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Essentialism? Say What?

By Emily Warn

I’m eavesdropping; my hand cupped around my ear to better hear the conversation at the next table–a poetry clan is debating an article that has riled them—and it’s by one of their own. Previous issues of Chicago Review and women’s anthologies clutter a table already crammed with a computer for browsing the contemporary/experimentl/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry blogosphere. I want to join them. Maybe they’ll let me if I figure out what “essentialism” means. Is it related to “creationism”? Or “phrenology”?


In all seriousness, the poetics of this bunch places them in an essential lineage—as postmodern feminists they are carrying on a tradition that views language as having no inherent meaning apart from its cultural freight. The work of the poet is to help us see how culture and language invents us, a sometimes liberating act. I admire, for instance Juliana Spahr’s wonderful book This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, in which the onset of the current Iraqi war takes place in bed with her and her lover. In joining the two, she exposes the euphemisms of the government being played out in the media as misnomers. I am avid to listen in on their conversation.
They’re talking about prize money, about how many of them get published in which magazines, about who gets jobs, etc. Are these experimental types now the status quo? Do they crave recognition and economic security as much as the rest of us? Their conversation and debate with Jennifer Ashton seems to me very similar to the emails and phone calls that I receive from Francisco Aragon ( who directs Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies), advocating on behalf of his poetry clan. (I wonder if in its next issue the Chicago Review will run his table and charts of how many Latino poets have been published where.) Only he doesn’t feel guilty and conflicted, as these women seem to, about asking for his clans’ piece of the American pie.
My reaction to the bean counting presented in the Chicago Review article is the same as my reaction to Francisco Aragon’s prodding: I feel bored and a twinge of guilt. Yes, we need to publish more women and more Latinos on poetryfoundation.org, but a headline about under-representation gets few clicks. Why? It doesn’t captivate, unless you happen to be among the group that isn’t being counted. If you succeed in getting such an article or anthology published, who it represents becomes as important as the poetry it contains. Or as Ashton puts it, “And if you just cared about the formally innovative features of the poems, why would you care that they were written by women? Unless, of course what you cared about most was the relationship between the form of the poems and the gendered situation of their authors.” In my opinion, both the form and its relationship to the gendered or racial situation are important. What poetry and poets need are interesting critiques of that locus.
Another way to say this is that Aragon, Spahr, and Young are primarily concerned with the results of literary production and where they are placed; whereas as an editor, I’m primarily concerned with circulating those results—the poems—among readers. Great writing about poetry—all kinds of poetry—stimulates interest in it and so improves its chances of being read. Being widely read means that some work can occasionally effect the circumstances of its production (our social and material conditions), or its reception, its inclusion in the canon, or a canon.
And here’s the difficulty. A majority of the pitches we receive (I haven’t yet calculated the percentage) are from men. There are many fine women writers and critics who write for us now, but we’ve had to go looking for them. The male critics are always knocking on our door (please don’t stop). We welcome that; we just wish more women would. But all of their pitches are often, but not always, about male poets. In the past year we’ve received multiple ideas for stories about Paul Muldoon, Frederick Seidel, C.K. Williams, Gary Snyder, the Objectivists, Robert Duncan, Phillip Larkin, Donald Revell and, of course, Ashbery.
Why haven’t any women stepped forward with story ideas about significant new books by women poets? Significant books (selections or groundbreaking books) for which we have received no pitches include those by Linda Gregerson, Jean Valentine, Claudia Rankine, Adrienne Rich, Ellen Bryant Voight, Alice Notley, C.D. Wright, Joanne Kyger, and Mary Kinzie. (Who have I missed?)
Why aren’t we fielding more requests to place women poets within our literary and social history? Evaluating a poet’s place within a tradition is what Silliman, Harold Bloom, and other male critics and bloggers incessantly argue about. (I applaud Ashton, Spahr and Young for publicly arguing about their differences.)
I can easily rattle off a dozen male critics who critique and “translate” contemporary poetry for a general and literary audience, and in doing so, often self-consciously assert their place in the long line of poet/critics such as Auden, Jarrell, Lowell, and Eliot. Think of Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Adam Kirsch, Peter Campion, Dan Chiasson, Stephen Burt, Willard Spiegelman, David Barber, Harold Bloom, and David Biespiel. Now name the women and minority writers who write critically and well and consistently for a wide audience: Maureen McLane, Adrienne Rich, Meghan O’Rourke, Katha Pollit, Major Jackson, Ange Mlinko, Sandra Gilbert. (Who have I missed?)
To close and in spirit with Young and Spahr’s request to begin a conversation, I offer this laundry list, in no particular order, of pitches that I wish we had received:
• Is there a lost generation of women poets born between 1910-1920? Why is so little written about Louise Bogan, May Swenson, and Jean Garrigue, all of them prominent poets, and in Bogan’s case a major critic, of their time?
• Compare and contrast George Oppen’s twenty year silence with the silences and subsequent work of women poets, such as Anne Winters, Eleanor Lerman, and Lorine Niedecker.
• Many contemporary Latino poets do not know Spanish. Others do and employ “code switching,” beginning a sentence in one language and ending in another. Investigate the tensions and the differences of these poetries.
• Why has Duncan instead of Levertov prevailed in their debate about the social function of poetry? At least this seems to be the case in articles that have crossed my desk.
• How has Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” informed the work of C.D. Wright and Claudia Rankine?
• Is C.D. Wright’s recent book about Louisiana prison life part of inventing a feminist poetic that directly quotes from speech and uses other documentary evidence to—as Phillip Metres writes in an article that we’ll publish next week—“create ‘one big self’ that contains author, reader, and prisoner”? Other women poets who have used these tactics to avoid the subjective while creating an intersection between poetry and social/political circumstances include Niedecker, Rukeyser, Spahr, Levertov. (I know that Reiznikoff is the grandfather of this type of poetry and that many men practice it, but the need to speak as a we, to be inclusive, seems in a Carol Gilligan-ish way to be female.)
• What is the trajectory of Adrienne Rich’s social poetics? And how does it relate to the poetics of the contemporary/experimentl/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community?
Any takers? Any other ideas?
Emily

Comments (25)

  • On November 3, 2007 at 1:35 pm Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote:

    Dear Emily,
    I have been saying for years that women need to write and submit more critical work to magazines.
    That said, I’d be happy to write on any of the topics you suggest!
    But, I’d especially love to write about several women writers’ new books, including Matthea Harvey’s “Modern Life” and the work of Denise Duhamel and Dana Levin, and their use of a “pop surrealism” style, a style which is also popular in the visual art world, especially among young women artists. These writers utilize “lowbrow” popular culture icons and the techniques of Surrealism (popularized by poets like Ashbery and Tate) to critique cultural norms.
    What do you say?
    Thanks,
    Jeannine Hall Gailey
    http://www.webbish6.com/poetry.htm

  • On November 3, 2007 at 5:58 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Hi Emily:
    I look forward to hearing what other people have to say. My feelings on this issue are well known, I think. Though I do plan to post something soon at Letras Latinas’ blog on a related subject. I would like to read more Latina and Chicana poets on this subject.
    But for the record, those “table and charts of how many Latino poets have been published where” that you make reference to don’t exist. The number of Latino/a poets published in, say, Poetry and the New Yorker is too scant to merit a chart: to the best of my knowledge, the New Yorker has published a grand total of 1 (Martín Espada) in the last twenty years or so. And Poetry, since the new editor took control over 48 issues ago, has published a grand total of 2, both males: Dionisio D. Martínez (Cuban) and Kevin A. González (Puerto Rican). (Chicanos and Chicanas, apparently, don’t write poetry).
    But where Poetry magazine is concerned, what continues to be indefensible is their perfect record of not reviewing a single volume of poetry by a Latino or Latina poet since at least the Fall of 2003. Not a single volume.
    In contrast, thankfully, both you and Stephen (Young) have been more conscientious with the Poetry Foundation’s website and the Poetry Foundation’s programming, respectively.
    Best,
    F

  • On November 4, 2007 at 1:02 am Major Jackson wrote:

    Hi Emily,
    How serendipitous! In a spate of anger and in reaction to that anger at the persistent and obvious demographic of poetry book reviewers in this country, I was in the process of recruiting a team of graduate research assistants to compile the past 10+ years of NYTimes Book Review’s of poetry to uncover some patterns in the selection of reviewers as well as books (gender, age, sexual orientation and ethnicity of their reviewers) of poetry reviewed, but then decided why expend energy that would reveal what we already know!! It’s embarrassing to even point out; and, of course, it would be me. I’m so upset with the NYTIMES; outreach goes a long way. Many of these book-reviewers I know, many whose poetry and critical vision I grasp and understand close to my own, but damn, come on. Are white men the only purveyors of taste in American poetry? The frat-boy network of book reviewing is a given, sadly enough; why does it take a female poet or author to review or critically come to grips with other female poets. I would not mind the frat-boy crew if they gave some hang-time or consideration to other poets of different ethnicity and gender make-up, but the reality is that when they do write about women poets and versifiers of different ethnicities they fail to fully comprehend those poets’ aesthetic aims, reach, and vision. I refuse to accept the notion that male writers are the only folks to submit critical queries; and if they do, then do they display a reach that extends beyond their mirror or the previous generation’s mirror? And I’m happy you don’t say to those women; you need to write about Barbara Guest, Laura Riding, or dear Adrienne Rich. I’m happy they see beyond the gender line.
    Oh me, oh my—
    Major J

  • On November 4, 2007 at 1:54 am Rich Villar wrote:

    One: I, of course, latch onto the Latino stuff without so much as a prompt.
    But first, let me say that Annie Finch has been a die-hard champion of womens’ poetics and criticism, and her work in this area should be re-read, her opinions frequently solicited. And because I know Finch and poets like her work their asses off, I’ll simply put this general statement out to the universe: I think some people are too busy doing the actual work of poetics to stop and explain it to the rest of us. They prefer to let history absolve them, and that’s not always a bad thing.
    Two: I agree with Francisco. You can’t chart what doesn’t exist.
    For now, I’ll say that we must distinguish between inserting random Spanish words into places, and actually thinking creatively in two languages.
    It’s fair to call Pedro Pietri a bilingual poet. Observe this uniquely Nuyorican phrase, and its translation by Alfredo Mantilla Rivas:
    “Aqui Que Pasa power is what’s happening”
    Spanish translation:
    “Aqui lo que pasa es el poder al Que Pasa.”
    The lines, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole, are magic: the Spanish-language mind, melded to the English-language mind, to produce a new Puerto Rican experience, as expressed in poetics. The similarites, the cultural nuances, of the translated Spanish phrase versus the vernacular of Puerto Rican East Harlem circa 1973 make this line roll across the tongue quite lively and quickly…and in context with the rest of the epic poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” it serves to sum up what Pietri’s life project was about: reclaiming the dignity of the Puerto Rican people, marooned on an island called Nueva York.
    My contention: You cannot divorce the Spanglish experience in America from the linguistic (scientific? dispassionate?) considerations of a literary critic. (Sounds familiar, maybe even a little post-modernist?) The question for the Poetry Foundation, and others: Who’s truly ready for that conversation? And who among our hearty Latino and Latina comrades is ready to step up and speak it?
    Here are two places to start:
    -A 1999 essay entitled,”Language Choice in U.S. Latina First Person Narrative: The Effects of Language Standardization and Subordination,” by Holly Cashman. No links available, but this is an article easily found via JSTOR or similar databases.
    -Cashman cites one earlier essay which may be of more use for poets…”La Vida Es Un Spanglish Disparatero: Bilingualism in Nuyorican Poetry,” by Frances Aparicio (who happens to teach at U of I, Chicago). This was published in 1988, in an anthology with an unfortunately colonial title: European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States, edited by Genevieve Fabre. (Kinda makes one want to run one’s ass to the census form and check “Other,” but we’ll forgive it this time.)

  • On November 4, 2007 at 9:27 am jane wrote:

    Hey,
    I admit I’m a little puzzled by what I perceive as some intellectual snark in this essay—well-mannered snark, true, which nonetheless lacks the consistency to sustain itself. Here’s an example: in summing up the situation in Juliana Spahr’s book, you write: “in which the onset of the current Iraqi war takes place in bed with her and her lover….”
    As best I can tell, the book itself differs from this in a very substantial—and equally specific—way.It doesn’t singularize the lover, writing over and over again, “beloveds,” and the pointedly awkward “yous.” Dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Without going into an analysis of how this shapes the book’s thinking, I’ll simply note that, if language has “inherent meaning apart from its cultural freight,” then it should have been unproblematically apparent that the beloveds of the book—even “in bed”—are plural. That’s what the s means in some essential way, right?
    But you didn’t read it that way. You read it not according to some pure meaning of the marks, but in order to align it with something not written there, which just happens to be the social norm. One does this all the time; it’s part of reading, and not necessarily a failure. But let’s say its name. In short, you read according to “cultural freight,” not according to “inherent meaning.” Which is to say that, although you wittily (and gently) dismiss this tradition of “postmodern feminists” as belated, and as blind to some real home truths, you have the exact same reading practices and habits in spades—albeit unexamined. This leaves the essay’s establishing move incoherent, and makes it hard for me to understand or place much trust in the following rhetoric.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 10:36 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Dear Jeannie,
    I like your pitch! Let’s email back and forth to develop it. To make it work, (and I hope it’s ok to publicly use your idea as an example), we’ll have to develop the idea into a story that would interest more general readers.
    The site’s editorial purpose differs from Poetry magazine—and thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify this. We look for articles that “report” on poetry, meaning tell a story about a poet or poem, or about how they intersect with social and cultural history. We also publish essays and Q&A’s that are more literary but that also educate people who are curious about poetry but are not poets or critics. (For instance, many of the ideas in my post, I’d have to write in such a way as to educate the readers about the poets at the same time that I was developing an argument.) Also, we do not review books—we leave that to Poetry—so much as make book referrals or look for stories and trends in publishing. For example, tomorrow we’re publishing a piece about poetry and reporting as it is played out in recent books by C.D. Wright, Martha Collins, James Hoch, and Eliza Griswold.
    One of more popular articles in the last four months was on Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poem “lighght,” recently published in a new edition of Saroyan’s work by Ugly Duckling Presse. Surprisingly, this story about a minimalist poem, which at its core is related to visual art, was widely picked up all over the web. Why? Because along with grappling with it as an aesthetic object, the author told a story: how the NEA’s choice to fund the poet almost brought down the fledgling NEA. See:
    You Call That Poetry?!
    How seven letters managed to freak out an entire nation.
    So back to your pitch—women poets are turning to pop cultural icons to “critique cultural norms.” Critiquing cultural norms might earn approval in the po- world, but would act, I’m betting, as a soporific to a more general audience. What I love in Matthea Harvey’s book Modern Life is the way she tells stories to animate the high-tech doll Robo-Cop—how melancholy he becomes when his software Flirt Program won’t let him be coy with a librarian. Toying with the relationship among software code, cultural code, and poetry might lead you somewhere.
    Thanks,
    Emily

  • On November 4, 2007 at 11:16 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Dear Francisco,
    Thanks for making the point that, as RIch V. writes, “You can’t chart what doesn’t exist.”
    Which five books of Latino poetry published during the last five years should have been reviewed? Are these among them?
    The Republic of Poetry, Martin Espada
    Considerations of the Guitar, Ray Gonzales
    From the Tongues of Brick and Stone, Brenda Cárdenas
    This Side of Skin, Deborah Parédez
    Best, Emily
    .

  • On November 4, 2007 at 12:03 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Hi Major,
    I’m glad that we, or the Chicago Review, saved you some work.
    I’m not saying that “male writers are the only folks to submit critical queries,” but I am absolutely saying that we field many more queries from men than women, and that we can sometimes trace their pitches to either reviews or articles in NYTBR, or NYRB, or other high-circulation magazines and newspapers. For example, Frederick Seidel is much talked about now after articles in both the NY Sun and NY Magazine, and we have received more than two pitches to write about him.
    The story in NY Magazine was a narrative; it made Seidel into a character, which creates interest in his work. That’s what we’re trying to do on the site, as opposed to publishing reviews and literary critical essays. That’s the type of story that we need more of about women and minorities. I’m not talking about academic literary prose. There are many, many fine minority and women poets and critics writing such prose (Susan Stewart, Mary Kinzie, Arnold Rampesand, Judith Butler, etc.) I’m talking about the Washington Post, NYTPR, NYRB, and other such magazines with a large reach publishing a column by someone other than Edward Hirsch or Robert Pinsky.
    Nor am I saying that male critics do not “display a reach that extends beyond their mirror or the previous generation’s mirror”? Thankfully, that’s not true. But we, as most editors do, see trends in the pitches we receive. I am saying that many more white males than women or minorities have developed their critical/journalistic/narrative prose talents and so reach a larger audience and, I think but cannot prove, that their articles and opinions filter down to which poems and which books are published and reviewed in the literary journals that the Chicago Review charts as under-representing women and minorites. I think it’s absolutely essential that we do that work of developing those skills and start pitching ideas.
    Emily

  • On November 4, 2007 at 12:20 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Dear Jane,
    Thanks for pointing out my misreading. You are right, the beloved is plural in this poem, which can be read as an act of resistance. But in my post (and misreading), I did not intend to dismiss “postmodern feminism. On the contrary, I was trying to say that I admire and advidly read postmodern feminist poetry because it unloads cultural freight through its word play, re-contextualizing (as in Spahr’s poem), using documentary evidence, and other means. Given that, I was surprised that postmodern feminists would care about being valued (jobs, prizes, money) by the very culture that they are critiquing. In the article, Spahr and Young acknowledge that conflict.
    Emily

  • On November 4, 2007 at 12:30 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Hi Rich!
    Thanks for these references; I’ll check them out.
    Emily

  • On November 4, 2007 at 2:56 pm Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote:

    Dear Emily,
    Thanks for the response. It’s good to see your clarification as far as identifying the audience and spin of the Poetry Foundation web site’s content compared to Poetry Magazine.
    Back to the pitch (and it’s kind of fun to talk about this in public, and hopefully illuminating) I find Harvey’s Rob-Boy poems especially compelling too, especially the relationship between the robot’s technological barriers and the way they thwart the robot’s human-like desires. I find this especially interesting because of the way Manga and Anime as art forms have been gaining strength in American consciousness, and themes often contained in those forms (technology versus humanity, post-apocalyptic societies, etc) have been creeping into American art in general. I’m always interested in the way that the visual art world and the poetry world intersect, and the popularity of visual art that contains some element of Japanese pop culture is rising (think of the “Superflat” movement, for instance.)
    Another poem of hers that I find really compelling is the story of the origin of moving pictures, as the cavewoman throws berries into the fire. A statement about short-attention spans, the need for entertainment and distraction, all done in that understated, witty style Matthea’s work is known for. I think there might be an interesting essay in talking about her book in the greater context of visual art and Japanese pop cultural influences on poetry, as well.
    Anyway, I’d love to discuss any of these ideas further, so please do e-mail me (webbish6 at hotmail dot com). I appreciate the chance!
    Take care,
    Jeannine

  • On November 4, 2007 at 3:25 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Hi Emily:
    Thanks but no thanks:
    I’m not inclined to single out 5 titles from the last 5 years. I don’t think that furthers the necessary dialogue. Rather, here are some titles that other entities recognized in one form or another…..
    The Republic of Poetry (Norton, 2006)
    by Martin Espada
    (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize)
    Drive (Wings Press, 2006)
    by Lorna Dee Cervantes
    (Winner of the Balcones Poetry Prize)
    Bent to the Earth (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2005)
    Blas Manuel de Luna
    (nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award)
    Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press, 2006)
    by Richard Blanco
    (Winner of the “Beyond Margins” Award from PEN American in NYC)
    How Long She’ll Last in This World (University of Arizona Press, 2006)
    by María Meléndez
    (featured in Poets & Writers; finalist of PEN West poetry award in LA)
    Pity the Drowned Horses (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005)
    by Sheryl Luna
    (featured in Poets&Writers; finalist for the Colorado Book Prize)
    Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (Tupelo Press, 2006)
    by Rigoberto González
    (finalist for the Lambda Literary Prize)
    Skin Tax (Heydey Books, 2004)
    by Tim Z. Hernandez
    (Winner of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award)
    Teeth (Curbstone Press, 2007)
    by Aracelis Girmay
    (profiled in Poets&Writers; profiled by Bill Moyers)
    ….but which POETRY didn’t/hasn’t seen fit to review.
    Why?

  • On November 4, 2007 at 3:38 pm Don Share wrote:

    Perhaps we can agree that poets and editors need to work together in order to defeat the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if poets of a particular group or background – or for that matter, “school” of poetry – decide that their work is unwelcome in a magazine based on its past record, they may be less likely to send work to it. Poetry magazine has an “open door” editorial policy – but an open door works best when people want to walk through it! As for reviews, they are possibly the most frustrating and difficult part of the work we do: one of the things these interesting critiques shows is how hard it is to find good prose about poetry and books of any kind.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 4:37 pm jane wrote:

    Dear Emily,
    thanks for your response. And I do take it on faith that you admire and engage the poets and thinkers you mention. However, you also distinguish this group—”postmodern feminists”—as fundamentally different from you: the opening gesture (“Maybe they’ll let me if I figure out what “essentialism” means. Is it related to “creationism”? Or “phrenology”?”) makes this clear. It’s not merely witty; it suggests (just a bit snarkily) that they are different from you in their approach, a difference you swiftly specify concerns how they understand language to work.
    My point, which I fear I didn’t make with enough clarity, is that you then go on to demonstrate—quite eloquently, if accidentally—that your relationship to language is exactly the same: that you too read “language as having no inherent meaning apart from its cultural freight.” So my claim here isn’t that you dislike such poets, but that the founding distinction of your essay doesn’t really hold. Linguistically, they’re just like you—as you note, they just have different jobs.
    This seems particularly relevant since the issue of who gets what jobs; what is it they believe; what is it that they leave unexamined…these underwrite the very differentials that Spahr and Young point up. Is it possible that believing certain writers are from a different tradition as yourself when that distinction doesn’t stand up so well has a downstream impact on what kind of writers get published—an impact which appears, among other ways, in the distributions of gender, ethnicity, and etc?
    I am not suggesting that we’re all the same and should just hold hands and hop into a perpetual mutual-support cuddle (though worse things have happened). But I do mean to suggest that there are many conscious and unconscious rhetorical strategies which serve to separate out the different, the radical, the critical…even when they are engaging matters that are absolutely and totally relevant to our own work and aesthetics and beliefs. Moreover, we gain by denying this, in that it saves us the trouble of addressing some troubling matters; we can hang out considering the pleasures of telling a good story, rather than the wearying vicissitudes of “cultural freight.” It sure is easier. I would suggest that this exact effect, in which criticality is located as part of somebody’s worldview rather than as required by reality, and can thus be left to churn away at the next table, starts to account for iniquities of publication and prize money.*
    * Several posts on this topic have gone to pains to point out that the raw numbers of gender distribution aren’t that remarkably unbalanced. I believe one of the central theses of Spahr/Young is that one must look past the raw numbers (e.g. number of prizes) to the more relevant data (e.g. value and status of prizes in question and so on).

  • On November 4, 2007 at 6:50 pm K.T. wrote:

    Hey Emily, I don’t understand your comments about Aragon. Mainly I don’t understand the connection between the Spahr/Young article and Aragon. First, Spahr/Young don’t seem to be petitioning poetry foundation for space, attention. Second, why would you need to include Latino work under the headline “under-represented”? Couldn’t you just include some kick ass Latino work because it is good? Because a lot of it is good. Just like work by other ethnicities/races/etc. (I myself like to read it because I think it is an important part of American literature.) But really I’m just confused why when someone says gender, someone replies no, race. They don’t parallel out. One has both, right?

  • On November 4, 2007 at 8:27 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    “As for reviews, they are possibly the most frustrating and difficult part of the work we do: one of the things these interesting critiques shows is how hard it is to find good prose about poetry and books of any kind.”
    Dear Don Share:
    I find it encouraging that you (and therefore, Poetry?) have at least acknowledged the issue of “reviews.”
    I didn’t begin to address this issue (my admittedly particular angle on this issue) until CW wrote his piece in the magazine (perhaps before you joined Poetry?) in which he explicitly stated (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Poetry aims to review “a range of books.”
    After CW’s piece was published (well over a year and a half possible two years ago), I wrote a very brief letter to Poetry pointing out that that “range,” up until then, did not include books by Latinos or Latinas.
    My brief letter was not published.
    Shortly thereafter, a couple of pieces appeared in the New York Sun and then the Boston Globe highlighting the magazine’s exploits. Both the Sun and the Globe published brief letters I wrote, highlighting my observation. I have no idea if the fact that those letters (and the issue they were raising) even made a blip on Poetry’s radar.
    Your comment above (“As for reviews…”), very skillfully avoids addressing the issue at hand
    (that Poetry has not reviewed a single volume of verse by a Latino or Latina poet since at least the Fall of 2003), though it does suggest something that perhaps you can clarify:
    Am I to understand—based on your statement—-that Poetry magazine has tried to “find good prose about poetry and books” written by Latino and Latina poets, and has not been able to? Is that Poetry’s official response?
    Is that Poetry’s official response for not reviewing, for example, Bent to the Earth by Blas Manuel de Luna and nominated for the National Book Critic Circle’s Prize in 2005? Or Alberto Rios’ latest book, published with Copper Canyon, Theater of Night, and also a winner of a recent award by PEN American?
    How much longer does your magazine intend to keep ithis perfect record intact?
    F

  • On November 5, 2007 at 9:02 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Dear Jane,
    I regret my opening snarkiness. My intention was to be playful and provocative, and in so doing, invite many of our readers, who most likely do not know what “essentialism” means, to read on. But how backwards is that? Creating an “other” in order to be inclusive? I agree, too, that such categorizing can have an impact on who publishes whom, so thanks for pointing that out.
    I think what you’re saying about “criticality” is that making it part of one’s worldview is a valid choice, and since it is not as popular (or as easy ) as narrative, that choice leads to inequities in prizes and money. If that’s what you meant, then it would be interesting to find out if that’s true.
    (My ear transposed your “mutual-support cuddle” into muddle-cuddle. I am a strong proponent of both!)
    Best,
    Emily

  • On November 5, 2007 at 10:02 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Dear K.T.,
    I think we agree. We want to publish “kick-ass” stuff. As I’ve written elsewhere, those who are advocating on behalf of people of all races and genders, and editors who are seeking out work are both necessary to achieving representation. But we also need people to submit their story ideas and suggestions for possible writers to us. When I say that, I am not blaming people for that not happening. I know there are myriad reasons why it hasn’t. I’m just encouraging people to do so.
    If you or others have story ideas for us, please send them to editors@poetryfoundation.org
    Emily

  • On November 5, 2007 at 10:10 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Jeannine,
    I like your superflat ideas. Let’s backchannel to develop an idea.
    Best, Emily

  • On November 5, 2007 at 10:20 pm Sheryl wrote:

    Emily,
    I have left a voice mail for you at your number and will try the other number since I didn’t leave my contact info.
    I certainly think readers are not interested when essays/promos are not written by people who are interested and aware of an audience of lay people. That’s the best expression I can come up with on the spot. In any case, the difficulty in blindly trusting people who are more businessmen or possibly business women than poets who merely love poetry is that you end up with hackneyed declarations about poems that include how much Spanish is in a poem, rather than punchy prose about what makes a poem spark and even burn.
    People ARE bored by business-type pitches that are essentially rooted in self-promotion, though the appearance may be that the pitch is all about generosity and community, it is often quite plainly about getting a piece of the pie. And right now the pie in regards to Latino/a poetry is unevenly divided, even utterly lopsided! The fact business-type marketing seems to have overtaken what/whom gets mentioned here. And this is why I love the cartoon in the post above that has a woman burning at the stake!
    I like the idea above regarding the tensions between spanish/spanglish interweaving of language and non Spanish speakers, and I am very glad that you have sensed that Latino/a poetry is not under the umbrella of one speaker’s demands or opinions.
    Here I feel as though I’ve gone on and on too long, but as you noted, Francisco Aragon is not shy about asking for a piece of the pie.
    I am interested in a number of Latina writers that are both up and coming and established. Lorna dee Cervantes is well established and highly intersting and I would like to interview her for Poetry Foundation or some other venue if she would agree, and I suspect she would agree.
    Other phenomenal and under the radar poets are Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Diana Garcia, Diana Delgado, Gina Franco, Veronica Reyes, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Suzanne Frishkorn (sp) Lisa Chavez. I would say Gaspar de Alba and Diana Garcia are long over due for their piece of the pie!!!
    I include Ben Saenz because I don’t see him on your website. This actually perplexes me and it is one reason I’ve decided to find a voice here.
    There are many others. I think what I see is that in giving business-men type people to talk about poems and more intersting aspects of poetry people get bored. People aren’t interested in us getting angry and chastising white people at Poetry Magazine. People are interested in good writing and I definitely want to state that I agree very much with your assessment. The problem in my opinion is good Latino/a poetry can be drowned out by someone who is eating too much, no?

  • On November 6, 2007 at 11:35 am Erika T Wurth wrote:

    Let Langston (Hughes) tell it:
    “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

  • On November 6, 2007 at 3:42 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Amen to that.
    Thank you, Erika T. Wurth

  • On November 8, 2007 at 1:20 am Paul Nelson wrote:

    Essays on Duncan and Levertov:
    http://globalvoicesradio.org/Organic_Poetry.html
    http://globalvoicesradio.org/Evolving_The_Organic.html
    Enjoy.
    Paul Nelson

  • On November 14, 2007 at 9:55 am Kelly Cherry wrote:

    Dear Emily,
    In 2005 I published History, Passion, Freedom, Death, and Hope: Prose about Poetry (U of Tampa), a collection of essays, essay-reviews, and reviews regarding poetry. It received, I believe, two reviews. I have written well over a hundred reviews of poetry, fiction, and occasionally nonfiction (The Los Angeles Times, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Hollins Critic, etc.). A previous collection, Writing the World (U of Missouri, 1995), included pieces about southern poets. My newest title, just out, is Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems. I have been publishing books since 1974. When I write reviews, I am aware of myself as working within the tradition of poet-critics, and I try to produce criticism that is worth not just reading but rereading.
    I am a southerner, however, and Southern writers, especially southern poets, tend to be overlooked. For this reason, I make a point of including southern poets when I review, But of course, the national lack of interest in southern poetry bedevils my own work as much as it does the work of other southern writers.
    Maybe you have some helpful suggestions to offer. I was an early member of the NBCC but gave it up because there was simply no benefit to someone not in a major city or regularly attached to a major publication.
    Although I have not limited my reviews to southern poets, I do believe that a good deal of the best poetry being written today is being written in the South.
    Kelly Cherry

  • On November 15, 2007 at 10:31 am Christopher Hennessy wrote:

    ‘I contain multitudes’– Whitman
    These conversations are important to have, and I’m especially glad that this particular conversation is branching out to multiple forms of identity. (It is identity that we’re circling, isn’t it?) Race, gender, location, culture, and –what interest me most — sexuality, which I’m happy to bring into the mix.
    My book _OUTSIDE THE LINES: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets_ includes many discussions of how identity shapes the poetic craft: NOT simply what we write, but how we write. I think it’s crucial to understand — for writers and editors and reviewers — that poetry ‘contains multitudes’ and that the greater view and grasp we have of those differences, the richer we ALL are. Each part of identity is also part of our humanity, so if one of poetry’s goals is to map out and sing about what makes us human, then those multitudes must be explored to their fullest.
    Ironically, I harbor a guilt for focusing on gay poets in my work. (If I believe in these multitudes, whY not open my scope wider?) Thankfully, when one examines gay poets they are often examining some of the greatest poets we’ve had: Whitman, Langston Hughes, Crane, Auden, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Merrill, Gunn, Adrienne Rich, M. Hacker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, and that’s just the Americans…and boy does the list go on. So I say thankfully because I’m lucky that my particular interest also allows me to see and learn from the greats.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, November 3rd, 2007 by Emily Warn.