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Journal, Day Three

By Jeff Shotts

The word I hear most to describe contemporary poetry is “fractured.” I take this to mean that there is no one prevailing school, and that poets take full advantage of a wide sphere of influences and an array of poetic strategies, including fragmentation and disjunction. This has created a varied field of poets and also a varied field of poetry readers, and it’s meant that poetry publishers have needed to respond in order to best serve the art.

I am often asked what dominant threads of influence I observe when looking across the 2,000-2,500 poetry submissions that Graywolf receives in a given year. They are, of course, varied: I read submissions of poems that are strictly formal verse; that are originally hypertext word art; that are written for performance; that are personal lyric; that are researched narrative; and other kinds of submissions that defy category. Many specific influences are detectable, but among younger American writers, I think I most discern the influences of John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, James Tate, and Dean Young: the associative logic, the attempt to capture the mind’s freewheeling movement, the surreal/comical leaps. Oddly, in a very different direction, I see an increasing number of submissions that are historically researched, book length narratives or sequences that are sometimes a series of persona poems in historical voices or that are sometimes about the poet’s research into her own family, in a similar way that Rita Dove often does. I am intrigued by these two very different threads, not that they are the only trends to be found. But they do seem to be frequently adopted by younger writers graduating from M.F.A. programs, and I’m curious what they suggest about new writing. Both modes seem to be at odds with the idea of selfhood, or at least they attempt to complicate the notion of the first person. Perhaps young writers are working away from the “I,” or struggling against confessionalism, or at least they’re desiring to. They can be done well, certainly, but the danger perhaps seems to be, on one hand, the veering away from actually writing about something, and on the other hand, the turning into mere narrative reportage.

The “fractured” nature of contemporary poetry has meant exciting expansions in various houses’ publishing efforts. At Graywolf, I’m heartened by the aesthetic breadth of the poetry list, and it’s something we delight in. I can see that such a range may frustrate poets who may be wondering if their work might fit the Graywolf list. But, that Tony Hoagland, Matthea Harvey, Dana Gioia, Thomas Sayers Ellis, D.A. Powell, Eamon Grennan, Elizabeth Alexander, and Linda Gregg can all fit on the same list seems less scattered, to me, than it does indicative—and hopefully somewhat representative—of the breadth of contemporary American poetry. In the last few years, with support from the Lannan Foundation, Graywolf has offered significant international poets in translation, including the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef (translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa), the Labanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata (translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker), the Israeli poet Agi Mishol (translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz), the Mexican poet Pura López-Colomé (translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander), and others.

I think this “fracture” not only reflects at least a fairly wide aesthetic, but by putting such diverse poetries on the same list, I hope they begin to communicate with and influence each other, nationally and internationally. That dialogue seems vital, for any art’s survival.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 by Jeff Shotts.