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Without Walls: Kyle Schlesinger Edits ABR

By Thom Donovan

February March 2008 NYC DA Levy reading Peace on A reading etc 027
Kyle Schlesinger, friend, colleague, and editor of countless invaluable bibilographic and poetic objects, has a wonderful feature in the most recent American Book Review, entitled “Poetry Without Walls.” To give you a sense of this project, I quote at length from Schlesinger’s introduction to the feature:

“Readers will notice that there is some concentric circularity in these reviews: Miles Champion writes on the work of Tom Raworth; Michael Gizzi writes on the work of Miles Champion; William Corbett writes on the work of Michael Gizzi; Alan Davies writes on the work of Kit Robinson; Kit Robinson writes on the work of Anne Tardos; Elizabeth Fodaski writes on the work of Michael Gottlieb; and Michael Gottlieb writes on the work of K. Silem Mohammad. As Davies points out in his recent essay, ‘The Dea(r)th of Poetry,’ Rain Taxi states that it is ‘dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews’ and requests that contributors disclose their relationship to authors or presses that they wish to write about. While acknowledging that ‘not all relationships constitute a conflict of interest,’ they respectfully request contributors ‘candor regarding any relationships.’ I have read Rain Taxi regularly for years and suspect that this editorial policy has been put in place to counter the politics of Foetry, and yet I’m reminded of Robert Creeley’s definition of a poetry movement as ‘a group of people who basically enjoy talking to one another.’ The contributors in this issue of American Book Review are largely from a school without walls, writers who have read widely and deeply, engaged with and contributed to the work of their contemporaries, yet avoided (perhaps consciously) the trappings and perks of aligning their work with any particular school of writing. They share in a community where a rigorous and productive exchange of ideas and information about the work itself is the norm. From the Reverend Glover’s voyage to America in the summer of 1638 in search of freedom to publish the books he wanted to read, the independent press has been an irrevocable part of American life and literature. I thank the American Book Review for their generous invitation to edit this feature on small press poetry.”

For my contribution to Schlesinger’s gallery, I chose to write on three small presses prominent thruout the aughts (Krupskaya, Factory School, and Palm Press), in terms of my sense of those presses’ “activism.” Before my discussion of the presses themselves, I discuss at some length how I see small presses working in general via an activist function in relation to larger, ‘mainstream’ (i.e., hegemonic) cultural discourse. To what extent do the other bloggers here (or readers for that matter) see the press acting to effect socio-political transformation? Given the fate of off-line publishing, how does one view the future of small press activism on the web, and via print on demand and other electronic and psuedo-electronic media? What is the relation between printed matter and the expression of a particular socio-political content and/or idea? How can the book and/or printed matter give way to needed change?

from Three Contemporary Activist Presses: Factory School, Krupskaya, Palm Press

Any poetry press active in the United States right now is arguably activist. This is so because we live in an atmosphere inhospitable to poetry. Hence to write poetry and to publish it is both a call to action and a struggle to act. Economically, one scrounges the time to read and write poetry and often succumbs to pursuing an MFA or eking out an existence in the academy or some other humble corner of society in order to continue doing so. Socially, pursuing being a poet is not what it used to be. Whereas in the 60s many competed to be considered a poet–deserving of the venerable title–in the present most of the poets I know avoid calling themselves a poet whether for shame or just wanting to avoid explaining what they do. To be a poet in our society is a sign of poverty, regression, and misplaced idealism. Sitting in a New York cafe recently, I heard someone crack a joke: “maybe I will write a poem about it” (referring to an impasse they had encountered in their attempt to start a business). To write poetry and nurture poetry culture is considered wasteful and hapless, if not criminal. It does not properly participate in the dominant economic model of our society–liberal pluralist capitalism–and is thus perceived as the pursuit of the weak and anti-productive.

Given this situation, there is nevertheless a huge spectrum that currently divides poetry cultures and practices. Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand–these have been our poet laureates throughout the “W” years, and I find something particularly telling about this fact. For these poets represent, to me, terribly retrograde poetic practices and conducts. Billy Collins’ cynical rhetoric, in particular, would now seem the mirror of the Bush administration’s own. Only where Bush argued for a “coalition of the willing” and “armies of compassion,” Collins continues to argue for a poetry of “common sense.” As in Bush’s speeches, with Collins sarcastic poems one recognizes the wink of an insider who would like to be viewed as populist. Whenever I hear Collins advocate for common sense I burn with the intuition that Collins has it all wrong, and culture–the larger American culture which poetry clandestinely undergirds–is paying for it. There will not be a common sense born from sarcasm. What Collins doesn’t realize is that common sense is something which needs to be overturned in order to be won. And this is precisely what any poetry worth its mettle does. It is revolutionary in the most literal sense. And it is revolution which grounds whatever will be called “our” common sense–a shifting terrain upon which every one can tentatively stand together.

The ideological, formal, and political contests of poets are fought in any number of cultural locations. Some of the more humble locations include the bar, bookstore, house reading, street corner, and margins of books. Some of the more ‘high stakes’ locations include the poetry contest, fellowship/grant awards, and academic appointments/tenure-system. Perhaps the most crucial sites of these contests are to be found in book publishing. Publishers obviously determine what books get into print at all, and the forms that such books will assume. While very few poets will get book deals with major publishers (Norton, FSG, Knopf, Penguin, etc.), there is a better chance that they may get a book with an academic press. But the majority of poets, if they will publish books at all, publish them with small presses. And it is at the level of the small press where much of the most radical and progressive poetry in the United States has always been written, and is certainly being written today.

Small press cultures tend to be well-meaning and progressive, if not often eccentric–that is, off-center. They can take risks that larger publishers obviously cannot, because large scale publishers have more economic resources being channeled into their publishing endeavors, and profit (or at least ‘breaking-even’) is a must. If small press poetry makes a profit, this profit is usually small, and sustains the operation of the press/people who run the press to some degree. However, the majority of small presses (if one can imagine a pyramid, I guess I am referring to the base of the pyramid) operate through gift exchange. One produces a book in order that they may receive books–or reviews, or having one’s own book published–in return. Profits are not necessarily made, however one learns the trade, and participates in a community of other poet-publishers who vet each other collectively. Most of all these small presses grow out of community, and form a glue by which poets bond and discourse with others within and outside their communities.

I tend to be ecumenical in my support of presses at the base of the aforementioned “pyramid.” As in the natural world, at the level of micro-organisms and sub-atmomic particles, this is where the new and unprecedented emerges. This sense of emergence is in fact quite possibly the most exciting thing about attending any small press culture–paying attention to and participating in it.

Throughout modernity, there is also a vital tradition of the small press serving a politics, and doing so through formal exploration (form not given, but discovered through a situation, process, or event). The poem, I would argue, is a form of action; it does something in the world–to culture, to a readership–and is therefore active. The question of what poetry does recalls the Spinozan proposition: we have not yet determined what a body can do. That is, the limits of what the poem can do inscribe the limits of existence in its consequences. These consequences necessarily bear out a politics and a social purpose–however privately and uniquely. A press becomes activist where it cultivates political means (not ends). If I could perceive any major split within small press culture at the moment, it would be along the lines of action in the sense of how I am using the term. How can poetry support a political and social purposiveness without rendering poetry instrumental? How can an “avant garde” tradition of innovation and experiment be negotiated with real political, economic, and social struggles?

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 16th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.