The annual convention of the Modern Language Association is the Death Star of literary conferences: with its cast of tens of thousands of academics and critics, many of whom are there for job interviews, and many of whom (just as on the real Death Star) wear interchangeable black formal clothing, the MLA can feel at once huge, impersonal, institutional, and possessed of great destructive force.
It's also a place where you can, if you try, learn some neat things about poems and poets you like. I did. More details below the fold (and in a future post).


The official agenda of the MLA includes a million job interviews (of which you will read no more here-- for once, this year, I was neither selling nor buying) and half a million panel discussions and essays read aloud (of which more below). The unofficial agenda, for poetry-readers and writers, often includes the annual unofficial off-site reading with fifty poets at two (or so) minutes apiece: I had never attended that event before, despite its importance in certain (especially avant-garde) circles, and so I was glad to hear most of it last Friday before I finally had to flee from exhaustion (no fault of the airplane I boarded at 7am). Since Archambeau the entire fifty-poet reading. I had, I fear, fewer reactions...
A reading with that large a cast tends to highlight, perhaps perversely, poets who do something other than reading their poetry: flipping through big signs while playing a Pavement record, for example, or shouting non sequiturs until interrupted by an audience plant, or performing a poem with such exaggerated vocal delivery as to recall Diamanda Galas. No thanks.
By contrast, and though I'm always uncomfortable judging poems I haven't read on the basis of what I think I heard, I certainly liked Mark Nowak's documentary excerpt from a forthcoming book of verse about coal-mine disasters in the U.S. and in China. Cate Marvin-- fierce and funny at once, as is the case with other poems of hers-- read new verse inspired by the ambiguous sign she saw in a Staten Island deli: "Flowers Always." (What do flowers always do?)
Chris Glomski, of whom I had never heard (and who wasn't on the program) read some good, subtle lyric work; Don Share, who works for this very site and for the associated magazine, read a poem the magazine once rejected (a poem I liked). Tony Trigilio read a poem about Donald Rumsfeld's onetime house which surprised me in its ability to rise above its political-humor premise. And Nick Twemlow, who also works for this site, read a poem indebted to Ginsberg's "America" (in a good way) in its repeated denunciations (or were they denunciations?) of Topeka, which turns out to be his true hometown.
In the true spirit of a time-sensitive, pressed-for-time event, I'm going to go pick up our little guy from day care now; when I come back, a couple of gems among the (mostly disappointing) papers I heard, and some of the best of the (really promising) books. It's good to be home.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...