Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where The Answers Don’t Matter, But The Conversation Does

Some questions are simply more difficult than others.

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:

Clayton Eshleman
Annie Finch
Ron Silliman
Danielle Pafunda

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:

Campbell McGrath
Kevin Prufer
Akilah Oliver
Elaine Equi
Chad Prevost
Cathryn Hankla
Martha Rhodes
Sidney Wade
Ben Lerner
Alfred Corn
Cynthia Cruz
Julie Carr
Wayne Miller
Anna Rabinowitz
Maxine Chernoff
Claudia Keelan
Rebecca Seiferle
Hadara Bar-Nadav
Shelley Puhak
Raymond McDaniel
Jane Satterfield
Becca Klaver
Catherine Wagner

The answer is out there. If only we have the right question.

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?

Opinions are like t-shirts.

“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.

Has American yarn betrayed the great legacy of modernism?

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.

I yearn for simpler times when the answer was always "go green"


At 9/11/2010 4:10 PM, Blogger Stephen Corey said...

Hmmm . . . what's the value in publishing an either/or unverified comment about The Gettysburg Review and The Georgia Review--a comment you say you can't verify because "you don't read those journals"? Suppose you went to the trouble of picking up the current (Summer 2010) issue of Georgia? You wouldn't have to READ the poems--you could just count the male and female poets, finding three and four respectively. Or you could go further,counting the pages of poetry by males and females, finding nine and thirty-five respectively. Hmmm . . . Are things this way all the time? No. Should one run four times as many pages of poetry by women as men, or men as women, because of the gender of the poets? No. What are we counting here, and why--especially if we are just counting without reading?

Stephen Corey, Editor
The Georgia Review

At 9/11/2010 5:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Stephen,

The value specifically, is that it got you to come to the blog and refute it, which is important, as apparently it’s a rumor going around (at least it was repeated to me). I heard at AWP from a friend of mine, when we were talking about WILLA, that someone (not very specific, I know) had done a study of the past ten years of issues of The Georgia Review (and perhaps The Gettysburg Review as well?) and found this 70 / 30 split. I’ve been unable to verify what she told me, so I’ve not mentioned it before, but when I saw it repeated on The Huffington Post, it made me want to ask about it. I should have done so without saying the name of your journal.

I forget sometimes that when I post something on my blog it’s public. I’ll edit the journal names out of the post. You’re right, unverified things should not be tossed around (which is why I was trying to distance myself from it by all my “I can’t check,” and also, it would be difficult to check anyway, as what I was thinking of was a ten-year spread).

As for the counting, yes, it can seem quite tedious to go through all the issues and say “What is this author’s sex / gender?” “What is this author’s race?” “What is this author’s sexual orientation?” But these are ratios that are necessary, as they are the ground-floor basic ways to talk about inclusion.

At 9/12/2010 12:35 PM, Blogger Johannes said...

I'm totally all about betraying modernism.


At 9/12/2010 1:04 PM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

Me too, Johannes. When do we start? I have a waffle iron and a frisbee.

At 9/12/2010 1:10 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm pretty tired of the are we / aren't we in the shadow of or should we be more in the shadow of. And if we should or shouldn't promise ourselves our poems look nothing or something like theirs.

So count me in. I’ll bring my guitar and marshmallows.

At 9/12/2010 1:50 PM, Anonymous amy said...

What we are counting seems tedious to some, and to many, pointless since they don't have to think of such things as bias or position. The fact is that some people are privileged and some writers aren't because of seemingly-annoying or "benign" factors like gender, race, class, etc. It would be nice to live in a publishing world where such factors don't exist and can be ignored.

But that world doesn't exist yet. And numbers are one way in: they can be confirmed and queried - they can be interrogated! What does it mean when some large majority of first-year-college students read "The Great Gatsby" and less than 5% ever hear of "Their Eyes Were Watching God"? Why the revered considerations for Robert Lowell's work and the limited-suicide/daddy-issue-scope that shapes discussions of Plath's work?

How does the literary canon shape our reading practices / preferences? How does a literary canon come to be shaped? How do current publishing practices affect that canon now and in the future? Why are the majority of cash and esteemed prizes overwhelmingly awarded to men historically (see LA Times Book Prize ... Pulitzer Prize ... The National Book Awards and so many others, both historical and last year's count --here or at the VIDA site Who else is left out? Gender is one of the most obvious factors to check, but there is certainly more work to be done via addt'l factors and considerations...

Do publications translate into jobs, prizes, sales? What does it mean to list The Georgia Review or The Gettysburg Review or any other recognizable review in a bio or on a CV? Do the historical contents of the GR say anything about the publishing practices / predilections of the editors? What? Can they be reviewed? They're a matter of public record...

As noted, these are interrogations - not answers. But they say something, perhaps something even worth hearing ...

Betray modernism? Betray some of its very sexist traditions ... let's figure out how.

At 9/12/2010 2:51 PM, Blogger Jason Bradford said...

To make an observation, disability and religion get put in the etc. category, a lot.

At 9/12/2010 3:24 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I think we need more scruffy, impolite newsletters, in the tradition of Floating Bear. Where are they? Everything is so slick looking. Like to be legit you have to look pro. There's no distance anymore to speak of between the Official and the Avant. It's all career and so on. The New Americans would feint.

Watch for sous-les-paves, coming out in the next couple weeks. Great contributors signing on. Mailing list only, going out to a few hundred to start. As one kind of different gesture...


At 9/12/2010 3:25 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I mean FAINT!


At 9/12/2010 3:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

All of which illustrates once again the importance of having the conversation. I'd be interested in seeing a break-down of how various forms of inclusion play out in specific literary magazines, presses, and awards. The pulitzer (NBCC &etc) is easy, as there's only one winner a year, but the presses and such?

One thing that often gets left out of the equation is the way contributors self-select. Why they do this, I don't know, but at the very small literary journal I work for, at least 60% of submissions are from males (the other factors are too difficult to track - unless it touches on content in the work, and that's a terrible way to try to guess around).

At 9/12/2010 3:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's what I love about ForkLift, OH and Conduit (and the new journal TELEPHONE). They look like something.

At 9/12/2010 3:56 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Fine. But I'm saying that we need more stuff that doesn't look like much!

Back to mimeo. Or something in that spirit...

At 9/12/2010 4:58 PM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

But Kent, weren't blogs supposed to be the answer to that??

Seriously--it would be interesting to have a related conversation about ephemerality in contemporary American poetry. We all know most of it's ephemeral anyway--and that is, perhaps, a good thing. But so much of the po-biz is about aspirations to monumentality; the production values of old-school journals like Gettysburg and Georgia are cases in point. There is something to be said for an aesthetic of nano-accessibility.

That said, I'm not touching that mimeo spirit-ink stuff again, myself. Nasty. One trip through the 1970s was enough for me.

At 9/12/2010 5:14 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Hey Eli,

I think we're on the same page. No, not saying it has to be mimeo proper with all the stained fingers. It's the spirit of the mode I'm talking about: Giving the finger (if you'll excuse the phrase) to those "monumental" production values and moving towards a truly gift-economy distribution ethic. sous-les-paves will be doing this.

As for blogs, I think blogs are the opposite of what I'm talking about. Blogs are, deep down, essentially Author-Function platforms.

At 9/12/2010 5:21 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>"Author-Function platforms"

Not that this is "bad," or some kind of new developement. We're inside that episteme, or archive, or whatever we used to call it back in the 80s and 90s.

And bless those poets who have interesting blogs. (I couldn't imagine a poetry world without John Latta's dailies, just for one example.)

At 9/12/2010 5:33 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I used to LOVE sniffing mimeo sheets. The purple ones. My high school had a photocopy club, even. Good times.

And I like feint more than faint. Though both do remind me of mimeo. Good times, redux.

Sure, there's a lot of room for the mimeo set. It would highlight the gift-economy that is contemporary poetry anyway.

That said, POD, etc., isn't much more expensive than running it off your home printer. Or maybe it is. I'll find out soon enough, as our funding is getting down to that precarious level soon.

At 9/14/2010 4:46 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

One consequence of feeding trolls is that trolls start to associate you with food.

At 9/14/2010 8:09 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


You're showing your Mean Streak a bit too much there. You're usually more cunningly recondite in displaying it.

Get hold of yourself.

At 9/15/2010 10:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You've said this about Shivani as troll several times . . . and I understand you might be right. There's a lot of "look at me" in what he writes. But as he has a big platform, it's hard to look away. I just have to say something, you know? (At least I no longer use his name, and just say Huff Post. Points for that?)

Well, maybe I don't have to comment, but still. You know?

At 9/16/2010 2:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"That said, POD, etc., isn't much more expensive than running it off your home printer. Or maybe it is."

I started running my books off on a home printer in the early 90s, and over 15-20 years "published" dozens of hand-done editions— i still do one-of-a-kind books with handpainted covers as homepubs, but mostly have moved to POD because i've calculated the cost is similar, when you figure in the price of inkjets etc, and the limited number of pages one can squeeze into a folded-over stapled "chapbook"—— I can have a hundred page perfectbound paperback (with fullcolor covers) POD'd for essentially the same money as it took/takes me to do two 50-page home-printered-chaps . . . and I don't have to deal with the damn printer jamming or stapler-elbow strain——

At 9/17/2010 9:19 AM, Blogger Curtis Faville said...

I don't think I ever really cared whether or not there were the right number of women or Gay or minority writers being published. That's posterior to the act of writing, unless you yearn for an "audience" and can't write without the expectation of some kind of "balanced acceptance" etc. What nonsense.

Knock off this shit, people! Good work isn't meaningfully defined by its subject matter, or by the pedigree or demographics of its maker. If you disagree with this statement, you're not a writer, but a social climber or co-dependent whiner.

At 9/17/2010 9:29 AM, Blogger Curtis Faville said...

I published five issues of a literary mag back in the 1970's, and gave them away. They had the best production values I could afford. Mags underwritten or fronted by institutions inevitably get to looking slick and dull. It's just the territory. People who edit them have to watch their asses, and can't define clearly conceived agendas. The first twenty issues of the Paris Review felt tactile and sensual, looked charming and intriguing, and wore wonderfully well. But like anything else, it got long in the tooth and eventually became dull and formulaic. This happens a lot, even under the best of regimes. Smaller is usually better, but beware of provincial obscurity, friends publishing friends, and limited purviews of taste.

At 9/18/2010 6:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm very glad to hear that. When I wrote that I was hesitating, as the experience I had with POD is several years old.

At 9/18/2010 6:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yes, that is the argument that is made.

At 9/18/2010 8:51 AM, Blogger Unknown said...


I'm very glad to hear that. When I wrote that I was hesitating, as the experience I had with POD is several years old."

... well, you have to shop around, of course, but there are several POD services with websites (there is a list of PODs, actually, that i googled and found very helpful . . . ), all with varying price estimates, and then the cost per copy is higher/lower depending on the number of books ordered . . . I've had good satisfying results with a printer called Mira (or Mirasmart) in terms of cost/quality. (The prices of LULU printbooks are too high for me to order in bulk, but I still use LULU to make single proof copies, which can be ordered in minutes and delivered in days——) . . . I appreciated the editors who published me in the past, Galassi did books of mine at Random House and Farrar Straus, Thom Ward at BOA did two books, Ochester at Pitt, etc, they were extremely kind to me, and I was lucky they took an interest, but really none of the books done with "real" publishers were ever satisfying to me, and soon as I owned a computer/printer immediately started homepubbing, and am doing it still two decades later, and will continue long as i can——

At 9/21/2010 11:22 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey John, as one of the respondents to the aforementioned questions from the Huffington, I want to say, first, that I generally agree with your analysis of the five questions, and had similar thoughts/reactions as I considered how I'd respond. Still, though, as you point out it is generally a good thing that such a conversation is taking place at all, and, well, if it is then the answers do matter. I find the title a little harsh.

Chad Prevost, Editorial Director
C&R Press

At 9/21/2010 11:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Chad,

Looking back, it does sound harsh. No offense was meant to any of the respondents. The tone came out of my minor irritation at the way the Huffington Post was pitching it. I apologize if any offense was taken.


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