Where The Answers Don’t Matter, But The Conversation Does
The Huffington Post (the new it-website for poetry? [should we be afraid?]) posed these questions:
Is American poetry at a dead-end?
Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not?
What worries you about the present moment in poetry?
Do you see signs of life?
Where is the most promising work coming from?
What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?
Of these poets:
And then posted the answers here:
The following poets have also contributed to the debate (the piece continues), and you will be reading their views in future installments:
One of the things I find interesting about these lists of poets is that they’re not the “usual suspects” of such lists and such questions (a couple of them I’ve never heard of, which is always interesting). But then again, looking at the questions asked, I’m not sure if I’m going to tune back in to see what they all say. These questions say something about what’s on the mind of whom exactly?
“Is American poetry at a dead-end?”
Do poets ask themselves this question? Should they? Or is this the type of question that comes from places like The Huffington Post? I mean, isn’t art always at a dead end, and not, at the same time? Because, even if it is it isn’t, as there’s always a strand of what’s happening (even if it’s not noticed by most readers) that changes things. And that seems to be the general thrust of the answers so far. What other answer can there be? Yes? No? Let’s have popcorn and find out?
“Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not?”
So, are these questions to get at the heart of the matter, or to try to get people to say things that will start a fight? Someone says POETRY IS AT A DEAD END! And then someone else can say YOU PINHEAD REACTIONARY! HOW CAN SOMETHING AS DIVERSE AS POETRY BE AT A SINGULAR DEAD END? Anyway, I don’t remember there being a contract that poets had to sign saying they’d never betray modernism. I agree the legacy is great, as a lot of my favorite poems were written by these poets, but as many or more of my favorite poems have been written since, and very few poems I’ve seen since modernism look just like modernism. Our poems no longer look like their poems. For better? For worse? Things change out of necessity, as new people join the conversation. Better and worse are beside the point. No matter what the answer is, it’s a reification of the past we’re dealing in with such a question. What do you do with a period that had MAKE IT NEW and IT MUST CHANGE as major statements?
“What worries you about the present moment in poetry?”
So is this series going to be the spark of the moment? Maybe it will. But what worries me (though no one is asking), first, is the propensity for people to ask this question. Beyond that, it’s all about distribution, isn’t it? If all people hear about poetry is what they hear from NPR, then they’re going to get a very lopsided idea of what’s being written these days (one that, in my mind at least, keeps them at a distance from the most interesting things that are going on). But that’s not feisty enough. This question wants one to level accusations against the MFA degree or The Poetry Foundation or something, right? It makes me wonder if these questions are less about dialogue and more about starting the kind of disagreement that gets a long comment stream going.
“Do you see signs of life?” / “Where is the most promising work coming from?”
These are good ones. They get the respondents to say things they like. And, in a way, The Huffington Post itself, in devoting space to a conversation on poetry, WWF as it is in tone, is a sign of life. It shows someone cares enough to notice, and that’s a good thing.
“What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?”
And this last question is one that always gets a lot of people to get interested, for everyone interested in writing poetry or interested in reading poetry, are interested in the creative process, the HOW TO aspect of the art . . . even as the answers are always going to be variations on: ignore as much of the "business" as you can get away with, read a lot of poetry, write a lot of poetry and prose, and live a lot, and pay attention a lot.
From what I’ve read so far, the respondents are interesting enough. Clayton Eshleman is worried about MFA programs, Annie Finch thinks that form and meter is increasingly hip, Ron Silliman is the most positive, seeing hundreds of good young poets out there, and Danielle Pafunda sees a positive plenitude, but is worried about the “70% men : 30% women publishing ratio, and the equally/even more disturbing ratios for race, class, disability, LGBTQ, and any other marked category we can imagine.”
I’ve seen that “70% men : 30% women publishing ratio” cited before, but when I go to the journals I like and the publishers I like, it’s nothing like that (it’s really close to 50/50, sometimes tilting male, sometimes female). The only thing I can figure is that there are other journals and presses out there that I don’t pay attention to, that publish a massive amount of poetry by males that I don’t pay attention to. I do know that someone said that about either [journal name deleted] or [journal name deleted], when I was talking to them at AWP, but as I don’t read those journals, I can’t check. I hope the above ratios turn out to be incorrect. If they are correct, then, well, we really do have a problem.