Poetry East Vs. West.

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.


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Poetry East Vs. West. « Kate Gale: A Mind Never Dormant […]

  2. Thanks for informing me about the East vs. West divide in poetry. West coast poetry seems very raw and open to describing the cruelties of life.

  3. There’s a lot that comes to mind after reading this post. Some of it is a bit defensive–I am an East Coaster (raised in NJ, lived in Boston for about 1/3 of my life…) transplanted now in central Missouri–and some of it is curious. I’ll refrain from as much of the emotion as I can possibly get to.

    I wonder, though, how you’re defining “wildness” as you appropriate it to West Coast poetry? I say this not to accuse or to sound snarky, but because I sincerely think that a lot of the stuff that I love from “back home” is wild in its own right. There are linguistic leaps and jumps, a wonderful shifting in and out of focus and scope in imagery and theme, and a rather liberal notion of pairing up the tangible and exact with the abstract, the cosmic, and the potentially far-flung.

    I think of the stuff that Timothy Donnelly is writing. I think of the stuff that Lucie Brock-Broido has always written (and especially her new poems–Youtube her and find a clip of her reading “Freedom of Speech,” which is utterly gorgeous and, to me, wild as all get-go). I think of Sarah Gambito at Fordham. I think of Joan Houlihan (who lives in Massachusetts and is now visiting professor at Columbia’s MFA program). There is an amazing sense of propulsion, music, invention, and relentlessness in the language of their poetry, and there is a desire to go askew from a linear progression in the writing, and this is something that I can’t help but call “wild.”

    I think there are many ways to be wild and daring and cunning and raw in poetry, and I think there are many ways to be gritty (and to be: romantic, demodic, innocent, knowing, wise, etc.) in poetry. I think that there are ways that are linear and non-linear to open up the cruelties of life. I think a lot of the poets on both coasts do it, but in very different ways.

    • I like what you say… but the language leaps… are not quite the same for me.. but I do know what you mean… I just feel that in terms of reviews and so on that West Coast poetry gets ignored in NY, but I love your points. Food for thought.


      • With your comments, I can’t help but wonder if there are really two different issues in here? One: a case for wildness in poetry, and a case for grit, and the ways in which both ideas can manifest themselves (or evidence of how we have that evidenced) and then a construction of “geographies” I guess of these ideas.

        Two: a commentary on *how and why poetry gets reviewed* (in which case I think that the argument needs to be broadened–not only geographies and journals, but also different PRESSES and journals and who is running these journals, and at what point in their careers they are; because I seem to have it in my head that a bunch of the “new” journals and the younger “have their reputations in the thumbprint of American poetry” poets are doing something wonderfully different.

        And I think about some of the younger poets who are shifting wildly. Liz Bradfield, whose first book came out on Red Hen and who considers herself from Washington State and Alaska *and* from Cape Cod. Gaby Calvocoressi who is from Connecticut, who was educated at Columbia, and who now considers herself very much a Los Angeles/California poet. I think of their own movement between a linguistic wildness and the sort of grit that you appropriate as part of a sincerely west coast aesthetic while keeping a sort of linearity and formality, when necessary. I think of Amy Newman who lives outside of Chicago and who has been in the midwest since 1995 and who was in Ohio for many years before that for her PhD–but who is also originally from the East Coast. She has this wonderfully graceful blend of formality and lucidity and wild experimentation, linguistically, and a glorious sense of meditation and exploration inwards in her writing. And I think my thoughts are not conclusive enough, but they are very much swimming in the middle of all this.

        I find myself bristling heavily and emotionally against your post, and I wonder if this is the ultimate worth of what you wrote. Not to be correct or incorrect but to make people think and to question what these geographic designations really hold as their worth and weight.

        If your argument really is, though, about REVIEWS of poetry, then I don’t know. As someone who is actively sending out her first book manuscript, I am frightened to even READ reviews. I just know that a bunch of the “younger generation” of writers, thinkers, and reviewers are doing something different (and seeking out venues that stray, I think, from the typical “strongholds” of the literary reviewing world with a good deal of success, I think).

  4. Hi, Kate–

    If you *really* want to feel marginalized, try the South, especially the Gulf Coast. 😀

    In all seriousness, I think the problem may be less Manhattan solipsism than American (meaning U.S.) territorialism. Niche marketing’s insidious effect on the publishing industry also surely plays a role.


    • I’d agree, the South really gets left out, but so does California. I suppose people in Idaho feel the same way.

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