May 22, 2006

Bees, Busboys, Burning Rubber

A somewhat sublime writing group on Sunday. The trains ran on time, everyone got substantive feedback, and the poems were good to begin with. What I gain from these sessions is not so much line edits, but finding out what major narrative/relationship details I just assumed were implicit in the poem turn out...not to be. It can be frustrating to sit in silence while your fellow poets workshop all the things the poem might be about (an old teacher called these "Killer Bee discussions"). But better to suck it up and clarify now, in the draft stages, before the poem is out fending for itself in the world.

After workshop I dashed down to Busboys and Poets for the launch of Tigertail, edited by Richard Blanco. Unfortunately I missed hearing my friend Deb Ager (damn alphabetical order!), but it was an all-star lineup, enjoyable nonetheless. Josh Weiner's long poem skewering the intersection of (racialized) politics and (little league) baseball was a true paean to D.C. "Play that funky music, white boy," he intoned. "Play that funky music."

Deb has a minor thread going on on her 32 Poems blog about "careerism" in poetry. I do think being career-minded and outgoing (yes, even "networking") in poetry gets a bad rap: more than once I've encountered the cult of moaning "oh, I never get around to sending out work..." or, worse yet, the poets that do send furiously to first book contests, yet never support small presses by buying contemporary poetry books. It's crucial, I think, that we take responsibility to vitalize and create our own poetry community--to communicate (yes, at places like AWP and colonies), to send congrats when they are due, to recommend poets to each other, to make it out to readings. And the funny thing is, when you do that, sending out is so much less intimidating. Really.

There is a flip side to "careerism" though, that causes me hesitation. It is easy, when navigating the social spaces of poetry, to get in the habit of automatically praising the work of friends/peers without really stopping to listen, deeply, and evaluate. If incestuous praise runs rampant, everyone's work suffers; the aesthetic settles, grows stale. I think we owe it to ourselves, as poets, to really think about what we admire on an aesthetics level--and to seek it out and specifically promote it, in fellow poets and our own work. I am not advocating this to the exclusion of other styles or schools, mind you--I rarely write "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" or Flarf poems, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a really fine example of the style when I see one. I just think a distinction ought to be made between those we respect for their contributions to the poetry community, and those we admire as poets. And if one person merits both praises, all the better.

My office is near the National Zoo here in D.C., and occasionally we can hear the more piercing animal sounds--especially hyenas. A motorcycle just burned rubber outside my building, but what my ear heard was: elephant. Ooooh! Elephant! And I instinctively scurried over to the window to look. For an elephant. On Connecticut Avenue.

There are worse problems to have in life.


C. M. Mayo said...

Hola Sandra, glad to see Chicks Dig Poetry is up & running!

Don said...

Thanks Sandra, for you comments on career-ism. I think it's vital to support the poetry community by going to readings, buying books, etc., but I also don't think you praise everybody's work or not make distinctions between thinks you value a lot and things you don't like as much. Anyway, I have a big favor to ask you: please put in a link to me at That's my other poetry blog I write in occasionally. I'll link to you, also. Just consider it a way to widen the poetry community?