TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
Sign up for our newsletter!
TMR on Twitter
Author Archives: Austin Segrest
In the feather and rouge of 1982 pop-country, Sylvia’s man tried to pull an Odysseus on her. But she was no one-eyed, blinded dupe screaming to her cohorts to get Nobody. Oh no.
“Your Nobody called today, / She hung up when I asked her name, / Well I wonder if she thinks she’s being clever.”
Sylvia’s hip to the Homeric joke—“Well you say Nobody’s after you, / the fact is what you say is true”—and brings it round with her own Nobody pun—“but I can love you like Nobody can, / even better.”
Like Polyphemus’s boulder launched into the sea, the Nobody bomb heaves a groundswell, as Derek Walcott writes, displacing personhood, identity, significance. There’s mischief in such name games, in such assertion of negation, such presence of absence.
Hurled at another—“you’re nobody”—it’s verbal manslaughter, gouging the eye/I.
Dropped on oneself—“I’m nobody”—a kind of suicide, or abject and potentially shifty diffidence, or as a name—Nobody—the oldest trick in the book. As Dickinson understood, anonymity can be empowering; identity, a sham and a bore (“How public – like a frog – ”).
Dismissively shrouding a third party—“oh, she’s nobody”—it’s a cover, like Odysseus’s men clinging to the undersides of sheep.
But at its most poetic, the power lies in a pun like Odysseus’s or Sylvia’s, in duplicity. For having been themselves duped and treated like Nobodies, to be disposed of and walked over, they use Nobody’s powerful gradient of displacement to their advantage, countervailing with duplicitous double-duty irony, bettering, one-upping.
Nobody is always ironic.
Did you hear about this woman who just can’t brook the look of First Lady Michelle Obama?
Lussier’s circling around the issue of, not only the objectification of women, but also otherness and blackness—it’s something else, she claims, manners, a sense of cultural change or a decay of values—reminds me of Tony Hoagland’s controversial poem “The Change,” from his 2003 collection What Narcissism Means to Me.
In Hoagland’s poem, the physicality of a black tennis star (clearly one of the Williams sisters) playing against a smaller white opponent on a t.v. arrests the speaker. Unlike Bobby Lussier, Hoagland’s speaker—fixating on African/tribalness, size, and, in particular, cornrows—does not deny that it’s a black vs. white thing.
Still, I think there’s a similar sleight-of-hand shift in logic, away from a focus on the black woman’s body (in Lussier’s case, the First Lady’s push-up toned arms), to some kind of foreboding cultural change that seems suddenly manifest. In “The Change,” this “change” seems to be something like, “farewell to the white-washed 20th century (America?), a new dawn (of blackness? threatening physical prowess?) is upon us.” The obvious disingenuousness of the poem’s Frost-like, “and that has made all the difference” ending yet fails to defang the poem’s mentality (the poem follows at the end of the post).
Last year, with the ten-year anniversary of “The Change” rolling around, Daisy Fried defended the poem on grounds of its artistic integrity. Her close-reading toys with narrator untrustworthiness but ends up admiring Hoagland’s bold honesty. I think the subtext here is something like, we’re all racists, he’s just not afraid to admit it.
How honest do we want our poems? How progressive our poets? Should poems figure our worst tendencies? Or only our best? Throwing out, for the sake of argument, narrator trustworthiness, assuming it’s the Hoag himself, what do we make of such overt, self-conscious racism? Is it more or less palatable than the oblique racism in so many canonical western writers, like Joseph Conrad or the recently-censored Mark Twain? Chinua Achebe would probably call Conrad’s racism, on the contrary, quite explicit. But you can’t exactly say Conrad knew better—not the way you must say so for Hoagland. So does that knowledge make “The Change”’s admissions more or less daring?—more daring, because of their nonconformity, or less, because of their assured polarizing sensationalism?
Hoagland aims to distinguish himself with edge. Yes, he’s accessible, loose, funny, colloquial. But meaner than your average Billy Collins. Meanness is a quality he values in other poets, and I see why, given the whimpering and truckling, the puling and whining that’s too often published and praised. As Emerson said, “Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none.”
But I’m just not sure all truths are equal here. Some things can be true, as in, people really think them, and in some ways, such thinking is ineradicable. Nevertheless, they are regrettable truths, with no value in poetry, which, yes, come to think of it, I suppose I’m arguing should better us. People can be selfish and petty; I don’t need poetry to act that way.
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.
But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,
and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes
as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure
and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.
And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.
There’s an old joke in the world of poetry workshops where a typical workshop takes an Emily Dickinson poem to task: clarify this, make this more consistent, cut this stanza (seems repetitive?). It’s funny because it’s ultimately so unthinkable. Not Dickinson. Not “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.”
It’s surely rare that a critic takes a Dickinson or a Shakespeare to task. You might be an outlier and prefer other poets. Or “My Life Had Stood” might not be your favorite Dickinson jam. But the thought of a critic actually getting in there and saying this poem does not succeed, this word or move is wrong—if we’re talking about the untouchables of the canon, the Shakespeares and Dickinsons and Blakes (“dark” and “secret”?—redundant?)—is preposterous, or seems so to most of us.
Why? Because it’s patently obvious that Shakespeare and Dickinson are great poets, geniuses; furthermore, that they’re geniuses who know their own minds and intentions better than we do. Anytime we take issue with an author’s work, we’re claiming, at least in a limited instance, that we know better. And heaven forbid we then suggest a revision!
And yet, I know: nobody’s perfect. Shakespeare and Dickinson—never mind the mystery of who they were and what they thought—surely made mistakes. And maybe it’s a critic’s job (a critic with incredible confidence) to point up those mistakes, those failures, to even offer (oh, but it’s too insane to say!) corrections. Because there must be a limit to our worshipful regard. These writers aren’t really gods. Right?
Plus, here’s the thing about knowing better: our various schools of criticism are empowered by, operate by, knowing better: better than popular thought, better than past thinking, better than our poisonous western culture.
One of my holy texts is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.” A great poem, right? Undeniable, right? And yet we can’t really say that. Challenging these monoliths makes the critical world go round. And though Bishop might be the best-regarded American poet of the 20th century, she isn’t as safe as a Shakespeare or a Dickinson. The window of time is smaller; we think we can know better what she meant and thought (or should have)—there’s ample evidence. And with evidence comes scruples.
Take Canadian critic Robert Boschman, who, in his recent eco-critical study of Bishop, takes issue with the end of “The Moose.” Now, anyone familiar with eco-criticism and “The Moose” might have seen this criticism coming: the moose is too nice, too consoling, too Romantically what western culture wants to make out of the natural world at the expense of the natural world: in a phrase (Boschman’s), too “like a park.”Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man’s voice assures us “Perfectly harmless…” Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, “Sure are big creatures.” “It’s awful plain.” “Look! It’s a she!” Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?
Eco-criticism, it would seem, can’t abide the moose that comes out of the woods and halts the bus in its dreamy divagation through the night forest of New Brunswick evoking an uplifting note of “joy” from us “all.” No, says Boschman, with that, Bishop fails us and herself (compared to other, more successful poems, like “At the Fishhouses,” which, with the untamable power of what he calls her “primordial sea,” advances the anti-human/western eco-critical agenda).
Perhaps what irks the eco-critic worst of all is that word “harmless.” Boschman seems eager to find in Bishop’s poems allegories for “nature” (in this case, the moose herself), a nature that should be full of indifferent—if not retributive—harm.
But Boschman does more than claim that the moose is too sweet. He also knows how the poem should have gone instead. Yes, the moose should have been a he-moose and not a she, and he should have caused the passengers to feel threatened and not joyful.
Where would he get such a notion? Does he dare so brazenly revise Bishop? He does. But he makes it like it comes out of her mouth—what she almost, could have, should have written. Because, you see, critics have a dug up a letter in which Bishop describes experiencing the confrontation between such a moose and such a bus. What happened, apparently, is that a she-moose was wondering down the road, the bus stopped, the moose walked off into the woods. While this went on, the driver related how one time a he-moose had approached his bus and, like in the poem, sniffed the hood.
Aha! Bishop’s poem, we see, is a mix of fact (she-moose) and fiction (hood sniff).
Boschman asks chidingly: “If it was the more aggressive male of the species that, in point of fact, sniffed at the engine, why change it?” According to Boschman, she “changed it” to “have it both ways”—that is to say, beautiful and terrible, “sweet” and scary. This, claims Boschman, amounts to “facile consolation.”
“The Moose” needs no defending here: it defends herself. But I’ll say this: there’s plenty of threatening, anti-social nature poems out there. Plenty of apocalypse. But earned, authentic hope and joy–dare I say, awe?–a poem both social and sublime: it’s the rarest thing and endures for a reason.
Eco-criticism opens up Bishop’s poem in several ways. For example, the “wending” tidal flow of the poem’s first sentence, and the interplay of natural descriptions with place names, are brilliant observations that help us better understand the culture of the poem. Indeed, I think it’s very important to watch a poem’s treatment of, and underlying assumptions about, the natural world. But it gets sticky when eco-critics judge the success of a poem, absolutely, on whether it advances the eco-critical agenda (even as they try to convince you that the poet is really, at her best, an eco-poet at heart). Especially “given the ecological crisis at hand in the form of a rapidly overheating planet,” I worry that critics get away with these kinds of readings all too easily.
We at TMR are thrilled that Natasha Trethewey has been appointed the new Poet Laureate of the United States. In three innovative books of poems, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard, Trethewey has been a forerunner in what we might call the new-historicist formalism of the 2000s. Grounded in archival research, her poems exhibit a historian’s care for fact, balanced by a personal, living warmth. And in some of her most exciting poems, like Robert Lowell forty years before her (only this go-round inverting the hierarchy), she renders the life study out of and through her own life and family. Her work, like that of a good historian, is recovery, restoration. Lost or “erased” lives and voices are given lasting form by her manipulation of traditional form: a conventionalism that feels effortless and adept, but also edifying, and troubling.
A few years back, in our Summer 2010 issue, poetry editor Marc McKee interviewed Trethewey. In the selection below, they discuss Trethewey’s evolving treatment of history, voice, linearity, and the construction of books of poems.
…All my poems tend to begin in inquiry. There’s always some question I’m asking myself. I want to know why this is a thing in history or what this has meant across time and space.
Is that something that’s remained constant over the arc of the three books that you’ve written–or has it undergone slight change from book to book?
It must change. When I think about a lot of the poems I was writing in Domestic Work, mainly the sequence of poems in the “Domestic Work” section, those poems seemed to arise out of a memory of a particular instance, an image of something that was just stuck in my head-seeing a room a certain way and the people in it, and all of the other images of smell or touch that go along with it. And I wanted to describe that moment and expand it, go out from there to figure out what it means or why it has remained so long in my memory. I don’t think I have proceeded exactly the same way throughout my other two collections, though that does continue to happen. The more I’ve gotten interested in writing about history and making sense of myself within the continuum of history, the more I’ve turned to paintings, to art. I look to the imagery of art to help me understand something about my own place in the world. By just beginning to contemplate a work of art, I find myself led toward some other understanding.
All your books share a very scrupulous, fastidious attention to the way they’re made. I’m thinking about what can sometimes be the chaos of the process of making the poem: How do you feel about going from a draft? What is a draft for you, and what does it take for you to get from a draft to a poem? What to go from a poem or a sequence of poems to a book?
Now, that certainly feels different every time. Writing Native Guard, I didn’t know I was working on a single book. I began writing that book because I was interested in the lesser-known history of these black soldiers stationed off the coast of my hometown. It was stunning to me that I hadn’t known about this growing up, so I started doing research about black soldiers in the Civil War, trying to imagine the voice of this one soldier who might have things to say about then as well as now. But at the same time, I had begun writing elegies for my mother, and I was approaching the twentieth anniversary of her death. Those poems didn’t seem to have anything to do with my interest in the buried history of these Civil War soldiers to whom no monuments had been erected. It was later on that I wrote a poem which hit me and made me realize these things belonged together. Once I knew they belonged together, I could begin fashioning an entire book from these sets of poems.
With Bellocq’s Ophelia it was different because it was even more of a project than Native Guard. Native Guard-part of it-was a project. That was the Civil War part, but the rest of it wasn’t. The entirety of Bellocq’s Ophelia was a project, and I was interested in doing research and looking at photographs and writing about them, imagining this woman Ophelia and what her life was like and the kinds of things she thought about. I began just by writing about the individual photographs to see how they gave way to a story of her life or emotional geography. There was a point where I could look at what I had and decide where there were gaps. And so I would begin to try to think of how I might write a poem that helped fill in some gap in her experience or her evolution as a self. At first, because I was at once writing the letters and writing her diary, I didn’t know that they were going to be separate. I thought they were going to be interspersed because I was very interested in the difference between the public self we present to an audience, like the person to whom you’re writing letters, and the private self who exists in a diary and the way the same information can be skewed so differently. I thought going back and forth would be an interesting way to see that. Then I realized that in terms of the shape the book would take, it might be interesting to show-to tell-the same story or at least the same time period for her year and a half in the brothel, side by side: the diary intact and the letters intact, so you could see the contradictions between the two stories.
I know that my tendency is to be linear, and I’m trying to find ways to subvert that. And so in Bellocq’s Ophelia my device for subverting it was to tell the story and then to tell it again; it always circles back to this one moment, and it’s not linear, but it’s round in that way, and much of Native Guard is like that. So many of the formal decisions I made are about circling back, so the narrative circles back in on itself and can’t simply proceed in a linear fashion.
Since you do so often play with the voices, with inhabiting the voices of the other speakers, how do you feel about a reader’s tendency to either see you in those other voices or to not see, perhaps to miss you in those other voices?
You know, I think I would be completely happy if readers did not find me in those voices, if they found instead this probable or possible character, this human being who might have existed in a certain time and place, who might have thought and felt the things the poems reveal. At the same time, I’m not annoyed if a reader or someone in an audience I’ve just read to asks me questions about the links between the persona in my poems and my own experience. I’ve learned that my poems give way to those kinds of questions, so if it’s a burden, I’ll take it on. But I also think it’s important to talk about how we make poems, how we create a persona from tidbits of our own experience, our own interior life. I don’t think I could create them if I did not give to them aspects of my own interior life. I remember reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There’s a part where I think he talks about how all his characters are sort of unrealized parts of himself-they get to be acted out in the language of his fiction. And so I give to my characters-I gave to Ophelia parts of my own interior life, the feelings I had about certain things-things I thought about-but I also gave her certain physical details of my life…
Spring is in the house! It’s seed-plantin’ time, y’all. Fund-raisin’ time. Bird-watchin’ time. Grass-cuttin’ time. Man, I love cutting the grass…
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
My new yard tool is called a grass-whip. It seems to be designed off a golf-club, a driver, and you swing it like one – swift and weighted at the leveled blade. For years I used a heavier, clunkier Ace Hardware brand device you could only call a sling-blade—the kind of tool an old maintenance man used to arm us with in the dead hour of an Alabama afternoon to hack at kudzu he could just as well have mown with a tractor.
I have a small yard, so the grass-whip suffices for my mowing needs. And it is difficult. And satisfying. But I’m one of those types who likes hard work. Workhorses, they call us. I like the mindlessness, the ecstasy of complete exhaustion. Part Zen, part glutton, I’m sure.
Yesterday evening, having just “laid the swale” as Frost writes so beautifully, the blade raised over my head with grass raining down, the hippie neighbor repair-man, Jason, says from the fence: “cutting your grass with sickles? Props.” Props because it’s hardcore, man. Props because it’s “environmental” (he lives in a commune). While I am terrified of global warming, and hate few sounds like I hate spring’s mobile army of lawn-mowers, mostly I like to see the result of hard work. I like the shaping.
As a boy, hanging my head out the side of my mother’s station wagon, I would imagine a long blade extending from the window leveling everything we passed: trees, powerline poles, houses. Of course, there’s an violence in it, a domineering force, not unlike Tarquinus Superbus, King of Rome in 600 B.C., who led his son’s untrustworthy messenger to the garden where he beheaded the flowers of the greatest poppies with his cane, a message not lost on the King’s son, who summarily beheaded the greatest and most influential people in Gabii. There’s a phallic (perhaps compensatory) power inherent in Frost’s “long scythe” in “Mowing” (which can’t abide weakness), and in his “long, two-pointed ladder” in “Apple-Picking.”
But the mesmerizing repetition, the rhythm, the appeal of physical work—it has remarkable precedence in literature, especially as a figure for composing. Think of all the writers who composed while walking (Wallace Stevens), or swimming (Robert Penn Warren). Think of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” Or all the stitching, weaving, swimming, fighting, dancing, and singing (the chorus’ alternating strophe and antistophe) in Yeats’ poetry, all that “stitching and unstitching.” In “Cuchulain Comforted” the shades sing: “We thread the needles’ eyes, and all we do / All must together do.”
Ivory-tower glorifying in manual labor smacks of colonial-imperialism, it’s true. And we’re most of us like Wordsworth, mesmerized by his idealized “Solitary Reaper,” calling into the literate void:
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Still, I defer to Barthes’ (nevertheless romanticized) treatment of the feel of wood in the hand in his essay “Plastic.” Or Hegel, simplified: “…in fashioning the thing, he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him…The shape does not become something other than himself through being made external to him; for it is precisely this shape that is his pure being-for-self, which in this externality is seen by him to be the truth.”
What’s in the poet’s tool—Frost’s scythe, Heaney’s spade, Yeats’ needle? Symbols of the pen, it seems, like the pastoral reed one shepherd breaks in mourning for another. Instruments—but utilitarian or musical? Either way, it’s a kind of power. Is it so bad for a poet to want power? Tony Hoagland’s recent Writer’s Chronicle article “Blame it on Rio,” advocates for more powerful statement in today’s poetry, which he complains tends to be “soft,” “neutered” and “hapless”—poetry Frost might agree “seems too weak.” Yet, do we want to go back to the days of (to misquote Mark Halliday from some poem) the big-hearted, masculine poem of the 80s and 90s? No thanks.
When Auden writes in Yeats’ elegy, “What instruments we have agree / The day of your death was a cold dark day,” what kind of instrument does he mean?—especially when he assures us that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet Heaney seems to think he can make a difference with his “pen.” And Auden urges us, nevertheless, to undertake “the farming of a verse.”
Seed-plantin’ time, y’all. And I am full of the season’s “earnest love” for a truth I can hold, and swing. Too earnest, no doubt.
My girlfriend likes to joke about poets—Dickinson vs. Whitman, say—battling it out in a Celebrity Deathmatch. This is funny not the least because it implies poets are celebrities. Yet I think it rings true, in that sometimes we pit those writers we look up to against each other. In our minds, that is. And so it happens that in my head just now Elizabeth Bishop is matched up against Dean Young. And what they’re battling over—and I suspect this battle will rage on maybe forever—is the phenomenon of Creative Writing.
Young opens his provocative Art of Recklessness with the assertion that all the many thousands of people writing poems in Creative Writing programs right now are “a sign of great health.”
POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!
He calls poets a tribe and their communal activity a sort of drum circle and dance around the primal fire of the Imagination. This makes me think of Wallace Stevens:
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun
Only, Young would include women I’m sure.
I’m trying to square all that with Bishop’s delightful, late interview with Elizabeth Spires for the Paris Review. “I don’t think I believe in writing courses at all,” she admits. Yet it’s “what they want one to do.” “You see so many poems every week, you just lose all sense of judgment,” she says. A skeptic to Young’s optimist, she relates, “some classes were so prolific I had to declare a moratorium. I’d say, ‘please, nobody write a poem for two weeks!’”
Of course these things were said, and in Young’s case written, under vastly different circumstances, in vastly different worlds—not to mention worlds of Creative Writing. To some degree, too, Bishop is demurring. She’s having fun with us, because that’s what she does (especially when we’re guests in her house): she entertains. She’s also being humble, characteristically downplaying everything. When word of her Pulitzer Prize finally reaches her on her mountain in Brazil, she tells us, after finally being convinced it’s true, she feels (at a loss) the thing to do is to celebrate with someone. Only no one’s around. She goes in her neighbor’s house looking for someone and, coming up short, settles for Oreos she finds in the kitchen. Which of course she describes as ghastly. And that’s how she celebrated her prize!
But there’s a troubling truth to her disavowals. A kind of undeniable unspokenness that puts me in mind of Marianne Moore’s “I too dislike it.” Or of Berryman, in a slightly altered context: “we must not say so.” Certainly Dean Young must not say so! It’s his field. Why bother to write a book about how it’s no use?
The kids wanna write, sure. That you can count on.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts.
Other pedagogical questions aside, one of Bishop’s concerns would seem to be the drop in reading literature that coincides with the rise in Creative Writing. You know the truism: everyone writes but no one reads. Anything other than their own poetry. But surely Bishop goes too far, and must be taken with a grain of salt, when she quips that young artists should be “discouraged.”
Or is some discouragement a necessary part of progress? Is that kind of tough-em-up, weed-em-out, coach-mentality a thing of the past? Like disciplining by punishment instead of reward. Interestingly, “discipline” is a poetry word Young reviles.
Young, in his democracy tights, clotheslines Bishop the Gatekeeper. Sweat pops off her laureled brow like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
Young’s tribal metaphor reminds me of my first AWP conference (which is itself a kind Battle Royale or orgy). Second year of my MFA, I had driven fifteen hours to Austin from Atlanta. I made it to the Hilton the first morning just after the first panels started. The hallways emptied. Microphones mumbled. I ducked into the first door I saw.
It was a panel on small presses. Check the Chicago schedule. Thursday, 9 am. I bet there’s an Indie Press panel. The little curtained room felt fittingly underground. Night Boat, Action Books, Ugly Duckling Press. A small but involved crowd. It was early. The marginalized first slot of the weekend.
I’ll never forget this guy from Night Boat standing up to testify. He said complaining that too much poetry is being written and published is like complaining that too many people are dancing. What’s poetry but expression? Who would fault expression? Maybe you think all the dancing isn’t great, but it’s still dancing. Just dancing.
We live in an old chaos of the sun…
O happy accident! To this day it remains my most interesting AWP experience. There was something at stake in that room. The real power of a real cause. The ethos that art is for the making. The memory of that magnanimous conviction keeps my heart’s door open—at least a crack.
Indulging in a Stevenian orgy of the Imagination, Young sticks to his tribal metaphor in part, I think, to emphasize community over the individual. To counter-act our canonized, commodified notions of big-nameness, of greatness and majorness of authors and presses. Even Young’s good buddy Tony Hoagland banks on such notions in a recent Writer’s Chronicle article. In questioning poetry he characterizes as the contemporary New York School—poetry which he associates with certain small presses, some of whom, perhaps, were attending that panel—Hoagland asks, by way of dismissal, what “major” poets have emerged from this “school” in recent memory. Fed up with the monotonous, underwhelming chanting of the tribe, Hoagland calls for more stand-out voices, more assertion and proclamation.
I want greatness as much as the next elitist. But in a contemporary context, “majorness” is meaningless—Young’s dance party becoming a schmooze-fest of “networking” and glad-handing. But that’s how it’s always been. It’s also always been the case, as Pope’s couplet attests, that new writers leap in out of their depth. Great art DOES require hard work, I think. But it also can’t forget its roots in PLEASURE. Though asserting that doesn’t make one any more likely to actually have something to say! As Bishop mentions in her interview, it took her twenty years to get the middle of “The Moose” right. Twenty years! Of course, you don’t see Dean Young quibbling with “The Moose”—though he lambasts the painstaking labors of Flaubert’s le mot juste. Why should it be painful? Good writing, he says. That’s easy. It’s risking being bad that’s difficult…
I’m not sure Bishop would fully agree. She probably read all of Flaubert and his letters multiple times in her life. But then again, who knows. I’m sure a great many things I do (or don’t) and believe in (or don’t) would embarrass her to the point of tears. But I’ll say this: I think she was too sensitive to marginalized groups, and had too much of a social and political conscience—as evidenced in her writing, which in the interview she asserts is political—to condone Young’s intentionally reckless (ab)use of the tribal metaphor. Nor can I imagine her writing a book telling people how to write better poems. And never, ever by using her own poems as example.
The fighters fly off the ropes at each other, slam mid-air, and landing on their backs, writhe, like Flaubert on his couch, in pain.