By Victor D. Infante
There is a manner in which you chew too long on irrelevant questions, the way you feel obliged to answer them, but find instead a stuttering nothing lodged in your throat, a stammer as you begin and stop, begin and stop, when you see the path of each reply dead-end in front of you. It is difficult to convince yourself, sometimes, that you are asking the wrong questions. You can waste years like this, revolving in circular arguments that solve nothing, when really, the next question should be, “is this the right question at all?” If you’ve come to the point where you’re asking yourself that, then it probably isn’t.
There is always someone — often a student or novice writer, sometimes a reporter — who will ask some variation of the same question: “What’s better: academic poetry or Slam poetry?” Or sometimes it’s, “What’s more important, poetry or performance?” Recently, it’s been, “What’s better, poetry in print, or online?” And there are others, of course, but they’re all fundamentally the same question, and there are so many false assumptions, so much loaded garbage, inherent in these questions that they become difficult to answer, the list of caveats and exceptions multiplying exponentially with each syllable, until you find yourself trapped on a roundabout, unable to exit. Until the conversation itself becomes the framework of something that is less a literary discussion and something more resembling a woefully banal religious debate, what was a point of view transformed into an article of faith: Is God real? God is real. Prove it. It’s an article of faith. Why does God let good people suffer? He works in mysterious ways. Is Slam poetry real poetry? No. Then what about Patricia Smith, Jeff McDaniel, Rachel McKibbens, etc., etc.? … That’s different. Why? Because it is.
Because it is. And so the caveats begin, and we find no exit from the roundabout, when perhaps the question we should be asking is, what’s the best poetry that’s emerged from that quarter, or what stylistic traits do poets who’ve spent time in Slam share, or why IS Patricia Smith so amazing? These, to my mind, are far richer questions than “Is Slam poetry?” which is reductive, over-simplistically binary and comes with one, giant, loaded assumption: That the question of what is and is not poetry is easily answered with a yes/no question.
Repeatedly, I find brilliant poems in places where brilliance might not be expected. In poetry slams, yes, and also in The Paris Review. I distinctly remember poems in the back of a punk rock ’zine I read in the ’80s that shimmered with imagery and emotion, whereas there are high-end literary journals I read mere months ago that I can’t recall a word of. I am hard-pressed to tell you why a book by Tara Hardy would be in any way less significant than a book by Sharon Olds, why a book by Ellyn Maybe would be in any way different than a book by Billy Collins, save some chimera of distribution. I have marveled at the amazing command of syllabic metrics and metaphor some rappers exhibit, and been dumbstruck when the use of those same tools is casually disregarded by “formalists.” And the reverse is often true, naturally. Wherever you find poetry, you will find bad poetry. You ask me what is better, in some combination of whatever the zeitgeist or arbitrarily binary distinctions of the day are, and I stammer and struggle to come up with an answer, because it’s the wrong question. It’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated than that.
Between Radius and its predecessor, The November 3rd Club, I’ve been nominating poems for the Pushcart Prize for years now. It’s actually one of my favorite things about the job of editing a literary journal, that moment where you review everything you’ve done and hold up five or six pieces to say, “This. This is the best we’ve done this year, and I’ll match it against anybody else’s work.” There’s a delicious satisfaction in that act, one bordering on hubris, but one where the exhaustion and frustration slides away, and you allow yourself to bask in the pride of accomplishment, before getting back to work. The process is Quixotic, of course. It’s hard for any serious–minded person to believe that a tiny online journal is going to be able to really compete against the likes of major literary titans with deep pockets and established ties to the poetry establishment. But one lives in hope, and if nothing else, the Pushcarts, at least, have the appearance of good faith. A quick glance at who regularly wins these things leaves one with the feeling that it’s not a level playing field, but you always feel like the door’s open.
So naturally, I was a bit alarmed when I read G. Emil Reutter’s account of why his online journal, Fox Chase Review, would no longer be submitting to the Pushcart Prize, in response to comments from Pushcart publisher Bill Henderson in the introduction of the 2012 edition, most colorfully:
“I have long railed against the e-book and instant Internet publication as damaging to writers. Instant anything is dangerous — great writing takes time. You should long to be as good as John Milton and Reynolds Price, not just barf into the electronic void.”
And there, laden within one paragraph in a characteristically rambling introduction, is a confirmation of the dark voice that whispers in your ear while you’re basking in the feeling of accomplishment of submitting to the Pushcarts — not just that your submission is doomed, but that you’re held in actual contempt. Not for anything you’ve done, not for the quality of your work or the work your publish, but for something as fundamentally meaningless as format of distribution.
It’s an unfair reaction to what is, in all likelihood, an off-the-cuff remark. Indeed, upon re-reading the introduction it seems clear that Henderson is referring to websites which publish everything, not journals such as Radius that have an editorial process, and that he’s talking about authors self-publishing their own work electronically, not about publishers who offer an electronic edition of an author’s work. (And he’s wrong about those, too, but they’re a separate discussion.) Still, these things do come up as the introduction rolls into a letter from University of Texas creative writing professor Dr. Clay Reynolds, who writes:
“Now literary parties are peopled by crushing bores talking about iPads and Nooks, bragging about the number of volumes they’ve downloaded and comparing computers. There is no booze, certainly no smoking. And there are no books.”
Clearly, Dr. Reynolds and I have been at different parties, and a lot of Henderson and Clay’s concerns here can be chalked up to the rosy tint of nostalgia and a fear of being left behind as the future unfolds. The fact of the matter is that rather a lot of poetry is published on the Internet these days, and indeed, many of the same poets who they marvel at in print journals are also being published online. There’s a tendency to paint the dispute as being between two camps — just as it was in the bad-old “Slam vs. academia” days — when really, it’s all a lot more fluid. Radius alone has published (and nominated for Pushcarts) a number of poets whose work no one would be surprised to find in the Puschart anthology, including Kazim Ali, Leslie McGrath and Patricia Smith, in addition to relative newcomers such as Rachel McKibbens, Monica Hand and Karrie Waarla. Our format is different, sure, but otherwise, I can find no substantive difference between our work and anybody else’s, be they in print or online. Neither we nor our authors are “barfing into the electronic void.” Here, more than a decade into the 21st century, it’s entirely natural for a poet to spend some time reading at slams and coffeehouse readings, publish in print or online, teach some, tour, and lead a complicated career that leads them in and out of bars and universities. Slams and academia, print and online, ’zines and high-end journals: all the same damn body of poets, now a much, much larger pool than has ever existed before, with more points of entry and comprising more points of view than ever before. The world of American poetry is larger and more multifaceted than it ever has been. That’s an accomplishment, not something to be feared.
Still, the inference that what electronic publications do is somehow less valuable than what happens in print journals is angering, and insulting. But when the sting of the slap — whether it was intended or not — cools down, what we’re left with is a rather saddening reticence in the face of a changing world.
The world of poetry changes radically every 10 or 20 years or so, as new ideas, movements and attitudes get introduced into the matrix. Technology is probably making that pace of change even faster, these days. It seems ridiculous in the year 2012 to claim that Beats weren’t really poets, and yet that’s exactly what many of their contemporaries were doing. (And even just a few years ago, I heard an academic poet qualify, “But how many of them were really important?” Because those ones were different. Because, because, because …) Even now, it’s beginning to seem like Slam, that youthful upstart which is now legally able to drink, has emerged as a legitimate movement, or at the very least, several of the poets who’ve emerged from it are taken seriously by the supposed poetry establishment, which is to say, the people who decide who gets the big awards and such. And I’ll take it. It’s progress. The literary establishment does change, even if it’s at a glacial pace, sometimes.
And sometimes, the poets who helped build that wave and who helped make significant changes in contemporary poetry, who helped open doors and build audiences and introduced new ideas about line and tone, voice and metaphor … sometimes they don’t take time to take stock of their victories. They delude themselves into a sort of bunker mentality, pretending they’re still on the outside of the literary mainstream, even as either they or at least their contemporaries are moving toward bigger audiences and publications. It begins, after a while, to resemble a sort of disturbing clasping at youth, a way of pretending that the world hasn’t changed underneath their feet, and that, indeed, they had a role — however small or great — in making the world what it is today. You see it with a number of poets from the Beat generation, and indeed, you’re already seeing it in some poets from the Slam generation.
The Slam generation fundamentally won a number of its arguments with American poetry. The idea that how poetry is presented being important? That’s a reaction to slam. Even academics who’ve never set foot in a slam make an effort to read well these days, and trust me, that wasn’t the norm 20 years ago. Slam helped build a new audience for poetry, the impact of which has been felt across the spectrum. Slam argued that good poetry could come from any segment of society, and not just from a university, and they were right, and indeed, that’s an argument that’s won currency, by and large. Slam built an easily accessed infrastructure for young poets, and consequently, we’re seeing poets emerging in their early 20s who are phenomenal. This is a far cry from when I was a kid in the ’80s, and had to drop out of the poetry workshop at the local city recreation department because I couldn’t afford it. These are victories, every one of them, and if the world of poetry didn’t turn out exactly how they envisioned it, the slammers at least left the literary world better than the state they found it.
But perhaps the only thing worse than the radical who can’t recognize his or her own accomplishments is the one who achieves a measure of change and then expects the world to stop. It doesn’t do that. You see these in the Slam community, too — old-timers who go on too long about how the form has changed, how the competition is too serious, who are disappointed when victories won in 1996 aren’t on the tip of a young poet’s tongue. Or worse, who seem shocked when the young poets — the ones they helped build an infrastructure for — rebel in their own ways, creating new circuits for poetry, creating a house-concert underground scene instead of filing into readings now filled with folks in their 40s and 50s. Or worse, being ambitious, and wanting to build a career straight away, instead of paying a set of arbitrary seeming and often shockingly specific dues. Making their own way. To this sort of radical-turned-reactionary, it almost seems ungrateful. And in that, the once-radical becomes exactly what he or she was rebelling against in the first place.
It’s hard not to look at Henderson’s dismissive words in that introduction and wonder if that’s how he — and all the other poets entrenched on that side of that imaginary divide — see those of us who approach this art form differently. As a threat. As ungrateful. We’re not, on either count. We’re all poets, and if you strip away the bullshit hierarchies, reductive arguments and pointless tribalism, we’re all pretty much the same, drawn to beauty and novelty, passion and whimsy. We all — yes, this is true — have a deep regard for the craft of poetry, and an equally deep interest in what our peers are doing. We all have a great reverence for the art form’s history. We are, and should be, grateful for the work those who have come before us have done, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. In a very real way, we’re family — the Slammers and the academics, the Beats and the rappers, the coffeehouse poets and the hipster indie kids, each and every one of us bound by devotion to this art. And just as with family in real life, it’s not always easy. Hell, sometimes it’s unbearable. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
And just as is often the case in real life families, we are having a disagreement right now. And we are damn well going to talk about it.
In a far-less contentious passage of the introduction to the 2012 Pushcart anthology, Henderson mourns the passing of poet Reynolds Price, one of the founding editors of the series.
“Way back in 1975,” writes Henderson, “I wrote to Reynolds asking for help in starting a new series celebrating the small and beautiful. … Reynolds replied that he would be happy to be listed as a Founding Editor of the Pushcart Prize — as did dozens of other distinguished writers — and with their backing, and only because of it, we produced PPI and over the past decades made a dent in literary history.”
Henderson is being modest. It’s difficult to articulate just how important the Pushcart Prize has become to poets today. One doesn’t even have to win it. Just being nominated can be a huge boost for a writer, at least in the short term. In discussing the prospect of Radius ceasing to submit to the Pushcart, I’ve had writers tell me how much the nomination gave them fuel for their next project, or how receiving their first nomination helped give them the confidence to move on with their work. That’s no small thing. If the Pushcart can have that sort of impact on talented writers even by its proximity, then there must be something to it. Even if pursuing the Prize is Quixotic. There’s something indelible in that moment, and that’s something worthy of respect.
But I look back at Henderson talking about first approaching Price to help establish the Prize, and I come back to the words “celebrating the small and beautiful,” and it strikes me, more than anything else, this is the most important and relevant sentence in the introduction. Because really, most of the regular winners of the Pushcart aren’t small, although many of them are, indeed, beautiful. Many of them have endowments and ties to universities, some even have budgets to pay bigger named writers. These are not inconsequential advantages, in the marketplace of poetry. Indeed, they’re the sort of advantages that the Pushcart, by all accounts, was originally intending to offset: the idea that it’s not the funding or the clout of the poem’s publisher that’s important, it’s the poem itself. That’s a sentiment this aging slam guy can get behind. We — all of us who make this art our vocation — have far more in common than we often assume.
The turning in my thinking came in a seemingly unrelated Facebook exchange, where poet Mark Doty, who is editing the next Best American Poetry anthology, was talking about how excited he was to receive the bound galleys for the book, and another poet (whom I know) replied, “it’s all flim-flam and you know it.”
Now, I’ve interviewed Doty once, for an Internet radio show, and found him to be an immensely likable, intelligent and generous man, in addition to being a remarkable writer, and consequently, I found myself rather offended on his behalf (although he handled it graciously.) I just couldn’t imagine wanting to take that moment of joy away from him. Moreover, I’ve interviewed (for the same program), series editor David Lehman, and likewise found him to be smart and likable. These are people whose taste and literary judgment I trust, even if — as with the Pushcarts — I am often disappointed by the narrow scope that BAP often presents. These are not people I could see denying the quality of a poem that’s in front of them, regardless of where it was originally published, but then the scope of the task struck me, how amazingly large the world of published poetry has become, how overwhelming. No one periodical could hope to capture it all. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not obliged to try. I’m just saying I understand why it’s never going to be perfect.
Likewise, this year’s Pushcart guest poetry editors were Laura Kasische, whom I’m completely unfamiliar with, and Michael Waters, whom I’m lightly acquainted with. (He was one of my wife’s college professors.) Now, I like Waters, and have a good enough estimation of the man to know that he, too, wouldn’t sniff at a good poem that was right in front of him, no matter its origin. And indeed, a letter from Waters included in the introduction sheds light on his mindset as he worked on the anthology.
“Reading through the nominated Pushcart poems,” writes Waters, “as they arrived in my doorstep in seemingly bottomless boxes, I was reminded of the exciting and fluid loyalties of my undergraduate years. I wish I’d written this poem I thought, then, soon enough No, I wish I’d written this one. What surprised and pleased me was the number of terrific poems, by poets of whom I’d never heard, that appeared in journals unfamiliar to me. Many of the poems, beyond those included here or given special mention, have lodged themselves within me, so I’ll remain grateful for having been asked to do what Bill called, more than once, an ‘impossible job.’”
And it is impossible. I sit here, and I wonder what I would have done if it had been me sitting in Waters’ place. Would I have picked, say, the Patricia Smith poem in the special mentions over the work of a particular noted poet who appears in the anthology whose work I don’t much care for? Possibly. Or maybe it would be someone else, a poet such as Tony Brown or Brendan Constantine or Mindy Nettifee, whose work I love immensely but whom I also have long friendships with? Could I completely separate myself from my own set of biases? I don’t know. There’s no way I can answer that question.
And it’s in that ambiguity that I find a modicum of sympathy, an understanding that it is an impossible job. But it’s also one that can mean a lot to a poet’s career, what Kasische calls in the introduction “a sacred task.”
Perhaps it’s not perfection we should be seeking here, because it is impossible. Perhaps what’s important is this conversation, that the poets, editors and publishers begin to peel back the silly biases and tribalism that permeates the art form and begin to honestly seek out “the small and beautiful.” Because there’s rather a lot of it. You’ll find it in online journals you’ve never heard of, and indeed, print journals which are likewise obscure. You’ll find it’s being written by poets with backgrounds in Slam and hip-hop, and by young writers who’ve benefited from a history that includes both the Pushcarts and the Brave New Voices youth slam program, young poets who have been exposed to massive amounts of poetry at an early age — both classic and contemporary — through Internet publishing and online video.
The Pushcarts helped institute massive change in the ’70s, just as Slam helped institute change in the ’90s, and both continue to be relevant. But change is a constant process. Savor the moments won, because the sand underneath all of our feet is shifting rapidly, and we’re all going to find ourselves in a different world, sooner rather than later. And yeah, a lot of that new world will involve reading poems on Kindles and Nooks, and poets having to tour more, and all sorts of things that may be unpalatable to some. And that’s life.
But it’s nothing to be afraid of. The changes aren’t a threat. This is an exciting time for poetry, and those small, beautiful poems and poetry publications are more vibrant than ever.
Radius will continue to submit for the Pushcarts, even if I suspect winning will remain an unlikely prospect for the near future. But that’s the thing. Things change. And personally, I want to be here when it does. Right now, in addition to the responsibility to our contributors and the importance it holds for them, even if it’s only symbolic — and we’re poets, so symbolism is everything — it feels as though stepping away from the process means relinquishing a voice in its future, no matter how small and distant that voice may be.
When I was younger, I was interested in tearing institutions down. And I still get that itch, but there are a few for which I still find some potential value. The Pushcarts would be the top of the list, because in its DNA there’s still a belief that poetry produced outside the literary establishment has value. I’m really not a Pollyana type, much more inclined to scrapping and sparring. It’s been 20 years of literary knife fights, and I’m usually pretty quick to throw a punch. But I’m glad I stopped and tried to think all this through, this time, because I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve not been taking the time to savor my victories. Maybe it’s time to try something different than all this meaningless squabbling. Maybe it’s time to outstretch a hand, before we blow this moment for everyone.
I write all this, and still hear Jim Morrison singing “they got the guns, but we got the numbers” in my ears. And it’s true. The audience for poetry that’s created outside of a shrinking number of mainstream literary journals is growing. It’s disorganized and young, its attention is scattershot, but it’s still a large potential audience for all of us. There is some brilliant work being published on the Internet, and emerging from slams and all of the other places on the alleged fringe of poetry. It’s not so different than the poetry you’ll find in print journals, and indeed, it’s often now the exact same poets. There is now no fundamental difference between you and us, just layers of complexity and differences in format and perspective. Between us all, we have the pieces for a better future for poetry. From where I’m standing, that future looks like an amazing place. I’d rather we all go there together.