The Following Four Participants Discuss the State of American Poetry:

Ellen Dudley :

Poet, author of Slow Burn (Provincetown Press 1997)
Founding editor and publisher of:

the Marlboro Review

A poem by Ms. Dudley:

"State Line"

Lee Sharkey :

Editor and on the board of:

The Beloit Poetry Journal

A poem by Ms. Sharkey:

"How I Died"

Miriam Sagan :

Author of The Widow's Coat (Ashanta Press 1999) and Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry (Sherman Asher 1999).
Founding editor and publisher of:

Santa Fe Poetry Broadside

Poetry by Ms. Sagan:

"Travelling Band"

Joyce Wilson :

Poet and founding editor and publisher of:

The Poetry Porch

Poetry by Ms. Wilson's:

"Collector of Guns"

__________

Muriel Rukeyser's Life of Poetry and The Orgy atParis Press

Rebecca Seiferle's translation of Vallejo's Trilce

The State of American Poetry

An e-mail discussion
with Rebecca Seiferle


The Drunken Boat's first discussion takes a look at the current state of American poetry. The participants represent different aspects of the current publishing scene. Miriam Sagan and Joyce Wilson are the founders, editors, and publishers of ezines. Sagan's Santa Fe Poetry Broadside appears 6-8 times yearly and features chapbooks and works by Southwestern writers. Wilson's The Poetry Porch has both a yearly issue and a continuing feature: Forum on Forgiveness is the 2000 issue, based on Nadya Aisenberg's theme of Forgiveness, while "the Sonnet Scroll" is an ongoing exercise of the modern sonnet. Ellen Dudley is the founder, editor, publisher of a print magazine, the Marlboro Review which has recently established a Web page. The magazine appears quarterly, runs an annual Poetry and Fiction contest with well-known judges, and publishes contemporary poetry of any style. Lee Sharkey is an editor and on the board of a long established print magazine, The Beloit Poetry Journal which has featured contemporary poetry for several decades. By coincidence, all of the editors are women, and, while the discussion is not preoccupied with gender issues, it does seem that the coincidence shows the degree to which women have become active in establishing, creating, and publishing small literary magazines. The mixture of approaches and styles has produced a productive conversation, interesting for its multiplicity of views. I trust that you'll find the discussion interesting for what it lends to poetry, and also, a helpful introduction to these editors and their magazines.

Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry writes a great deal about how American culture resists poetry. As editors and writers, how would you characterize contemporary poetry and its place in our culture?

Miriam Sagan:

I feel as if poetry is marginalized in our society. It's lost its traditional uses—to praise love & weddings, remember the dead, tell a story of a people. The emphasis on prizes & publishing seems a misguided attempt to bring poetry into the mainstream as a profession—but it isn't—it's an avocation. Poetry needs audience, not a tiny effete one, but a real communal one. It may be the job of the contemporary poet to discover that audience.

Ellen Dudley:

Well, yes, poetry is marginalized in our general culture, the TV, MTV culture BUT more people are writing poetry and reading poetry than ever before. I'm not convinced that poetry was ever an integral part of "our" culture once we got past the bards, once we began to write and read and segment ourselves. If what I see come through the mailbox at the Marlboro Review is an indication, poetry is alive and well and extremely diverse. Yes, a lot of it is bad but so is a lot of other art. And yes, I would guess that we resist poetry all right. How many students have broken out into a cold sweat at the prospect of reading something they can't "get"? My best friend is a veterinarian and quails at the thought of poetry. I have introduced her to the more accessible work, she has been surprised and pleased, she has passed my own book on to others with recommendations to read specific poems. Yes, that's anecdotal but I think it's indicative of how poetry spreads, if you will.

Joyce Wilson:

The issue of accessibility is a big one. I was engaged in a conversation with a writer from WGBH who was looking for poetry to put on the news broadcast, All Things Considered . She needed something immediately accessible, she said, to grab the reader in that 30-second sound byte, or whatever the measurement is. I was just horrified, because for me, so much good poetry is not immediately accessible. I mean that the meaning of its subject matter might not be the first thing you get. I like poetry I don’t understand, poetry that confuses me with its music or rhythm or strange word combinations, so that I want to find a copy of it and read it, to hear it again. If we must address accessibility, and the issue crops up in many of these discussions, then I guess we must define ways poetry appeals to its audience as it conveys its meaning, and how immediate impressions work as hooks for all the rest.

Lee Sharkey:

Rukeyser talks about a fear of poetry and of the intimate powers that inform it—and who doesn't see widespread avoidance in American culture to knowing what we're feeling on anything below the level of sensation? Listening to a few hours of the House impeachment debate last winter was enough to drive me to the edge of schizophrenia: all that rhetoric in the service of ideology, all that phrasemaking as a substitute for thought. All the easy moralizing on a theme of body hatred. The brazen, boring cadences of power. By rights, then, we poets, we linguistic sensualists, ought to strike terror into the heart of power. For most Americans, though, we simply don’t exist. And yet, and yet . . . as Ellen says, there’s anecdotal evidence that poetry persists. My brother-in-law, a welder, reads his poems when we gather in the desert to scatter his father’s ashes; my student builds a cardboard house and papers its walls with quotations from Lorde and Rich; my young friend copies my recording of a Rukeyser reading, plays the tape to a room full of silence. Almost every day I see poems provide what someone needs to live. And the more the merrier, in all varieties, as far as I’m concerned.

I wonder if the underlying connection between the issue of accessibility and marginalization (which many of these conversations do seem to return to again and again) is that endangered species—the reader. I remember Borges said once that the reader would become the most mythical of creatures. Many of the points about the marginalization of poetry, lack of support, etc., seem to indicate that, while there may be more people writing than ever before, the numbers of readers are dwindling. Even poets, perhaps, are not reading poetry, except when it can be of use to them in some way—for the next class they have to teach, for craft tips on their own work, to know what's being rewarded, etc.—and reading a book because it is useful to one's own work is not the same as having a community of readers. . .

Ellen Dudley

It seems to me that "accessible" has many meanings to many people. In the case of bringing poetry to the totally uninitiated, I find it useful to present a poem filled with drama or narrative. It helps to hook in the new reader. This is not to privilege the obvious or simple over the complex or difficult ( I think there is plenty of accessible poetry that is intensely complex) but to find a road into the genre. Then again, there are the uninitiated students with good ears, and don't they gravitate to the good lyric? It's an endless question with about as many answers. And, no, I don't think the accessible is privileged over other sorts of work; alas I think the "difficult" poem is often the one privileged. We tend to ooh and aaah over the emperor's new clothes; presented as it is with such fanfare, we think there must be something important there.

Joyce Wilson

I hope poets are reading poetry for its own sake. If poets stop reading poetry carefully, the literary world will become a sorry state indeed. Reading to determine what the author meant, why the poem works, how the music resonates is all part of the process of keeping literature alive, whether the focus is on a poem written last month or three hundred years ago. But when a poet reads the work of another, steals a line, and incorporates it into her own poem, isn't that the highest form of tribute one can give to someone whose work you admire?

Lee Sharkey

I want a poem I can keep coming back to, that gives me more each time I read it. The surface of that poem may be clear and placid, or pocked and spattered—if the words have touched the mystery where life and language meet, I'll give it what it asks to apprehend it. Remember Gertrude Stein saying children had no problem with her work?

Miriam Sagan

I agree with much of what has been said. My only sadness is that there is still something about poetry that puts off even avid readers of prose. Publishing a book of prose (a book of diaries I wrote with my late husband Robert), I was surprised by the enthusiasm my acquaintances showed for it—something that never happens with poetry! (Which I care about much more). The trend seems to be towards writers of poetry rather than readers or buyers of books, from school kids to small press. But perhaps eventually these writers will also become a community of readers for each other.

Rukeyser goes on to speak critically of poets who exist in "groups of obscurity." She defines this tendency as "an ambition in conflict with itself" because it cultivates obscurity to avoid "that part" of the audience which the poets view with contempt and, at the same time, tries to find an audience among those not held in contempt. Do you feel that contemporary poetry falls into various groups?

Miriam Sagan

I really agree with Rukeyser—great quote! Poets like to think they fall into certain schools, and the old classical vs. romantic or form vs. content may still hold. But poets are secretly all trying to do the same thing in terms of lyric expression.

Ellen Dudley

I agree with Miriam; I think we are all trying to do the same thing in terms of expression. However, I am troubled by a certain intellectual or "difficult" poetry prevalent and powerful in America today. I direct you to the Winter '99 issue of Threepenny Review and Louise Gluck's essay "Ersatz Thought" in which she shows this sort of work to be the naked emperor it is. In between the "difficult" (read empty) poem and the spewing of one's feelings on the page sans the interference of craft and then calling it "poetry" lies an enormous continuum of wonderful and diverse work. I'd love to come back in a hundred and fifty years and see who the Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson of the 20th century turn out to be. Maybe nobody, maybe the naysayers are correct and poetry is on the way out but I don't believe it.

Joyce Wilson

I think poets in groups usually happen after the fact. Once all the work has been written and the poets have died, those who come after define the criteria, and generations ever after argue about who is in and who is out and who is on the periphery. The criteria might be a similarity of style, or shared influences of a particular era, or close proximity as in the case of the Beats. I have taken note of the poet and editor at Story Line Press, Robert McDowell, who recently published an article in the Hudson Review in which he defines the new movement called Expansive Poets. This doesn't work, in my view, because he is trying to group too many poets together with completely forgettable terms. I honestly can't remember why an Expansive Poet is expansive, but he names names from an array of sources. Accessibility is one of his definitions. Another is a kind of neo-formalism. Donald Hall and Anne Carson are in, Charles Wright and Amy Clampitt are out.

Lee Sharkey

I see the factions less as aesthetic grouping than as clusters of power, each one doling out among its own the perks of publication, readings, teaching gigs, and prizes. As much as that may be the inevitable result of the concentration of poets in academic settings, it’s damaging to poetry. I like Miriam’s notion that there’s an underlying impulse toward lyric expression in all poets, but I have a hard time finding it in poetry that fills up all the spaces, leaves no room to resonate into the languages of other realms.

I have to say that I don't think that all poets are striving for the same thing. Perhaps most, but many of those whose work is most interesting to me are driven toward a great deal else besides lyric expression. The lyric is just one type of poetry—it strives to express a feeling—but there's also other varieties, the narrative, for instance, which strives to tell a story. Why has poetry become so coupled with this drive toward self-expression that it's almost automatic to associate poetry with self-expression and with the lyric?

Ellen Dudley

I hope I said "expression" and not "lyric expression" because that's what I meant. I love the meditative poems of Levis, the narratives of R.#Jackson, the wordplay of McHugh. There are many different means for expression in poetry and "lyric" is just one of those.

Joyce Wilson

There are three kinds of poetry: the dramatic, the narrative, and the lyric. Isn't most of what we read today lyric poetry? It's short, emotional, might include narrative but only in fragments. The lyric poem packs a wallop that we've come to anticipate. Don't the narrative and dramatic go on and on? I heard someone read a small part of a narrative poem translated from the Polish, and I thought it was the most boring verse I've heard in a long time. It relied on series after series of details that were presented historically but that did not work metaphorically.

Lee Sharkey

I see very few "pure lyrics" among the poems submitted to Beloit —a recent set from Annie Finch struck me for just that reason—but the impulse to sing—through narrative, meditation, dramatic monologue—is what distinguishes poetry from lineated prose. . .that the words make music resonant beyond their denotation.

Miriam Sagan

Rebecca's point is well-taken, I tend to use lyric to cover perhaps too much ground—I think of the lyric poem as opposed to the epic (which really isn't written much after the invention of the novel) to include narrative and storytelling and myth making. Alvaro Cardona-Hine, a poet from Truchas, New Mexico, whom I admire once told me: don't be afraid of the narrative in a poem. This was fascinating. I guess I think of narrative in poetry as being part of the lyric, part of what propells it forward, like a poetic idea or sequencing.

Do you feel that these groups provide a gestalt for new creative direction? Or is the movement toward groups just another reflection of the devaluation of poetry in the culture at large (since the devaluation is endorsed as long as it applies to any group but one's own)?

Miriam Sagan

Socially groups or schools are quite unpleasant. Here in New Mexico, perhaps because we're in the boon-docks, there seems to be less of it (visiting poets tend to comment on this!). If poets band together to build audience that feels good, but elitist groups don't promote poetry at all.

Ellen Dudley

I don't see groups as a reflection of devaluation but rather of the natural human impulse to jockey for position. I think it's about who is going to be in charge, who or what school is going to BE poetry.

Joyce Wilson

On the issue of groups I would like to say that I had hoped to establish a group of some kind with my Web site, the Poetry Porch . No sooner did I bring together a gathering of poets whose work I liked and wanted to read more of, than some of them vanished to different parts of the world. Some have even stopped writing, hopefully not for long. The poetry remains on our back issues in cyberspace, but the group? It doesn't exist, and may never have existed except in my imagination.

Lee Sharkey

Twenty-five years ago I was one of seven poets who founded the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, a networking and support organization for literary people across the state. Today that group has some 1500 members, a widely distributed newsletter, a book distribution service, sponsors writing workshops, and more. Every kind of writer, on every level of skill or career, can use its services. And though I can't claim that Maine poets all respect and read each other's work, by and large we live from day to day free of feuds and fevered ambitions. If a poet's coming to read at the University of Maine at Farmington, just about any poet, I'll come and listen.

Miriam Sagan

Even out here in New Mexico I've been aware of the success of the community of Maine poets. But I think professional associations and banding together to create something is different than a school which sets itself up as different or better than others. One is an inclusive community which builds self-help and audience, the other more of an intellectual construct.

Most of the avant-garde movements at the beginning of this century were driven by a desire to include new vocabularies and realms of experience that had previously been excluded from poetry; for instance, the Surrealists including the unconscious, or the Futurists with their interest in the machine. Is a genuine avant-garde possible today, and what vocabularies or areas might it be driven to include?

Miriam Sagan

I've really wondered about that—is innovation even possible at this point in history. It seems that the lyric poem can only bear so much innovation, before it transmutes form-wise into a novel, long poem, or something else. But I think we bear some responsibility to keep up with our times—for example, scientific language & concepts are changing at an amazing rate—shouldn't poets include that? And a huge influx of culture comes to us from all over the world. Also, new poetic forms. Maybe things are changing so fast we can't innovate—just update!

Ellen Dudley

I think perhaps the avant-garde today might be the performance poets. That may be just a passing fad but it seems to me that as we up the ante in our culture in general, that's going to be reflected in poetry. As the culture gets louder and more melodramatic maybe the poetry does too. Then again there is someone like Brenda Hillman who I would call cutting-edge (for her adherence to unusual subject matter and a strange but wonderful sense of craft), whose work is extremely quiet.

Joyce Wilson

It does seem as if we've reached certain limits as far as innovation in poetry is concerned. But now we also seem to have a vantage point to view ages and ages of poetic writing. Perhaps the innovations will not be found as departures but as taking up where someone left off, or skimmed over a feeling or form. It will be like taking four steps back before moving five steps forward. I find poetic forms fascinating to study, and then all the variations of the forms! Annie Finch has put together a wonderful collection of women poets writing in form ( A Formal Feeling Comes , Story Line Press). I'm very much interested in the sonnet, the rhyme schemes and the metrical controls. I love the poetry of X. J. Kennedy, who writes in perfect traditional meter about such weird, macabre subjects. Sometimes I sense that my generation of writers, born after World War II, is so eager to break rules that we write to break out of forms before we've even mastered them. This is my confession: I've done this with the sonnet and am going backwards, from experimental fourteen lines to traditional quatrains in iambic pentameter with that final couplet.

Lee Sharkey

We're taking four steps back, and five steps sideways into other cultures. I can't imagine what the term "avant-garde" might mean at the turn of the twenty-first century. I'm much more interested in the complex, shifting task we each undertake to construct ourselves a cultural tradition. What are our essential sources, the sounds and rhythms that speak truth to us; what texts, musics, rituals, landscapes do they emerge from? How do we reach into them to reach beyond our cultural confines?

Miriam Sagan

I don't have much to add, as this feels pretty complete, except that the "stand-up" or "slam" in poetry doesn't feel like something passing, but an expression of the basically oral root in poetry, with this as the contemporary expression.

Or is the call for innovation primarily driven by ambition, the desire to create a spot for oneself in a world that is providing increasing numbers of MFA graduates competing for an ever diminishing number of publishing and teaching opportunities?

Ellen Dudley

Well, the whole business of poetry is problematic. I see the burgeoning of MFA programs as nothing but a pyramid scheme that's going to come toppling down sooner or later. Unfortunately there are a lot of dull and boring teachers out there teaching students to imitate them and creating more dull and boring poets. BUT, and this is a big but, there are programs producing real quality work. I have gotten so I can tell when work comes in if a poet (and fiction writers too) has come from a certain writing program. There are aesthetic differences and they are obvious. I seem to see relentlessly good work coming from Warren Wilson's MFA program and from the University of Montana's as well. And there are some not-so-good ones I won't name. But that's a bit of a digression. I think Miriam may be dead right and that info is coming at us so fast and furious it may be difficult to innovate. So I fall back on humanity; I am comforted to know that we still have sex, death and evil. Those things provide me with enough impetus to write and keep writing.

Joyce Wilson

Jorie Graham made an interesting observation in a recent interview, which is on-line at the Academy of American Poets. She believes that the current trend of English departments to focus so heavily on critical theory is driving students to the MFA departments where they can study literature as a more direct, hands on experience. They want to talk about the literature they love and why they love it. Any humanities concentrator faces employment risk. It gives us the right to complain. I recently had lunch with three poets, all of us very busy, two marginally employed, one unemployed. We agreed in unison that poetry has ruined our lives. We were all smiling.

Lee Sharkey

The Warren Wilson program, as Ellen and I can attest, is famous for unleashing poets while ruining their lives—more divorces and career changes than there are people in the program. What I wonder about most writing programs, though, particularly on the undergraduate level, is how much reading students are doing beyond the work of a handful of contemporaries. Lack of a invitation to broad-based multi-cultural literacy can confirm young poets' tendencies to write, and write, and narrowly, about themselves. Let's grant all writers an original impulse to transmute passion to speech and question how our cultural mechanisms for channeling that impulse reward ego and ambition.

In an interview which is reprinted in his collected poems, In the Western Night , Frank Bidart says that he wanted to be a poet but felt that it was beyond him, and then he describes the long process by which he came to his necessary subject matter—himself, the uniqueness of his own life, in Golden State . Is this the model for most contemporary poets? The desire to be a writer followed by the desire to find one's necessary subject?

Miriam Sagan

In many ways, Bidart's experience seems ideal, although I suspect few actually follow it. Too often, contemporary poets just don't seem to care about developing subject matter—or even more importantly, a set of poetic interests and obsessions, and a voice, if you will. Maybe this is why when students of poetry start out they write so much about writing poetry—as if they don't have any other subject!

Ellen Dudley

My life created the necessity of writing. I didn't write my first poem till I was in my late thirties (over ten years now) and that action was precipitated by some enormous life changes (child leaving home, divorce, second marriage, going back to school). Bidart's answer seemed to me quintessentially male. That's not a pejorative but a lot of women have a different life experience. I'm going to be on a panel (if it flies) next spring at AWP about women who come to writing later in life and why that happens and it seems to me that a lot of women's poetry I see is interesting because they have had lives and they draw on those lives for their subject matter and for an ethos that seems at once wise and wise-guy. And I think Miriam is dead right about all those poems about writing poetry; it's simply not interesting to read a poem by a 22-year-old about writing the poem (unless it's an unusual talent). I really don't know about how most writers come to writing. I certainly hope that a writer comes to his/her vocation through a sense of urgency.

Joyce Wilson

Frank Bidart was an editor for years. Who did he edit? Robert Lowell. Would you want to write creatively while editing a poet like Robert Lowell? And when he did begin writing, what innovative stuff! Those long lines. The balance of passion. To have the ambition to write and to be able to articulate one's success, that is the sign of achievement. Some poems about writing are just wonderful. Isn' t Robert Frost's poem "The Wood-Pile" about writing a poem?

Lee Sharkey

Someone stashed in the back closet of my memory once said that love of language is the necessary precondition, that the subject matter will come later. But Ellen's experience reminds me that both are necessary: I will sing, and I will sing THIS SONG.

It seems when I consider poets of another age, Dickinson, Whitman, they appear to have been driven by the necessity first, by the necessary subject, which then created the poet. What happens to poetry when it is driven by no more than the desire to be a poet? Is this perhaps why so much contemporary poetry is hysterical with the self? Self-preoccupied? Willing to appropriate any voice or text to create one's "own" poetic voice? Do these qualities, or perhaps others, the drive toward confession, etc., all stem from this motive—not so much that I must write and so am a poet, but because I must be a poet and so must find the necessary material to write?

Miriam Sagan

I like that expression "hysterical with the self"! And you make an excellent point about appropriating other voices & texts—often that feels so flat & false. It seems that to write poetry, a person must have poetic experiences, which are somehow perceiving the world intensely and then recording, or re-experiencing that, in WORDS. I think poets are driven in part by perception. I once heard the Beat poet Philip Whalen growl at an ugly ash tray: WOULD SOMEBODY TURN THAT THING DOWN! He was experiencing it intensely—maybe that contributed to his becoming a poet.

Ellen Dudley

Well, I think I just answered that. "Hysterical with the self," indeed. So much of the work I see is exactly that. So it's wonderful to see urgency. I would rather see work that is uneven and urgent than the perfectly competent poem that seems to have no more reason for being than that the poet needed something to do.

Joyce Wilson

Great anecdote by Whalen. It’s too funny. It reminds me of a poem by Cathleen Calbert called "The Woman Who Loved Things," in which a woman loved things so much they responded. Soon she was being bombarded by things: bits of ceilings were loosening and falling on her, rocks were hurtling towards her, as they returned her love. On another note: I think it was Helen Vendler, and maybe others before her, who described the self as that part of our psychology that deals with the social world. But then there is the soul, removed, quiet, deep. I recently heard a poet remark that no one was writing about the soul anymore. Then I saw the word everywhere, in titles of books, titles of poems. People are writing about the soul. If the poetry is lyric poetry, it is presenting experiences and impressions as they are filtered through the self. With that in mind, I am often annoyed when naive critics dismiss the self-involvement of poets, because that is their business. It may not be the way to live for the average person to achieve a successful or articulate life or body of writing, but it is the license, and the privilege, of the poet to focus on the self.

Lee Sharkey

The distinction for me, Joyce, is what use the poet makes of focusing within. Do you remember the poetic genre that was all the rage ten, fifteen years ago, the narration of one's day—the "then I looked out the window, and then I sat in the chair, and then I thought of you" sort of poem? Screening manuscripts for Beloit, I developed a violent allergy to such stuff. It failed the "so what?" test. And yet, when Patricia Goedicke describes the thought process in minute detail, when W.S. Merwin takes me on a tour of his memory, "slender /wands of the auroras playing out.../into dark time the passing of a few/ migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks" they return me, enlarged, to the world.

Joyce Wilson

Very beautiful lines by Merwin. What poem are they from? And isn't this memory of Merwin describing what his "self" is experiencing? Or is he? Where are we? We began trying to determine what comes first, the subject or the poem. I guess a point of agreement would be that a good poem leaves the reader with the impression that the subject came first, and the words present that subject without grinding the gears or demonstrating undo effort. The skilled poet leads the reader on a journey he won't forget.

Lee Sharkey

The Merwin poem is "Remembering." It's in The River Sound . It takes me on that journey you speak of.

The great Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo, called for an autochthonic poetry, from the Greek meaning of a "particular place, humble, of the earth." He argued that Latin American poets should take inspiration from the various indigenous traditions of Latin America rather than always imitating European models. He wanted a poetry that was uniquely "Indoamerican." Is there such a thing as a characteristically American poetry? Can you think of any contemporary poets who are autochthonic?

Miriam Sagan

I hope we all are, to some extent, even if we live in Manhattan. There is always going to be a tension between the particular and the universal, or a dialectic, an ebb and flow. Vallejo's point is well-taken, but eventually just coming from one humble place might feel too claustrophobic, like being trapped with all your cousins. Still, his advice feels like an antidote to a poetry which is often vague if modern. In New Mexico, Leo Romero & Joan Logghe are my poet friends who feel most firmly associated with place.

Ellen Dudley

I think we might take inspiration from place and culture of place but I think we need to be VERY careful about appropriating other people's experience for our own work. For example I think it is really difficult to write a good poem about the Holocaust. Yes, we need not to forget but we need to be really careful. But I digress. I live in Vermont, a place that has been done to death by poets, and it doesn't seem to enter my work very much. I find more that there is a New England sort of spirit that imbues what I do; I'm a moralist and that's where that comes from, I suspect. And I think Miriam is right once again when she says that being a poet of place can become claustrophobic. But to let place inform the work is good. I think of Philip Levine's poems about work to be if not place-specific, then place-informed, and that place is the workplace.

Joyce Wilson

I love the sense of place in Irish poetry. I would say that Eavan Boland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, and Medbh McGuckian write in that autochthonic vein described by Vallejo. But I can't imitate it. When I try to contextualize my poetry with the place where I live south of Boston, a beautiful coastal town, listeners conclude that I'm bragging about my suburban address. I m trying to write a poem about my father and place. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, birth place of Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, many many great people. My father was born there, but he never lived there. He had homes all over the country. Who is he? A kind of American cosmopolitan? But when I tell certain people that he was born in Worcester, Mass., some are really impressed. Is this material for a poem or just an anecdote? I like what Ellen said about poetic origin as the work place. For me, I guess I view the place or origin of poetry as a quest for education, a poet's particular education. How much of your education was gained in a formal setting, how much was self-taught, what did you chose to ignore, how much can you put in a poem? How much is based on direct experience, how much on reading?

Lee Sharkey

I went to the dictionary. The American Heritage defines autochthonic as "originating where found; indigenous." The problem is that most of us aren't, and poets particularly feel the loss. So we busy ourselves reconstructing lost places, mythic places (Joyce's father's Worcester), learning new places. I have fallen slowly, deeply in love with the marsh behind my house, it calls to me and I call back . . . but I will never be a native. My poet friends Ann Arbor and Tom Fallon both grew up in Rumford, Maine and worked in the paper mill there. Maine is a different place for them and me.

I think we should differentiate between regional poetry and an autochthonic poetry. I'm certain that Vallejo when he called for an autochthonic poetry did not mean regional poetry— which in his own time was quite popular for its romantic, picturesque qualities, qualities which he mocks rather savagely in The Black Heralds, the whole business of llamas and condors and sun-gods. And it seems from your answers, and my own experience, that part of the characteristic of being an American is not being "indigenous," that even when we've been in Vermont or Maine or Santa Fe for twenty years, we are never quite "of" the place, and perhaps even when we've been in the country for 100 years, 150 years, we are still not quite of it. And yet it also seems that poets like Whitman or Dickinson are undeniably American, autochthonic. Perhaps this rootlessness would have to be a necessary part of an American poetry that would be autochthonic...?

Ellen Dudley

I suspect Rebecca is right, that rootlessness is a peculiarly American characteristic and that is something we draw on as a culture. I know that my work is influenced by place—any place I happen to find myself. It's as if I imagine myself of a place because I am in it, and that seems to find its way into the work, a chameleon-like sort of rootlessness. Perhaps rootlessness is the wrong word and what I mean is uprootedness, perhaps that is the American condition. We draw on an imagined past, imagined family, imagined culture and maybe that comes, in this nation of immigrants, from having been uprooted.

Joyce Wilson

So when Vallejo called for a poetry that is particular, humble, and of the earth, he turned away from European traditions to those of Latin America. I assume that he was thoroughly familiar with the European traditions, dissatisfied with them, and eager to explore his contemporary region and culture close at hand. Much of his poetry is secular (maybe all of it?), although his imagery stems from religious iconography. His verse is not typical but very unique, concrete, and vibrant.

Miriam Sagan

Maybe it is possible to penetrate place—any place, whether native or not—through a kind of poetic concentration, a kind of settling down? I sometimes think about Federico García Lorca's "Poet in New York" about Harlem and the rest of Manhattan . . . which isn't exactly the place I grew up in or near but has an intensity of observation that will affect my feeling about those neighborhoods forever.

In New Mexico, it's not uncommon to find a weaving of various traditions, Native American (a catch-all term for many disparate peoples—Pueblo, Apache, Navajo, etc.) Mexican (recent arrivals) and Hispanic (dating back to the 16th century) in the work of New Mexican writers. When I grew up living in every other part of the country, I was made aware of only one homogenous tradition that began at Plymouth Rock, the fathers of the country, the Indians now extinct, etc. Why is it that American writers continue, for instance, to use Greek myth in their writing and have not made any connection with the equally vital mythic material of North and South America? Is it because most of America is monolingual? Having only one language, do we have only one view?

Miriam Sagan

I do think provincialism affects Americans a great deal—and maybe a fear of being intellectual or well educated—of showing off. I've been told on several occasions "you can't use Native American material and stories" (never by Native Americans, only by academics!) because "it isn't YOUR tradition." I concentrate a lot on my own tradition, which is Jewish, and can't help but use the cultural ready mades of Classical mythology, also a fair amount of local reference, Hispanic, Native, and lots of Japanese stuff via Zen Buddhism. But it provokes a negative response often, "your frame of reference is so wide" is often said disapprovingly, and people seem horrified to find a bit of Spanish or Yiddish thrown in. Maybe Americans don't want to be cosmopolitan any more than they want to be multi-lingual—to the horror of Europeans and Latin Americans who consider us ill-educated.

Ellen Dudley

I can't imagine anyone complaining about a wide frame of reference. That's ridiculous. There is a whole big world out there after all. But as Americans I think we tend to forget that because we are almost literally insular. I spend part of the winter on the Big Island of Hawaii and although it may be one of the fifty states, Hawaii is NOT America. The focus there expands outward in all directions: to Japan, Australia, China, and it is wonderful. I find a volcano, a goddess, Hawaiian words creeping into my work. And how could I not? These things are just there, part of the landscape, intrinsic. So I think we need to expand our focus as poets. The Greek myths are fine and rich but there are other places we can go. And I'd rather see Spanish and Yiddish in a poem than references to pop-culture. I may put "schoen" in a poem but you won't find "McDonalds". Promise.

Joyce Wilson

Many poets are combining myths, multiple languages, and heritages in their work. It's happening all over the place in breathtaking ways. I feel the Greek myths are important because Greek and Latin are such big components of the English etymology. American mythology is a huge invitation to poetry. There's so much of it that needs to be written and rewritten. Anthologies of American poetry are so heavy and dull! There is much work to be done! (Have you been to Plymouth Rock? It's so tiny! The vision is steeped in irony!) East coast, west coast, desert, prairie, cabin in the woods, Spanish architecture and vowels, American Indian gods, civil rights, African song, etc. etc. Don't forget the French!

Lee Sharkey

Look at what most English literature majors are still reading in college—the literature of the British Isles and the male Anglo swath of American culture, with an exotic dollop or two, say of Sherman Alexie or Toni Morrison. It's no surprise that the Greeks persist. But we have American cultures, plural, and most of us partake of more than one, and most poets are hungry for the insights that new cultural referents offer. I want to add that really studying our own cultural histories will offer us possibilities that our received notions of our own cultures don't. For example, I've just written a poem in a form called a "piyyut." The original "piyyutim" were written by observant Jews during the Middle Ages; one might bring one's piyyut to temple for inclusion in the worship service. During my childhood years of temple-going, no one told me it was possible to include my own words among the prayers.

Miriam Sagan

Just have to add—I didn't know it either (and was raised very non-observantly) but it is an exquisite thing. For a mikvah, ritual bath, before Yom Kippur you need to make up & recite your own prayer before immersing in the water...just this one time of year. Also, an orthodox woman's only daily obligation prayer-wise is "one prayer in any language." So you can make up your own. (But the flip is of course you are excluded from the religious mainstream). And doesn't this tie into poetry too!

Some years ago, Donald Hall defined the "McPoem" as the product of the writing workshop. Recently I've heard younger poets react negatively to what they called "the workshop poem" and what they mean is a usually short lyric that begins with seeing something, turns then to a memory of something, and then returns with renewed sight or "insight" for closure. This is the sort of poem that was written and seemed preferred in many of the workshops that I attended when I was a student in the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Younger poets seem to be in reaction against this form, finding it predictable. Is there a particular type of poem that you see over and over again in your editorial duties and find similarly predictable?

Miriam Sagan

Yes, I do see the workshop poem, aptly described above. Also what I think of as the boring shocking poem, a poem with lots of sex and violence thrown in rather haphazardly for some sort of effect—but it ain't poetry. Also, poems about writing poetry, which I hate!

Ellen Dudley

Yes, poems about writing poetry are at the top of my reject list. But I do remember publishing a really good one by Lee Sharkey, so nothing is written in stone. I hate gratuitous dead animal poems, although I don't object to a dead animal appearance if it's necessary. I think what I object to most and what I see most often is "me, me, me." I really don't care if the speaker comes into the poem and directs us but I am oh-so-tired of the self-referential. And I love the dramatic poem with narrative incursions; if I got a poem like Frost's "Out, Out," I would think I had died and gone to heaven.

Joyce Wilson

As an editor, and a teacher, I look for good punctuation. If the punctuation does not fit the general rules, I want to be able to determine why. I hate seeing poetry used as an excuse to forget about the basics. If you're a jazz person, one of the Beats, prove it! I'm also on guard about capitalizatin. I've taught a workshop in my house for a number of years, and one of my best students brought a poem to class one day with the first person pronoun in lower case. She said she wanted to be free of all the demands of her editorial day job. But I sensed she was setting up a disappearing act. Then another student brought in a poem titled "the little i." This is a pattern I've seen with distressing regularity. Still, an editor should be aware of her baises. Years later I shared this story with the poet Lloyd Schwartz, and we agreed that lower case pronouns and inconsistent punctuation both really annoyed us. Then, a short while later, I looked in a local poetry journal, and there was a poem of his subtitled "a nice person." Yes, in lower case, no punctuation! He took our conversation and made a poem of it! Here it is:


    From "Triolets"

    a nice person

    i use a small i

      (one can' t be too humble)
    all agree i am shy
      (i use a small i)
    i lower my eye
      when they praise me i stumble
    i use a small i
      one can' t be too humble
        (Harvard Review 14)


Lee Sharkey

Any time someone tells you that you can't write a poem about a certain topic or from a certain perspective, don't you just itch to try it? To get back to the question, I do see over and over among Beloit submissions what I've come to think of as the well-behaved poem. It's cleanly crafted narrative with lyric interludes, comes round to an insight, makes a tidy artifact. One gets the sense that lots of people have had a hand in its construction. We read the poems that make it to the last round of our editorial process aloud to pick each issue; the poems I'm talking about don't make the leap to voice; the words stay stuck on the page.

If you could have one wish concerning the future of poetry, what would it be?

Miriam Sagan

That people learn or remember to like it again! That kids write it and hang it up on walls and that poets remember they are writing for their friends and neighbors and great aunt Tilly and try to touch people and make them cry or laugh. That it become integrated back into society, and that poets feel they don't have to "work" as poets but do something else productive and still have some time to write. Great questions! This has been fun!

Ellen Dudley

My wish would be for those who write poetry to support it. As the publisher of an unaffiliated, unsupported, private not-for-profit magazine, I can't tell you how difficult it is to get money. We work on a shoestring and it still takes a couple of thousand of dollars to print a magazine and more to publish a book. I get so frustrated at my AWP bookfair table when 50 people come up and want to know how I can publish them and one person spends $12.00 on a subscription (discount conference rate). Granted this is a little anecdotal gripe but I think it's emblematic of the situation of poetry in our culture. Yes, we have dwindling government support but it would be nice to see writers support small presses. Part of this problem stems from too many writers glutting a very small market, part of it comes from just not thinking. On a larger scale, I'm grateful to people like Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky for being so active and voluble in support of poetry and to the PSA for their Poetry in Motion Project (putting poems on busses and subways), to poets-in-the-schools who work with kids, to anyone who supports poetry. It's a great time to be a poet and we all need to do what we can do to get it out there. In my day job I'm a partner in a construction company and one of my very best moments came when two of our carpenters came to one of my readings. One of them stopped me afterwards and said "Wow! I didn't know that's what poetry was." I'd like to see more of that. This has been great fun—and thought provoking. Thanks!!

Joyce Wilson

I would like to see more money in the public schools for poetry, a return of funding programs for resident teachers of poetry, art, and music. (You said one wish, right?)

Lee Sharkey

Ooh, I get the last wish . . . I want the spirit of generosity to overtake poetry, what I imagine to be its original impulse. Let the competitiveness, bitterness of rejection, ruthless ambition, disappear—everything about the politics that contradicts poetry's big, democratic heart. Thank you, Rebecca, and all the participants.

_____


Back to The Beginning