October 30, 2009
I am thinking a great deal about the literary life and poetry. If you are Paris Hilton, you are a commodity, and everyone wants a piece of you. You occupy a piece of the public imagination and desire like the Playboy Mansion or cheap catsup or Budweiser or the Superbowl. You’re both the stuff of dreams and you’re ubiquitous. Nobody has to wish for you, you’re everywhere. Nobody has to want you, you’re in their face.
Poetry is on the other hand, almost rare enough to be invisible. And because it is so under-valued, it becomes fought over in the little trenches as if the little wars were over something that matters. Academic poetry vs. accessible poetry. That’s Jorie Graham and John Ashberry vs. Billy Collins and Matthew Dickman. The poets who love Billy will try to read Jorie and with enough help, sometimes they make it, and by help, I mean advanced degrees. But there’s always someone to diss you for loving the accessible poets, clearly you aren’t smart enough.
There’s street poetry and slam poetry, club poetry and confessional poetry, formal, vs. informal. Red Hen Press publishes poetry that could be used in classrooms but is accessible. We don’t publish work that is telling you that you’re not that smart. To name a few non-Red Hen poets I like (of course I like my own poets, I published them) there are Janice Harrington and Matthew Dickman, Nick Flynn, C.D. Wright and Anne Carson. I could go on. I suppose Carson can be difficult, but that’s the point.
But of all these divides and sub cultures, the biggest divide in the poetry world is East vs. West. West Coast poetry includes wide open spaces, military zones, working class lesbians, down and out pot smokers, nail biting students, marginalized drifters. The West Coast has room for reinvention, experiments, for wildness.
The East Coast and by that I mostly mean Manhattan reads the poetry published on that tiny island and the reviews on that island and because that world is so small and insular and they don’t get off it much, they believe that every word is true. We read their poetry and their reviews because we’re curious. But they do not read the poetry of the great open plains, the poetry of the out of doors, of the restless, the poetry of David Mason, Kate Coles, Peggy Shumaker, Judy Grahn. “A Woman talking to Death,” is arguably one of the most important American poems of the twentieth century. Any feminist on this side of the Hudson would know that poem, but I bet you anything, I could walk up to one hundred intellectuals in New York and none of them would have heard of Judy Grahn or read either “A Woman Talking to Death” or “Edward the Dyke.”
For years, I’ve been hatching a solution. (Don’t you like it? The Red Hen, hatching?) and it isn’t fully hatched yet, I am open to suggestions. Ignoring New York and pretending it isn’t there isn’t it. No, I’ve formed alliances. We have three reading series in NY and plan to keep bringing NY readers here, dropping off our galleys to NY reviewers. I don’t know how to be actually seen or read in NY. But I’m watching Paris Hilton for a clue. Surely, I can learn something from the queen of camp. She’s visible in her tawdry things, like a scamp against the damp with her tramp stamp, she’s a vamp poet too, poet of commodity, poet of things. Maybe, the poetry I love, the outsider poetry could be appreciated and read and loved just like America loves Paris Hilton in spite of her faults or maybe because of them. We need a little more tramp and we’re California, we can do it.