surveying the territory
Like most of the other folks around here, I've just come back from the
pneumonia-generating crowds and rainstorms professional event for writers and critics that was the annual conference of AWP, this time in New York. (Don't worry, I'll quote some poems in a moment.) This time, the big event had me thinking about-- sometimes frowning on, sometimes making excuses for-- the "professional" dimensions of writing now, the ways in which poetry (far more than prose fiction, and much like the rest of the academic humanities) has become part of what Al Gore's favorite book called "the drama of the gifted child": young writers may feel stifled by their own need for approval from authorities of various sorts, but find it hard to write at all without that approval (not just practically; emotionally, too).
That's not a new problem (Keats had it with the Hunt circle), it's not confined to "creative writing," and it's not a problem you can avoid entirely by joining an avant-garde, nor by calling the circle whose approval you seek a community rather than an institution, although there's certainly something to be said for caring most about readers farthest from institutions on whom your material well-being depends. Those of us who might be called "midcareer" writers (poets, critics, whatever) go to large professional events and find ourselves in the odd position of being both approval-bestowers and approval-seekers, willy-nilly.
We might also-- I did, this time-- come away (a) excited by the huge spread of promising or enthusiastic work available at AWP (the most exciting place, and the most daunting, is always the bookroom), and (b) eager to learn, to read about, to make some imaginative connection to, places and pursuits far from the institutions of creative writing, and far from cultural centers like New York.
Pursuits such as political campaigns; places such as Greensboro, North Carolina, or rural Ohio, or pre- and post-hurrricane New Orleans. Poems and poets of each below the fold.
First, politics: when I lived in a purple state, I did a little political volunteer work, and even published a poem about the late inspiration for so much of that purple state's politics. Now I live in a deep blue state, and haven't joined a campaign at all since moving here: that's one of many reasons I was happy to see, in an international news venue, a poet whose work I always read, and a former Harriet blogger, now campaigning hard.
Presidential campaigns have to think nationally, but "all politics is local," and some people think all poetry is too-- that's one claim on which William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden could agree (see Auden's remark about cheese). Some of the things I picked up at AWP, and some of the things I was reading in the days before it, are as local, and as redolent of their origins, as a well-run campaign, or, if you prefer, as a tasty cheese-- though they are not all local in the same way.
For example, Ray McDaniel's Saltwater Empire is local as good travel writing is local. It's fixated on, polyphonically alert, a place where he did not grow up, a place whose roots and experiences he does not and cannot share: that is to say that the poet doesn't come from New Orleans but the book does. Parts of this big, part-lyric, part-reportorial sequence transcribe things that post-Katrina residents say, in the manner of the wonderful One Big Self, which seems to have influenced younger poets almost before it came out, or, if you like, in the manner of another Coffee House author worth watching, Mark Nowak, whose commitment to documentary poetics is second to none. McDaniel doesn't just document, though: he alternates the versified transcriptions with baroque post-Hart-Crane poems written around, about and to the history of the city, its slave-trade legacy, its layout, its music. Here's an excerpt from "Alternate Recordings of Stormy Weather":
A tempest is certain serpentine.
A tempest is awful appetite.
Rains promise a prescient bombardment.
First, the scrim, the hue of rain.
If this book doesn't become one of this year's big hits, I have no idea what will. (You can read some of McDaniel's alert poetry criticism here; you can read here about his first book, which I didn't like or understand, though I now think it a needed rehearsal for his current triumph.)
You're a lot less likely to hear elsewhere about another book I picked up in New York and have been reading in Boston, B. T. Shaw's This Dirty Little Heart: Shaw comes, I gather, from the part of Ohio that counts as Appalachia, though she now lives in Portland, and the fact that her title sounds like Steve Earle but in truth comes from Emily Dickinson should give you a sense of the way her best poems sound. The lesser poems (so far) are generic story-containing domestic lyric, but the better ones-- the ones that keep me reading-- have both the clipped twang of a regional speech (whether or not that region is her subject) and the depth that comes from reflection. The best poems concern family, either the one from which she comes, with its "red clay clay birds bird shot" and "wild ginseng night-gigging," or else the one (partly adoptive) in which she's the mom, as in "Sympathetic Response":
The sun turns to paste after two. Everything sticks--
cracker crumbs, tree muzz, kids. Dried bits
of what's past. Morning you write to-do lists
on your wrist-- nights, wash them into
the garden's cracked mouth. Late August,
yellow jackets frantic, brains squeezed
to BBs by kiddie pools, BBQs, season
suspicion: odds of surviving intact.
Fine scene-setting, unpretentious and yet exact speech... and if you read the whole poem, for which I don't have room, you'll see what happens (and what fine triple pun comes up) when she steps on a wasp.
When you come from a place far away from a cultural center, or if you travel to such a place and then return, you might well feel you ought to write about it, especially if (as is the case with New Orleans, with Appalachia) that place has distinct and memorable speechways. When, on the other hand, you live in a place far from a cultural center, and you're not about to move away, you might look to a national youth culture to give you speechways more fun, more capacious, than those you know. You might start a literary magazine that reflects not just your place but your generation, and you might, in an ironic homage to the supposedly backwards place where you live, call your litmag Backwards City Review.
I learned about this Greensboro, NC-based upstart when one of my former students published a poem there, and I've been enjoying their new issue, which wears generational change on its sleeve-- not just because it treats comics as an art form, analogous if not equal to prose fiction and poetry (the comics artists show debts, sometimes overlarge debts, to R. Crumb, Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel), but because most of its poems, and most of its prose, seem informal, un-reverent, and au courant, without trying for avant-garde. You're not going to find the next "Sailing to Byzantium" or the next "The Pretext" in the new issue (fall '07)-- nor will you find the mag's regular site online until they fix all the broken links here! You will, however, find work with verve: the poem by Tim Lockridge that begins "I need to meet more robots," the poem by Woody Loverude with one footnote that reads "I advocate an education in vengeance, in angelism," and the poem by Mary Grimm (better known as a novelist) that ends this way:
I am hoping to live with the saints, or least the ones
who are congenial, I'm hoping to do a lot of things, a lot
of things really, and I ought to stop being sad if I can.
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...