The State of the State
(Sorry so dark. L to R: John Barr, Lee Briccetti, Kevin Larimer, Tree Swenson, Alice Quinn.)
I attended a Thursday session on the state of U.S. contemporary poetry. The panel, called Serving Poets & Poetry: Surveying the Field, featured participants from four major poetry foundations. In attendance were Kevin Larimer (Poets & Writers magazine, host), Tree Swenson (Academy of American Poets), Lee Briccetti (Poet’s House), John Barr (Poetry Foundation), Alice Quinn (Poetry Society of America). Here are some notes from the session.
Tree Swenson from Academy of American Poets (AAP) says that the job of their organization is to remind everyone that poetry matters. Efforts like National Poetry Month, created more than 10 years ago by the AAP, keeps poetry in the public eye.
Poets House is the equivalent of a presidential library for poetry. Housed in NYC, it is one of the largest—if not the largest—collection of domestic and international poetry. If you have a book, you should check to see if it’s there.
I keep harping on this but I think it's remarkable. Quinn, former poetry editor for the New Yorker and current head of the Poetry Society of America (PSA), said that the biggest change to happen in contemporary (U.S.) poetry is the success of Cave Canem and the publishing of so many African American poets.
Now if I am to extrapolate from Quinn’s comments, Cave Canem, Kundiman, Con Tinta, and other affinity groups—because these groups are not only based on race or ethnicity, but commonalities—represent the prevalence of the power of the collective. I believe that the representation we are seeing now in contemporary poetry may be the most diverse we have ever seen. However, we still have a long way to go.
The Poetry Foundation has been operating in its current configuration for five years. Poetry magazine’s readership has increased from 11,000 to 30,000, and their poetry podcasts receive 25,000 a week.
All groups agree that the poetry is on the rise. Interest in writing programs is on an upward swing. But why are poetry book sales so low? Swenson asserts that “the unit of consumption is not the book, but the poem,” meaning that accessibility to downloadable poems, or even photocopies that one person gives to another, has contributed to flat sales but increased interest. Additionally, book sellers are notoriously hush-hush about book sales. Coupled with the explosion on independent presses, it’s hard to gage how well the marketplace is truly doing.
Meanwhile, longer, deeper works of prose are in decline.
The Poetry Foundation touts it Poetry Out Loud program, which encourages high school students to memorize poems through competition. About 175,000 students participate annually.
There was a question posed about how best to support writers. Are contest are good way of doing that versus giving money outright to poets in the form of grants and funding?
Swenson feels that contests are important to the audience of readers more so than the poet. It speaks to who is being recognized by his/her peers.
Poetry Foundation underscores the fact that they are not a grant program agency, but an organization that seeks to adds value to the economic life of the poetry community.
PSA does have awards, but they are directing their energies to sponsoring readings in large and small communities across the U.S., partnering with local organizations and poets to host events. A good example of this is an upcoming Cave Canem reading in Boston (scroll down for Boston info).