This poetry thing goes both ways, or many ways at once

The poet a.rawlings has been connecting students up with the contemporary poets they are reading. High school students that is. Scott Griffin, founder of the lucrative Griffin Prize for Poetry has begun a program that encourages high school students to memorize poetry and perform it, vying for a new prize. Over on Lemon Hound, I have invited a graduate student to guest edit. Part of what Ben Hynes is posting is established poets, including Daisy Fried, Marilyn Bowering, Sharon Thesen, and others to come, introducing student poets, as well as student responses to contemporary poems and poets. There is a series of first book engagements from the perspective of a student poet, and a few random student produced pieces as well, including this take on the gorgeous visual poems of Colin Fulton. It's important to weave these new voices into our ongoing poetic discourse, it seems to me. It's an editorial policy that I think I'll stick with.

I have to admit my bias, but watching two of my former graduate students, Jessi MacEachern and Lise Gaston, grapple with poets Lisa Robertson and Steven Price respectively, makes me anticipate their own poetry even more than I already do having actually encountered it in progress. Here they are engaging with others’ work, and it seems to me, that in doing so, thinking through their own. Here is Gaston on Price's wonderful Anatomy of Keys:

“XVI” is a dynamic list poem; one metaphor actively slips to the next, so the men who hang by the “shrouded hood” initiate the rope as “ripple of rumour through a crowd.” As a sonnet, the poem is both rippling and tight. Price keeps close to iambic meter while jamming in extra stresses for syntactical density.

And MacEachearn on Robertson:

Debbie: An Epic clamours with aesthetic excess. But the poems lure the mind beyond the flourish, for they are never merely language for language’s sake. Robertson exploits each angle of a poem’s frame, whether the epic or the lyric, not only utilizing its available strength but also inquiring into its weaknesses. The antique gestures subverted by Robertson prepare her poetic sphere for the tension between intellectualism and emotionalism. The poems simultaneously reel in the empathy of the reader and evoke his or her critical response.

Part of me that thinks the “buy in” to the poetry world should be a critical position, a critical text, before a poetic one. Or at least both? Why not? If poets aren’t reading and engaging critically with each other, why expect others to? Or, can one be a poet without being able to speak and write, of poetry? I know there are many who think these are two distinct arts; who view themselves as distinctly poets or distinctly critics, or poet critic. There are others who fold their critical thinking into their poetry.

On the other hand, I don't want a rule. Who does? Just  a little more interaction, however it looks. Whatever it takes to engage. And part of that might be in the way we, as "established poets," introduce new poets. Here is a snippet from a smart introduction to Mercedes Eng via Vancouver poet Clint Burnham:

Conceptual writing, flarf, and the like use quotation as a way to indulge in what Slavoj Žižek would call the idiocy of our enjoyment – the sublime obscenity of post-internet culture. But Eng’s program is a little different. She uses their method – sampling, quotation, pastiche, call it what you will – both to implicate the hegemonic discourse of neoliberal police militarism (racism at home is tied to racism as foreign policy) and to keep herself in that mix, part of the problem.

And an earlier post from Victoria writer Marilyn Bowering on Elizabeth Ross:

My former student Elizabeth Ross’s poems seem, to me, to inhabit a transition zone. They are often situated in ordinary domestic moments, but it’s as if there’s a little swinging door inside them and the reader finds herself stepping first to one side, then another as the poet switches views.

Each opportunity to hand off the torch, is a good one. These new poets offer us the opportunity to think about poetry's reception. And these opportunities remind us of our own beginnings, force us to come to terms with the next generation, maybe even push us to rethink our own positions.

In the end it seems to me that opening the door to poetry is a matter of illuminating the ways in which poetry is read and grappled with as much as presenting poetry. Poetry does speak for itself, it's true. But so does writing about it.

Originally Published: April 20th, 2011

Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...