Last month, Saturnalia Books published Letters to Poets, an enthralling mess of correspondence between emerging and established poets, edited by Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax.
The anthology is an amazing window into the life and mind of a certain kind of contemporary poetry. The letter form seems to have allowed many of the writers to be much more revealing than they would have been using, say, the essay form, so the unguarded and exploratory back and forths shed light in all directions. And it's a great list of writers: Leslie Scalapino, Jayne Cortez, Anne Waldman, Eileen Myles, Wanda Coleman, Victor Hernández Cruz, Brenda Coultas, John Yau, Anselm Berrigan (among others), all of whom have lively and engaged minds, ready to correspond with one another about politics, art, food, weather, form, which books to read when, and, of course, academic life.

Most of these poets teach, and so there is an overriding preoccupation in the book with the workshop, students, academic panels and presentations, etc. topics not dreamed of in the anthology's Rilkean forebear. But that is the lay of the land (in the New York and San Francisco of these poets, at least), a fact of poetic life acknowledged by Wanda Coleman succinctly:
"Unless one is blessed with phenomenal luck, wealth or cunning, or a second gift in one of the white-collar professions, the path of teaching is virtually the only path available to the creative intellectual in present day America."
Some of the poets here walk the virtual path jauntily, peppering their correspondence with phrases like "Forget make it new, since the new is merely another brick in the wall of reification . . ." (Patrick Pritchett), while others seem a little more mixed up about it: "the word 'text' drives me completely crazy when referring to poems and makes me feel like a fucking clown" (Anselm Berrigan).
All of which proves there are as many types of "academics" as there are "poets" as there are "humans," and I'm sure the prevailing obsession with academic life in the book seems more striking to me, someone who is outside of the "walking grove of trees," at least for now, and who woke up this morning to read this article about the complicated future of higher ed. But still, one wishes more poets would have the courage (foolishness?) to follow or give Eileen Myles' advice here: "I think you have to care less about teaching and . . . spend more time going to the movies, and reading and writing and hanging out with your friends. Give less!" if only because it would make for a different kind of letter. But that's no fault of the book's editors (or, perhaps, of the poets); rather it's the world of contemporary American poetry, of which this book is a fascinating core sample.

Originally Published: December 3rd, 2008

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

  1. December 3, 2008
     Don Share

    Sure there are a lot of poets who teach, and maybe most do for all I know; yet this year alone in Poetry, work has appeared by "creative intellectuals" who are all kinds of things other than teachers. Here's a list of some of their occupations: fisheries scientist, archivist, mother, arts administrator, physician, former public defender, cultural anarchist, architect, psychotherapist and theologian. So it's certainly possible to make a living outside the academy if you're a poet.

  2. December 3, 2008

    well, yes, of course "it's possible to make a living outside of the academy" -- who's denying that? the point remains that poetry isn't valued outside of the subculture of poetry and other poets. i.e. the readers of poetry are poets, not the "general" reader of fiction even. and the point of Nichols' post, to my mind, is that often poets have no other skill but playing with words (and teaching, thusly, if they are decent performers), and then might only have marketing or advertizing or some generic business job as possibilities for work.

  3. December 3, 2008
     \"noah freed\"

    To ask the obvious one more time: Who cares if "poetry isn't valued outside of" &c.? What is the problem, exactly? People clearly don't want or need poetry -- so what? Why is this a tragedy?

  4. December 4, 2008

    > poetry isn't valued outside of the subculture
    That's debatable. What is certain is that there is little support for poetry in the culture at large: in the K-12 curriculum poetry's presence is marginal at best; reviews in major publications for poetry titles are few and far between and books by living authors are almost never covered by more than one paper (not to speak of the alleged general decline of reading as a pastime); when even the most minor public figure mentions having read a poem, in poetryland it passes for news; though graduate creative writing programs have flourished through the last two boom cycles, it's unclear whether the increase in credentialed authors has led to a comparable increase in anything other than the number of books of poems published this year.
    If it's true that "poets have no other skill but playing with words," and I don't think it is -- recent poems indicate some can pilot boats, bake bread, marvel at children, care for elders, subvert preconceptions, ridicule idiocy, embody idiocy, undergo epiphanies, miss the point, think far too little of themselves, think far too much of themselves, etc -- but if poets truly have no other skill than being poets, I can think of a fable or ten that illustrate likely outcomes.
    As for the larger question of whether it's actually possible for most people to make a living in or out of the academy, do we leave that to the op-ed writers?

  5. December 4, 2008
     Don Share

    Maybe I misread what Wanda Coleman said, above? "...the path of teaching is virtually the only path available to the creative intellectual in present day America." It's just not so. And though it may seem like it in the blogsopher, it isn't true either that most readers of poetry are poets. Anyway, I imagine that the poets whose occupations I listed above feel that their jobs involve more than playing with words. I do that, but could never be a fisheries scientist or doctor! I've worked as a delivery van driver, busboy, and computer trainer in my own adult writing life, during which times I'd have loved a teaching job, I freely admit!
    One category I ought to have listed: soldier. Many readers are familiar with Brian Turner's work (to name only one), and we will have work in our February issue by another soldier-poet, Kevin C. Powers.

  6. December 4, 2008

    "So it's certainly possible to make a living outside the academy if you're a poet. "
    Obviously. But is it probable that you'll be able to write poetry outside the academy? And I don't mean probable if you're an insurance company VP from Hartford or a doctor from Paterson or the publisher of Maxim--how about if you're the primary caregiver for 2 kids AND you also work 30 hours a week, w/out health insurance, at Walmart? Not likely.

  7. December 4, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    Also, just so I’m not misunderstood, I love school. I have had wonderful teachers, and had great experiences teaching. School is cool. But I’m just doing some thinking aloud (in the grand blog tradition) about how pervasive academic life seems to be for many of the poets I enjoy reading. So, to play along further and risk sounding like a mewling kitten: The question isn’t whether anyone would love the abstract “teaching job” everyone would love to have, but what about the one most likely to be available? One that pays you $2000–no benefits, no job security-- for six months of work teaching the basics of rhet-comp to 24 students ranging from struggling ESL kids to high school prodigies, many of whom think of you as their sole authority figure with compassion? You might take it, even though Good Lord it sounds like a shit gig, because there’s some small chance, or so they say, of a creative writing job opening up in a year or so, and that could mean health insurance and some freedom to write, but after teaching the same class (or maybe two of the same, since you’ve shown yourself to be competent) and maybe one across town that is, hooray, a creative writing job (though it does somehow pay less) for years–the department does an outside hire. Dang! And all the while your life has become subsumed by all the bureaucratic shenanigans of academia–“teaching” is just a small part of it; you’re mostly grading, going to meetings, counseling students to use birth control, etc.–when you could have made more money and had more job security working at Papa John’s. But to salvage your pride you’ve started a book-length “project” creating “texts” that “dialogue” with the “community” because that’s just the type of language that has taken over your brain. This is the reality for most of the poets I know who are trying to make a living teaching, who feel that it is their only viable way of life (pace Coleman and many others), and it’s got me a bit down lately. Though I admit I tend towards the pessimistic.

  8. December 4, 2008

    Not to argue with your point, Samm, but regarding being able to write poetry inside v. outside the academy, I know an awful lot of poets inside the academy who only write summers and holidays. Which doesn't entirely qualify, I think, as being able to write inside the academy.

  9. December 4, 2008
     \"noah freed\"

    As Don & Laura Sims & a number of others show - I leave aside rich people like William Fuller or Frederick Seidel - it is more than possible to write poetry under the conditions described - it is being done all the time.

  10. December 5, 2008
     Martin Earl

    You almost manage to hide your equivocal feelings towards this book of letters. Almost. But your careful choice of the Wanda Coleman citation settles the matter. Hers is a serious indictment. She speaks like Marcellus of something rotten in the state of Denmark.
    And you show your true feelings when you speak about the “prevailing obsession with academic life in the book”. Ugh!
    Even without your careful nudging, I would have thought this book a dire thing, not only for what it contains: a sampling of the cloistered at work in their cloisters, but simply on a practical level. After all, what percentage of our reading time should be given to the correspondence of writers?
    However much that is, I would rather steer myself in the direction of Byron’s correspondence, or D.H. Lawrence’s. Those are letters.
    Just out is the complete correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Again, letters.
    What I find most interesting about your post is the way you position yourself as an outsider and how you seem to be pondering this whole question of how poets should make a living.
    Since the models inherited from the 1950s and 60s have started to molder and publication and the university career have now achieved a kind of corporate symbiosis, every new suit has begun to look like the next new suit, which is more of a problem for poetry than it is, let’s say, for an outbound Tokyo bullet train on a Thursday night.
    That’s what you’re really worried about.
    For starters, I would direct your readers to Auden’s playful, yet serious, verdict on this prickly question of livelihood, in his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand, specifically to “The Poet & The City”.
    Just a sample: “A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words…by the time he is twenty-one, the only non-literary job for which a young poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.”

  11. December 5, 2008
     Don Share

    I sometimes think that those of us active in the poetry blogosphere are drunk on the locusts and wild honey of the literary wilderness we inhabit, to rework a phrase of Ed Kilgore's. I really don't understand why the "academic" world is so frequently pitted against the "non-academic" world. Anybody with intelligence, talent, diligence, and determination can write, or try to write, poetry. Literature is populated mostly by poets who had little in the way of luxury or time. And plenty of well-to-do folks with time on their hands can't write a poem no matter how hard they try and how many years they spend on it. Do we need these labels, these faux oppositions? Evidently... I simply wonder why.
    Just read Deborah Eisenberg on Susan Sontag's early journals and notebooks, in which this observation occurs: "... like so many young people who hope to lead the life of the mind, [Sontag] despised what she considered to be the airlessness and rigidity of academic life. And scholarly legitimacy is conferred by the opinions of earlier and, presumably, more powerful thinkers - which can present a dilemma for the person who wishes her writings to be vital and unorthodox as well as impeccably solid." Maybe some of our discussion illustrates a dilemma: poets want to be "vital and unorthodox" yet "solid" and accepted. They want to write poems a lot and they'd rather not starve. They want to have good jobs but be artists. And so one. But nearly all of us have to work to make a living, and there are various ways to do that. As I've said on a previous Harriet post, there never was a strong connection between poetry and making a living. You can read my blather on that subject by clicking here.
    And speaking of working poets, consider the Karmel sisters, who wrote poems in a Nazi forced labor camp; Fanny Howe has recently adapted their work; click here for more.