I’m writing in response to Juliana Spahr’s and Joshua Clover’s self-nomination to the presidency of Poetry Chicago. I was especially struck by how they noted that the outgoing president was critical of MFA programs and the fact that poets often got jobs in universities these days. The letter got me thinking of ways to spend their money to provide some at least temporary support for poets who are otherwise working in non-academic fields, how to decentralize poetry in the U.S. and move it away from the major cities on the coasts, and, how to get poets from other, less-visited countries over here and vice-versa. Most these are, I think, pretty original ideas with the exception of the last. I’m serious about all of this, by the way (no snark today, sorry)!
1. Travel grants for poets to non-European countries
What are the poets in Ghana doing these days? I’m a little surprised at how American poets gravitate to Paris for their big cultural sojourn, as if it were still 1917 and the frontiers of Europe lay along the Swiss Alps. I think it would be far more interesting if poets, especially those interested in politics, travelled to Africa, Asia and South America – many of the countries there are in what one might call “transition” periods, and if anything provide a more dynamic view of globalization (not to mention capital) in the present times. England, France, Germany and Italy (though this last, being a semi-permanent basket case, still has something to offer) don’t provide much of a contrast to how things work in the States, and we have access to their literary histories through tons of translations and visitors from abroad. The Clash might have been bored with the U.S.A., but I’m bored with the E.U. I just think it would be more interesting for poets to travel to the frontiers of their cultures, where things are broken or breaking down and something of the world system lies exposed, than travel the paths they are expected to travel, being sophisticated beings, and which are often already gloating over their recognized achievements. For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care for poetry that is inspired by beautiful places, it’s often quite self-involved, since what is there to think about in beautiful places than one’s self? Consequently, tickets to places like Senegal, Peru and Thailand are super expensive compared to the tickets to Europe, and there is not much coming back from the other end in terms of invitations or grants, so a poet would especially need help there. I also wonder why political radicals from the left travel to Paris, as if May ’68 were still flowering in the boulevards, rather than places that have had revolutions much more recently. Is it really that much more interesting to read Badiou in a Parisian café than at home?
2. Seed Grants for semi-commercial poetry/arts organizations in non-major U.S. cities
One of the success stories in New York has been Bob Holman’s Bowery Poetry Club, which combines a heavy list of readings, music concerts, and other events with the commercial income of a bar and coffee shop. I think that could be a model for similar organizations in cities that don’t have a lot of funding for their native literature and art scenes and which are in need of places where poets and artists can socialize, kick back, get to know each other’s work and love or loathe it, etc. This organization – perhaps housed in some small building on some weird, forgotten edge of town that is sketchy but safe, but still inexpensive – could also serve to help bring poets in from out of town, or maybe act as a link in the chain of places that poets travel to when they do book tours. I have no idea who I would call if I were to do a cross country tour, or whether it would be worth it at all – driving to Austin for 12 hours to have 3 people show up? This organization could keep a few rooms on the second floor as crash pads for travelling poets, or even have residencies like they do here at Machine Project, having a poet come to stay for a month or so to give workshops or just be part of the scene. It would be great if New York were not the only place poets gravitate toward (or are encouraged to gravitate toward) after graduating from college (or high school, or whatever). Why couldn’t it be Pittsburgh, Lawrence or New Orleans? I imagine that the proposals for these grants would spell out a 5 year plan, including costs and income. There would not be any requirement to describe how the organization could last in perpetuity – I just don’t imagine any poet really wanting to run a business for the rest of his/her life – just how it would last for 5 years, to get something in going in said small city.
3. Upgrade internet knowledge and distribution of books
The Small Press Distribution site is really incredibly useful, and certainly an improvement over the days when you ordered books from them by telephone or mail. But what I’d really like to see on the site are some new features that allow those of us who never get to see these books browse with some knowledge of what’s inside them. I think it would be great if SPD made available at least 5 pages of all of their books on their site, thus facilitating browsing, and also creating something of an unedited, ever-expansive online anthology of contemporary poetry. Presses would just get in the habit of including a short sample PDF when sending their information in. SPD’s bestseller lists, for example, often contain poets I’ve never heard of or worse, the same poets that I’ve heard of who have appeared on every SPD bestseller list. The blurbs and press information often are completely non-informative, and having staff picks is nice, but still, I often don’t know the staff. I often buy tons of SPD books when I see them at book fairs, but almost never, unless for classes, from their site. And poets don’t always write the same way they did in previous books — imagine the disappointment fans of the “Waste Land” felt when they opened their copies of “Burnt Norton.” I just assume that every time I publish a book, people just think it’s another Free Space Comix and say, nah. I also think it would be great to have a part of the site (or maybe just a separate site) that is entirely automatic for presses that are so small that they can’t even afford to pay the nominal fee it requires to be distributed by SPD. For example, if I were doing a press run of say 50 copies of such and such a chapbook, I could go to the site, fill out a form, upload a cover image and sample pages and a link to the website where I could purchase the book. All SPD would have to do would be to somehow make sure that no one just uploads pure garbage, pornography, links to sites selling bogus hair growth tonics, or even just links back to blogs for those self-promoters, etc. and also that old entries that link to dead sites are deleted.
4. Grants for poets from other countries to travel to the U.S.
Once again, I’m interested in having poets from non-European (or at least the more or less affluent European countries) come to the United States to study, get involved with a poetry scene, publish or translate their work, share the work from their own respective country, etc. Even poets in Mexico find it incredibly expensive to spend even a few weeks in New York city, so you can imagine what my imaginary poet from Libya, Georgia or, the Philippines might feel. One of the great things about living in New York was being able to meet so many great artists from other countries – one of my favorites was an Israeli butoh dancer named Boaz Barkan, whom I met through the remarkable and terribly missed Stacy Doris – and though I occasionally have the opportunity to meet artists (but mostly students) from other countries in Los Angeles, it’s obviously with far less frequency. I suspect that there are forms of this sort of grant, but my guess is that they involve some sort of research aspect, whereas I think these poets should be able to come to the States based purely on their creative achievements. Another thing I would like to see which is somewhat related are grants for non-English speaking or writing residents of the United States. There is a whole network of South American poets here that might be receiving support from their respective home countries, but are often (I sense) not feeling terribly integrated into the U.S. scene. This grant wouldn’t operate as a way to make a living, but more as a fund to get work translated into English, to travel, to create community, much like what is outlined above. It would be great to foster non-English U.S. poetry if only to provide a more realistic, less homogeneous, image of what this country is. I would imagine that in the Korean American community, for example there are some pretty good poets over here writing in Korean who wouldn’t be able to published in Korea but who should be read, somewhere.
5. A permanent “poets in need” fund
This is certainly my least original suggestion, but I’ll describe it (at length) anyway. As it is, those of us in the poetry community periodically receive requests from the group Poets in Need for donations to be given over to a usually older poet who has fallen on hard times. In some cases, there are direct appeals to the community on behalf of someone who is pretty well-known and beloved. This is all really great, though I know that, in the past, when second parties have made appeals on behalf of a poet, said poet was not always so happy to see their misfortunes advertised, and/or were too proud to accept donations from their friends. I think it’s great that the network of poets could help each other out, but quite often the poets being appealed to are not themselves all that rich. Consequently, I imagine there are many poets that simply don’t have that sort of network, or who might be are not necessarily “beloved” – I just mean poets who are anti-social and don’t get out much, or poets who are simply to young to have published much but who have, say, become desperately ill and have no insurance – or who simply do not like to make public their personal problems or finances. There are poets who are also pretty much in a terminal state of poverty due to illness and age, but who cannot foresee themselves appealing to the community every time the gas bill needs to be paid. I think a grant or some sort of social security for poets who have significant publishing histories or have otherwise proved their commitment to poetry (through translation, editing, rabble rousing, etc.) should be able to have a place to receive some funding should they hit upon hard times. A corollary to this could be an education or training grant for poets who either don’t have any skills in anything more than, say, word processing or copy-editing and want to get themselves out of a hole.
Well, that’s my fifteen cents. I’m sure I’ll think of more just after publishing or posting this, but hopefully there is something to chew over here and Poetry Chicago will respond. I really want them to, since they really are in a position to do something really radical and interesting, but I’m afraid they’re just going to throw their money at the usual places, like fostering more small presses, or get poetry into the schools type programs, all of which is good but in the end doesn’t make poetry more interesting (and Pound, who you see above, was all about making poetry more interesting, not simply getting people to read it).
Notice that none of the above has anything to do with affiliations with poetry schools, movements or well-established poetry “wars.” If anything, I’d like to see a situation where more poets unconcerned with, however much informed of, the familiar partisan battles are engaged in writing, editing and publishing. I don’t think it’s a required element in the education of a poet to suddenly become aware of the largely inane bickering about the mainstream or “school of quietude” and some sort of avant-garde. Let these “political” ideas, some of which are useful, come after the exposure and engagement with the work, not before. I mean, having an opinionated poetry clique is a nice way to make friends and foster one’s self-education, but can sometimes set irrational boundaries on what one is expected or not expected to read.
Also, none of this has to do with selling or making poetry more popular with the “masses.” I hate those campaigns to somehow save poetry from obscurity and showing the public that poetry is something that can be a part of their lives. The poetry that I generally like will most likely never be very useful to your average American, just as I’ll never see a Gang of Four song covered on American Idol. Just let the poetry get written, get out, and if it finds its readers, great, if not, then let it rest for a few decades to be rediscovered by someone with taste! Poetry’s not dying, it doesn’t need resuscitating, it doesn’t need help by well-intended people involved in more lucrative industries who often simply don’t know what they’re talking about. And please, let’s get rid of the position of Poet Laureate!