"A Larger Place at the Poetry Table"

I have been so moved my Collin Kelley's heartfelt and impassioned blog post that I had to include a portion of his question and my answer here. Go to Collin's blog for the full monty.

First, and excerpt:

So, I have questions for all of you who read this blog: How we can get back to the pleasure of the art rather than the jockeying for position, awards and writing personal attacks masquerading as "literary criticism?" How do we set a larger place at the poetry table for those working outside the academy? How do we make the art of poetry interesting and compelling to the next generation that doesn't want an MFA or teaching gig? How do we take the insular and make it open?

My response:

I like working from the inside out—creating events, venues, publications, etc. that everyday poets and poet lovers want to be a part of. You [Collin] do that, too. The effort doesn’t guarantee mass audiences or increased readership. but I take satisfaction from reaching one person at a time. How do most revolutions start? One person at a time.

We need to have enough Hawkeye/Norma Rae/Peter Finch (from the movie Network) moments where we collectively say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” Until then, the status quo remains in place. Civility stays at arms’ length, same poets read at the same events, and nothing changes. This system seems to be working for someone, otherwise we’d all be standing on the tops of tables demanding change. I put my money, however, on you [Collin], on me, and to those who care to make change in the poetry community happen by any means necessary.

I thought Read Write Poem was on its way to shifting the balance but it collapsed before it took off. Starting the conversation, doing something—those are steps in the right direction.

How do we make poetry more open?


Collin Kelley said…
Thanks for participating in what has been - and continues to be - a very interesting conversation at my blog. Such a great array of ideas and opinions and everyone has been quite civil. Thanks for the shout out here!
January said…
Thanks Collin. I hope the people who sit at the table are reading the comments, too.

(And thanks for the kind words about Underlife in the comments yesterday. Much appreciated.)
Lisa Cohen said…
I wonder if you're asking the wrong question. Given my long term involvement in on-line poetry workshop boards, I would say that the table is a lot larger than the conferences and handful of books published by small presses every year.

If I look through a non-academic lens, I see poetry thriving on blogs, workshop boards, and at local readings. I see ordinary people reaching for poetry during peak times in their lives: both celebrations and memorials. And there's some amazing work being written outside of small journals and presses.

There was a time I tried to snag some crumbs from that exclusive table, but realized all too quickly that I didn't really have a place in the very insular world of academic poetry. I say this without either rancor or value judgment. The table I am most comfortable sitting at is one with seats for voices of much greater diversity. The table I prefer is more accessible.

Perhaps that means that there are more developing writers at that table, and maybe even some poorly crafted writing to wade through, but in the end, and for me, it's a more welcoming place.
Hi January!

Just thought I'd link you to my response to Collin's post, which was too long to go to his comment thread.
drew said…
I'm enjoying the broad discussion on this topic, both here and on Collin's site.

I tend to agree with LJ. I see poetry very much alive at readings and writing groups and events in my very small town (just 650 people).

While AWP may be perceived as the 'big table' it is not the only table. And for the many, many poets outside of academia, it is more of an endtable than a dining table.

The poetry world may be as insular as we choose to see it.

Thanks January for opening the door on the topic. Really great to explore so many perspectives.
January said…
Thanks for your comments. I'm of two minds, Drew et al.

I hear what you're saying about a bigger table, or poetry not being the only table. To put the metaphor into a real context, I'm tired of poets not being paid for their efforts. I'm tired of finding only dead poets and "best sellers" in big box bookstores. I'm tired of the same old established poets at big events and in big journals. And I'm tired of established poets publishing crappy poems and sill getting big awards. The system is not changing.

Now, I don't have to participate in the system, but if I want your poems published in a journal who has a decent readership, submit poems with reading fees, enter contest, network at conferences, etc. Everything we do at this big table influences what happens away from the table. If the “establishment” sets the tone, everyone follows that beat, even those claiming to be outside of the system.

I have an MFA, but I'm not an academic poet—meaning I don’t teach. Yet I want to be part of this generation of writers influencing the next generation. I want to help decide who should be in The Canon. If more poets participate in the system, the system gets better. I think we should fix this system and make it more equable for everyone, not throw our hands up and say “It is what it is.”

I see poetry, at it best, as inclusive. At its worst, it's insular.
Jessie Carty said…
I'm late to the debate-discussion but I'm enjoying catching up. I think blogs are a terrific avenue to reach a wide group of people. Although I'm equally pleased that I can assign poetry chapbooks to my community college compsition students. I like being on both sides of the fence :)

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