Discerning the Hub
Where is the pulse of poetry, today? Is there a pulse? Is there any point in trying to find one? For a while I really felt that the pulse of poetry was this blog site. We were being quite brilliant, insightful and hip to what is going on around us and there were hints here and there that we were going to try to, if not fix the ills of poetry, at least define them and study them and expose them. Of course, this was not what any of us were about, and we should all be grateful for this. Still, I am sure that those of us who write poetry and hang around with poets find ourselves in situations that convince us that we are sitting in the epicenter of poetry in America, and we even offer statements like, “Wow, this is what is happening in poetry, this is where it at!” Then we return to our ordinary lives and we go back to writing our poems, and doing our workshops, and making our livings and dealing with family, and not only does the epicenter of poetry seem like an unlikely place, but it also seems quite irrelevant. So is there an epicenter, a hub? And does anyone care?
I have a sneaky suspicion that most poets do not feel as if they are in the epicenter of poetry. They believe that it is somewhere other than where they are. And many of us seem able to tell where the hub is or where the perceived hub is located. There is a crew of people who are sure that the hub is located in those places that publish poets—those “elite” presses; the Farrar, Strauss Girouxs; the Knopfs; the Penguins; the Nortons; the Copper canyons; the Gray Wolfs, etc. They imagine that the fact that these presses have published these poets means that they are already classic authors—writers with the imprimatur of assured greatness marked on them. They win the big prizes, they read at the big readings, they teach at the big workshops, they are in, deeply in the scene.
Tellingly, most of the people who live in that world feel as if the hub is elsewhere. Sometimes they feel as if the hub is located in a subsection of their world where the few get privileged and are listened to. I don’t know a poet who feels as if he or she is at the center of the great hub. There is always someone doing better, better loved, more of a darling with the New Yorker than they are, and it is a wonderful genius of American Dreaming for this to operate. One can hope for greatness always, and yet remain humbled by the challenge of greatness.
Those who do not approve of this world of “greatness” usually feel that the people who are there do not belong there. Rarely are they questioning whether the houses should exist. Indeed, they have a long list of poets (including themselves) who are more deserving of those elite presses who seem to have won the attention of the world. They know why certain poets are not there, whether it is because of their aesthetics, their relationship or lack thereof with academia, their race, their gender, their sexual preference, the extent to which they have sold out their own people, their politics, their wimpish manner, and so on and so forth.
There are others, of course, who have long decided that folks are looking at the wrong place for the hub. They conclude that if you can find them, if they are obviously out there and endorsed by “the establishment” they are dead in the water, they are part of the stultified world of cookie cutter ordinariness. Instead they look for the hub in the cutting edged, the experimental, the daring, he artists who no one has branded with greatness yet. Their patron saints are G.M. Hopkins and Emily Dickinson—those who were great because no one knew of their greatness until so long after they were gone. They remind us of the detritus of poems once thought as great by the establishment that vanished by the wayside, never to be heard of again, except in graduate literature classes titled, “What Were they Thinking?: The Where are They Now of Poetry?” The hub is in the performance halls, the bars, and in the independent presses that publish short print runs of strange, different and challenging poetry. The hub is where the orthodox is dismantled, the hub is where Kenneth Goldsmith lives.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that no real hub exists, that there is a virtual hub that is a beautiful product of the American Dream. It is called the success story of American Poetry. Not all poets have an expectation for greatness, but more do than would admit to. And this expectation of greatness is what makes people get very worried about copyrighting their poems before someone steals it and takes credit for it. This expectation of greatness leads people to flock to open mic events wherever they are offered so that they can show the world that they have something great to offer. Yes, many do it just to give voice to their art but I have met many, so many, that do so because they are waiting for that grand announcement of their greatness and as long as this dream is alive, they will continue to do this work. What is the model for the greatness they seek? Selling a lot of books? Making a lot of money with their books? Becoming household names in America for their poetry? They will keep doing the work. Sme will give up. Some will shift their ambitions, reduce them to smaller and nobler dreams—reaching family, reaching friends, helping the community, producing art for posterity, getting the girl.
Someone may know where the hub might be? I don’t. I do know that I don’t feel it is around me. I do feel that I wll know when it starts to happen around me. The closest I have come to that sense of being at the hub was my last week with Cave Canem last summer. I looked around at fifty poets and the tutors, and I thought, “This is where it is at, this is where the best American poetry is being written.” I believed it. I still believe it at some level. I believe it because the single thing that connects these extremely diverse poets is passion and a profound sense of seriousness about the vaue of their art and its urgency in the world. These people are not jaundiced, they are not cynical about poetry. They are cynical about the world, some of them, and they understand the power or irony, others of them, but all of them believe in the importance of poetry and the value of making it happen in community and out of community They are open to so much, willing to master the work of the American canon while challenging it and stretching it in remarkable ways. You can’t call them free verse folks because many of them enjoy formal poetry. You can’t call them academic poets because many of them were nurtured in the rough and tumble of the performance stages and the slam halls. You can’t call them hip hop because some of them are into Country and Rock and opera and all kinds of stuff while others happily do hip hop. You can’t call them myopic because they have long discarded blinkers and have been willing to read the poetry of poets from all around the world. That is how varied and interesting they are and yet when you meet a Cave poet you know, and it is not the secret handshake. (My fourteen year old son who has been on a cave Canem retreat campus twice is convinced that there is a secret ceremony that Cave Canem folks hold each year—my son has a lively imagination, of course). The recognizable quality is the sense of community, the intense seriousness about the art, and the quest for excellence prompted by the understanding that they have to be excellent to make it happen in this business if you are black.
Can this be the hub? Would this be limiting? We won’t know for a few years to come and gone. We won’t know for twenty years, maybe thirty. And in a sense, this should make us all relax, a bit. But I have a feeling that the epicenter will be somewhere I witnessed.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...