[Emily invites you to send her a letter. She will answer it, no matter how stupid your questions might be. Send to poetrywardispatch@gmail.com]

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I have just finished reading the anonymous OBU Manifestos, which were published in a book by the Dispatches folks you write for. I strongly believe that OBU is a tour de force: searing, funny, heartbreaking, exciting. I am stunned that not a word about it has been printed so far in praise or even reaction, especially among the avant crowd, where manifestos tend to be most appreciated. And these, I dare say, are among the most thrilling poetic-political manifestos to appear since the early ones from the Surrealists, IMHO. Wassup with that, you know?

–Fan of OBU

Dear Fan of OBU,

Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it, that these poeticists (or poethicalists) who were so into counter-normative discourses as political interventions in times they perceived as normal now are desperately grasping for forms of “real” politics in this moment of obvious crisis. Wow! Apparently, the Surrealists, the Situationists, and the CADA were “not real” either. The problem is that the noses of these academic opportunists really never leave a book. Except to go to a conference to “expose” things. Which aren’t exposed to anyone except to their self-congratulatory selves, who already know they are ethically purer than anyone else, anyway. One almost starts to suspect that waiting around for a “real” politics is yet another excuse to more or less do nothing under the banner of a radical poetry. (My husband the fiction writer said that.)

***

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

Today I turned 17, and my grandmother gave me a big book titled A Treasury of the Greatest Poems of the English Language. Someone told me you give people advice about poetry. That’s why I thought I would write you and ask: What is the meaning and purpose of poetry?

–Bemused in Providence

 

Dear Bemused in Providence,

The first thing I would say is DON’T read the book Grandma gave you. Just put it on the shelf and don’t open it up. In other words, forget about your question to me. But if you are a bad boy or girl, and you crack the Treasury’s spine and then get sucked down the teeny black hole that is very possibly inside there, dancing around, and you come out as a spaghetti-brained poet on the other side (god forbid), then I would say the following: The answer to your question will largely depend on what kind of poet you become. If you become, as most practicing poets today do, an Academic poet, and the ball of your job and social ambition are tethered to the pole poetry, then the meaning and purpose of poetry for you, even as you tell yourself it is not so, will be to one significant spin or other the sad and shallow advancement of your professional literary career, with all the impermanent, meaningless thingamabobs that accrete on the hull of what is known as professional “success.” But if you are the rare poet whose livelihood does not in any way depend on poetry, who is free from that bullshit, but whose spiritual being demands you to follow it, like a yoked and tongue-leashed prisoner-slave, the meaning and purpose of poetry to you will be to one significant spin or other the exaltation of its fathomless, impossible definition and confoundment. The easy choice is the former; the one I would not advise, unless you are ready to peel back the top of your head, pour in a dollop of kerosene, and light a Zippo, is the latter.

 

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I have just discovered something, and I believe it may be of interest to you, not least because it concerns one of the people who has hired you to write for them. Today, as I was browsing through the book Can’t and Won’t, by the esteemed author Lydia Davis, I came upon (it is towards the end of the book) the “story” that is entitled “Local Obits,” a delightful nine or ten-page text of death notices, one of the longest entries in the book. Only one quarter of the way through, however, it hit me, and like a bolt from the blue, as they say: OMG, I said to myself, practically out loud. Why, this “story” by Lydia Davis, the esteemed prize-winning author, is a transparent poach, in conception and serial unfolding, of Kent Johnson’s “Forgotten American Poets of the 19th Century”! I kept reading, and the shock of the evident homology only deepened by the obit. By and by, however, another thought did occur to me, and it gave me pause: Could it be, I said again to myself, that Davis came first, and Johnson came after, plagiarizing from her? Alas, I quickly discovered, no, he did not and couldn’t. For when I checked the original publication date of Davis’s story, I espied that it was first printed in the Paris Review (and to great acclaim) in summer of 2013, in issue #205, exactly one year after the poem by Johnson was featured at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/08/a-must-read-kent-johnsons-scintillose-poem-forgotten-american-poets-of-the-19th-century , and some other places on the web. It seems incredible that an esteemed, prizewinning author, as I have said, would not give a nod of thanks to a poor, neglected, writer—one, in fact, who has borne the brunt of many hatreds. Don’t you think? What is wrong with this silly sub-Field of Cultural Production, you know?

–Fan of All Things Anglo-French

 

Dear Fan of All Things Anglo-French,

In fact, and at risk of seeming like I am sucking up to my employers (who, as I said, are paying me shit for my column), I note that this is not the first time that the poor, despised man has been apparently plagiarized. See this, for example, where it is perfectly obvious that the popular Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye ripped him off. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/09/political-poetry-an-epistolary-conversation. Shihab Nye read her poem to the acclaim of various hundreds at the Dodge Poetry Festival, in New Jersey, in 2008 (Gander, author of the post, was reading with her, and the uncanny similarity struck him immediately, I have heard). There is also a later case that not too many people noticed, but I certainly did, of the late, venerable poet Jack Collom, brazenly poaching Johnson’s widely read “33 Rules of Poetry for Poets 23 and Under,” one of the last poems Collom, unfortunately, published [Denver Quarterly, V. 49, #3, 2015]. Who knows how the noggins of poets (or “story” writers) work! In the case of Lydia Davis (one of my favorite writers), she directly poaches from Flaubert over maybe one fifth of her brilliant book, Can’t and Won’t, but at least she credits Flaubert on each occasion. Not that Kent Johnson is Flaubert, but you see my point. And why *wouldn’t* she acknowledge her source, after all? It’s not like she isn’t a prominent writer, and should have anything to hide, even when lifting. You know, all it would take would be, “After Kent Johnson’s ‘Forgotten American Poets of the 19th Century,’” or, maybe, if she wanted to be mildly clever, “Monsieur Johnson, c’est moi.” Then it becomes a fair salute, and not a dodgy steal. Hey, Lydia Davis! Any word from you, for the Flaubertian future? Nah, probably no, can’t and won’t.

***

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

What do you think of the Fireside Poets? I am a fan of them, and my MFA colleagues here at Bard laugh at me for it, mercilessly. I’ve become an outcast.

–Fireside Poet Fan by the Hudson

 

Dear Fireside Poet Fan by the Hudson,

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t millions and billions of rhizomatic, unsuspected pathways inside the poems of the Fireside poets, and at multiple semantic, metrical, rhyming, and phonemic/morphemic dimensions, and on and on. Happy exploring, poet. Stick to your guns there at Bard, and don’t let the hilarious brownnoses get you down. And say hi to Chuck Stein for me, if you happen to see him. We used to date, back in the day. We’d hang out at the county fair, eat cotton candy by the river. Wind ruffled the Hudson’s surface. The Irawaddy was overflowing. Those were the days. He wrote a really weird book about Charles Olson many years ago, which you might want to read. Olson was a Fireside poet, too, though 70 or 80 years later. His main acolyte, Jack Clarke, was a Fireside poet to such a degree that he burned down an old poetry lodge built all of logs, far back in the witch-haunted woods. And this lodge extended for many miles underground, in Merzbau-like chambers of various shapes and volumes. He couldn’t stop throwing logs on the fire, and up it all went, whoosh, setting the forest above into flames, for about nine months. Check him out, too.

***

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

When I get up there at Open Mic Night at Grounds for Thought Café (it’s a big struggle for me; I have social anxiety to the max, like big time), I try so hard to read well, I tremble and stutter and sweat and I just end up making a fool of myself, no one ever even claps, it’s like they turn away in embarrassment for me, or something. It’s awful. I cry myself to sleep. Do you have any tips on how to be comfortable in front of crowds, like other poets are? Help, please!

–Distressed in Pullman

 

Dear Distressed in Pullman,

Never trust a poet who is suave and socially elegant. Never, ever, ever. They are everywhere to be found at the AWP, MLA, etc. these poets so full of themselves, with their secret coteries. Who cares about them? Name me a great poet who wasn’t in some manner socially misfit, even an ass in public, and I will eat my five-day-old panties, which I am proudly wearing, being something of a social misfit myself. You see, it is possible your disability is indication of your present or coming greatness, darling, like Emily, if you know what I mean (i.e., not me, ahem). Can you not see this? Middle finger, always, to the social-climbing fakes wherever they may be. But especially in poetry.

***

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

All in all, assuming such matters may be reliably measured, in which language do you believe, please, the greatest poetry (overall) is to be encountered: In English or in Spanish?

–Masters in English in Chile

 

Dear Masters in English in Chile,

In Spanish, my dear. I mean, it’s not even close.

***

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

Could you tell us what you think of the Language poets? My friend says you think they are horrible, but I don’t think they should be completely rejected, and I said to her you probably don’t think so, either. Didn’t they do some decent things?

–Almost done at SUNY/Buffalo

 

Dear Almost Done at SUNY/Buffalo,

You are both right. And the answer to your concluding question is a resounding Yes. Even if they were/are horrible in various ways. Especially most of the main males. Nevertheless, their whoreibilities, as it were, are ultimately all seamlessly woven into of the Rules of the Game. And no one in the end should be blamed. Tell your friend.

***

 

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

It’s clear you are completely into the dynamics of position-taking that you so self-righteously chastise everyone else for. Get a life. You’re not fooling anyone.

–Pissed Off with a Professorship at Harvard

 

Dear Pissed Off with a Professorship at Harvard,

You are clearly confused. Of course I am completely into the position-taking I chastise everyone else for. Have you not read Bourdieu? What I want to know is how someone as clueless as you, dear, could be teaching at Harvard.

***

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I know what Realism is in fiction, I think, but what is Realism in poetry? I recall there was a famous Language poetry anthology that claimed, on the cover, to be composed of works of “Realism.” But isn’t Realism in poetry something along the lines of Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, or Mary Oliver? Or Socialist Realist poetry in the Soviet Union in the 30s and 40s, say, when you got killed if you wrote anything but? My house is wreckered [sic] and gone; I am writing from a FEMA trailer, here, where at least there is WIFI and air.

–Psychically Displaced in Houston

 

Dear Psychically Displaced in Houston,

Be strong. I imagine you constantly, my dear. I went to the funeral of a very famous poet yesterday. As I watched his poor companion of many years, who stood there bending and swaying in the winds of grief like a palm tree in a hurricane, some poets near me began talking about their current projects. One was writing poems about various strains of fruit trees; the other was writing poems about the Middle East; the other, a black man, almost blue, as Flaubert would say, about the museums of Iceland. A fourth asked, suddenly, and with overreaction: But what is the condition of their public libraries? The priest standing over the hole was speaking English, not Spanish, the latter the custom in this dusty border town. Because the Migra was there, in terrible reflecting sunglasses, or so that seemed the reason to me, as I looked around, among the mourners. The gentleman beside me approved, then made some whispering remarks, in favor of the Liberal Democrats and about compassion for “illegals.” Meanwhile, as we crossed ourselves, the famous poet’s companion swayed back and forth in front of us, howling, oblivious to all around. Oh, we writers may think we invent too much–but reality is worse every time! Do you see what I mean?

***