Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sina Queyras, late of Lemon Hound, was passing through Ithaca on her way home to Philadelphia yesterday, and we got together in the morning for coffee and conversation. Topics included the insularity of the poetry world and the professionalization of the American scene (a big part of the reason she's stopped blogging, at least for now); the subtle yet in her view insuperable differences between the Canadian and American perspectives, as determined by politics ("We're socialists!") and geography (the preservation of pockets of individuality in Canada versus a more homegenized culture in the U.S.); global warming and wondering if the free market is capable of addressing it (through technology or through recognizing the high cost via insurance premiums, etc.), while gloomily agreeing that most of the damage has already been done; Canadian pastoral as a larger movement of which Lisa Robertson is just a part, though an important part, and Sina's notion that Canadian development is a century behind ours; Brooklyn versus Philadelphia (Brooklyn wins); teaching dialectical thinking to creative writing students; and the difficulty of thinking the work of Woolf and Stein in context with each other (her project in Lemon Hound) though they were certainly aware of each other's writing.

Stimulating and challenging: Sina is an unabashed idealist, who asked me, in effect: Where are our Whitmans? What are the poets doing to inspire and effect social change? Everyone's just staring at themselves on the Internet! My partial rejoinder was to point out that Whitman was a world-class narcissist, who put his narcissism to work in building an audience for himself (self-reviews, etc.), and that only so doing made it possible for him to infiltrate our larger culture. But it's not a challenge I can really dismiss so lightly. Even if you think the first task of the poet, as of course it is, is to write poetry, and that therefore the first task of the socially critical poet is to write socially critical poetry, there's still the question of audience. My standard line on this point is my desire to turn passive readers into active writers: it's fine with me if all my readers are other poets because I think you have to be a poet (and who isn't a poet? Who hasn't attempted to translate their experience into language that's memorable, at least memorable to them or to a beloved, at least once in their lives?) to really read the stuff. But from another perspective, that's bullhonky: I know perfectly well what Sina and others mean when they complain about how poets only think of an audience of other poets, or how the vast majority of writers of poetry, including those who keep the book contest industry going, rarely read the stuff. What can we do about this if we're not interested in the faux-populist stance of the likes of John Barr, who argues that people will read poetry again (it's always "again," always the gesture toward some more perfect past—pastoral as ideology is always with us) when we start writing "happy" poems (didn't he say the entire art form was "in a bad mood," after reading like, what, three books he considered representative?), preferably in traditional forms, if we don't go even further and abandon most of the resources of poetry altogether so as to produce little anecdotes with line-breaks that signify solely "this is a poem" without having any semantic or aural impact.

So the dread beast "accessibility" raises its head once again. Sina reminded me yesterday of the remarkable fact that Christian Bök's Eunoia was a bestseller in Canada, and attributed this to two things beyond the work's indisputable wonderfulness: the fact that Christian had a clearly defined project and that he took the trouble to articulate that project in the apparatus of the book (an introduction, notes, etc.). I can personally testify to the appeal of Eunoia to the otherwise unpoetically inclined: a couple of years ago on a trip with Emily's family my father- and brother-in-law both asked me what I was reading, were tickled by the concept of the lipogram, and laughed out loud hearing a couple of the poems. Emily's brother even asked me where he could get a copy later on. So I think there's a lot to what Sina suggests, and possibly a lot to lament about how most poetry books, post-avant or otherwise, provide little or no help to a reader who isn't already an initiate. At the same time, I'm wary of too many notes to poems, if only because they can act as little leashes on the imagination: I remember finding the poems in Lucie Brock-Broido's first book less interesting once I'd read the extensive notes explaining the poems' origins and allusions. And not every poetry book can or should be as "high concept" as Eunoia: first and last, I want to preserve the freedom of the poet to make what she or he needs to make, which is predicated on the wild faith that what you write will resonate with someone because it resonates with you and you are, at bottom, another ordinary human being. Still, if one does write a book with an overarching project or through-line (and a lot of books by younger poets especially do, it seems), it does seem to behoove poet and publisher to provide the materials that will make that project, and by extension the poems, more accessible to readers: introductions, notes, publicity materials, etc.

Anyhow, it was very good to meet Sina, and if you have a chance to do so I'd highly recommend it.

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