Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Blogging has me feeling very connected to the "now" in poetry. Probably too connected. I'm already plugged into the academic socket—whatever will become of my capacity for independent thought if I'm also hopelessly addicted to following and commenting on every little thing my peer group of choice has to say?

That said, Ray Davis' Bellona Times, which I've only just discovered, has a very useful thread going on about the basic approaches to presenting/interpreting "difficult" poetry. A shout-out to my Finnegans Wake pardners in particular for the latest comment offered by Paul Kerschen of yet another blog new to me, the cactus log.

Sympathetic recognition of what Stephanie Young over at the well nourished moon (how come no hyphen, Stephanie?) calls her "MFA problem": the desire to impose some kind of narrative straitjacket onto her poems in order to arrange them into a manuscript. I wonder though about how much power we really have to control the interpretation of our work through devices like ordering, section titles, etc. Does Selah have a narrative? In my mind it kind of does, and it may be in my power to give readers that impression because I think it's going to be up to me to write the inside flap copy. The blurbs will also direct the reader's expectations, as will the cover, the design, and not least the price. And I've been unable to resist the urge to include a couple of notes, mostly to acknowledge writers who I'm piggybacking upon. But before you reach this "packaging" stage all you've got is arrangement, unless you decide to create new poems or possibly even an introduction (Allen Grossman likes to do this) as signposts. The alternative of course is to let the poems be, to let them buzz and bump against one another's forcefields. It's a tough decision. A poet with my Modernist longings can't help but want to produce a book that seems like a Book—a thematically unified objet d'art. At the same time I recognize and welcome the dissonant energies to be unleashed by a book that doesn't attempt to conceal its process or constructedness—a book with exposed beams. Some people prefer books that struggle against their bookness, whose boundaries to other texts and genres are deliberately porous.

The process of putting a book of poems together tends to get discussed in the most abjectly matter-of-fact terms (this is what I think Stephanie means when she calls this an MFA problem), and the questions it raises are often answered expressly with an eye as to making the book competitive in contests (put your strongest poems first because the screeners won't read the whole thing otherwise, etc.). Poets who are not so advanced as to have seized the means of reprodution (through publishing collectives mostly) are put in the position of arranging their manuscripts for submission, which is inevitably an afterthought. If you are fortunate enough to be working with a tractable small press, as I have been, you will get a say in shaping the total experience of your book, but that can't alter the fact that I put Selah through revision after revision, year after year, in hopes not just of achieving aesthetic satisfaction but of at least making it into the finalists' circle of the many, many contests I sent $20 checks to. What must it be like to write a book—a whole book—without having to submit oneself in any sense of that word? At this point I can hear the low hisses of scorn from avant-garde types who have made careers for their poetry (if not necessarily careers for themselves) through the Whitmanian practice of self-publishing or the even more honorable practice of collective publishing (Subpress is the most impressive such latter-day group that I'm aware of). These people are even better off in some ways than poets with publishing contracts, for they have total control over every aspect of their book's production and reproduction. What I always wonder about, though, is distribution. How do you get these books into stores and libraries? How do make it at least remotely possible for someone who's not from your city or a member of your clique to get their hands on your book? For me publishing isn't publishing unless the text is going into the hands of strangers. The marvelous possibility that people you've never met will read your book and have their notion of what poetry can be subtly altered. Ah, just go back and read the whole Bellona Times page. Davis has some good things to say about publishing in general and web publishing in particular—this kind of publishing, which I can honestly say has gotten me more confirmed readers than anything I've ever placed in a magazine.

Phew. This is all probably just anxiety prior to going to AWP, the motherdaddy of careerist convocations. I'll be looking forward to meeting some of you strangers there.

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