Monday, April 23, 2007

American Small Press Poetry

I recently entered my collection of small press poetry books in a competition held by the Cornell Library. Didn't win, but I thought some might be interested in the little essay I wrote to introduce said collection:

For as long as I can remember I've been a haunter of bookstores and libraries. But I didn't begin to accumulate books in a serious way until I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 to begin a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford. It was there that I developed my interest in alternative American poetry, and started buying as much of it as I could afford. What do I mean by "alternative"? Contemporary poetry isn’t on many people's radar these days; even highly literate denizens of English departments don't always know much about what's going on in poetry. The poets who do break through to something like mainstream attention—John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, and Billy Collins come to mind—actually represent fairly narrow swatches of what's been possible in American poetry for the past fifty years. These are the poets published by the big publishing houses, whose books actually stand a chance of being reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. But it's actually the small and really small presses in this country which have done the most to keep something like a living tradition of poetry alive. I should say rather "traditions," because the glory of American poetry is its multiplicity, the range of its techniques and styles and preoccupations. I have tried, in building up my collection, to accumulate as broad a swathe of these alternatives as one poor graduate student can.

San Francisco has been an alternative poetry mecca since before the time of the Beats, and I arrived there hungry to learn what my new city had to teach me. I visited Green Apple Books and City Lights in the city; I carried armloads out of Moe's and Serendipity in Berkeley; I uncovered treasures at the late lamented Wessex Books in Menlo Park. In these bookstores, and in conversations with other poets and poetry aficionados, I discovered numerous alternatives to the large-press poetry that had heretofore dominated my sense of the possible. At first I was most intrigued by the legacy of the Language poets, a tightly knit group that had gotten its start in the Bay Area in the 1970s and which had gone on to become the most controversial, contentious, and just plain difficult movements in American poetry since the days of Ezra Pound. The Language poets sought in both their writing and in their chosen modes of publication and distribution to challenge the prevailing hierarchies of American poetry, which at that time (and to some degree still even today) privileged a poetics of the "I"—what critic Charles Altieri has called the "scenic mode" of American poetry, in which a speaker looks out into a landscape and discovers—himself (or herself). For the Language poets, how you said a thing was as meaningful or more so than what you said, and the poems they produced were spiky, hard to follow, sometimes gleefully obscene, sometimes austerely beautiful. Their work attempts to enlist the reader as a comrade in challenging modes of meaning-making that have been hijacked by advertising and corporate media—and by an American poetry mainstream that was too often reflexively apolitical and anti-intellectual in its biases.

The Language poets sought nothing less than the seizure of the means of meaning production, and if their project was quixotic, the scope of its ambition was thrilling nevertheless. Uninterested in the New York publishing world (which would have rejected them out of hand, anyway), they created their own small presses and samizdat-style magazines and distributed them across a network of sympathetic and interested readers that now spans the globe. Browsing the bookstores, reading the spines, I learned to look for the press's name before even taking note of the title or author: O Books, Roof Books, The Figures, Edge, North Point Press. Since many of these publishers continue to operate, I began to discover new poets, some of them my age or close to it, who had learned what the Language poets had to teach about do-it-yourself meaning-making. I also began to discover a heritage for American poetry that was far richer and more complex than the narrative I’d been taught (it began with T.S. Eliot, skipped forward to the "Confessional" poets of the 1950s, and then petered out into the easygoing piety of the aforementioned scenic mode). Behind the Language poets were the "New Americans," first put forward as a group by Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology of the same name. I discovered the Black Mountain School of poetry, centered around the work and teaching of Charles Olson and the radical college in North Carolina that he'd taught at for a few crucial years in the 1950s alongside Robert Creeley, John Cage, Josef Albers, and Merce Cunningham. The poets of the San Francisco Renaissance—Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser chief among them—brought a queer sensibility to their investments in the English literary tradition, and wrote poems stained with a baffling and exhilarating outsider's mysticism into their poems. The poets who were associated with the art scene in New York in the 50s and 60s, known as the New York School, brought a fierce, yet whimsical integrity to the task of writing poetry, and fostered one of the most enduring and pleasurable avant-garde movements in American poetry, one that continues to this day. More recently I’ve been fascinated by the practitioners of "flarf," a movement that like Language poetry pushes hard against the boundaries of the acceptably "poetic," but does it with more pop-cultural panache. And then there are the strangers and outsiders, the founders of one-poet movements or the participants in trends that were never recognized, or have yet to be fully born.

In two short years I spent nearly all of my disposable income on books of poetry published in the past five decades. Only a few of these would qualify as rare books, but I think I've built up a genuinely rare collection that surveys a broad swathe of what's been most significant and vital in alternative American poetry. There are holes and gaps: I am increasingly conscious of the odd provinciality that comes of being a citizen of empire, and would like to strike out into reading and collecting the poetries of other languages and traditions. Still I retain my commitment to taking the pulse of poetry by centering my reading and collecting on what's published by the small presses. My book collection, like many people's is a physical manifestation of my consciousness and the number of connections I'm able to make. I hope it continues to grow.

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