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[Editor's Note: This "Open Door" piece is a response to Tyrone William's post "Amateur Poets and the Academy," posted on Harriet on October 21st, 2013.]
When I was a student at Columbia University in the 90s, the street in Morningside Heights was a much different story. There were three 24-hour greasy spoons in a space of four blocks on Broadway and a bar called the Marlin which was an utter chewed-up dive. Right next door was a grocery store that eventually went upscale and ate the Marlin, but back then it was just a wide shop with pyramids of green apples and oranges out on the sidewalk in winter. And it was in front of this grocery that you’d normally find the poet Donald Green, standing at his folding card table and wearing a black wool coat down to his ankles and a polite, aloof look on his face.
On the table he’s got a piece of copy paper propped up and rubberbanded to a cardboard plank, hand lettered in big cursive loops, touting himself as “a New York Times published poet.” He’s got the short poem in question, which appeared in an article on new African-American poets in the 60s and which looks like it’s been photocopied ten times for every thirty years gone by, taped to the sign. On the table he’s got stacks and fans of photocopied books with salmon or toothpaste-colored pastel covers, all crossed by his signature cursive. He’s selling the books for a little too much.
If you want to have a friendly conversation with him about his poetry, the best (the only) thing to do is buy a book. The worst thing you can do is say you’re a poet too, and not buy a book. Actually, the worst thing I’m pretty sure I ever tried to do was to offer a trade: my poems for his. His reaction brought to mind the “Life In Hell” comic strip where Matt Groening lists the different types of artists and how to annoy them. How to annoy poets: Be another poet.
Or it might have been even worse, many years later, when I approached him with copies of New York Nights, the newspaper I was editing at Ugly Duckling Presse, and asked him if he would like to contribute to the next issue. Donald Green stammered with disbelief. He touched the paper with his fingertips and fixed me with eyes that said I’d made a terrible mistake.
“I’m a New York Times published poet,” he said.
He stands there like a man selling pure gold playbooks, but he’s looking worse and worse. His bald patch is spreading. His proud eyes are entering some desperate territory. Always the same books, the sign rubberbanded to the cardboard plank. The same long coat looking more and more tattered and his hands looking chalkier, colder.
One winter night in the mid-aughts, Ugly Duckling received two tickets to a dinner party that the English department at Columbia was throwing to fete small local presses. Greg Ford, my colleague at the Presse, asked if I’d like to attend. Normally, I wouldn’t have been caught dead at that sort of backscratching event. I was much better than that noise: I was the publisher of New York Nights, the most radical newspaper in town. But that night I was hungry and curious. What were these academics up to anyway? Was snow crab on the menu?
In the elevator going up, we bumped into an old friend whose big small press (ten thousand rather than one thousand copies per book) was taking off. She made a funny face and asked me, “What are you doing here?”
Which made me feel cool. Confirmed: the undercover outsider is on his way up.
“He’s only here for the free food,” said Greg.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Oh,” said one of the event’s organizers, who seemed glum to hear it—causing another attendee in the elevator to confuse me for (to peg me as?) a horrid cliché.
I spent the dinner playing nice but feeling above it all. I used to pretend to get off on acting superior to other people who were a lot like me, but I only did it (surprise!) because I felt out of place among my peers, all of whom failed to see the future of poetry in my eyes.
One thing about that dinner, though, is that the people there really were annoying in this very particular way that only academics and striving arts professionals can be. I remember one professor talking about a young novelist who was associated with n+1 magazine. The professor, once the novelist’s teacher, was clearly proud of his student’s success but chided him in absensia for being too independent minded—“for thinking he can do it alone.” You could see he would have liked to call the young novelist his protégé, but the novelist’s arrogance, however charming a quality in a young novelist, made this impossible. Of course, if he wanted to truly succeed in the longterm, the novelist (who wouldn’t be young forever) would need his old ally the professor, and his colleagues at the university, to declare the lasting importance of his work. And what was remarkable was that the professor was able to drive this point home—the point being that the independent artist is a myth propagated by none other than the academic—by never saying it at all, simply by happily patronizing his ex-student in the company of like minds.
I left early and went back down the elevator, came out on Amsterdam Avenue and started south to 110th. It was was a bitter cold night and I was sticking close to the sidewalk vents blowing hot air up from the basements of the big towers of my alma mater. And there, lying right on top of one of those vents, all wrapped up in a greasy nylon sleeping bag, his bald patch shining in the streetlamp, his face to the wall, was the poet Donald Green. His folded card table was leaned there and his ear was on a duffel bag probably stuffed with stapled books too dinged-up to sell. It’s true, as I said, that he’d seemed to be going downhill for years, but I was still shocked to see him sleeping on the street: To see a poet sleeping against the wall of my old school. In my head, I always saw him sitting up late in some old coldwater flat—broke, to be sure, but not destitute.
I thought back to that night after reading Tyrone Williams’s article on so-called amateur poets and the academy. I guess you could say I’m an amateur poet myself. “Amateur” is a good word because it means “lover of” in French.
Donald Green would have definitely been considered an amateur poet by Tyrone Williams, whose article you read can read here, where, though he does express admiration for certain such poets, the adjective takes on shades of “Sunday painter.” Whether or not he means to give it this gloss, the “eavesdropping on the natives” tone that he sometimes slips into, sees to it. His obvious and infectious admiration for certain poets in Cincinnati is somewhat doomed by this noblesse oblige tone, and it’s a shame since he can be a very good witness to that local scene.
Williams obviously loves Poetry and wants what’s best for the art. But even with these good intentions, what’s the point of sorting poets into amateur and professional classes? Is the art of poetry illuminated by this move?
Judging from this article, it’s not. You force a division then waste time making it stick—more confusion where a poem would have done. I’m tired of hearing about how some poets are “innovative,” some “anachronistic.” In the absence of actual poems or performances to discuss and compare, what could these words mean? And then, once we do have the goods, one wo/man’s innovator will, without fail, be another’s anachronism and vice versa. And it has always been so under the sun. I also haven’t yet come across a transparent definition of lyric poetry in our day. Yet people continue to attack the lyric as if it’s a triangulated virus with such statements as, “The deep ludicrousness of lyric is Abstract Expressionism’s subject, to which it returns like a tongue to a loosening tooth.” (1) To me, this is a very odd and unnecessarily humorless piece of nonsense.
I confess that I’m beginning to wonder if I myself may not be an anachronism. Might I be a “bald, ugly, ageing drunken lyric poet” like the pathetic Verlaine (David Thewlis) that Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) buggered in “Total Eclipse,” doomed to watch bold new Turks overrun my sentimental hand-broadcast garden with their conceptual supercrops? I’m being facetious because I’m actually, truly, scared that no one will be reading my poems in ten years, and this goes directly against my plan which was to be ignored now but seen as a sort of poet guru by the next generation.
I also worry that the kind of poem I like reading will get harder and harder to find. It’s already hard to find. It’s a type of innovative anachronistic lyric anarchist word blast. It’s basically the opposite of the majority of poems I see young poets writing these days. And it’s on a different planet from the poetry written by academics and their students. The kind of poem I actually enjoy reading is still being written by people my age who give the middle finger to the court. I’m waiting to see if younger poets will be able to do it, or if they’ll all get scared into seeking the laurel pasteboard.
Where I grew up—in and around Berkeley, CA—there were lots and lots of poets, but I never met one who would have fit Williams’s description of a professional. For example, none of these poets did national tours, let alone “usual national” tours to promote their books. The poet that most amazed me when I was a teenager, just starting out, was a young man who told me that he wrote poems for his friends, only for his friends. Personally I wanted to be famous, so this guy’s attitude (which he fully inhabited) was almost exotic.
Is it possible to be gently exasperated by a question you’ve heard one too many times? If it is, then that was this poet’s mien. He would have liked to snuff the whole burning question of Voice and where it carries—the bonfire of status ladders and grant proposals—for the good and glory of poets to be born, but he would have killed it softly, maybe with a nice big kiss. And the thing is, not only did his friends love him, he was widely known on the street as a kick-ass poet. Go figure.
When I started going to open mics, I met some real bruisers. On a timeline, these poets would fall into “post-Beat” but they were each slinging strange poems of their own devising. Williams might have held that they “generally” (a favorite word) wrote lyric poetry, but there was nothing really similar between a poem by Vampyre and a poem by Julia Vinograd except that they both came out of showboats who favored the money shot: by which I mean, these poets went for the head-sticking image. They were about as far from “professional” as you could get. They were like a pack of burping, ass-scratching junky witches. The poets around here in the late-80s and 90s were tough and they’d yell you off stage if they didn’t like your poem. I remember wanting to impress these poets by writing circles around them. I rarely raised an eyebrow.
I’d have to move to New York to meet my first poet who would fit Williams’s description of the professional. At Columbia, though I didn’t take his poetry class, I met Kenneth Koch. Kenneth didn’t like me for some reason. One day on campus I pulled up alongside him, in his long striped scarf and amazing windblown presence, and asked him, “Hey, I’m a poet, and I’m trying to figure out how to get my work out there and I’m wondering what you think is a good way to do that.”
It was a disingenuous question, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually be able to answer it. I just wanted an excuse to talk to him.
He stared down at me like I was a bug. “Give it to your friends,” he said.
So it was that the most professional poet I’d ever met, and the least professional poet I’d ever met, left me with the same advice.
When I was fourteen years old I was sitting at a cafe table on the sidewalk in Paris, France, with my dad and his friend Claude, when we were approached by a super-skinny, very dirty man wearing rags and a long beard. He told us in English that he was a poet selling poems and asked if we would buy one for ten francs, which Claude shelled out. As he loped away, we read his poem—short lines scrawled in blue ink on a scrap of lined paper so used to being folded it had turned soft—to ourselves, and Claude said, “It’s very bad.”
I remember that the last two lines of the poem were, “Our first kiss / On our first date.” I could tell it was a bad poem because it did nothing for me, and because the emotion in it seemed borrowed from somewhere faraway, but still—in a way it was great. The man who gave it to us was different from most other people on the street. For one, he had actually approached us out of nowhere and said something. The paper itself had character. The transaction had meaning: The man walked off with a coin while all three of us zoned in on the scrap. For just a moment, anything was possible. We might have been about to read an incredible, stupendously good poem written by—who?
I remember that feeling of anticipation and dread: I wasn’t a poet yet, but I wanted the man’s poem to be good. When it wasn’t good, no big deal, but for a second there I was a little high—coping with a really volatile emotion, the same one that makes me watch live stand-up comedy through cracks in my fingers. The same one I try to get into my poems.
I returned to Paris six years later and kicked around the city. 1990. By then I considered myself a poet and already had a chip on my shoulder. A few months later I took a trip with some friends down to Greece. We wandered around Athens for a week and headed out to Naxos where we slept in tents near the beach. As the ferry to the mainland pulled out of the slip, I was standing on the deck, figuring I’d be back, watching the white wall of the boat edge away from the pier, when I spotted the poet from the Paris cafe.
His back was turned and he was loping along the pier towards the mainland—I knew him by his walk. His clothes looked exactly the same in the much brighter Aegean sun. It was as if he’d left our table in Paris, somehow slipped through the middle of my eye and come out on the pier six years later without breaking stride.
I’ve always wanted to tell that story, and I offer it here as blowback to the wall-to-wall haze of trade shows, pay-to-play publishing contests and smartypants poetics that has temporarily blinded North American poets to the natural beauty of their hands. We can now trace the glut of anxious, credentialed poets to a conspiracy between microbreweries to sell more beer, but that’s OK. It is a great joy to be a poet, and where the pencil meets the page, we’re all lovers—amateurs.
(If you would like to pitch an idea for “Open Door,” please contact us)