Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community

Edited by Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax
Review by Me

*LETTERS TO POETS Reading at The Poetry Center Thursday APRIL 23
4:30 pm @ the Poetry Center 512 Humanities, SFSU, free

Poets write to each other; they can’t help it. It’s how we argue, persuade, tease, apply for jobs, make friends, make enemies, fall in love, etc. and it seems that these kinds of conversations are happening more and more via email, blogs and even text messages, maybe even more than in person. It’s how we charm, anger, confuse, tickle and inspire each other. The number of emails floating between poets right this second, in the world, in this country, in this city (San Francisco) alone is unfair to ask you to imagine. Now, how many of those poets wonder if those emails will ever be read? I bet many. Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics and Community does an interesting thing in first instigating correspondence between poets and then publishing the resulting letters collectively.

What happens when you collect the letters of contemporary, living, flesh and blood poets together? They, the letters, talk to each other. The intimate correspondence between two poets laying side-by-side with the conversation of another pair, with another pair, with another pair etc. makes something happen—multiplication bunny rabbit-style and soon you have a community, a big fat bunny community of poets all chattering and whispering, debating and placating, and making pronouncements about the state or states of poetry. Some might say that the project feels contrived, that the knowledge that these letters would be published may have somehow corrupted the intimacy of the letters or imposed a distasteful self-reflexivity, but whether it is contrived or not is not important, what’s important is the result—what’s created.

Anyone out there who wants to know what’s in there (the “community”) can know--they CAN know and this book makes that possibility more clear. Poets don’t always play well with others, but because they are playing, others want to watch or join and they should feel welcome to. This book works as an antidote to the solipsistic bumping around that often afflicts poetry circles, in and out of colleges and universities. This book says: here’s the conversation, or a piece of it, the one that is happening right now, and let that conversation be a peep-hole and if you like, let that be your entrée.

Consider the long and varied history of correspondences that have enriched our collective and personal understanding of poetics and poetic communities ie: Duncan and Levertov; Niedeker and Zukofsky; Schklovsky and Triolet; Schuyler and everyone and Rilke and that unnamed "Young Poet". Here in Letters to Poets, Dana Teen Lomax and Jennifer Firestone pair younger up-and-coming poets with more established poets, setting them up for a year's worth of correspondence. What results is a book so various and multiple that it’s fair to say that there is something in it for every one, even and maybe especially for the non-poet.

This poet gave Letters to Poets to her mother by way of explanation of, of all things, her life. How does one explain the kinds of choices inherent in a poet’s life? Why do we involve ourselves in these communities? Why do we sacrifice comfort and financial stability and what for? Why do we engage with academic institutions that may or may not share our values? As poets what do we ask of ourselves and what do others ask of us? What do poets talk about? Why do we feel compelled to write in the first place?

Let’s start with that first question and follow the warren paths from there:

When I write a poem, I almost never look back. It’s like the poem happens within a now that is shifting to a future; I never look back as I do when I am writing prose narrative. Maybe that’s why poets and poetry stay within an eternal emergence. Poetry is fresh and stimulating, it comes almost like a nervous charge to me; I’m sure it raises the blood pressure.—Victor Hernández Cruz

The effect of poetry on the body or its generation within it is an important place to start, especially when the shadow life of poetry, the necessary (or perhaps unnecessary) sacrifices, begin to affect the poet in more practical, physical ways:

I’m thinking about “a life of independence”--the difficult notion of being a free, unaffiliated poet in ‘a free market economy’—that nonetheless you pay a price as we do for everything—because so many times in my life in New York as a poet I wasn’t able to see how wonderful things were because all I wanted was some help, I wanted to win, I wished someone would give me a big fucking grant or something. Being poor for a long time makes you feel small. I think my poems never got small. Oddly poetry seems to expand in relation to poverty—or at least it does for a very long time. –Eileen Myles

While poets want to succeed, want to win, as Eileen Myles says, there is a fear that doing so requires that we become someone’s puppet. Sometimes that takes the form of make-shift apprenticeships where the younger poet becomes the bunny in a more established poet’s hat for a while, hoping to learn to someday be the one holding that hat. Sometimes the expectations of an audience (real or perceived) can be crippling. Just what kind of bunny do they expect me to pull out and what if I pull out a severed head instead? Jennifer Firestone addresses this concern in her response to a letter from Eileen Myles:

How to flip the gaze back onto the audience? When you feel you’re there to be judged, forced to watch others sum you up. How to fight the force of the look and your own self-awareness? Sometimes I feel my body shoved into ‘the role.’ Oh boy, out comes a nervous laugh. Whoops, there goes intense and eager eye contact. Wham, the arms go out and I’m flapping my flippers together or bobbing balls on my nose. –Jennifer Firestone

Firestone’s feelings of unease regarding this kind of forced performance and her desire to flip that gaze, become especially potent when put in conversation with the kind of racial type casting that still manages to happen even within seemingly hyper-liberal poetic circles as described in the correspondence of Truong Tran and Wanda Coleman:

...The managing editor of this journal essentially asked for the following: work that was more traditionally lineated and work that was more Vietnamese in flavor. I am prepared to accept the thinking of the first request. It is the second request that leaves me at a loss for words. It is a request that reaches far beyond the boundaries of my poetry and is a reflection of life as it exists now in this society. It is a society that still insists on filing individuals into a neat rolodex system of race, gender and sexual orientation… –Truong Tran

Let’s address item #2, the phrase that has put you at a loss: “work that was more Vietnamese in flavor.” This is a variation on the old “you’re not Black enough” ploy that, ironically, even when valid, is a convenient repudiation that conceals racist bias (although it may be adamantly claimed otherwise). It is frequently used to demoralize anyone of color. —Wanda Coleman

The linkages continue, the bunny-rubbings and vibrations continue. This book fairly hums with them. The poets included in this book, younger and older, established or emerging can collectively play the part of mentor, ambassador, comrade in arms. If you make the choice to be a poet, they say, here's what you need to know. These are the things you WILL encounter. Here are some possible strategies to navigate this world and some great bits of wisdom; you will need them.

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