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Amateur Poets and the Academy

By Tyrone Williams

As in other major cities across the United States, Cincinnati has its share of what we might call amateur poets. By amateur I mean poets who have published chapbooks and books, usually by small presses, but who have not done the usual national (as opposed to regional) readings in support of their work. Specifically, amateur poets usually have jobs outside academia, do not blog (are not blogged about), and, most important, usually subscribe to a poetics generally viewed by professional poets and critics as anachronistic. Amateur poets usually, but by no means always, subscribe to the lyric tradition. In other words, regardless of the poetics they subscribe to, these poets usually subscribe to just that one poetics, however retrograde it may appear to others. In an earlier post I paid homage to Cincinnati poets Ralph La Charity and Robert Murphy, and though I didn’t refer to them as amateurs in the sense defined above, that definition might apply to Robert, and only because he hasn’t generally toured outside the region to support his books and he subscribes to one—neo-romantic—lyric tradition. La Charity has published and read his works widely, work whose sensibility might be called neo-Beat, and though I gather he doesn’t do as much traveling as he once did, he is not, in the sense used above, an amateur poet.

Gerry Grubbs, however, fits the bill. A Cincinnati-based lawyer and amateur poet, Gerry does not tour to support his books, does not give many readings in town, does not theorize about the relative virtues and flaws of schools or movements within poetry, does not attempt to ingratiate himself to or deliberately distance himself from other poets. All he does is rise before dawn each morning, work on poems, and go into his law office. He is a good poet in the lyric tradition. His work is neither innovative nor (usually) sentimental. What I admire about Gerry, though, first and foremost. are his work habits. I tell my students and other would-be aspirants (“I want to write a novel,” “I want to be a poet,” etc.) that nothing is more important than good work habits (that includes reading in general, poetry in particular). Gerry Grubbs is a model for those who want to establish the regular works habits in order to write poetry. True, Gerry has the luxury of being the true amateur; he’s not looking to write a poem which he hopes will be published in a magazine, a poem which will then become part of a book, which itself will secure a teaching post somewhere in the educational system. He writes because he loves poetry (by the way, every professional poet I know loves poetry too so this is not some celebration of “outsider” poetry as somehow more authentic, more real, than the professional versions…), but also because he can afford—in every sense—to love poetry.

I sat down with Gerry for a talk about his latest book, The Hive, a book-long conceit on the bee. Like other lawyer-poets—I’m thinking of Lawrence Joseph in particular—Gerry moves back and forth between legal and aesthetic discourses with ease. He pointed out nexuses where law and poetry meet—e.g., substantive case-histories, rules of evidence, and rules of procedure—and explained how he assembles his books. He writes every day, and after filling up a notebook over the course of two or three months, distills the material into potential poems, culling lines and images from the notebooks. And though Gerry has taught workshops for the Greater Cincinnati Writers League, he generally has little interest in doing more readings outside the Tri-State (Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana). One site of difference, however, between his law and aesthetic practices is his indifference to audience while writing but his conviction that winning a legal case is more about the art of persuasion than evidence. Still, as he made clear, his indifference to any sense of an audience during the act of writing does not mean he doesn’t value the one-to-one “connection” his lyric poetry makes between him and listeners during a reading. In fact, Gerry seems to value the reading of poetry more than he does publishing books. He extols the seductive trappings of the lyric poem, perhaps fitting for an attorney whose livelihood depends on his ability to persuade. At the same time he reads widely, without prejudice, however preferentially, in terms of the usual polarization between innovative and traditional, marginal and mainstream, poems. He’s a reminder that there is enough room, enough interest, in our culture for all kinds of poetry, for all kinds of poets.

The same can said of Steven Paul Lansky, a local musician, poet, and novelist I’ve known for almost all of the years I’ve been in Cincinnati. I don’t recall exactly where and when we met but I got to know Steve when he was a late night deejay of alternative music for a local college radio station (oddly enough, my Detroit pal, the poet and fiction writer Kim Hunter, also was a late night deejay on a local Detroit radio station). When Steve showed me some of his work he made it clear that he had no interest in trying to make it “publication ready.” I took this to mean he wanted to retain the status of an amateur poet. Since then he has, in fact, self-published his work, including a four-cd novel, Jack Acid, on CDBaby. As he notes, this particular project, like a great deal of his poetry, is inspired by his frequent travels. He’s also a musician; he plays the harmonica and guitar. Steve’s poetics (and prose stylings) are closer to those of another local poet, Ralph La Charity, who I mentioned in a previous post. Like Gerry Grubbs, Steve has operated outside the usual poet-making circuits, though his part-time teaching gig at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the resulting contact with the talented, innovative poets there (Cathy Wagner, cris cheek, Keith Tuma) has raised his public, if largely regional, profile. Still, Steve is pretty academic-resistant. When I asked him about his “poetics,” he replied, “What poetics? I just write.” Lest one confuse him with a proud know-nothing, Steve told me about his unmistakably literary childhood. His father and John Ciardi were friends and read to one another. His Zen Buddhist Aunt sent him books by poets like Norman Fischer, Cid Corman and Rainer Maria Rilke. For him, poetry was about sound, about hearing and recitation. But above all, he loves storytelling, both the listening and the telling.

And then, of course, there is the spoken word/performance poetry scene, which is huge here. The Greenwich Tavern regularly mixes local blues and jazz music with performances by local spoken word performers (I first heard the ensemble 144K there many years ago) as does Roh’s Café, hosted by Brian Sullivan. I bring up all these traditions to emphasize how important it is, at least for me, to remain connected, however tenuously, to poetry outside academia. I’m not saying from an all-too-predictable anti-academic academic perspective (self-loathing is one of the studied postures we academics often assume) but from the point of view of literary history. I recently gave a paper at a conference about the way that literary poetry often begins as non- or anti-literary poetry. It isn’t simply that the academy annexes the aesthetic traditions that lay beyond its boundaries at a given moment in its development (though that happens too). It’s that these modes of poetry find their way into the academy when new teachers, who know this work intimately, decide to teach and propagate it because they think it’s important for students to know it for reasons beyond mere self-interest and “relevance.” The local poetry scenes thus stand at the axis of service to their constituents across the region but also those future students who will be taught by professors whose ideas of poetry will be informed by literary and local history.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, October 21st, 2013 by Tyrone Williams.