[We get another plug (a ways down) in this very informative article that pretty much covers almost anything having to do with poetry and the war, at least in publishing.]
Poets assert their role in the national discussion
by Michael Scharf
On March 5, the group Poets Against the War, hastily but determinedly set up by Copper Canyon publisher Sam Hamill, presented members of the U.S. Congress with a sheaf of 13,000 poems, in conjunction with a day of readings all over the country. To say that this was an unprecedented publishing event is putting it mildly. It may have been the beginning of a sea change—not only in the way that poems are published and circulated, but in the way that they are thought of in terms of their cultural role.
The presentation capped off the most visible organized poetic protest against war with Iraq. The story of how it was touched off is by now a familiar one: First Lady Laura Bush invited Hamill, among other poets, to a discussion of the work of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Hamill declined and sent out an e-mail calling for poems, and he asked that February 12 (the date of the White House event) be made "a day of poetry against the war." Bush subsequently canceled the event, but Hamill's call burgeoned into a Web site (www.poetsagainstthewar.org) and into the group's massive anthology, which has just been published in an abridged edition.
Just as the United for Peace.org marches on New York City of February 15 and March 22 were word–of–e-mail based, the immense poetry protest certainly couldn't have happened without the Internet. The passionate debates that have been taking place through poetry have addressed not only the war, but the cultural role of poetry itself and the means for its dissemination. Drawing attention to that role is something that National Poetry Month, now in its eighth year and beginning this week, was designed to do from its inception. As publishers prepared for NPM, we asked them how, or if, all the attention focused on poetry by the antiwar movement was affecting their plans.
Though their answers vary, most agree with Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets—the group that originated and remains a major sponsor of NPM—that "poetry is much more visible in the culture right now, and part of that is because this program has been enormously successful in making poetry a more important part of the fabric of American life."
Shut Up, Poets!
The academy is kicking off NPM with a New York gala designed to demonstrate how deeply those poetic threads have insinuated themselves. Entitled "Poetry & the Creative Mind, an evening celebrating the role of poetry in American culture," the event will feature prominent, nonpoet writers and performers celebrating poetry's impact on the culture at large. Those invited include Laurie Anderson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kitty Carlisle Hart, Caroline Kennedy, Frank McCourt, Jessye Norman, George Plimpton, Natalie Portman, Zadie Smith, Frank Stella, Meryl Streep and William Styron.
While proud of NPM's successes in promoting poetry in the past, Swenson affirms that it is the antiwar movement that has bought unprecedented attention to poetry over the past few months. "In the '60s during the Vietnam War, poetry did draw people together who were concerned about the war and wanted to make a statement. They found the voices of poets and [the poets] rose into public visibility, but I don't think at nearly the level that they have this time."
While a media stir (and bitter acrimony on all sides) resulted from recent work and remarks by New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, and by Tom Paulin, a British poet and Columbia University visiting professor, Hamill's work captured the most column inches and generated a surge of activity. That attention has brought greater cognizance of the poet's traditional role within public discourse, to the point where a recent screed by Neal Pollack, frequent McSweeney's contributor and ardent blogger, was capped with the injunction: "Shut the hell up, poets."
Asked why U.S. poets don't normally play a more visible role in public debates, Dan Halpern, v-p, editorial director of Ecco Press and copublisher of Fourth Estate books, finds the situation "very complicated. The poets of Latin America—Neruda, de Andrade, Vallejo—and the great Eastern European poets, especially in Russia, speak to the people. When a new book comes out in Russia, it sells 100,000 copies, and they're lined up the day it's released. The poets somehow connect with the population. Our poets don't do that. I'm not saying they're better or worse poets, but for whatever reason, they clearly don't connect. A book of poetry typically sells a couple thousand copies, aside from Billy Collins, or Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney."
One might even quibble about (Ecco authors) Graham or Glück's numbers, reportedly very much in the several thousand range themselves, though, as with most sales figures in publishing, almost impossible to verify, short of asking the poets themselves. But despite all of the antiwar activity, and NPM, Halpern still finds "poetry always has this core group of readers, and it hasn't changed that much over 30 years."
Still, Halpern finds NPM useful, "because it makes people think about poetry in a focused way—it makes readers aware that there's still poetry being written" and that it can even be a regular part of people's lives: "In times of crisis, and we saw it after 9/11, people turn to poetry. In terms of rites of passage, people always turn to poetry. And if it's good enough for these key moments of life, then what's the matter with the everyday?"
Margarita Donnelly, director of Calyx Books, the small press based in Corvallis, Ore., that recently released A Fierce Brightness: 25 Years of Women's Poetry, concurred. "I come from a different culture—I'm from an Irish-American family from South America, where poetry causes revolutions, where poets are often leaders of political movements, and works of poetry are treated much differently than the way we treat things in the U.S., which is this white tower, sort of separate from reality."
Donnelly finds that such perceptions have a direct impact on Calyx's mission. "We're a feminist press. In the very word 'feminism' there's a political connotation given to it automatically by society at large, and who knows how many interpretations [of feminism] there are. For us, it's simply about giving women a voice." So even if the poems Calyx publishes don't carry an overt, issue-based message, "poetry is political whether it's 'political' or not."
The split between "political" and "nonpolitical" in public consciousness wasn't always so absolute, as Farrar, Straus & Giroux's Jonathan Galassi notes. Watching many of the poets on his list react to world developments, he finds the recent transformation "reminiscent of the '60s. It's bringing out a vein of poetry that has been sort of underground. When I was young, from Robert Lowell to Allen Ginsberg, that was one whole string to the lyre." Lowell, while taking part in Stalin-era red-baiting, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to WWII and was outspoken during Vietnam, as was Ginsberg, who is perhaps the last U.S. poet with mass appeal who was consistently outspoken in his work and life.
New World Order
But it may be that the lyre has simply been re-tuned. Along with Ginsberg came Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron; Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy followed not too long after that. And this year saw the smash opening of Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, more Grammys for Eminem and packed performance poetry reading spaces across the country.
Clearly, as poet Eileen Myles recently put it in an open letter to Slate editor Judith Shulevitz (who had dismissed poetry readings as "uncomfortable" in a New York Times Book Review piece), "[T]he happy meeting of live poetry with a very impoverished human need to hear any speech live, but particularly rhythmic speech is unstoppable. Judith, people just like it. They really do. They like to sit communally and hear messages that aren't tinkered with by the government, or intended to sell a product, or gauged to spin some denatured piece of information that's already been stripped of dangerous and alarming content. Poetry is and has been for a while where lots of citizens get the real and irregular news of how others around them think and feel. What is so discomforting about that?"
Shulevitz and Myles were arguing about poetry readings of page-based work, rather than performance poetry, but there is often little separating the two, beyond the poet and audience's affects. If one classifies rap and hip-hop as genres with slightly different demands than conventional or performance poetry, then recorded poetry readings on CD have not yet had sales that noticeably surpass books (despite Shulevitz's enthusiasm for recorded poets, who are preferable because "you can always turn them off"). It may be that cheap, high-quality digital recording devices—both audio and video—are just starting to infiltrate performance venues and that recorded poetry's full competitiveness is still a few more years away.
What this year has seen is a remarkable spate of excellent poets in translation, bringing the news from other corners.
Graywolf, a small press based in St. Paul, Minn., recently published Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems by Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, a socialist who has been in exile for years and now lives in London. Poetry editor Jeff Shotts makes it clear that "we accepted and put this book under contract about a year and half ago, before Iraq was something everyone wanted to talk about." But the press thought Youssef perfect for its Lannan Translation series. And Shotts strongly believes that Youssef's work can affect people's thinking on the situation. Indeed, he says, "Anyone who cares about complicated thinking about Iraq should be reading this book. As with all of our books, publishing it was primarily an aesthetic concern, but certainly a political one as well."
The awareness level of what Laura Cerruti, who recently took over as poetry editor at the University of California, calls "global poetics" seems generally heightened. "A lot of times you're talking about poets who are very involved politically with what's going on in their countries. We're interested in African poets, and when you start to delve in, it just comes up."
While not basing her decisions solely on aesthetics, Cerruti looks for the kind of connection that Halpern spoke of. "We're not going to publish someone solely because they have a particular political view; we're going to publish really influential poets. That can mean the strength of the language, but it can also be the message," Cerruti says. In doing so, the house takes care to approach from a variety of angles. "We've always published on both sides of every issue: this spring we have [Palestinian poet] Mahmood Darwish and we have [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai." Both are deeply engaged with the political questions facing Israel and Palestine, and even know each other. "And we publish both."
"Balance" in such undertakings was a theme struck repeatedly. Suzanna Tamminen, editor-in-chief at Wesleyan University Press, spoke of the press's mission as "try[ing] to represent as broadly as possible the best of what is going on in contemporary poetry. We really try not to become too closely aligned with any one school or type or mode or poetic presentation, but Wesleyan itself has such a liberal history, and I definitely feel that the press reflects that as well."
As well as the excellent international work available, there is still plenty of poetry being published by U.S. writers that might not sell 100,000 copies, but which is connecting through various means, some of them grassroots and some unabashedly partisan.
Poets like Wanda Coleman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Alice Notley, Adrienne Rich and Barrett Watten have written careers' worth of work that deeply interrogates lives and sociopolitical systems. Their publishers are, respectively, Black Sparrow (now distributed by Godine), the University of Arizona, Penguin, Norton and Sun & Moon.
In April, Atelos press will release Rodrigo Toscano's Platform, a blistering, aesthetically supercharged poetic critique of politics as currently practiced by much of the right and the left. Atelos was founded by poets Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz; their mission statement notes the press is "devoted to publishing, under the sign of poetry, writing which challenges the conventional definitions of poetry, since such definitions have tended to isolate poetry from intellectual life, arrest its development, and curtail its impact." The correlation between formally innovative work and political thinking is something that has been clear at least since Blake and Shelley.
But such interrogations don't have to be experimental or samizdat. Soft Skull, now in Brooklyn, published the notorious Bush biography Fortunate Son and recently released the book version of David Rees's explosive Web comic Get Your War On, both of which got a lot of press. Two of Soft Skull's main titles for spring are 100 Poets Against the War, an international anthology of poems in English, French and German originally compiled in a week by the force of the Web, and Off the Cuffs: Poetry By and About the Police.
But as Soft Skull's publicity director, Shanna Compton, noted, a lot of how the press gets the word out has little to do with the books: "For outreach, the Web site and the e-mail list have been amazing, and we now do almost all of our press releases online. And we are focusing much more on webzines to get our books reviewed."
As Hamill's project demonstrated vividly, the major way in which poets connect with readers, and with other poets, may now be the Internet. And it's not just smaller houses that are working the medium.
One of Knopf's major National Poetry Month activities is its "Poem a Day" project, where anyone signed up for the Knopf e-newsletter is e-mailed a daily poem. In addition to bringing poetry to people in a way that highlights its daily availability, the project helps the house cope with the April glut of the market. For Knopf editor Deborah Garrison, NPM is "a blessing and a curse, because there's just so much, you worry that certain books might get lost. On the other hand, it's nice to have the focus, and it's nice to have the front table in some stores. I still like it as a reminder to people, 'Don't forget you like poetry, and here it is, and we've got it, and there's plenty for the taking.' " In fact, they're giving it away on their Web site as well.
The Academy of American Poets' Web site (www.poets.org), which features searchable caches of poems and poet biographies, had 28 million hits and 380,000 unique visits last April, and expects more this year. Beyond the huge amount of poetry on or linked to the site, the academy is set for an NPM launch of a clickable map of the United States that will serve as a nationwide clearinghouse for information on poetry events.
There are also many recent smaller-scale projects, including niche archives of poetry from a variety of eras, modes and languages. ECLIPSE: An Archive of Enthused Writing recently came online via Princeton University (www.princeton. edu/eclipse), offering PDFs of out-of-print books by poets like Clark Coolidge and Lorenzo Thomas. The Electronic Poetry Center, out of SUNY Buffalo (epc.buffalo.edu), remains a staple, with tons of material and links to sites like the Brazilian Visual Poetry site (www.imediata.com/BVP). And then there are the blogs.
Weblogs by poets have proliferated along with blogs from other walks of life. One of the most prominent, now approaching 20,000 unique visits, is that of poet and former Socialist Review editor Ron Silliman (ronsilliman.blogspot.com). For Silliman, the blog has meant a level of accessibility that was not possible with books. "I suspect that more people read my blog on any given day than read my poetry," Silliman says seriously. "Only 800 copies of Ketjak [one of Silliman's most acclaimed books] were ever published. More people read my blog in one week, approximately 1,200, than ever had copies of Ketjak."
Primarily a place for daily critical posts, rather than an outlet for his poetic work, the Silliman blog prints and discusses the work of other poets and is now getting approximately 200 visits per day. But beyond his own blog, Silliman looks to its effects on other poets. "In 2001, there were only a few thousand bloggers in the world and virtually nobody using the form to focus on poetry. Now there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers, and a growing number that focus on poetry. May a thousand blogs bloom!"
Brian Kim Stefans, a poet, media artist and blogger, used Weblog technology to put up Circulars (www.arras.net/circulars), a site that he hopes will "focus some of the disparate energy by poets and literary critics to enunciate a response to U.S. foreign policy, most significantly the move to war with Iraq." After attending a Poets Against War event at St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York, Stefans came away "believing that poets could write speeches for our public spokespersons that would be equally as compelling" as what was coming out of the White House. "I see the site as describing a possible culture that probably just doesn't exist yet in a real-world space."
The Circulars blog brings together posts from poets mainly in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., but Stefans gets regular reports from other countries, such as Turkey; and "people also submit things out of the blue." The Circulars site was a little over a month old in March, yet Stefans had 53,000 hits in a recent week and has been logging close to 3,000 unique visitors a day. Compared with the figures Halpern cited for printed poetry volumes, that seems fairly staggering.
Yet Web work is not limited to poets who are against the war. In a reaction to Poets Against the War, Circulars and other sites, a Web site under the name of Poets for the War (www.poetsforthewar.org) was "created out of pure frustration at seeing a bunch of poets get publicity for supporting terrorism and a murderous tyrant like Saddam Hussein al Tikriti," as its home page notes. The group was founded by Charles L. Weatherford, proprietor of AKA Wordsmith, a Web-based company "created to provide custom poetry and creative writing for all occasions." The site features numerous poems critical of the antiwar movement.
And beyond free archiving, blogging and anthologizing on the Net, commercial activity continues apace. Launched last September, Bigsmallpressmall.com brings together four publishers—Fence, McSweeney's, Open City and Verse Press—with the "shared interest in promoting new and unusual writers outside of the mainstream publishing system."
Keeping People Involved
As the poet and critic Alan Gilbert noted in an essay posted on Circulars, "There's a difference between a now in which one's range of political and artistic choices are primarily immediate reactions to a current situation, and a present that draws upon a culture and politics of resistance rooted in the past, present, and future."
We are at the moment deep within a pressurized, reactive "now," where many poets and readers are struggling to define and cope with events and to find a voice within them. Whether or not we move into a reflective, responsive "present," where it is assumed that poets play an active role in public life, will be a measure of poetry—and of publishing—in the years to come.
But for now, as Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker and executive director of the Poetry Society of America, remarked, "I think it's okay what's going on, don't you?" The last few months, Quinn finds, have produced work and readings that are "answering the highest obligation of poetry, to wake people up to life in its fullest terms."Posted by Brian Stefans at April 01, 2003 05:24 PM