Letters to Poets
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.
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...