Saturday, April 04, 2009

D. A. Powell - The Avant Garde - Awards - Etc.

Micah Mattix writes:

Why are there, Bethell wonders, so many mediocre poets today? Following Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia, his answer is prizes, subsidies, grants, lectureships and professorships. There is too much money in poetry. It offers poor or mediocre poets too many opportunities to write and publish, and it encourages many otherwise good poets to pose as avant-garde artists–to write against their audience rather than for it–because it increases their chances of getting such fellowships and prizes.

Indeed, one of the ironies of art today is that there is little financial risk involved in being avant-garde. Unlike the first avant-garde artists who supposedly created works to challenge the commercialization of art, such a move today is very much the first step in making it commercially, in terms of fellowships and grants. Cut back on the cash, Bethell claims, and purge the country of a legion of Miles Coverdales.


Is that true to your experience? Does this idea of being “avant garde” lead to some sort of commercial success? Well, looking at what actually sells, the answer is a big whopping NO. But, that said, it is true that the idea of the avant garde is no longer one infused with being ostracized in physically threatening ways (unless you consider the air of the conservative right in this line of reasoning, always looking for a way to unfund artists threatening, which it is, of course, true, but not very worrisome, at least to me). But that’s not a very interesting point to me, as America is a country that mostly ignores rather than threatens language acts. Avant gardism is now a “way of writing,” one among many. I don’t think that it does much to help one “commercially.” All one has to do is look at the map of awards and fellowships (the sorts of things people like to use to gauge “success”), and one sees that, by and large, the awards are fairly predictable things, going to fairly mainstream writers that don’t move in very avant garde ways. When it comes to awards and things, Linda Gregerson and Linda Beirds do much better than Lyn Hejinian and Martha Ronk, so I do think these is some weight still to the idea that being avant garde (at least in the Hejinian or Ronk sense) is less financially rewarding than being mainstream (at least in the Gregerson or Beirds sense).

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. But cutting back on subsidies wouldn’t purge American poetry of the work of Ted Kooser or Dana Gioia or John Barr (if one would be so inclined). They came from the private sector. Does having a teaching job count as a subsidy? Well, if so, wouldn’t any job? One works and one gets paid. I’m finding it difficult to get my mind around the idea that there are subsidies out there that are these huge enticements into writing avant garde poetry. Either I’m way out of the loop, or the author of this piece isn’t doing very good math.

Anyway, back to the end of the piece:

* * *

. . . while I think that Bethell is right about the subsidies, there is also a larger problem at work here–one that is not easily solved by policy changes. Yet, I am also somewhat more optimistic than Bethell regarding the future of American poetry. In other countries where the reigning ideology and particular governmental policies have been much worse for real artists, those artists still continued to work and produce compelling art, even if those works were not fully recognized until later. After all, Stalinist Russia gave us Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and a fascist Italy gave us Eugenio Montale. To compare the situation of American artists to that of either Solzhenitsyn or Montale is ridiculous. However, it does serve as a reminder that valuable art is produced by artists everywhere and at every time. We can’t always see it, but it is there.

Parallel to pushing for policy changes, therefore, I think critics need to do more to discover those poets and artists who are, indeed, doing good work. While it is the job of the critic to tear down, it is also his job to build up–even if he has to search far and wide for a poet that is worthy of praise.

* * *

I like where he gets to in this part much more. There seem to be calls from all over these days to actually explore the poetry landscape. This fills me with hope that we might be at a moment where there is the beginning of real interest in poetry. Looking at mainstream poetry (if one gauges “mainstream” by what sells) one sees a very small, very repetitive, slice of American poetry. Books by Mary Oliver, Ai, and Billy Collins greatly outsell everything else (except when musicians and actors get into the publishing business, as Ryan Adams now has). These are the poets people hear about. I’m not here to knock them (I’ll save that for some other day), but to say that what they represent is such a small part of what poetry is capable of. I think that there are great pleasures in other poets, that people who read Oliver, Ai, and Collins, could find and fall in love with.

But this audience is not there yet. A couple nights ago I was at a poetry reading in Kansas City where D. A. Powell and Randall Mann read. There were about 20 people there. It was a Thursday night. The weather was fine. There should have been a hundred people there. I know that what poetry can do doesn’t interest most people. I’m not talking about most people. In a city the size of Kansas City, the type of pleasure poetry can provide should have appealed to a hundred people.

D. A. Powell read the following poem, which I believe could have done some good for some people who were not there:

corydon & alexis, redux

and yet we think that song outlasts us all: wrecked devotion
the wept face of desire, a kind of savage caring that reseeds itself and grows in clusters

oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself
how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs

what else but to linger in the slight shade of those sapling branches
yearning for that vernal beau. for don’t birds covet the seeds of the honey locust
and doesn’t the ewe have a nose for wet filaree and slender oats foraged in the meadow
kit foxes crave the blacktailed hare: how this longing grabs me by the nape

guess I figured to be done with desire, if I could write it out
dispense with any evidence, the way one burns a pile of twigs and brush

what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns and charming smile
the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him on my tongue

silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided preacher
as if banishing love as a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes


At 4/04/2009 10:02 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Perhaps ironically, last night I was in Manchester for an open mic and slam that drew - I'm guesstimating a number here - about upwards of 80-90 people into a standing-room-only cafe. And in the course of the evening, I think the audience got to hear some stuff that would sit nicely with Powell. Some of it would require some editing to reach that point, some would not. Even more ironically, I suspect that not much of the crowd would have showed up for the reading in Kansas city. What gives?

A question, the answer to which may be vital to my future as a poet in the US - am I supposed to hate Mary Oliver or something? I keep coming across dismissals of her all over the Net, particular in the AG types. But I like a lot of her stuff. I had "One or Two Things" memorized for a while - could probably re-memorize it in a few minutes if I tried. And you, John, have seen some of my stuff that definitely falls into the non-Oliver category. Am I just doomed?

I reiterate the phrase I take credit for coining after AWP: nah-vant garde.

Verification word: struims, noun, the sounds produced by jangling one's keys against the strings of a guitar

At 4/04/2009 10:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, you know, there's a place for most things. I think there's a place for Billy Collins as well. I remember reading a Sharon Olds poem once and thinking that it wasn't bad at all.

For me the real problem is that as people like Mary Oliver get read and talked about, many (most?) readers tend to stop there. If they stop there it's like listening to pop music and thinking that's what contemporary music is.

So I don't really have an argument with them (well, I do, actually, have an argument of vision, but not in the larger scheme of things), but with stopping with them.

So, no, you're not hopeless! But you must do penance.

At 4/04/2009 10:38 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

I'm prepping my comfy chair right now (for penance, of course)...

Verification word: tairt, noun, [this definition has been removed by the FBI - children might come to this site, because children love poetry and all things about poetry, though we at the FBI of course do not read poetry, unless it's by Robert Frost, and only then we read the one about the road to some criminal ad nauseum until he gives up and...oh, we don't know that guy's a criminal yet? well quit reading the fucking Frost to him then! some people...oh, you're still saw nothing. nothing!]

At 4/05/2009 8:04 PM, Blogger Jonathan Barrett said...

I was at the DA Powell and Randall Mann reading on Thursday at The Writer's Place. It was wonderful. It was great. I too was disappointed by the turn out. I thought The Writer’s Place was an odd choice for DA Powell to read. I was expecting a turn out similar to C.D. Wright’s reading in March at UMKC.

I somewhat agree with Jeff’s sentiment regarding the avant-garde. The term avant-garde often implies that which is new. If the avant-garde is new, then everything else is old; the avant-garde sets up a relationship similar to that of “the one” and “the other.” If we take it a step further and we assume that a “newer” avant-garde or post avant-garde evolves to counter “the fashionable” avant-garde then we have three choices: newer, new, and old. So, the newer is “cooler,” the new is “cool” or “fashionable,” and the old…well it’s just old. And what do we do with “the old?” We store them in the attic, donate them to goodwill, throw them out, etc. So, to use Jeff’s question if we’re not the newer or the new than are we just doomed? A very good question.

At 4/05/2009 10:19 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I find it odd that the other author uses Elizabeth Alexander as a jumping off point to suggest that poetry or the academy or whatever is dominated by the avant garde.

Word verification: pubsidie, clearly a subsidy for your publishing.

At 4/06/2009 6:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jonathan, if we keep ending up at the same readings in KC, I suppose we'll meet at some point? (If we don't get lost in the throngs, that is.) The whole stages of new thing continually has me baffled. Usually all that means is something akin to putting fresh paint on things. Or leaving the paint the same and just renaming it, but yeah, we'd be doomed if doomed weren't such an old idea...

SDS, I've not gone back to the article, but I think that (if I'm remembering correctly?) he was using Alexander as an intro to his thesis that the best poets are being pulled into the avant garde (to their prizes and destruction) and leaving the public stuff to the lesser poets, like Alexander?

Or maybe that was me trying to make sense of the way he went from Alexander to Silliman.

WV: reknolap

A contraction of "Reackon I know how to lap" which works for milk as well as running,

At 4/06/2009 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oddly, the poem you quote by Powell was first published in Poetry magazine!!

At 4/06/2009 9:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

See, I don't hate everything they publish!

At 4/06/2009 9:51 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Pretended to reason out my term :-P

vw: facerr (pronounced fathairrrrrrrrrrrr), an onomonopoeitic (I'm not even going to look up how to spell that correctly) Spanish seduction

At 4/06/2009 3:14 PM, Anonymous Banner Printing said...

John Gallaher said... "See, I don't hate everything they publish!"

LOLz right on John.

Jeff, did you mean Onomatopoeia?

At 4/07/2009 6:13 PM, Anonymous Print Banners said...

Nice post!
I have learned a lot from this one. A real eye opener.

At 4/07/2009 6:18 PM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Banner - yes. The adjectival form of that word. Which once again I will not try to spell :-P


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