Sunday, April 18, 2004

Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance Dept.

I received an e-mail from Joan Houlihan, asking me to submit poems for her magazine Perihelion. She made no mention of l'affaire Skanky or my small part in it. So here's what I wrote in reply:
Dear Joan Houlihan,

Thank you for your interest in my work; it's always flattering to be a finalist, and even more flattering to be solicited. But before I send you any poems, I feel that we need to start a conversation.

I''m not sure if you're aware that I'm the same "Josh (Corey?)" whose response to your attack on Fence and Skanky Possum on my blog ( was classified by you as "unintelligible." (A category I feel you are all too quick to assign writers too, but I'll get to that.) So first of all, I don't want to put you in the position of offering publication to someone you may have viewed as unsympathetic to you. I tried to be very measured in my response to an article that I found to be a particularly irritating installment of your series "How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem." I strongly disagree with nearly everything you've had to say in that series, starting with the title and its assumption that there is a single "nature" that poetry can be said to have. (And your favorite bugbear, "coherence," strikes me as an obtuse goal for poetry; for me coherence is only a starting point. There's too much false coherence in the lines of your typical Poetry-Chicago poem, just as there is in the statements of our politicians.) But okay: everyone's entitled to their opinion, and I enjoy seeing sacred cows tipped as much as anyone. Still, your attack on the "avant-garde establishment" struck me as astonishingly mean-spirited, because I don't believe such an establishment exists. (Following Peter Burger, such a phrase is a classic contradiction in terms: the avant-garde are precisely those artists who attack the institutionalization of art. It would be more accurate, though not especially illuminating, to call the writing you so heartily dislike postmodernist.) The good folks at Fence, Slope, Skanky Possum, etc., while hardly perfect in their editorial decisions (who is?), created something where there was nothing with no visible means of institutional support, and they have earned my respect thereby. Furthermore, they support a lot of the contemporary work I most value--some of it even "makes sense" and does not require "great mental stamina" (though I have to say the building of such stamina is precisely one of the things I enjoy getting from reading poetry) to appreciate. At the risk of being tendentious, I'll quote a poem from the most recent issue of Fence that satisfies some of my demands for beauty and strife:

Amy Eisner

Sun jiggling in its yolk.
Heavy thorax of the garbage truck.
Anthropologist of hoax.

We are beyond proliferation
and the many alliances
for which accuracy matters.

We can put a kidney in
and leave the old one there,
the new kidney in a new place.

Still, let us categorize.
A lacquer reflex moves the eyes
differently than velvety.

Variegations of the hybrid tea:
bordered, margined, penciled,
which is also entered: veined.

There are dots and blotches.
Methods of procedure. Planes
of insertion. Once, again

the sun's liquid heart strays.
Small storms of delight
frizzle the blinding dunes.

How stilly the lense
bends these rays,
spooning a glimpse--

Perhaps a better example would be G.C. Waldrep's poem "Vertigo," which you yourself have deemed good enough to publish in Perihelion--a poem I would not be at all surprised to see in Fence. Perihelion is, of course, why we're having this conversation, or why I'm attempting to have it. If all I knew of your work was the Boston Comment pieces, this e-mail would be a whole lot shorter: I would simply politely decline. But I do admire some of the writing you've chosen to publish there--in the latest issue I see poems I like by Waldrep, Ander Monson, and Sophie Wadsworth. And the interviews you've done, especially those with Timothy Donnelly and Stephen Burt, suggest that you may be more open-minded to other paradigms of poetic value than your essays will admit. This opens my own mind to the possibility that we might have things in common--some of your frustrations, if not your conclusions, have mirrored my own. The poetry I value most tends to have a certain vigor of form, something I suspect that you too value highly--and I have failed to find this vigor in some of the same "mainstream" poets you've taken to task in your columns. (I do see this vigor, in fact I sometimes see little else, in the Language poets--I don't usually wish to write like them, but I do think they have raised questions about poetry's capacity for critique that the poets who come after them have to deal with if they're serious about the art. Stephen Burt put it pretty well in his interview with you: "they often want, or say they want, to deflect attention from the self a poem supposedly represents, onto the social forces and networks which make up that self, and which (it is often claimed) language writing sets out to demystify, transform or expose." I also happen to be a huge fan of Rae Armantrout's, by the way.) Therefore, I think that it just barely might be possible for there to be, in Ezra Pound's words, "commerce between us." But rather than just the usual writer-editor relationship, I'd like us to have a conversation about poetic values. In other words, if I'm going to send you poems, I'd like it to be part of a dialogue in which I do my level best to persuade you of your errors. And of course you will probably be moved to reciprocate in kind.

If you are interested in such a conversation, please let me know, and I will be happy to attach some recent writing as a submission to Perihelion in my reply. I'd also like permission from you to post our exchange on my blog--though I still want to have our conversation even if you choose to withhold such permission.

Best wishes,

Josh Corey
Ms. Houlihan declined in a brief e-mail, citing time considerations. I can't quote her response without her permission, but I'll just say that she did know who I was and seemed to mistrust my motives. Oh well. As Lyle Lovett says, "What would you be if you didn't even try? You have to try. So please, if it's not too late, make it a. . . cheesburger."

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