Recently, a reporter (Travis Nichols) called to ask why we publish Jim Behrle on our website. “Because he’s an indicator species,” I answered. His question got me thinking about other people and organizations that are breaking a pattern and in so doing, pointing out the vibrancy of the poetry world and its insularity.
Until recently the poetry world has been a fairly closed world without a significant force to counter the powers that be, the ones who create reputations through plum jobs, prizes, publications, and grants. There hasn’t been an audience large and voracious enough to sift through the thousands of books and magazines to discover talent (maybe there never has been), and there’s no equivalent to the Huffington Post to interpret the spin through its alternative storyline. Then the web happened and gigantic numbers of MFA poet-graduates happened, many of whom pine for a reputation but can’t get their first book published.
Enter Behrle, who is very much a product of the Web. So and so wins a NBCC award, and by 2 a.m., there’s a Behrle cartoon, looking more like a crude, elementary school, math story problem than a comic strip. They typically pose a question (that everyone wants to ask but out of politeness (social norms) can’t, e.g., “Somebody please tell me who Troy Jollimore is....” on Eyeball Hatred after the NBCC ceremony. And then they propose an answer, which in its foolery offers truth in a sometimes but not always palatable form. Sound a bit like Shakespeare's jesters? Yes, in part, because he’s generally attacking those with reputations and the machinations that got them ones. Is being the subject of a Behrle cartoon a sign that you’ve made it? He’s the poetry world’s Gawker. When he crassly and crudely attacks people and not their reputations, I don’t like it, but that’s one of the guilty pleasures we get in reading Gawker.
Ten yeas ago Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem to “counter the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in writers' workshops and literary programs.” In its summer and regional workshops, it provides “a safe haven for black poets” to “come together to work on their craft and engage others in critical debate.”
Are we seeing the fruits of Cave Canem’s work in this year’s crop of prize-winning African-American women poets? Drum roll please….
Elizabeth Alexander received Poets & Writers' $50,000 Jackson Prize, which “honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit but has not yet received major national acclaim.”
Natasha Tretheway won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard(Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Lucille Clifton won the Poetry Foundation’s $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.
Tracey K. Smith won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for her second book Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007).
Can Francisco Aragon do for Latino poets what Cave Canem, I believe, has done for African-American poets? My bet is that while not many readers of this blog know Francisco, if you work in a job such as mine, you do. Director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Francisco is working overtime to gain wider representation of Latino poets in established literary magazines, such as Poetry and The New Yorker, and in the programs of poetry organizations, such as Poet’s House, the Poetry Society of America and the Poetry Foundation. He helped us pull together a selection of poems from Victor Hernandez Cruz.
Any suggestions for other indicator species in the poetry universe?
Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...