Monday, July 23, 2007

The minor poets

In America, all poets are minor literary presences. Poets in Jersey are practically invisible. If you're not a poet yourself, you cross their paths by accident. You walk into a library or bookstore & find yourself tip-toeing around a reading. One of your kids mentions there's a poet visiting the school for a week. Every other year Jersey newspapers run articles on the Dodge Poetry Festival. Poetry is a cultural sideshow down at the far end of the midway. Local poets can hardly be bothered anymore to make themselves felt, a sad change from the the 70s & 80s when there were lots of loony bards in flight. It's never easy to do anyway, & a challenge. No wonder so many turn to theater, or blogging. I don't even rate as a minor poet among minor poets. There are reasons for this:

1. I didn't try hard enough, or stick to it when I did.

2. Inferior social skills. My personality has been described as "brusque." But I've noticed poets have somewhat different standards than visual artists & musicians, who are allowed to be taciturn, rude, perplexing, & preposterous. I'm also neurotically shy, using a variety of excuses legit & lame to escape or avoid socializing in larger groups.

3. Radio. Having a weekly show at WFMU for so long undercut my need for the bully pulpit of public readings during years I ought to have been getting out & around more often. I enjoyed being a "featured" poet, but I stopped attending open mic readings. I was alway fearful of having a stuttering jag; open readings didn't give enough time to work through one.*

4. I didn't have a power base. The typical way to get one was to edit a small poetry magazine or run a reading series at a bar or coffeehouse. Even better was having real money to spread around. This builds contacts & gives you something to "trade." Some poets calculate this more ruthlessly than relatives do wedding gifts. Although my WFMU show had the potential for exhanging "favors," I routinely declined - with a few exceptions - requests from poets to read on-the-air (Sometimes these solicitations arrived as neatly typed cover letters with resumes attached). Few Jersey poets I met listened to WFMU, most had never even heard of it. If they had listened, they would have quickly realized WFMU wasn't an NPR station. I featured a lot of spoken word stuff mixed in with the music. All a poet had to do was send me a homemade cassette tape. Some did, from places far from Jersey.

5. Long periods when I felt like totally worthless crap. This could happen at any time, & would last for weeks.

6. I have a perverse love for writing deliberately peculiar &/or bad poetry. In downtown New York, this has long been considered a skill. I've always written & published good more-or-less conventional poetry. Then I ask myself questions like: How would a schizophrenic write about an ordinary night at a local bar? Can I pretend I'm translating a poem from Mongolian to English but I speak only Swahili? What if Elizabeth Barrett wrote a lyric for Ruby & the Romantics? Is there any way to take this poem & turn it into something that would make Marcel Duchamp smile? How do I revise a poem by flipping a coin? At what point does a poem cease to be a poem & become something else? What about a poet? These were matters of artistic & spiritual inquiry.

* I wrote a short poem without "Jonah" words - words a stutterer knows can cause trouble, in a sing-song pattern evident only to me, that I brought to the podium many times but had to use only once as an opener. If I'm having a rough radio show, there's more ums & ahs in my speech.

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