It is good to see Kenny and Kwame agree to exchange ideas and try to understand one another better. I am looking forward to what comes out of that. They very well may be aesthetically on opposite sides of something, but there are more than two sides. The very idea of two sides makes it sound like a football field, with the mainstream poets kicking off, wearing expensive, tweed, heavily logo-ed uniforms, with acceptance letters from The New Yorker for numbers, and ribbons from all the prizes they have won pinned to their shoulders, and pennyloafer cleats. On the other side of the field, the experimental poets, line up to receive the kick-off, wearing organic jerseys, with the letters of their names stitched into playful anagrams, and number signs where the numbers should be, with flowers from the avant garden painted on their helmets, only agreeing to play because they keep hoping after the first touchdown the scoreboard might read N+7.

While I sincerely look forward to the discussion between Kenny and Kwame, I do not buy into this construct of two sides, two teams, two factions, two dimensions. For one, where does Fence, and Verse Press (I mean [catch the] Wave Books), Jubilat, and many others fit into this construct? I thought those magazines had been exploring the outback between the experimental and the mainstream for years. Isn’t that where all the young poets are moving? I heard the real estate is cheap there? I heard it was the aesthetic equivalent of Williamsburg? Isn’t erasure the poetry equivalent of the hula hoop? And what about established poets like Jorie Graham and Carolyn Forche? I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that they had been appropriating experimental techniques for quite some time. Also where do poets that have come out of Cave Canem or the Dark Room Collective fit into all this?
In the heavily factionalized poetry world, I have always felt like a rogue nation. This is not to say that I have never been a part of any communities. I have, some very rich ones: a reading group when I was an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence in 1989 with Joel Brouwer, Tessa Rumsey, and Marisa de los Santos; part of a trio of surrealists (Cindy Goff and Greg Grummer) in grad school at George Mason in the early 90’s; a group of wonderful poets in DC from 1993-96 (Kenny Carroll, Silvana Straw, DJ Renegade, and Jose Padua), all loosely associated with DC WritersCorps and the Black Cat Club; spoken word poets like Matt Cook and many others from the National Slam scene during that same time period; poets in Los Angeles from 1996 to 2001 (Ellyn Maybe, Derrick Brown, June Melby) loosely associated with Beyond Baroque. But I have always felt different, always wished the performance people would read more, pay closer attention to their language, and always wished the literary poets would lighten up a bit, write with a little more abandon.
Perhaps I feel a remote sense of kinship when I see poets who defy easy compartmentalization, like Edwin Torres who has credibility in both the experimental and performance realms; Alicia Stallings, who is sometimes called a neo-formalist and yet can recite poems with pleasure from memory.
People in the poetry world most often pull me often at the seams of the literary and the performance. (No matter how often I get that seam fixed, it keeps coming undone.) A number of times I have actually been introduced at college readings as “a performance poet who knows how to write”. Is that like being called the smart bimbo? (I much preferred being a teenager in Philadelphia, when my delinquent friends would point at me scribbling into a notebook and whisper: “that’s Jeff, he writes poetry, but he’s cool”.)
I have not been in a slam in almost ten years, and still that term lingers. If I knew how that term would stick, how I’d have to show up at AWP with a scarlet S on my forehead, would I still have jumped in? Probably; I kind of love a lot of those kooky people I met along the way, and they expanded my definition of poetry, and they let me sleep on their floors when I was touring around America in the mid-90’s, and they’re part of my ancestry. According to the poetry census bureau’s latest figures, I’m 37% surrealist, 13% slammer, 25% populist/confessional (my maternal grandmother was freaky like that), and 25% undecided. When I read my poems aloud, I aim to embody them, to have an authentic, lived experience, but I do not jump around or do hand movements. I believe in the power of one speaker addressing a tribe of listeners. Somehow the word “audience” creates too much distance in my mind at this moment; I think of the live reading as a collaborative experience.
But even as I claim rogue status, even as I 100%-fully-believe in my heart that I am a rogue, there is one problem: I teach creative writing at a college. Can one be an outsider, a rogue, and also be a part of the academy? How does that change the football field if we get rid of the terms “mainstream” and “experimental”, and think of poets as “in the academy” or “out”?
Just for the record, I found the much debated “terror of the blank page” phrase to be cliche on a linguistic level; I have heard that exact phrase a number of dozen before. It might be emotionally true for Mr. Walcott that a fearful shiver wiggles through him as he looks at the blank page, but even a true emotion, when expressed in cliché language, ends up sounding less than true.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. April 5, 2007
     Albert Min

    I'm reminded of Rinehart from Ellison's Invisible Man and of Whitman's embrace of mulitiplicity and contradiction. On the one hand, I can see the state of ecstatic union that can result from the acceptance of such chaos and its endless dynamics, but on the other, those experiences seem to be attended by such a state of loneliness that one is driven back to the lodestone of community and all its attendant boundaries and categories. I think I like the balanced view that doesn't reject categorization entirely but also doesn't take it too seriously beyond its heuristic value.

  2. April 5, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    I think balance is the ideal for which we all persevere, however, I think we are all spotted or striped and accepting that only deepens the color of the mark. Also, it gives you an understanding of me so to speak.
    The Hood Company

  3. April 5, 2007
     Albert Min

    To Brian Hadd:
    Seems like it's a rather limited understanding though. What of the spotted and striped? What of the spotted-at-one-time and the striped-at-another? What of the spotless and stripeless? What of a color that becomes more shallow and lighter rather than deepening?

  4. April 5, 2007
     J. Bryan Shoup

    "Can one be an outsider, a rogue, and also be a part of the academy?"
    Sure, rogues have to eat and pay their electric bill as well. Unless all of your poetry is anti-establishment, you're safe, or at least consistent.

  5. April 5, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    It may be a limited understanding, Mr Min. But I can't comprehend opposites, not in any meaning of the word comprehend. I look forward to reading about ways to.
    The Hood Company

  6. April 6, 2007
     Albert Min

    You can call me Al. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "comprehend opposites".

  7. April 6, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    I mean that comprehending opposites is impossible. I MEAN it doesn't mean truth but you I gander have a hard time thinking two things--not even opposite--at once.
    The Hood Company

  8. April 6, 2007
     Albert Min

    Sorry, I still don't understand what you're trying to say.