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Journal, Day One

By Mónica de la Torre

I am not a blogger: I neither have my own blog nor do I usually read blogs, with very few exceptions, so I hope you bear with me. I live in New York. (A lame excuse?) I tend to become engaged in a lot of community service and I have the sense that I belong in a number of communities at once (although perhaps they’re one and the same.) Attending certain events—readings, panel discussions, art openings, book launches and the like—in order to be supportive of my peers, under certain circumstances, could also qualify as community service. Who hasn’t had the unpleasant feeling that no matter what one must show up for one’s friends? If one has read to an almost nonexistent audience (I once had the great experience to read to two people at the St. George Theater in Staten Island, which can seat up to 3,000 people!) the sense that it’s one’s duty to be supportive of one’s peers can be even more of a burden . . .

I have mixed feelings about what being a poet in this day and age requires, and think that the issue is complex enough to merit some further exploration. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with what I do, it’s just that more often than not I can’t but wonder why we keep doing what we do when we most of us think that this era is particularly dismal in terms of the impact we have on society due to the monopoly that the entertainment industry has on people’s imaginations. Or has thinking this way become a generalized nervous tick? I was struck, for instance, by reading Jean Franco’s assessment of poetic practices in The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City. She argues that a critical minority of cultural producers has been “forced into artisan forms of publishing, into readings (that return orality to literature), or into the academy—although the academy is no longer necessarily a shelter for creativity,” and is “being torn by the same forces and the demand for performativity as the rest of society” (274).

Although there is not much to debate regarding the panorama she fatally describes, overall my outlook on some of the issues she brings up is optimistic. Later in the week I’ll discuss the potential I see in micro-publishing and the innovative ways in which some poets in the U.S. and Latin America have found to engage with larger communities, aided perhaps precisely by poetry’s off-center position vs. other artistic practices.

For now I’d like to bring up a series of poetry readings I recently curated with fellow poet Tonya Foster at the Bowery Poetry Club. Like the Segue Foundation that publishes Roof Books, the Segue Series is committed to innovative literature and has been running uninterruptedly for—believe it or not—25 years, having migrated from the Ear Inn in the far West Side to Double Happiness, a bar in Chinatown, to Holman’s BPC. There is a rotating group of eight volunteer curators that are paired so as to organize weekly readings for two months, from September to May. I suspect that if the series were to take place at a bookstore or a commercial venue, or were organized by a larger institution, it would have ended a long time ago. What seems to work very effectively is that unlike, say, readings at a Barnes & Noble, the history of the series and the loyalty of its followers provide a context for the work being read. Besides, the fact that each year new people join the pool of curators helps keep things fresh. One has the feeling that by reading there one is participating in a larger, ongoing, conversation. Reading at the Poetry Project is perhaps the epitome of this model, at least in New York.

My experience working with Tonya could not have been better. I myself was introduced to some poets who I’m afraid I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered on my own, at least in the near future. We aimed at pairing authors who shared similar concerns but were coming at them from different angles, some of whom weren’t aware of each other’s work. One of the threads unifying our program was the junction of formal experimentation with a critical concern with minority and women’s issues. The incisive and dazzlingly inventive work of poets such as Evie Shockley, Latasha N. Diggs, and Erica Hunt presented models of ways to think of, and beyond, the African-American experience. Eliot Weinberger read an incredible essay on the rhinoceros in which a considerable portion of the text was in Hawaiian. The last reading with Carol Mirakove, who read from the recently released Mediated, and Lisa Robertson, who read from The Men, took place over a week ago. If their work doesn’t represent a new wave of feminism, then I don’t know what does. (For a while I’ve been pondering Robertson’s proposition that nature and femininity are but specters of the state imagination. Her conceptuo-lyrical ideolect is gradually taking over my mind. No one who reads Robertson is ever the same again, but that’s a different matter . . . ) Although originally we had the desire of having all poets engage in a discussion of poetics either after the readings or in the blogosphere, we lacked the extra time to organize that, since we’re both grad students who live in New York . . . (In case you’re interested: thanks to Charles Bernstein, who co-directs PennSound, audio files of all the readings will soon be available at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound.)

To wrap up today’s perhaps contradictory entry I’d like to toss out some ideas. So we love poetry. We’re the ones who read it, buy it, discuss it, care about it. Is it my imagination or are we required to do much more for the sake of our disinterested love of poetry than other cultural producers, say, fiction writers? Ah, and the logic is perverse: the lower the stakes, the more there is required of one in order to sustain the community. (In this sense, Kenneth Goldsmith’s project Ubu.com, the most comprehensive free archive of 20th-century artistic production and avant-garde poetry, is a windfall.) Anyway, what exactly is it that we’re doing? Are we heroes, martyrs, cultish narcissists, or community activists? It depends on the nature of the activity we engage in. This brings up an issue that I’ve been thinking about for a while now and that I’ll try to address in the next few days: what is the nature of the poetic economy?


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, May 29th, 2006 by Mónica de la Torre.