(See Margie’s poem on the same subject in The Brooklyn Rail: : The Dodge Blog.
“Four out of five of those short-listed for, and the winner of, the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry were poets of color. The Pulitzer Prize for poetry was won by Gregory Pardlo, only the second African-American male to do so. So why did the ‘Bookends’ column on page 26 address the 18th-century British novelist Jane Austen?”
“Spot –on” can only mean that Harriet blog is smiling and saying, “Go Martin, you’re speaking for diversity. Please, Martin, speak to the people about the real meaning of diversity. You Go Martin”: So he goes and says:
2015 was an historical year for poetry. It marked the dramatic flowering of the most significant development in contemporary poetry in a century: the emergence of women and poets of color as the central drivers of innovation in the art. Yet, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, one of a pantheon of recent books by poets of color changing the landscape of American poetry, was only briefly mentioned in the [Times]book review’s “Inside the List” column on page 22 in the context of asking how a collection of poems even made the best-seller list. The apparent conclusion? Because of its experiments with form, Citizen can’t really be categorized as a poetry book.
The phenomenon of Citizen did not exist in a vacuum. Rankine’s earlier volumes all challenged our assumptions regarding form, and those collections emerged at a time when daring, original, experimental work that bravely addressed contemporary culture was also written by Jericho Brown, Oliver de la Paz, Camille T. Dungy, Martín Espada, Terrence Hayes, Cathy Park Hong, Brenda Hillman, Tyehimba Jess, Robin Coste Lewis, Timothy Lui, Patrick Rosal, Brenda Shaughnessy, Patricia Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Arthur Sze and many others. “The Year in Poetry” was an ideal opportunity to provide this context for Times readers, many of whom know of contemporary poetry only through what is written about it in the mainstream press.
Martin counts well. Let me, for a moment, count on Martin’s method and use the same calculus with which he critiques the NY Times, and so in this way I will play dodge ball in his playground.
In terms of poetry, let me count the ways Martin’s numbers can be used another way, but you would have had to have been around countless communities of poets for a long time and know something about what to do with these numbers and the many frontiers of poetry they cover, about the kinds of poets and poetry who live outside of the laws of Dodge. One certainly could dodge these points, as Martin and the Dodgers might if they read what I am writing. Or, as my friend Mr. Smith warns me, one might avoid them altogether and say “why bother”:
The Dodgers won’t care (or even know who’s who) and the benched Dodgers and peanut gallery dodgers will get that far-off gaze look in their eyes. You’re writing it seems about something that isn’t poetry but that is endemic to all aspects of American culture these days–the complete grift and charlatanism of our productions (social, financial, political, etc).
So I ago ahead despite these warnings which claim that critiques of the one percent make nothing happen:
1) Research the poets Martin cites. Run the numbers. Run their names and texts. They are women and poets of color, for sure, and for that we should celebrate. But wouldn’t you know it: if you dig a bit deeper, almost all of them come up on a google search as having appeared at the very Dodge Festival which names them as missing from The Times Year in Poetry Review issue? Why does that make me suspicious of Martin’s motives? Is festival self-promotion a factor, the Sheriff advertising the virtues of having once hosted these poets at Dodge?
2) For every “diverse” poet Martin names as having been left out of The Times Year in Poetry Review issue, I can name another who knows and does not even have to be told, implicitly or explicitly, that he has to get the hell out of Dodge, the Sheriff and Deputies of which will say “we don’t want your kind of diversity here.” The question is: what, here, defines “your kind of diversity,” when race, ethnicity, national background take a back seat to Dodge’s other criteria, like “tastes” in poetry or the feeling of a town’s security being threatened by (the words of) transients or gunslingers.
Let me just say: For every woman or poet of color invited to Dodge primarily because she is a prized or popular woman or poet of color, there is another woman and poet of color or no color who has for many years brilliantly composed in and lit up the medium of poetry yet is living in the shadows of Dodge. For every Jericho Brown or Patricia Smith invited, there is the late Lorenzo Thomas or Ed Roberson or Julie Patton or David Henderson dissed. For every Oliver de la Paz present there is a José Kozer absent. For every Cathy Park Hong and Timothy Liu acknowledged, there is a Myung Mi Kim and Walter Lew ignored, for every Brenda Hillman there is a Diane di prima or Jack Hirschman or Alice Notley or Etel Adnan…. I could go on…and on…. If one has been around countless communities of poets for 50 years, one could go on and on, like Beckett, to no avail. And one can’t, as the Sheriff of Dodge might, just say: “well, Ms. Plymouth Rock, we can’t invite everyone, but we try.” No, you really don’t. I’ve been around to witness that you really don’t. So what’s the point? So, big deal, I can name names, too, I can count like Martin: so what is the point of my substitutions. See point 3.
3) Why does Martin make it sound to this reader that it is almost criminally negligent of the Times to not provide context for its Year in Poetry Review, given the diverse Year in Poetry he, Martin, and only Martin, knows it was? By providing context he means, implicitly or explicitly, that The Times could have addressed “the emergence of women and poets and color as the central drivers of innovation in the art.” The Times could have done this, Martin suggests, if they had either mentioned “for context” the names he cites or by highlighting their books in The Year in Poetry Review issue. Why, Martin asks, does The Times not give its readers this diversity context since many of its readers “know of contemporary poetry only through what is written about it in the mainstream press?”
Here’s the rub: Martin knows very well that The Times has already given its readers this context. How? Well, any google search will reveal that many of the women and poets of color Martin mentions as missing from being named in the Year in Poetry Review have already been adequately exposed to audiences through major prizes they have won or nationally known venues in which their work has been reviewed–and here’s the ironic kicker— like the very newspaper he cites as ignoring them, The NY Times, where many of these women and poets of color have been reviewed at some point in what he calls this “historical year of poetry.”
On the other hand,–and here’s what never gets addressed, like the elephant outside Dodge’s circus tent –many of the poets I cite as substitutes have not won prizes or been laureled in major newspapers, and they are particularly unknown to the readers Martin wants to reach, who “know of contemporary poetry only through what is written about it in the mainstream press?” Some of these poets are master elders, neglected elders, a-historicized. Some of their kind are silenced because their poetry offers a risky diversity of linguistic and cosmic imagination or their politics and aesthetics and poetics and ways of using words in their poems challenge institutional, foundational norms, what was once called bourgeois culture or what Jack Spicer once called the lifeless English Department of the Spirit. I have never, I mean never understood why their kind have been exiled from law and order poetry towns like Dodge, who spin themselves as “daring” and “original” and “experimental” and “diverse.” I have never understood why I recognize many of the poets’ names who appear at Dodge and on lists of NEA grants and in festival towns like Dodge–with their moneyed infrastructure of literary magazines, of academic apparatuses, of foundations—when towns like Dodge will never know or recognize the outlier poets I have known and read for over 50 years.
4) Martin, the Sheriff of Dodge, continues his critique of The Times’ absence of color:
The only piece[in The Times] to discuss the contribution of poets of color at any length, Sonya Posmentier’s “Critic’s Take” column on page 25, did so in the context of the last century and gave as much space to white conceptual poets as it did to any poets of color in discussing the past year.
Why is the context of the past a negative? Does the relevance of this context disappear one or two centuries later? And how exactly was the space devoted to white conceptual poets brought in, in what context? Well, it turns out that Ms. Posmentier’s piece was using present brick and mortar memorials to another century’s southern plantations as a way to illustrate how the language of architecture can grieve the enslaved—and as way of asking whether poets can similarly develop this language of grieving and memory. She notes how a white conceptual poet tries to shine a light on racism by working with a found document—–Kenneth Goldsmith’s recitation of Michael Brown’s autopsy report as evidence of the crime against him—but in the process only appropriates black experience so that “black voices and bodies remain embattled property, rather than lives.” . She contrasts this with
M. NourbeSe Philip’s book-length “Zong!,” in which the poet locks herself into the “word store” of an insurance case involving an overboard massacre of 150 people abducted and enslaved in Africa, on a ship bound for Jamaica. Philip begins, like Goldsmith…, with a found document; her work is sometimes described as conceptual. But [unlike Goldsmith] she also allows the nameless bodies to take on lives and voices in reconstructed, fragmentary language. By making violence strange and unfamiliar, [and unlike Goldsmith, she has]gone beyond merely repeating its effects, like a viral video of a police shooting, and beyond the realm of the evidentiary to that of the imagination, where we might not only observe violence but mourn and counter it.
To make that argument, of course, Ms. Posmentier needs exactly what Martin refuses to allow her: the historical context of racism: from this century, the one before it, and the one before that.
5) Martin likes to count the numbers. Who was left out? Who was put in? How many people of color? How many not?
Unfortunately, Martin reduces the discussion of race to color and numbers, as if poets were, well, portraits to be colored by numbers or numbered by colors. In The NY Times Year in Poetry Review issue, there was a review of the poet Ed Pavlic, whose poetry gives the lie to the very sure-handedness with which Martin tones down the subject of race to “black and white.” Martin does not acknowledge Pavlic’s singular poetic voice on the ambiguities around this subject where, as James Baldwin wrote, “Shades cannot be fixed; [and] color is, eternally, at the mercy of the light.”
There used to be a time when one could define the factions in the poetry wars and explain why they mattered to people who were not directly involved in those wars.
There were poets from the academy vs the outliers.
Poets from so-called “real schools” (Harvard) versus poets who mocked the self-important designations of “Schools.” (the NY School)
And there was a time when poets could be read as belonging to occult schools. “The School of Boston,” wrote Gerrit Lansing in 1968, “in poetry, middle this century, is an occult school, unknown.” And Michael Seth Stewart has more recently added, “The School of Boston” was not only “fascinated by the occult,” exploring hermeneutic, magical traditions and practices of poeisis, but was also “occulted, hidden on the back side of Beacon Hill while Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and their ilk [at Harvard and elsewhere] were garnering attention in the more upscale parts of town, institutionalized at the private hospitals.” “The School of Boston” was, in terms of class and power, an outlier “school” and, in terms of politics and poetics, unaligned with the academy, from the wrong side of town, or the wrong side of Dodge.
As I said, it used be much clearer who the factions were, Harvard/Cambridge vs “the school of Boston,” the poets writing academic verse vs. the outliers—
These days, not so much…because towns like Dodge and those venues which champion them know how to mask their conservativism by playing to the popular imagination and sentiments around difference by calling it diversity yet keeping it in check. They’ve learned to play with others yet have the ball firmly in their court. They’ve learned how to hit the target—diversity– yet move away from it at the same time, in order to stay in the game. Openness to diversity of a poet’s race, ethnicity, religion and so on…is conflated with openness to the possibilities of poetry to transform one’s consciousness.
As the Amish say to the consumerist society around them, a society which applauds itself for prizing “difference,” in a proverb which could be equally directed at towns like Dodge: “Everybody laughs at us because we’re different, we smile at them because they’re the same.”