Mark Wallace, K. Lorraine Graham, Lisa Cooper
January 31, 2009. 7:00 P.M., The Drawing Studio
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.
Great post, Mark. Your point about the expanded geographical diversity of poets in smaller cities/scenes had me thinking not so much about the Internet--the cause often cited for enabling, if not actually sparking, the sprawl--but academia.
When I consider my own experience in the Bay Area, a sort of insanely expensive place now for younger writers to move to, a quick total comes to mind of the number of "under 30s" drawn there by either an MFA or Ph.D. program, and the percentage is pretty high.
Here on the smaller side of of the spectrum, in Portland, the biggest factor drawing younger poets away from the city in my two years here is grad school.
So on top of the scatter, there's also the churn. And one of its engines is the pressures many poets feel to get degrees. That's something almost totally absent from, say, the Grand Piano reminiscences, which cover a time not really so far away.
Sociologically speaking, I guess we're most of us "churners" now, academia or no, and the contours of the poetry scenes, like you point out here, reflect that larger change.
Anyway, as always, appreciate your thoughts. Knock 'em dead in Tucson.
Certainly the out of control cost of living in the major poetry centers and the need to find a way to support oneself that often drives people into academia are crucial factors in the shift, Rodney. I think another major factor is also the broader spread of information that seemed somehow to begin in the late 80s, as if people all over the country were beginning to find out more about things that, before, you'd have to have lived (for the most part; I'm talking demographics here, not absolutes) in either The Bay Area or NYC or the several other smaller contexts that then existed. The internet sped up that spread of information but I think it was already in process before that.
I find a lot of poetry confusing to read. I have to really sit with what i read to understand what the poet is saying and even then i feel i have not understood it all.
I am also highly jealous that you relocated to southern Cali before me. I am movign to the Long Beach area but still not for a couple years.
Some of these places have literary histories that pre-date the period of "sprawl" you refer to. Lawrence (that somewhere in Kansas) was a 'beat" literary center once Burroughs settled there, and then of course all the new american sort of connections (Ken Irby, Ed Dorn). There are other energies circulating through it, but the structure (and norms) have existed there for a while.
Absolutely, Anne. The beginnings of a Washington, DC community of non-mainstream writers, for instance, goes back to the late 40s. It was a large scene from the late 60s into the mid-70s or so. The later 70s and 80s kinda wiped it out (other people know more about that than I do) and the crowd that later redeveloped was a leaner, somewhat more consciously poetics and theory-related group. I wonder if a similar late 70s/80s style "disappearance" happened in other places.
there's also just a shitload of poets out there -- gotta put 'em somewhere!
You bet there are, Tom. But, quite seriously, why are there so many poets? I mean, one could ask why anybody is writing poetry at all. But less rhetorically, why does the activity seem so attractive to this rather large number of people, small though that number is in relation to the total number of people in the world?
The answer to that, Mark, might lie in the persistent attraction of Romanticism for male and female coeds. Our mutual friend Jerry Rothenberg has recently published one of his more handsome anthologies, Poems for the Millennium, v. 3, The UC Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry, and while I wish it well, I think the entire temperament is problematic. Here are some terms lifted from a recent, entirely representative and fairly accomplished essay: "genius . . . nature . . . childhood . . . imagination . . . self-conscious . . . terminal melancholia . . . isolation . . . anxious self-inspection . . ."
(sigh) I have to say that, in my 50s, such concerns are almost completely repellent. And by the way, Bolinas was still an area of innovative poetic activity at least until 1991, when I left, and San Diego might still become one . . . don't you think? Hope you two had a great reading . . .
Thanks for your comments, Joe.
While it's certainly worthwhile to be cynical?/questioning? about the reasons that young people become poets, it's interesting to notice how many of them stay poets long after some of their initial impetus to become poets has been proved naive. Perhaps some of the most self-serving ones do drop out (though not all) when they realize that there's not all that much room for self-introspective geniuses. But many of them do go on, which suggests that the sources of sustenance for their creative lives often come from more than self-regard, whether those sources started there or not (which they might have, but not definitively).
Besides, I don't suppose there's any way really to avoid the naivete of youth, since youth and lack of experience are often closely (though not always) correlated. Writers have to start somewhere. I think that in our "wised-up" later ages (which can also be a source of naivete, yes?), it perhaps doesn't serve us too well to find repellent the often confused enthusiasms of youth. I find myself still often confused in my enthusiasms.
You have the drop on me on the new Rothenberg anthology, which I haven't read or even seen. Those terms do sound like fairly standard terms for how the Romantics often accounted for themselves. And of course the best criticism of the Romantic era probably calls those terminologies into question. But I can't tell from your comments whether you're suggesting that the essay was valorizing those comments or just talking about them in the context of what the Romantics often said about themselves.
The genius/isolation/anxious self-inspection concepts can certainly be problems, as the terminal melancholia bit can be too (especially the terminal part), although I like quite a bit of melancholy poetry. I'm less sure about objections to childhood, nature, self-consciousness, and imagination. Certainly I'm unlikely to find them useful now in the ways that the Romantics sometimes understood them. But as (revised) subject matter or processes that lead to writing, I myself wouldn't entirely throw them out.
Thanks for the point about Bolinas. Did that community see itself as very separate from other Bay Area communities? I'm too far outside the geography and the poetic geography but I always tend to lump it in with the Bay Area.
As to their being a local scene, as such, in San Diego, I have to admit I have my doubts. I think we're all trying. There's a reading happening this Saturday night in North Park at the Agitprop Gallery, featuring Vanessa Place and Teresa Carmody. You should come on out, and write Lorraine about getting on the mailing list if you're not already on it.
Thanks, Mark -- there's something I've never liked about the word "naive" -- confused, muddled, fucked-up, often completely and utterly wrong, yes (even about naivete!) -- but for me, it's certainly a state from which to emerge. And yes . . . anyone who persists with poetry in their later years is probably a keeper, in the sense (hopefully) of Blake: "If a fool would persist in her folly, she would become wise." Finally, Bolinas always saw itself as "other" -- not just from the Bay Area, but from everywhere else! Pretty naive, no doubt.
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