sixty Sonnets, while not having as broad an appeal--and perhaps getting a chortle and not a guffaw--is more rewarding for folks that stick with it and has more lines that stick in general.

#6: Annie Finch.

Instead of including one of Annie's books, I'm just including Annie. If I had to narrow things down to books, I'd go with her two latest: Among the Goddesses and A Poet's Craft. I haven't reviewed APC yet but if you want to learn about poetry and don't need an MFA (I would like to need my MFA: anyone got a spare low res job?) you'd do better with your money to buy A Poet's Craft and go to conferences. Anyway, Among the Goddesses is a book you can give to a wide swath of people who are interested in literature and get them to realize that narrative has a place in poetry. Wonderfully good stuff and we are indebted to the good Dr. Finch and her work in and with American poetry.

#5: Ludlow by David Mason.

Narrative poetry is the best selling poetry in America. That's because narrative poetry includes books like Ellen Hopkins' Crank. Now, Crank is not good poetry but Ludlow is. And, at least last I heard, Ludlow does very well for Red Hen Press (more on them later) and Mr. Mason (unless it's Dr.--let me know, y'all). But the book is good for poetry. It's a good story. It's good verse. It's a great read.

#4: Red Hen and Cooper Dillon Presses and CPRW and E-Verse Radio (and those like them).

Red Hen Press is undoubtedly the best small press for poetry in the US. Their books are of consistently high quality and, even better, books of poetry you want to read.

Cooper Dillon Press is my favorite micropress and one of the best. Each book they put out (3ish a year) is fantastic AND Adam Deutsch's outlook on editing and publishing is refreshing.

CPRW is "the best damn poetry review online." Excusing natural bias, I implore you to take a look at Garrick Davis's wonderful production of reviews, analysis, and excellent thinking on poetry in America--you'll see it's alive and well.

E-Verse Radio is an eclectic collection of music, poetry, stories, and lists. One gets the idea that it's what a modern literary magazine ought to be. I hope that more journals like it take root.

There are literally hundreds of small and micropresses and wonderfully quirky literary American journals out there. The problem is not one of existence but of distribution and advertising. I think this is in part because as intellectuals we overvalue our own knowledge and not the advice of ad/PR people who are, of course, inherently evil. But maybe that's just me projecting.

#3: Writer's Workshops, Conferences, and MFA programs.

Look, I know that these are just as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution. But you can't discount the power of the "po-biz." Do I think that these outlets and conduits could be better arranged to serve poetry and the people and not poets and pocketbooks? Absolutely. But there are programs out there that, at least as far as I can tell, do this. Even a corporo-advertising behemoth like AWP is full of greatness if you're willing to separate the wheat from the chaff.

#2: Harlot by Jill Alexander Essbaum.

I debated just saying "Jill Alexander Essbaum" but I really, really want you folks to read Harlot. Maybe with a huge phallus and naked lady on the cover it's not for everyone. But really it is. I don't think there's an adult who has breathed who can't identify with the words between its sheets.


#1: Olives by A.E. Stallings.

This book is so good it hurts. If I were Bill Gates rich, my foundation would buy copies of this for all of you. I would call Amazon and say "hey, tell me how much it would be to send a copy of Olives to everyone who has ever bought anything from you guys" and then gladly pay it. While Olives isn't perfect as a book of poetry--it requires the reader to have a familiarity with poetry and so, like Harlot, isn't perhaps the first book of poetry one should read--it is as close as a book has gotten in decades. When I read Olives, I felt precisely like Peter Buck as he wrote regarding song "Crazy" by Pylon:

"I remember hearing their version on the radio the day that Chronic Town came out and suddenly being depressed by how much better it was than our record."

Read Olives. Read everything on this list. Go to every event. Participate in poetry. You'll see it's alive and well--and by these very actions its readership and influence will grow and bloggers won't feel the need to declaim its death.


stu said...

I've previously purchased "Harlot" on your recommendation, and found it to be excellent. "Olives" is on the way...

G. M. Palmer said...