One of the things that marked my generation (always a questionable notion, but let’s say people who published first books between about 1985 and the later 90s) of North American writers interested in poetic innovation was that we were more diffuse geographically than earlier generations of such poets had been. Not that many years earlier, there had been sizable communities of such writers mainly just in NYC and the Bay Area, although there were smaller but still significant groups in a couple other places. But by the later 80s and early 90s, and certainly far more so by now, there were significant communities centered around alternative poetries in many other places too. I’m going to list them, mainly because I’m pretty sure at least some reader of this blog is going to point out that I’ve missed a place somewhere: Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Tucson, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans (maybe something in Kansas?), Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Durham, even to a smaller extent Richmond and Atlanta. Where else? I don’t claim to know the histories of all these communities, so if you have pertinent additions or corrections, please chime in. (And let me footnote here that the relatively separate histories of Mexican, Caribbean, and South American poets are very important but I just know too little about them).
I’ve been in Tucson only once before, on a driving trip across the country while I was a teenager that I took with my father and my brother (one of about ten such trips I took between 1969 and 1980, when I went to college). I don’t remember Tucson at all and am looking forward to seeing it and to being in the actual desert, something I haven’t done much of since moving to San Diego. I’m also looking forward to seeing people that I know (Barbara Henning and Renee Angle) or have met (Charles Alexander) or have heard about (Tenney Nathanson), as well as some I know nothing about yet. But this trip to Tucson and a recent blog post by Rodney Koenoke about the thriving, if hardly huge, poetry community in Portland reminded me again about some of the things in the world of alternative poetries (or whatever you want to call it, okay?) that has changed in my years as a writer and is continuing to change.
To me that’s rather a remarkable change. Not that many years ago, the idea of a Surrealist in Minneapolis could be the subject of much wit (“Why did the Surrealist go to Minneapolis? To get to the other side.”). Now, many places you can go, there are some poets there to greet you and talk at least a little bit of your talk, even as, from their individual and regional perspective, what constitutes the environment of alternative poetries always varies to some degree, while at the same time there’s usually significant overlap.
Of course, maintaining life as a practicing poet interested in taking risks with literary norms ( not to mention maintaining life period) is often difficult and at the present capitalist economic moment likely getting more so. The relation between a growing number of poets and changing economic, educational, and social conditions hasn’t been sufficiently accounted for in any piece of writing that I’m aware of. And as might be expected, in all of these places there are poets whose work one likes better than others, or whose personalities are more or less appealing. I can imagine someone saying that this growth in geographical diversity has no automatic connection to the creation of worthwhile literature, or even perhaps that this greater diffusion is a problem because of all these people in all these places taking up, abandoning, or changing literary traditions in just whatever haphazard way they feel like. But for myself, I think this regional expansion might be considered, both sociologically and aesthetically, as a crucial issue regarding what poetry and poets are at this moment in history, one that needs further exploration. With some many poets in so many places, the singularity and cohesion of literary traditions gets challenged. The idea that poetry is only written by a great few and published by one or two presses in one or two places gets replaced by an idea of poetry as part of the daily lives of often relatively ordinary people who nonetheless are writing fascinatingly (sometimes) about their lives and times.
The price, I guess, is obscurity for almost everyone, although most of us were always going to be obscure anyway. And how these circumstances will change in a world of diminished resources is uncertain, at best. But the potential gain—that more people have at least some occasional access to the genuinely exploratory elements of a life devoted to literature, and that possibly that access may expand—seems to me very worthwhile.