TEN POETS WHO WILL DEFINITELY NOT CHANGE THE WORLD.
Go away troll. --Eileen Myles (as written to the editor)
It is difficult to take Poets & Writers magazine seriously despite or rather because of the long list of editors, directors, board members, and awards received. The magazine is really nothing but a big blurb for writers. The mind-numbing praise listed on its website with its regard mirrors the backslapping and self-congratulating modus operandi of far too many poets and writers today. Library Journal lauds the magazine as "a delight for writers and readers alike." Is that all writing is today, a "delight"? Jonathan Franzen, a novelist, pushes the magazine (is he getting a commission?): "My boilerplate advice is, subscribe to Poets & Writers." Radcliffe Quarterly praises, "Poets & Writers, the magazine that does for America's literary writing scene approximately what Variety does for showbiz." Yes, good ole innocuous showbiz! Writers like actresses and actors. How truly sad! But the most mind-numbing comment is made by Cynthia A. Gehrig, president of the Jerome Foundation: "Poets & Writers Magazine is the single most important document I read in the field of creative writing. I am always educated and informed by what is contained within it." Educated or happy-face indoctrinated?
Well, I digress, but how not to? Indeed, how not to consider that magazine as anything but an organ of a money machine--the publishing industry and the academic/literary establishment in general? Its editors and publishers--Kevin Larimer, Melissa Faliveno, and 20 or so others--are facilitator apparatchiks of the highly successful cooptation of literature--a certain taming and castrating of it.
Now and then, in search of grist to inspire a satirical cartoon or two, I examine the magazine. Is it so terrible that I, troll, troll for lies and absurd/lame statements inevitably spewed by normally unaccountable poets, academics, editors, and artistes? Methinks not! But Eileen Myles and the rest of the academic/literary establishment herd fervently disagree. Their attitude, of course, forms the very crux of establishment poetry's rather large Achilles heel.
What caught my eye recently was the front cover of P&W: "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World." Poet and poetry inflation/deification have evidently gotten way the hell out of control. Poet #1, MFA English Professor Kaveh Akbar of Purdue University, makes a rather curious shield-the-easily-offended-poet statement, one I'm certain Myles would embrace: "Be kind to yourself and to other poets. There are so many people in the world who would conspire against our joy, who would mistake our reverent wonder for idleness. Against everything, we have to protect our permeability to wonder. That's the nucleus around which all interesting art orbits."
By satirizing the likes of Akbar and Myles in cartoons, I of course transgress the taboo and automatically become guilty of conspiring against poet joy. In other words, thou shalt not criticize poets or thou shalt be demonized as an unholy conspirator and/or troll! Yes, Akbar was really gonna change the world... just like poet #9, Joseph Rios, who notes, "My homie Chiwan Choi asks us, 'Why sell out in a zero-dollar industry?'"
Good point, but is the academic/literary establishment really a zero-dollar industry? Certainly not! Are all the known poets from Pinsky and Collins to Tretheway and Myles living in poverty? Far, far from it! Moreover, how can anyone but sellouts be featured in a magazine like P&W, which would likely permanently ostracize any poet daring to criticize it and any of its holier-than-thou staff members? Would it ever publish a critical essay like this one? Of course not! I certainly gave that a whirl back in 2010 with a different critique and sent it on to Larimer's deaf ears with a couple of cartoons. Ever read such harsh criticism in its pages? Of course not! Instead, you'll read the dull likes of Rios:
I read John Berryman's Mr. Bones character [from The Dream Songs] and Zbigniew Herbert's Mr. Cogito and fell in love with the notion of characters living full lives inside poems. It's a thin veil, of course, but it worked for me. I was able to hide behind this character that looked and sounded like me, had the same memories and experiences as me, but was allowed to live apart from me.
A dangerous poet or just another coopting cog? And how about poet #10, Drunken Boat Contributing Editor Layli Long Soldier? Three lines from her "Part 1: These Being the Concerns" are presented in her mini-interview.
Now make room in the mouth for grassesgrassesgrasses
Provocative? Controversial? Dangerous? Or just safe-space poet meaninglessness? Why would anyone wish to highlight those three lines and without any context whatsoever? Soldier gives good, though unoriginal, advice: "Write as honestly as you can. Write what's most important to you." But what happens when honesty--real rude-truth honesty--inevitably conflicts with maintaining "poet joy" in the poetry milieu? Yes, what happens when it conflicts with the expectations of being one of the anointed ten poets who are gonna change the world?
Oddly, each of those "Ten Poets" is depicted as white-skinned on the front cover. How does that odd depiction jive with diversity? Well, white-skinned poet #2, professor of creative writing Airea D. Matthews at Bryn Mawr College, looks like she might be black and indeed at the bottom of her interview is a video of her with black skin, titled #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. She proclaims to have "had undiagnosed mental illness for a very long time" and advises: "Listen to yourself, your hand, your gut, your pen, your mind. Be authentically who you are as a writer. Your work has its own logic and its own tools; honor them. And, finally, wear comfortable shoes because the journey toward making the impossible possible is rugged, long, and lovely."
Hmm. How to be authentic when bound to a group (e.g., black poets), dictated by identity politics, and never go against the group grain in an effort to become one of the group anointed ones? Well, you'd have to ask Matthews. And I'm sure she'd have an answer. The sample (and only) verse taken from her "Rebel Prelude" will surely help change the world.
but I knew it was a winged thing, a puncture, a black and wicked door.
Now, might the verse provided by poet #3, Stegner Fellow William Brewer of Stanford University, taken from "Naloxone," be more world-change convincing?
All the things I meant to do are burnt spoons hanging from the porch like chimes.
Brewer argues that "If my writing is stuck, it's because I haven't read enough. Sometimes I pretend this isn't the case, but I'm always wrong." Well, I'd argue that if his writing is stuck it's because he hasn't dared stand up on his hind legs to vigorously question and challenge the hands feeding him at, for example, Stanford University. Poet #4, Chen Chen, doctoral student at Texas Tech University readying to occupy a safe-space sinecure in academe, provides an equally bland, if not meaningless, verse taken from his "Spell to Find Family."
My job is to trick myself into believing there are new ways to find impossible honey.
Each of the "Ten Poets" includes a "writer's block remedy." Chen's is fascinating: "I really like doing my laundry; I don't know why, but I find it meditative and satisfying. It's weird how much I like doing laundry because I'm not super cleanly when it comes to other things, like my desk, where I do the actual writing. But, nine times out of ten, doing laundry and then putting away all my clothes in a very organized fashion helps me return to the writing with a fresh mind and a sense of calm."
The verse provided by Poet #5, Professor Eve L. Ewing, is a bit more exciting than Chen's. Surely, it will help "change the world" or perhaps at least Harvard University, where she professes... or is that at the University of Chicago, where she's a Provost's Career Enhancement Postdoctoral Fellow focused on racism and inequality?
they mailed me from Mississippi in a metal ice chest
Ewing is likely black since she writes about racism, racism, racism, has a sketch of a black cartoon figure representing her at the end of the interview, and throws out a lot of black authors as influences, including good ole Beyonce (author?). Now, why didn't she and Matthews insist their portraits be black-skinned, instead of white-skinned? Well, that would have constituted an incident of rare poet rock the boat and possible angering of the P&W hands holding out the feed. Poet #6, Jenny Johnson, provides an intriguing, world-shaking sample of her verse, taken from "Gay Marriage Poem."
Let us speak without occasion of relations of our choosing!
It must be weird fixating on ones skin color or sexuality. I couldn't imagine myself fixated on my white skin and heterosexuality and writing poems about that all the time. Hmm. Johnson's advice: "Don't listen to the voices of those who fear the power in what you have made and will make. Trust your closest readers and the reciprocal spaces that nourish you and give you strength." In other words, live in a safe-space cocoon with like-minded group-thinkers. And anyone who criticizes what you say or write must surely fear your power. Hmm. And surprise, Johnson is also a professor (University of Pittsburgh et al). Poet #7, Sam Sax, poetry teacher and hackneyed hip-hop bouncy poesy reader, provides brilliant lines taken from "Warning: Red Liquid."
you either love the world or you live in it
So, if you love the world, then where do you live? And thus only haters live in the world? Hmm. Brilliant world-changing verse! Perhaps it would have been best that the master compiler, Princeton University cum lauda, uh, cum conformitatis, Dana Isokawa, of this "special section" of P&W, not provide any examples of verse, for who in their right mind could possibly read any of the lines provided and be inspired or thrilled or whatever else? Sax seems also focused on homosexuality and is working on "a collection of poems that's currently circling around a sequence of Anthropocene/Apocalypse poems that attempt to celebrate queer joy in community and loneliness as the world burns. I'm also working on a novel, which is a queer Jewish coming-of-age story told in nonlinear fragments from the perspective of someone who's just lit their self on fire outside of Trump Tower."
Oh, yeah, Trump! At least, Sax' goal was not to "change the world," but rather to become established: "For the longest time not having a book made me quite sad, and I always found it mad frustrating when someone who was already established told me to take my time and that it would work out how it's supposed to."
Established, oh yeah, like each of the other "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World"! "Make your poems indispensable to the world and let publishers fight over the privilege of supporting your work" constitutes Sax' how-to-become established advice. And it even gets better. "Oy. This year has been ridiculously plump with incredible and dangerous first books," he argues listing the books of a number of the other "Ten Poets"! Dangerous? Oh, yeah, about as dangerous to Trump as to the poetry establishment according the fellowships and prizes for unique conformity! Poet #7, Yale University English lecturer Emily Skillings, sings from "The Song Cave."
I was never here. I'm not coming back. I'm at sea.
Yet another change-the-world sample of verse! Often poets may indeed possess intelligence, but rarely do they ever seem to possess the courage to step out alone and "speak the rude truth in all ways" (Emerson), which doesn't mean criticizing Trump like everyone else. So, what's Skillings' advice? More safe-space groupthink blablatage: "Support other writers by editing their books, teaching their work, inviting them to read, publishing them, letting them sleep on your couch, etc. Put your work in the hands of only people you know to be caring and dedicated. I am grateful that being a poet is perhaps more of a career path than it once was, and I know that being heard and read is vital to the form. That being said, I do find the professionalization of poetry (in which we all engage) to be in some ways hurtful to the writing itself."
Well, I for one do not engage in the "professionalization of poetry." On the contrary, I seek to expose the fraud! Careerist poets are ineluctably frauds! "The Ten Poets Who Will Change the World" are frauds! Sadly, I did not find any of them to be of any interest whatsoever, let alone inspiration. Not one of them dares test the waters of the academic/literary establishment, let alone contemplate that as a possibility! As an invited poet at the Festival International de la Poesie de Trois-Rivieres in Quebec, I tested those waters by reading a few poems critical of the festival organizers because, for me, a poet ought to always contemplate the taboos confronting him or her, then risk breaking them now and then. Of course, I was never invited back to that festival and would never again receive 10 free days in a nice hotel and a big $800 check from the organizers. But I'd rather have it that way than behave like the other 150 invited, well-remunerated, and well-conformed poets.
Now, might I really be an egocentric maniac, an evil troll poet, who thinks that by writing an essay like this one, he might be better than the "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World" and for that might actually change the world a little more than they? Come on! No poet will ever change the world! Only highly delusional, unaccountable poets and poetry editors like Kevin Larimer can actually and really believe in such an absurdity. Ah, but pushing the poet myth means mo' money for them. Realists, exterior to the academic/literary establishment cocoon, inevitably view poetry as nothing more than intellectual diversion, insufficiently important, let alone powerful, to ever change the world at all. Perhaps the only way poetry might ever have even just a tiny influence on the world is if the delusional poets in control of the poetry establishment are forced to confront their delusions of grandeur. That's what I once attempted, in vain, of course, regarding self-professed dyke poet Eileen Myles. And that is what I attempt, in vain, of course, in this essay, with the "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World." In fact, why, a thinking man must wonder, were those ten poets selected out of thousands and thousands of other poets? Well, identity politics certainly played a role, as did innocuousness, PC-conformity, and of course connections, connections, and connections! Contrary to PC-indoctrination, diversity is not America's strength; freedom is America's strength! This essay was sent to each of those poets, as well as to Eileen Myles and the editors of Poets & Writers, Poetry magazine, and Drunken Boat. Not one of them ever responded. Thus is the very sad state of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, within the confines of the academic/literary establishment. And for that I'd back any hack attempt to defund the National Endowment for the Arts...
By the Editor