But Let’s All Make Out — (by Donald Dunbar)

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[ note: To follow is my friend Donald Dunbar’s take on poetry community’s loud and passionate (but empty?) retort to Mark Edmundson’s charge in Harper’s that Poetry is dead, blah, blah,… but first, here are my 2 cents on what, in the end, is Donald’s call to action (& nudity, too, I guess).

1) Donald’s much more polite, politic, subtle, extended and diplomatic than I’d present such viewpoints. Basically I think Donald’s saying that people should quite bitching and do something. Donald is also, I think, suggesting that academia (poetry anyways) is pretty much a lazy, turgid toad croaking in its safe ivory tower. (I of course am not talking for Donald Dunbar and will it leave it to you to decide what he thinks, feels and is suggesting)

2) When Donald calls for action and suggests that major and seemly unimaginable changes can occur (the Arab Spring, etc) he is talking from a position of experience, example and authority. And I say this because Donald is one of the magnetic spark plugs that has turned Portland into a Poetry Mecca (more than just beer and strip clubs!): a small group of people doing things rather than just talking shit…. ]

Donald Dunbar

But Let’s All Make Out:
A Response to Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam”

The poetry world you and I know is created by brave, passionate people. How many other cultures exist because of people who donate so much of their time and money for so little–economically, especially, but also in terms of social cachet–in return? And so little of the work is glorious. Stuffing mailers, hunching over letterpresses, cleaning up after readings, sorting through slush piles, etc.–these are the activities of the VIPs of us, and the activities of interns in the music business. A band goes on tour and walks away with a couple hundo at least after expenses. A poet goes on tour and cleans out their savings account. When you see your friends being so selfless, and their passion so pure, and their rewards so few, and then you hear Mark Edmundson, some tenured asshat, dumping all over everything they do–in Harper’s no less–well: if my FB and RSS feeds are any indication, poets hate when old white men tell them that everything they do is stupid and timid and hermetic and way worse than stuff 80 years old.

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One of Edmundson’s central problems with contemporary poetry is a lack of ambition–something he ascribes to an aesthetic failing. If only poets had a coherent vision of the world–the universal “We”–he thinks, and wrote poems about classic struggles, but in modern language, with modern reference, shit would be way better. I would, and others have, argue that this notion ignores the central experience of our age: endless variety, ceaseless novelty.

The ordering of the world poets were traditionally called on to do was very personal, very specific. How do I make sense of these feelings? Love, loss? Or this war–hey poet, what the fuck is up with this war? What’s the meaning of this wedding/sports contest/holiday/special event? Or gosh, my religion kinda seems a little silly; poet, will you add some sense into this? Make me feel it?

But poets don’t have this job anymore. The cinema replaced us. Videogames and YouTube then replaced the cinema. This is The Planet Earth, 2013.

(YouTube came out in 2005. There wasn’t YouTube before that.)

It’s willfully ignorant to doubt that some of poetry’s historical purpose was due to its platform: that, in a media-sparse environment, poetry–basically free, endlessly novel–was called on to do things that other media is now better suited to. You want to explain to the world how life in your town is? How your government has been brutalizing you? How in love you are? How you feel about this issue or that person or just, in general, feel? If what matters to you is communicating that to people–you actually want people to know–you’re going to be better served turning on your cam and chatting into YouTube than spending a whole night or three retooling your precious lines (and then waiting 2-14 months to hear back from journals who might, if you’re lucky or if you’ve done this before, want to publish them.)

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A bunch of people have taken issue with Edmundson’s scolding of poets for a lack of aesthetic ambition–”blah blah private hermetic blah timid etc.,” says Edmundson, truly. Most of the people who have taken most issue with this have Ph.D.’s. Ph.D.’s are wonderful things and I wish I had one, but a Ph.D.-ed poet who doesn’t think that their degree might give them special access to plenty of poetry today does not have much faith in their degree, and, given that, a Ph.D. who doesn’t acknowledge that some dedicated, smart people sometimes feel left out of the greater conversation of poetry–for lack of half-a-decade of time and specialized training, as well as a host of other things–seems kinda hegemonic. I also don’t understand, though I’ve heard the argument before, that four-ish years of intense study in a very specific environment (i.e. small-town mid-west) doing a very specific job (teaching comp to freshmen) does not seriously affect one’s poetry in a very specific way. It’s unfair to say that living that life and ceaselessly engaging in those dialogues makes one’s poetry hermetic, but does it make poetry more likely to be considered hermetic by those outside that lifestyle? I say maybe.

But Edmundson in his aesthetic critique is really only speaking about one kind of poem. It’s the kind of poem Edmundson probably loved as a boy. Stephen Burt explains this. It’s a poem that swells the chest, that explains some of that ol’-first-Buddhist-truth “Life is suffering,” that is perhaps loved by two sensitive youths who are each waiting for another sensitive youth who loves that exact poem so they can meet and connect and make out. This is not the poetry of victory laps–Merwin, Rich, Ashbery–nor that of prime-time–Oliver, Collins–nor, most revealingly, the fucking world-shattering poetry of Anne Carson. (srsly, Edmundson, buddy, dummy). He’s not talking about indie presses, he’s not talking about new movements, he’s not talking about the post-avant/experimental/whateverthefuck and he’s not talking about yours & mine because he’s never heard about it.

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Burt and Cohen, especially, read Edmundson’s call for a “universal we” in poetry as a mandate to strip everything personally identifiable out of our poems, and especially to ignore our cultural heritage and identities that don’t match up with maybe the dominant ones? Like Edmundson is arguing that a person ID-ing with minority group X should omit that part of themselves while writing so as not to confuse our WASPs-with-penii overlords. Given that reading, of course Edmundson is evil!

I don’t read it that way. Now, I don’t think Edmundson makes this clear–or perhaps he doesn’t make this distinction–but I notice a huge difference between art that aims to describe an experience to an audience, and one that seeks to produce a new experience in an audience. My own limitations as a reader and thinker cause some works truly of the latter category to be included in my version of the first, but I do think much voice-driven poetry is content to let the reader take responsibility for their own experience of it and, oftentimes, the meaning-making from it. This is totally fine. I don’t outlaw this. But I do think it’s about as ambitious as running a vlog on YouTube–here’s what I’m going through, here’s how I’m thinking about it. Siedel is a fine example of this. It’s Oliver/Collins, Snodgrass/Sexton, and 93% of submissions you get for your litmag.

For me, the experience of reading what I find to be The Very Best Shit is having a whole space built inside me with its own physics and its own ghosts, and I don’t see this ambition from many 10th-book poets. Unlike Edmundson tho, I see it in a few dozen 1st-2nd-3rd-book poets.

What separates this “production of something inside an audience” from “voice”? That poets who are writing brave work take responsibility for the audience, and rather than assigning it weekend homework, grab the audience and make me and you and whoever see it feel it hear it taste it smell it love or hate it.

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I see this same impulse–to wait around for an audience to form–in poetry culture as well. I’m massively guilty of it, but perhaps that’s why I can notice it. There was a year or so long after I should have known better that I thought I’d not publish in journals, and unless someone happened upon my work and somehow recognized greatness years before its time and published it straight into a book that really I was writing for history; that one day I’d be discovered as the special flower I was–Keats of Third Millenia–etc. etc. etc.. I cringe, you cringe, but this is something deep in our gene pool.

Coming up in poetry, I had fantastic teachers–people I owe much of my adult identity and calling to, who have shown me kindnesses far beyond what was stipulated in their employment contracts. But not one of these teachers ever suggested finding an audience for my poems outside of “the poetry world”–which is other poets, English students…maybe, just maybe, a visual artist or two?

Question: Has anyone had a teacher in an academic program, grad or under-, that has suggested you approach a non-already interested audience with your poems?

Reading through First-Book Interviews, there’s a large faction of poets who believe poetry cannot, no, no, certainly not, change the world. There’s a ton of poets who wouldn’t admit to being a poet in public. There’s poets who didn’t even bother to tell people their book came out.

Now, there are plenty of poets who start their own presses on their own dimes, who get beat up by police, who will not be ignored, but if this were even a large minority of poets there’d be no question of Does Poetry Matter?–even someone like Edmundson, ensconced in an air-conditioned faculty cell, would know what’s happening.

But poetry is a Big Tent. Perhaps not everyone wants to be so brave? So fanatic?

Good! But there’s still a bunch of shit that needs doing that isn’t getting done, and plenty of it needs to be done by people who like staying in the background, who don’t want snarky comments posted beneath their earnest online rants. For instance, does any journal send out press releases about the actual poems it publishes? Anybody with a Twitter account knows that even a small mention somewhere can bring a lot of attention–Patricia Lockwood, one of the brave ones, hits up superstars on Twitter until they retweet her and she’s suddenly gained a new potential audience for poetry. But hitting up 10 sports magazines to tell them about a poem your mag just published about Muy Thai or letting tech bloggers know about your special Flarf issue or whatevs could be a huge boost to your visibility, and, though I hope it is, I don’t think this is happening very much.

Instead, after putting in dozens of hours selecting material, dozens of hours shaping something into a coherent whole, and often a chunk of change too, you send out review copies to places that publish eight reviews per year. You send a copy to Silliman so you can be in a “Recently Received” list. You put a Facebook post up and then, a few days later, remember you should put a tweet up too. You get ten friends to promise to review it. Eventually, three do.

Am I wrong? Hopefully there are some organizations that will laugh at my cynical naivete here.

Too many of us content ourselves with the traditional distribution models. That there’s still any debate about whether to publish in online journals or in those ancient print edifices tells one a lot about what some established poets care about; that is, becoming more established.

Our culture needs better PR, but it also needs us to take it into places it hasn’t been, to find new homes for it in the culture at large. So much of this is already being done–Rattapallax has an iPad app, Fou creates immersive worlds each issue, Octopus keeps fractaling out into new ventures, Poets.org’s Poem-a-Day has nearly 100,000 subscribers, Steve Roggenbuck livestreams and memes, Poetry in Motion can be found in a bunch of different buses, Heather Christle reads her poems to people who call her up, Seattle and Boise have regular poetry radio shows… yes, etc., this is happening. But maybe 1% of poets are doing this all.

We need way more poetry graffiti. We need poet culture jammers. We need to drop leaflets onto Houston. We need a Billy Collins sex tape. We need to paste poetry up in engineering classrooms, outside of churches, slip poems into copies of The Kite Runner in Barnes & Noble. We need the giants among us to start saying and doing things that need defending! We shouldn’t be waiting for critics, we should be creating them–same with converts. Our professors still have tenure (…and we won’t…) so why aren’t they leading the charge? Our Pulitzer Prizers have made headlines, so why don’t their articles say anything at all interesting? Are their couches too comfy?

I believe that to be relevant not only to other specialists but to a culture contenting itself with Les Kardashians et al is a willingness to stop hiding behind our CVs and Pushcart Prize Nominations (!!!) and, at least, let people who haven’t yet drank the koolade know what we’re doing. Not just you and your authors will benefit, but your town, your cohort, and all the people coming into poetry every day.

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How will we benefit? By letting in voices that don’t have expensive degrees, by adding actual fun into the learning of skills necessary for an electorate to guide our country through our increasingly complex times–analysis, the understanding of different perspectives, communication–and by getting people involved in a community that isn’t driven by “market forces”, that doesn’t value bank accounts over wisdom, that doesn’t–ideally–let important, even controversial conversations die by the wayside. What would happen to the Tea Party if those passionate people were asked to form their own words, and thus their own views, instead of regurgitating FoxNews talking points? What would happen to the narcotized Left? What would happen to the conversation that is the foundation of democracy?

Am I being naive? If this were the 20th century, yes, I would be. But we live in a time when a Russian punk band’s “vulgar” name has been printed in every newspaper still alive. 14-year-old Rebecca Black’s vanity music video has been viewed 55 million times. Gay rights advocates have accomplished more in the last ten years than in the previous 30–and 40 years for a demonized minority group to gain such widespread acceptance is, I think, a traditionally naive idea. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya were very different just a few years ago, and nobody thought even a few months before they changed that change was a possibility.

We live in a time when being naive means thinking that videogames would forever be only for nerds, or that Barack Obama wouldn’t be a corporate shill, or that we were past the time of World-Changing Things. We live in a time when disallowing possibilities is more a mark of fear than of pragmatism.

We, as poets, have inherited something very special that was very poorly taken care of for a long time, and in the last couple decades a very few people have laid the groundwork to make it a lot better, a lot bigger, and way more various than it’s ever been. Fuck all the haters, sure, but let’s make some critics attack us for something besides meekness, anonymity, and inactivity. And instead of defending and honoring our anointed laureates, pulitzers, and bestsellers, let’s save our breath for the truly brave: the people who’ve put their money and their time in for something more than their own brand.


[ note 2: if you can name the 6 clothed poets shown in the above portrait photos then email Donald, normalghost(at)gmail(dot)com, for a chance to win a $16 powell’s gift card + 3 dolla-bills for shipping & handling– winner can buy whatever they want, but the prize would exactly cover the cost of ordering Donald’s book, Eyelid Lick — Donald will randomly choose the winner ]