2000-2009: The Decade in Poetry
The past ten years have changed poetry in ways that have shocked and delighted even the most forward-thinking readers and writers. Online communities have flourished, dominant paradigms have shifted, and readers have found new solace in traditional forms. Poetry—and poetry communities—will never be the same. We asked poets and critics whose work has had a wide influence over the art form to describe the poetry “event” that most shaped their view of the decade. They focused on events both private and public, and their responses reveal that poetry in the new decade will continue to be a living, breathing, and ever-changing thing.—The Editors
In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, there were, as we remember, public gatherings all over the country. People instinctively and correctly had the idea that we needed to be together as a group, as Americans, in order to begin confronting what had happened. From a poet's perspective, what was so striking to me about these gatherings was how they seemed to inevitably turn towards the public recitation of poetry. Songs, speeches, sermons: All these typical public uses of language were obviously inappropriate, as was simply sitting together in silence, which would have been too lonely. Once again, as always, we needed speech that simultaneously countered great silences while acknowledging them. It was as if suddenly everyone remembered—even if, and in fact precisely because, no one could say exactly why—that poetry could do something no other form of language could. Poetry is a kind of realism in the face of the sublime. Poetry acknowledges the impossibility as well as the need to say that which cannot be said. I think this quality of poetry is in itself a very necessary political statement, because it does not allow for, on the one hand, simplifying and ultimately crushing rhetoric, or on the other hand, a sanctimonious retreat into nihilistic minimalism. The public need for poetry after 9/11 was a great call to action for American poets.
The last decade saw a dramatic increase in women’s presence on the poetry scene as women, both in the US and elsewhere. While there is still plenty of "Numbers Trouble," the very existence of that notorious 2007 essay is part of a notable change. During this period, women poets began more than ever before to gather and converse together online and in person; to publish, edit, and review; to revise poetic history and theory; and to organize for action—all, explicitly, as women poets.
In 1999, my nursing a baby at a conference on contemporary innovative women’s poetry at Barnard, “Where Lyric Meets Language Poetry,” occasioned public thanks from a beleaguered woman panelist. By 2008, nobody would have given it a glance; “poet-moms” were everywhere, and the atmosphere at the two major conferences on women's poetry that year, “Why Study Women’s Poetry?” at St. Francis College and “Lifting Belly High” at Duquesne University, was palpably woman-friendly. Along the way, the WOM-PO listserv burgeoned from a small handful to nearly a thousand subscribers, and other listservs and online communities focused on women poets, such as Formalista, Poet-Moms, and Pussipo, started.
Jane Dowson and Gilbert and Gubar have pointed out that for generations women poets renounced and ignored the women poets before them. During the last decade that pattern seemed to change as, in new physical, textual, and virtual spaces, women poets increasingly took control of the development and maintenance of the canon and poetic tradition. The two 2008 conferences spanned aesthetics, reassessed women poets from past centuries, and honored pioneers in the field. The decade saw the publication of groundbreaking books such as Kristin Prevallet’s Helen Adam Reader, Elizabeth Alexander’s Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue’s Innovative Women Poets, Joyce A. Joyce’s Conversations with Sonia Sanchez, the reissue of Alicia Ostriker’s The Mother/Child Papers, Eva Salzman and Amy Wack’s Women’s Work, and Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s Women Poets on Mentorship. Two major biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay appeared in 2001, bringing that bellwether poet to a level of chic-ness unprecedented since her death; she has even been showing up in music, from cabaret to a punk tribute by Meatyard.
Perhaps reinforced by such groundbreaking contact with their poetic roots, women poets have begun not only to reexamine assumptions about poetics, but to take assertive action on behalf of women’s poetry. Online communities helped raise awareness and solidarity internationally around controversial events such as the 2005 murder of Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, apparently for the crime of writing poetry while female, and the sexual harassment charges against a 2008 candidate for Oxford poetry professor. It is fitting that the decade ended with online journal of women’s formal poetry Mezzo Cammin planning an ambitious women’s poetry timeline with a launch at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC this spring, and with poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin founding Women in Literature and Literary Arts, an organization whose professionalism and media savvy promises to build the power of women’s poetry and poetics in the next decade.
Poets blogging is just a symptom. The decline of indie bookstores, including the closure of such stalwarts as Cody’s & Shaman Drum, is just a symptom. The slow, painful death of newspapers, most of which have already tossed their book review sections and literary critics overboard, is itself just a symptom. The collapse of academic literary journals—viz. TriQuarterly, Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest, three of my first publishers—is just a symptom. Trade publishers openly speculate that they may be next, and even universities are starting to fear that their turn may be coming. They’re right.
Just as MFA programs have pumped the number of poets writing and publishing in the United States up from a few hundred a half-century ago to tens of thousands today, the major institutions that not only embodied all of this activity but served an important (if hotly contested) gate-keeping function are now all being undermined or transformed by the ongoing revolution in communications technology. The poet’s relationship to his or her audience is undergoing a profound transformation. The poet’s relationship to the institutions and even to the tools of her or his practice is doing likewise. Everything is up for grabs.
Some poets have chosen to embrace the new with everything from flarf to technology-based visual poetries. Others have decided that the “timeless” values of tradition will outlast even this. They recall and sometimes reiterate the archaeologist’s maxim that ultimately, hard copy is truth. If you can’t dig it up in 5,000 years, did it ever exist? Ian Hamilton Finlay, with his stone-carved minimal texts, may outlast us all.
What’s apparent is that (a) this joyride isn’t over, and (b) we’re all in this together. When I realize that any chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide, I feel hopeful. I just hope we can find time to read & enjoy this great bounty.
Herrera’s co-win (it was a tie with August Kleinzahler) in 2009 of the National Book Critics Circle Award marked a milestone for U.S. Latino letters: it was the first time a Chicano/Latino poet took home one of three major industry prizes (I include in this distinguished company the Pulitzer and the National Book Award). The recognition was long overdue for Herrera, arguably one of the most influential voices in the Chicano literary community. Half of the World in Light, published by the University of Arizona Press, was a new and selected volume that spoke to his prolific 30-year career. But his poems, besides highlighting his skills as an inventive intra-linguist and word acrobat, also provide an important timeline of Chicano political history and social activism in this country.
The co-win might have appeared a diluted victory to some, but Herrera’s name traveled throughout Latin America (partly because the winner of the NBCC Award in Fiction that year was 2666 by the deceased Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—the pronouncement of the two names gave a semblance of a double whammy). In any case, the award renewed national interest in a poet who has been around this entire time as an educator, mentor and small press author.
It’s important to clarify that Herrera (or any other Chicano/Latino poet) doesn’t need an award to write or to validate the presence of U.S. Latino letters within the expansive American landscape, but his win was still a proud moment for the Chicano/Latino community. If anything, the community’s members (present company included) usually gripe when any award finalist list is released and no “writers of color” are included. (Note Luis Alberto Urrea’s recent cyber-tirade on the lack of representation at the National Book Awards: Does NBA stand for “No Beaners Allowed”?) All of the NBA winners this year, by the way, were white men.
Will Herrera’s win change the way Chicano/Latino writers are read or received in this country? We certainly like to think so, but experience has taught us differently. Did anything change after the Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love? The next, and second-ever, Pulitzer in literature awarded to a Latino went to the Dominican Junot Díaz, eighteen years later. While I do hope we don’t have to wait almost two decades for the next Chicano/Latino poet to receive an industry nod, I also expect many of us are not going to hold our breaths, but will continue to celebrate Chicano/Latino writers on our own terms. In the meantime: Mazel tov, Juan Felipe Herrera!
The Arizona Symposium on Contemporary Poetry is held annually on the University of Arizona campus at Tucson. When Frances Sjoberg, then Literary Director, invited me to curate the 2008 event (hard on the heels of the 2007 Native Voices Symposium), I knew only that I had been given the opportunity to invite a good mix of cutting-edge poets. The title of the symposium, Conceptual Poetry and its Others, was framed partly in response to Craig Dworkin’s Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which had created quite a controversy. But the poet-speakers—Caroline Bergvall, Charles Bernstein, Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Peter Gizzi, Kenneth Goldsmith, Susan Howe, Tracie Morris, and Cole Swensen—certainly represented a variety of positions. Each was asked to lead a 75–90-minute “break-out” session on teaching, writing, or scholarship; to participate in a group poetry reading; and to serve on a panel discussion on the symposium theme. In addition—and this was Frances’s idea—we issued a call for applicants to participate in a round table discussion on Conceptual Poetry. Those chosen were offered free room and board, and were to give their own 15-minute presentations.
The round table—we ended up having two, with eight speakers at each—turned out to be the greatest surprise. We had dozens of submissions from around the world: The final panels included, among others, conceptual critic Graca Capinha (Coimbra, Portugal), poet and art critic Wystan Curnow (New Zealand), conceptual poet Vanessa Place (Los Angeles), and the editor of the famed Scandinavian visual poetry journal OEI, Jesper Olsson. The round table participants could easily have themselves led break-through sessions, as could members of the audience, like the New York poet Robert Fitterman. The poets were partly chosen for their reputations as performers, and they exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, Peter Gizzi and Susan Howe couldn’t come at the last minute, but the others gave truly original and varied presentations, and the debate—always before a packed auditorium—was often quite heated.
Did we learn what Conceptual Poetry was? Tracie Morris calls herself a “musical” or sound poet; Christian Bök is best known for his constraint-based Eunoia, but, as Charles Bernstein put it, “The absence of conception had itself to be conceived.” I think the poets, students, professors, and members of the Tucson community were excited because they were hearing genuinely different work—work new to them—and each poet had taken a great deal of trouble to prepare his or her break-out session. Regular and visiting faculty members from Arizona—Tenney Nathanson, Carlos Gallego, Dawn Pendergrast, Lanie Browne, Paul Klinger, and Chax Press’s Charles Alexander—provided an often skeptical sounding board for the panelists. All in all, many audience members told me this conference had really changed their lives—that they were looking at the possibilities of poetry in a new way.
Frances Sjoberg and her associates at Arizona were primarily responsible for the success of the symposium, but as guest curator, let me throw out two “Don’ts” that helped make this event work. (1) Don’t invite poets who “should” be invited because of their “importance” or because they fill a particular slot; invite only those who you think are really outstanding and are willing to do the work. (2) Insist that all participants stay for the entire conference. No prima donnas coming in to give their papers or readings, and then quickly exit. There must, in such an instance, be community. By the end of the third day, there really was one.
In 2001, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference and book fair in Palm Springs, representing Small Press Distribution (SPD). That year the book fair was held in a room about the size of a basketball court, with maybe 60 tables staffed by a variety of publishers and a local bookseller. Sales weren’t bad for some, but the overall effect was underwhelming. Nearly a decade later, despite our famous financial downturn, there will be some 350 book fair participants in Denver in 2010. Certainly, nothing in U.S. poetry will ever be comprehensive, but it’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which the book fair now fulfills a many-decades-old dream: to have a single location where a reader of U.S. poetry can get a decent overview of the massive, fervid, contentious poetic production of our very large land. Furthermore, while I don’t have any definitive proof, I suspect the exponential explosion of the book fair also helped the powers-that-be at the AWP realize they needed to broaden the aesthetic range of the conference itself. While some may still argue that the conference lags well behind the book fair as a realistic reflection of U.S. poetic activity, it certainly isn’t as homogeneous an event as it once was. So if you believe (as I do) that the last ten years in U.S. poetry have done much to complicate the borders of what Charles Bernstein used to call "Official Verse Culture," pushing a number of prominent organizations toward a more heterogeneous idea of the poem, the AWP book fair is an excellent case in point.
During the last decade, the internet revolutionized the way we access poetry. Veteran readers and aspiring writers, still familiarizing themselves with what they want to read, cruise the web and discover a wealth of sources for poetry. Perhaps publishers quake at this concept, but I think it’s a positive shift. More and more people are reading poetry because they can access it easily. From my own experience, readers buy the same number of poetry books they ever did. They just might be more inclined to buy books by writers they might otherwise never have known.They find the work online, and then they can buy the books.
When Matt O’Donnell and I started From the Fishouse (www.fishousepoems.org) in 2004 there were no internet venues where you could find quality sources of audio and text by a large number of emerging writers. From the Fishouse now features almost 2,000 audio poems and 500 Question & Answer responses from 200 emerging poets. And the number of online sources for quality work by emerging and established writers grows by the quarter. Online resources like Drunken Boat, Mipoesias, Wacammaw, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and the ever-growing archive at the Poetry Foundation provide poetry offerings to people in far flung communities whose local libraries or bookstores might not be able to keep a wide range the lasted books or journals in stock.
Imagine this were the year 1999 and a student, visiting my office hours, wanted to know more about some poets whose names she’d recently heard. June Jordan (1936-2002) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), for instance. In 1999 I would have reached for my bookshelf to locate some dear-to-me collection I would not likely let the student leave the room carrying. Today, I can type into my search engine the name of a poet and, within seconds, access public domain examples of their work. I could print some examples and give my student other Web sites where she might continue her investigation. Maybe there would even be audio so my student could hear one of our great poets reading her own work.
The web has proved a resource for poets, readers, students, and teachers. Because of this, poetry has reached many more people over the past decade. It’s a change in the way poetry is distributed, but not all change is bad.
The xylophone fills the darkened room, its cascade of notes trilling high, then low, and a human voice breaks in:
Maple, oak, poplar, gingko
New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge
The speaker in the poem is opening his eyes in Central Park (“Hot sun dapple—/Wake up”) . . . then, a little later:
Leap over the park stone wall
Dressed fast and light,
Slip into the migrating flow.
Though we are in California, we are about to experience Manhattan’s particular flora and fauna through the art of Gary Snyder. He is accompanied by musicians, with whom he’s been rehearsing for months for this very performance, rendering the evening singular—the most memorable poetry event in the last ten years.
“Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information” was indeed a pinnacle moment, and yet that night—the event as a whole—felt like a culmination of what I’d absorbed as Gary Snyder’s pupil. I arrived at UC Davis in 1998 to pursue an M.A. after ten years in Spain. Among my classmates in the program: Maria Melendez. A community began to form. We weren’t especially concerned that our own poems weren’t the focus in Snyder’s workshops. I wasn’t.
Rather: his bringing Robin Blaser to class, conversing with us outside of class, encouraging us to cultivate activities unrelated to poetry, explaining how Rip Rap got into print . . . these yielded the lessons he nudged us toward: learn from, collaborate with, your peers; rather than whine, start a press; edit and publish each other; a modest chapbook is a good start; learn another language; translate from another language; read After Lorca; strive to enrich your community . . . .
And enrich his own environs is what Snyder did that summer in the Sierra foothills, under the stars, performing in its entirety—with those musician friends—Mountains and Rivers Without End.
At approximately 11AM on Wednesday, August 24, 2005, Tropical Depression 12 gathered its howl and wind and earned a name. Taking on muscle over the Bahamas, it flexed and hissed, rained silver sheets, and picked up speed, hell-bent on the Delta--but without that name, it lacked a final fist. Then someone, without thinking, said it out loud: Katrina. And in that instant, her heart grew huge in her chest and her wind became skin. For hours she practiced the hard clicking K, spitting it staccato until she finally slipped on the three syllables and provided the Gulf Coast with a way to curse her.
Poets have an unwritten contract with the natural world. It awes us. We pay respect in reverent stanzas. It teaches. We learn. We settle into an uneasy ritual, returning again and again to our pens, microphones, and keyboards while the world makes us smaller. We often run out of the language we need to describe just what nature is capable of.
When Katrina touched down and began its swift destruction of a city, a mindset and an American culture, words failed us again. We were numbed by images of the mother wailing from a rooftop while clutching her newborn, by the wretched dance of bloated bodies spiraling in the stinking surf, by the endless tragedies of a shattered shoreline. Incredulous, we listened to the keening wail of the abandoned. And as we stumbled in shock back to our pens and keyboards, struggling to find the throat we needed to begin righting the world, we realized that the focus had shifted. We were still awed and belittled by nature’s slap, but this time we had to speak out loud the horrors of what we were capable of.
I merge two poetry events which both took place in October of this year. They were entirely dissimilar except for their entirely permissive and liberatory qualities. In London the Serpentine Gallery had a two-day poetry marathon. The event opened with Tracy Emin, a painter, and closed with Brian Eno, who is, well, Brian Eno. The press was out in droves for Tracy who is kind of a British bad-girl painter who made it huge in the tabloids when she drunkenly whined on a teevee show about not getting the Turner prize for painting. In some entirely egalitarian and maybe even art-hating way this action made her a media darling. I like a big complainer too. I mean I wasn’t wowed by her poetry. It wasn’t as good as Richard Brautigan’s who in another day would have been included in this event. But so was I, and so was August Kleinzahler, and so was Agnes Varda and Kenny Goldsmith and some remarkable French sound poets and finally Brian Eno, like I said. What Eno did was work at a long table full of electronica and two microphones the other manned by another guy, more of a writer I think and Eno plucked wires and pressed things and emitted sounds, and the word part was kind of call and response Eno being in charge of that too in a percussive way. Pulling the sounds, that was his poem. But when the event was over it was clear that nobody really knew what a poem was but the Serpentine was behind it, this poem thing. It was a usefully baggy approach to the meaning of the poem thing, making its existence known to the world, again. It seemed the art world was wavering towards us in some watery way. Splashing and moving their flippers and making bubbles. All we had to do as poets was accept this love. And I do. I think our acceptance of this unknowing love is the pretext for poetry’s new relationship to art in the 21st c. It’s all around us. It’s not us around them. Trying to slip our tentacles into their party.
At the end of the Advancing Feminist Poetics conference held at the City University of New York this October there was one of those closing panels at which someone quoted Lisa Robertson. When asked in an interview what “kind” of poet she is Lisa (who was not there) replied “a feminist poet.” And that response in this context, which had been about women and poetry for two days, same amount of time as in London, coincidentally, created an excited hush. Why? Because no one had even considered for a moment of those two days that the purpose of this conference was to define feminism. Poetry had been the subject and feminism was there in some other way. It was simply way. Lisa Robertson is a poet whose aesthetic credentials are impeccable. She almost writes prose. She’s utopian. She’s Canadian. She’s a member of the Kootenay School. She thinks about art. She’s slept with women and she’s slept with men. In experimental circles she’s kind of a poets’ poet and a writer’s writer. So what does she mean when she calls herself “a feminist poet.” Is that some kind of aesthetic statement. Could it be true. Maybe it is, after all. And maybe where we’re going towards in the next decade of the 21st century is the pleasure of living in this unknowing bagginess of truth. A moving abstract. The women poets I know are beginning to understand feminism as a sly term that can hold a lot. All that it needs. And the art world wants to employ our medium to hitch the unhitchable, to use language as a kind of transparent hangar, to stop describing the art and to participate instead and we are invited to take part too if we have the nerve to accept the offer that is on the table. Even if it’s not ours. Can we stand it? Both of these offers, these openings in feminism and poetry, are so baldly and nakedly and shamelessly open.