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The Long, Hard Slog of Poetry November 20, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.

“As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be,” John Ashbery told the National Book Awards audience last Wednesday. “I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”
— Lifted from HTML Giant, part two of that long review of a review

Yes, there’s a clear conflict withing that statement, lamenting the difficulty he created himself, and with the performance I saw last night as part of Fringe Festival, a performance poetry presentation titled Writing from the Edge. The poets I saw mostly were not writing from the literary edge, were not intentionally obscure in the best elliptical Master of Fine Arts way. At their best they were visceral. They were vernacular. They spoke to the audience, made of poetry what it was in the time of Shakespeare, a lyric and metaphoric language meant to speak to the people. All the people, not just the readers of literary blogs or enrollees in college wirting program. They were as much performers as poets, although the only one I identify with the formalized Spoken Word scene was Micheal “Quess?” Moore.

Why write poetry when it’s largely lost it audience, outside the narrow culture of Hip-Hop related Spoken Word. There’s no place I know where they can get away with charging a cover to hear a middle aged white guy, no matter how good. Successful poetry books sell in the hundreds, mostly to other poets. Why bother? “When are you going to write that best seller so we can retire?” she once asked. I think Valentine Pierce answered that last night when she opened the performance with a frequently performed poem of hers with the line ““I was never meant to be a poet/Never chose poetry/Poetry chose me…”

The only real choice is: do we write poetry that can have an audience larger than ourselves or do we dive like Narcissus deeper into the self-referential reflecting pool of Dead White Poetry? I’m not talking about Rod McKuen here or even Rumi. I’m talking about solid, well written work; work anthologists might consider (if they are not academic anthologists), poetry that speaks to the heavens but is accessible by the cheap seats, poetry that has some relevance to a world where the written word itself seem to be vanishing into formulaic fiction and books about dogs, all to be read on your Kindle or Nook, corporatist literature.

Somewhere between the Chair of the Creative Writing Program and the CEO of Bertelsmann AG (the media conglomerate owners of Random House) there has to be a space for the sort of poets I saw last night, venues for their performance that will capture the casual passer by, or make the reader of an online newspaper’s listing say, “hey, lets go check, this out tonight.” It was only forty years ago, the span of a generation, when Allen Ginsberg spoke to a large audience he helped create with Howl! with the authority of a senator or a rock stare.To get there, you have to start with poetry that is accessible without surrendering craft and art. It’s out there. It was upstairs at the Maison for two shows last night but unlike last year’s performance it was not SRO. And that not so much saddens me as drives me deeper into my own path down this weird road, confirms my conviction that a vernacular yet craftful poetry is the only worthwhile path because, somewhere at the end of this road, is a world much like that outside America, a world where mega-award winning poet Niyi Osundare writes a weekly column for a major Nigerian newspaper and is a revered figure yet sits in an office at the proletarian University of New Orleans teaching the children of the people, a world where poets still matter as Ginsberg mattered once, are listened to by the people, are in some rare cases elected president because I would vote for Osundare or Quess? without hesitation.

Bury me in that warm country.


1. Paul Benton - November 21, 2011

Mark –

i think poetry simply has only ever appealed to a bit of a minority. i think to write poetry with some audience in mind is a disservice to what makes poetry great. sometimes it might be done – but overall it seems to me a kind of prostitution – like an unattractive person trying to get something by selling something that isnt really what it is, to people that dont really want it anyway – or want it for reasons that might be considered “wrong”. i hate to say this, but if poetry isnt “pure at heart” then it is not poetry – or Poetry. there are all kinds of styles of poetry – none are better or worse – its the heart behind the words that matters in the end.

thanks for letting me vent ,

Paul (i hope this makes some sense – i typed it quick – reread it – almost deleted it – then said what the fuck)


2. Me - November 21, 2011

Well, as a member of the proletariat (or whatever Ashberry would call it), his comment made no sense to me. I only got the “feeling” which sounded way pretentious. But i understood every word of your review. Maybe that’s why he gets the awards and you don’t. Speak to the people!


3. Sam - November 22, 2011

Like the piece. Have to tell you that Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” actually uses the term “Corpos literature.” The ruling party is the Corpos party, which eventually takes over the Universities, firing all the professors, burns books that might be seen as subversive (and Lewis’ list is hilarious), and considers that education should be mostly coaching in sports. You’d love this book. Think of it as Vonnegut meets Orwell and you’ve got it.


4. MZell - November 22, 2011

Mark, doesn’t the approach depend on what one sees as the basic point of why one writes poetry and/or thoughtful literature? Is that point to communicate or to advance an art form by creating a work of art? If one is taking the communication road, then how far does one follow a general populace who really doesn’t care? If instead one is looking to advance an art form, then does the populace’s disinterest even matter?

To paraphrase the old saying, “Only 100 people ever saw the Velvet Underground live, but they all started bands.” Follow the creative path that is true to you, but realize that a reflecting pool can emanate and expand, while the pool of the general populace is quickly growing dry.


MZell - November 22, 2011

And…I am greatly aggrieved by the idea of future Nabokovs modifying their styles for the sake of fewer readers. I’m aggrieved by the idea of future Coltranes not innovating. Isn’t one of the benefits of a small audience that you have the freedom of doing what you want?


5. Mark Folse - November 22, 2011

Micheal, let us take the jazz analogy for a spin. Consider John Coltrane’s Favorite Things. The pieces begin with a recognizable and popular melody, and yet takes it to improvisational places of create creativity and beauty that are traceable by an even slightly trained ear back to the original melody. John Coltrane spawns Pharaoh Sanders, who also wrote music of great lyricism; in classical terms almost, “Romantic”. but who also plays long solos of such improvisational ferocity one must insist on listening to it to begin to understand it. Sun Ran trained his musicians incessantly in his various communal houses in the catalog of Ellington and other big band arrangers, but is remembered for music that is in some sense akin to the hallucinogens in the tales of Carlos Casteneda, as if intended to create a disordering of the canonical western senses as a path to esoteric knowledge. Don’t even get me started on Miles Davis Bitches Brew (he of Kind of Blue). BB, after 30 years of listening, still strikes me as something Davis and John McLaughlin conceived after eating some very bad acid.

If all you have are A Love Supreme and Bitches Brew, the more esoteric pieces of Sanders and the catalog of Sun Ra, jazz dies. Instead there are large jazz festivals (not our weak equivalent, which has degraded into a sort of Bonnaroo for upper-income, aging Yuppies) but well-attended, multi-day festivals dedicated to nothing but jazz. Try charging a $20 cover and two drink minimum at the Goldmine, bringing in the biggest name you can think of, and the house will be mostly empty.

Somewhere along the way poetry lost the ability to connect to an audience in the way that jazz does, and jazz can be difficult and technical music but it has not by and large lost it roots in the vernacular and popular music from which it sprung.

Savior on a stick, I don’t know the answer but there must be one. Perhaps students should not be allowed to graduate high school (OK college) without studying Harold Bloom’s slim and excellent The Art of Reading Poetry and understand his four fundamental tropes: irony, synecdoche, metonymy and metaphor. However if at the end of this exercise students do not come out humming “After Apple Picking”, or “Spring is like a perhaps hand” and understand the ways in which the simple becomes more complex and artful, are not drawn in by that to explore poetry further, then we are well and truly fucked. There is no hope of poetry aspiring again to the (admittedly small but still sizable and attentive) audience jazz can still command.


MZell - November 22, 2011

Mark, I disagree with you that contemporary jazz connects to an domestic audience of any notable size. But I will grant that it is still larger than the literary audience, so going with your premise…

It seems to me that there are still poets and literary fiction writers in the present-day USA writing (and being published largely by the indies) in the manner of which you speak. The followers have just dropped off.

For example, what can Moose Jackson possible do (from content to spoken delivery) to be more appealing to a larger audience than he already is to a small but appreciative crowd? 1) Be a celeb or be on tv. 2) Be published by Random/Simon/Harpers/Penguin/etc. and get a marketing push.

First off, one difference between then and now may well be an issue of exposure. How often do the daytime, late night, or even local tv or radio shows feature writers? Good for Oprah, because everyone else rarely does, and if so, it’s a reality show person’s “book.” There is a mindset of, “It was on the tv, so it must have value.” (In music, John Boutte’s career arc presently illustrates the value of tv exposure.)

Secondly, the major publishers have much for which to answer. The corporate publishing industry releases a large amount of turds that the Times Book Review/etc. drape nicely with verbal puffery. Eventually, like the music industry, the big 6 will ride their junk-pushing all the way past irrelevance to a flatline. Their present course is untenable.

There are other possible reasons (arts education, etc.), but another main one to be considered is the “What’s the matter with the USA?” question: How is it that other countries have esoteric or at least literary-strong writers that are beloved, known, and best-sellers? How can say an Argentine counterpart to a USA writer be more literary, but yet be better connected to audience?

I’m convinced that eventually United States writers of any substance will look abroad if seeking to expand readership. Those that instead feel that they need to stretch to an uninterested American audience, will surely end up down a road of textspeak and find themselves losing to the competition of rotating Kardashians, video games, etc. I’m of the opinion that the arts (at least that pushed by the big guns) in the USA are totally fucked, so why not write in a way that personally fulfills one and stretches those few readers that each of us will have in a niche-following?


6. Mark Folse - November 22, 2011

Ah, hell, browser just ate a long comment. More tomorrow.


7. Mark Folse - November 23, 2011

Lets go back to the jazz analogy for a minute. I just wasted half an hour trying to find actual numbers of record sales, and I think I’m a Google wizard, but its not easy.I did find an analysis of jazz CD sales in the UK of national (to the UK) artists, Most expected to sell several hundred copies of their CD, mostly through touring. This is comparable to sales figures for the average poetry book that were bandied about during the recent controversy over the publisher who was asking artists to contribute to their book costs. (His name escapes me and I’m Googled out trying to find jazz sales figures). I will take a flyer and suggest that an artist of international stature, say Wynton Marsalis, does better than that and sells in the thousands. He’s had to records go gold, suggestion sales in I believe 5 figures for jazz.

Even if we take the bottom end numbers for artists only recording and touring in the UK, the main thing is that they are making all their sales while touring in venues where they are getting paid to perform. Neither situation exists in poetry today. Jazz, in spite of its difficulty and niche status in our era continues to allow artists to make a living, from Wyton Marsalis down to the the fringe groups living hand-to-mouth off the door, a fraction of the bar and selling a dozen CDs after a show.

Now I want to suggest a controversial subject (at least I expect it to be). The Goldmine charges no cover. The Red Star does, and reputedly fills the house. I’m going to have to go over and check this out one day. The Red Star is a spoken-word venue, and it’s not the only one that gets away with charging a cover at the door. For a some reason I won’t pretend to know (but will speculate on anyway), Black poets have not lost their audience entirely.

My speculative reason: a vernacular, accessible poetry and, perhaps just if not more important, an ability to perform that poetry on stage. I reviewed Writing the Edge at Fringe Fest for NOLA Defender, and called out Moose Jackson as the start of the show. I took some polite grief in a comment on that, but I’ll stand by it because he is not only a poet but a born performer. He is the only poet whose recorded work I’ve ever heard played on WWOZ (the Tom Waits-esque “Gutter Punk Girl” from his CD Illusion Fields. Highly recommended). The other poets I praised also brought a strong performance aspect to the mic.
Quess? is a spoken-word poet with experience in that real (remember the Red Star; $7 bucks to get in). Valentine Pierce is also a natural performer with real stage presence. Mona Lisa Saloy gave a more conventional reading, but again she brought real dramatic chops onto the stage. Diana Shortes is a trained actress and was a very different animal than Jackson, Pierce or Quess! (and flubbed her long piece but finished well) but I saw her do the same work at least year’s SRO spoken-word event at Fringe and again at UnRoute and thought: wow. The bit a grief I got was for giving short shrift to Joseph Makkos, an excellent poet, but he simply did not bring anything like the level of performance the others did, and I was reviewing a performance in the context of a theater festival, so I’l stand by my review.

Where is all this going? That the overwhelmingly Black spoken-word world hasn’t lost touch with a broader audience (however small). They can managed at least to charge a cover. (When I say overwhelmingly Black, I walked into a Washington, D.C. spoken word event at the famous Cavern’s nightclub and I was the white guy in the room. I gained an appreciate for what it must be like for Quess? or other spoken-word artists to walk into the Goldmine.) So one way for poetry to begin to approach what the article on UK jazz artists suggested, people making a marginal living touring and selling CDs (read: books) on the side) is not impossible, but it requires performance chops as well as good writing.

Poetry book sales is a whole other animal, but if you’re reading this far down you might find this article on how the recording industry abandoned jazz interesting. Of all the poetry books I have on my shelf at home two are from major houses. Former Laureate Robert Pinksy’s Gulf Music (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and Sandra Beasley’s I Was The Jukebox (W.W. Norton), which one the Barnard Women’s Poetry Prize in manuscript. (How do you get from the Barnard Prize to W.W.l Norton? On the One train transferring to the 7, if you get my drift) The rest are from increasingly smaller presses, which lack the distribution muscle of the big houses.

My last thought: when was the last time a literary artists appeared on the cover of a national magazine (kind of a passe measure, but I’m thinking of Life covers of people like Kerouac and Ginsberg back in the day). By extension, when was the last time a literary figure appeared on talk-television? I don’t watch much but I’m guessing you are all straining as hard as I am to think of an example.

The question of how poetry lost its way as a public art is a complicated one, and I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers at my fingertips but I’m curious as hell on the subject because I would love to have some tiny part in helping it find its way back to the road.


Paul Benton - November 23, 2011

Robinson Jeffers was on the cover of Time way back when (the thirties, I think). He was poet to be reckoned with. Probably Robert Frost, too – not one of my faves, but not too bad. I think poetry is always finding its place in the schemem of things. Day by day. I dont really think the ability to read something outloud necessarily makes what is being read poetry. It might sound like poetry. Sometimes appearances are deceiving. And as far as my taste – if I can understand anything too immediately – or it seems like the writier is aiming a piece right into my lap – then I turn away and go looking elsewhere. Poems, the best ones, seem to be written from the private room the poet occupies – the letter is open to anyone who wants to enter it. I could never read John Ashberry. He gave me headaches. Fine, I will go read someone like Larry Levis or John Berryman or James Wright. So many rooms out there to enter.


Mark Folse - November 23, 2011

I’m not holding up performance/spoken word as “the new model”, just suggestion that it has a paying audience and there’s something to learn there. We have no Dylan or Tom Waits as prominent figures in the 21st Century for young audiences as a gateway to a broader world of poetry, but people who are going to hear Quess? or Kataalyst Alcindor do.

I think the poet as performer is, however, the most promising model in the United States today for growing the audience. We just need to figure out some way to get younger people from Kane West into Gil Scott-Heron and beyond into Langston Hughes (to focus just on a logical progression through African-American poets). From Langston Hughes the world of poetry opens up before them.

I’m also not suggesting writing down to an audience (see early reference to Kenny G and Rod McKuen, just that a deeply layered poetry in a vernacular and accessible style (at least on first glance) is another path into the complexity of those same poems (if they have it) and into other, more challenging poetry. Again, where is our children’s Dylan? There Tom Waits? Is Kanye West the best America can manage?


8. MZell - November 23, 2011

Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Newsweek a year ago. Dunno about the late night shows. Probably Stephen King on Letterman a decade back.

To continue on how-to-cultivate-an-audience, we live in the most instructive city in the country on this matter. Look at marching bands and brass bands in New Orleans. In every other city (generalizing, but barely) in the USA, it is one of the most uncool extracurricular activities, but here not only will you not get beaten up, you’re one of the looked-up-to kids. How did this happen, how is value created, being that we have no music industry apparatus? All grass roots. Tradition, school instruction, present-day musicians to look up to. One difference with music (and also with the culinary approach), is that it is a potential way out of poverty, one that can lead to a career of sorts. Literary-wise, the financial incentive is too much of a long shot.

At the same time, perhaps more can be done to involve the Lusher/NOCCA writing students with the NOLA writing community at large. More events like Peauxdunque did at Tipitina’s. Thoughts?


Mark Folse - November 23, 2011

I have a better idea. I tutored at St. Alphonsus when the St. Thomas was still there. Send the Lusher and NOCCA students out as evangalists into the schools (under teacher guidance) to give reading and basic poetry writing classes, etc. Make it a part of your senior year and a requirement for graduation. If you think Buffy is too good to go to the equivalent of Carver Middle (where I passed through fences 30 years ago that would do a medium security prison justice) then to feckin’ bad.


9. MZell - November 23, 2011

Hopefully more people will join in after finishing their oyster dressing. To turn this back to “How should we then write,” I’m going to continue to stumble along and attempt to articulate one route. Mark, in proper teaching fashion, you’ve asked the question that you’ve already been answering for the past week.

Let me first preface with two quotes: Fassbinder on Bresson: “…But what if you show a film like this to a man in the street and he doesn’t understand it? First of all, I think that’s wrong. But even if it’s true, doesn’t it mean that in the future…this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough? The questions Bresson asks will never be unimportant.” Jean Baudrillard on America: “Poetry reeks too much of poetry and philosophy too much of philosophy. Each suffers from an abominable redundancy, the one an affectation of diction, the other an affectation of profundity…”

Like it or not, Baudrillard’s quote from the mid-1980’s is apt, at least its perception of such. To the vast majority of our country, poetry/philosophy/literature is considered an antiquated affectation on the level of Masonic temples, symphonies, and pince nez. How do writers respond? Some (most recent Shteyngart and Egan books are illustrative) stoop down and reach the readers where they are by use of power point sections and email/text acronyms. Others (Rikki Ducornet, Joshua Cohen, and many poets, for example) ask the important questions that reach readers seeking something deeper and look to where others will eventually be. There is one other option though, stepping sideways.

As we know, Samuel Beckett is not widely known for “Murphy” or “The Vulture,” but for “Waiting for Godot.” Also, a large group of people who might not otherwise purchase a book of poetry or attend a reading all year attended the “Loup Garou” performance in City Park. Southern Rep recently presented the heralded “Red,” essentially a Platonic dialogue on art featuring Mark Rothko (mainly) and a young apprentice. Imagine how few copies a book with the same content might sell. Just a few days back at Fringe Fest, hordes attended shows (many of them monologues) that would be lucky to ever sell if in book form. So, yes, performance and dramatic works are one strategy to “get away with literature and diction” and perhaps even expand one’s writing chops along the way. (I’m sure John Biguenet would have plenty to say on the subject.) The image is regaining control from the alphabet, so perhaps this is one way for the alphabet to keep relevant. It’s not necessary to, as Salman Rushdie stated earlier this year, write for television to best communicate, despite the quality of select HBO/AMC/etc. shows. There is an existing national base that loves theater, and New Orleans itself has cropped up as a theatre town. The audience is there. Seven months allow plenty of time for a 2012 Fringe Fest submission. What’s stopping us?


Mark Folse - November 24, 2011

Hell to the yes. Loup Garou is a long poetic speech fabulously acted (and long overdue for the promised Remounting. How many literate (not meaning literary) could name a Shakespeare poem beyond answering the Sonnets. What is Shakespeare best remembered for? No, not the plays themselves but for the soliloquies.

I was not suggesting performance as the sin qua non of poetry but as the gateway. How many copies of Loup Garou would sell at the door after the play? Far more I think than will ever move off a shelf.

Finally, ill luck I think to speak of work mostly in one’s head and some recent notes, but I think its time I took up those notes and old poems, all couched as dramatic speeches, with a conception of a Narrator to tie them together. Garcia-Lorca has always been one of my heroes and perhaps its time to buckle down to work.

I also think its high time I got myself over to the Red Star and see whats really happening there. the racial wall between literary and spoken word is mostly crossed in only one direction….


10. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - November 25, 2011

[…] I spent part of this week recovering from Words & Music followed by my stint as a Fringe Fest reviewer, but I also found time (often frantically chitlicting away on my tiny phone keyboard) to have a fascinating conversation, mostly with the erudite manager of Crescent City Books Michael Zell, on the state of the American poetry audience (mostly poets), wondering how it might achieve even the small but loyal audience jazz still commands in this country. You can check it out and add your own thoughts here. […]


11. MZell - November 30, 2011

For what it’s worth after traveling and seeing the best of world literature available new, then coming home:

1) It’s refreshing to be in a city (San Francisco) that has new-book-stocked indies (City Lights, Green Apple, Booksmith, etc.) that go well beyond what we have in New Orleans (i.e. indies that are smaller versions of B&N in terms of what titles are stocked, meaning almost entirely major publishers, little history, little art). This conservative approach here makes a difference in the vibrancy of the literary community, the vibrancy of good literature, as well as it being plain sad that no one in New Orleans seems interested in trying to sell new books published by New Directions, Dalkey Archive Press, Phaidon, etc.

2) Coming across the new Gambit, with its cover story on a graphic novel by Portlanders and a smaller piece on Cajun comic strips (with a listing of readings hours away in Acadiana), was also disheartening. How many writers in New Orleans are doing interesting work for almost entirely no press and how difficult would it be for the Gambit to find something locally to focus upon, even if getting it half-right? The literary movement in this city is growing despite the inattention paid by Dubos Advertising Weekly and the TP.

3) Looking at points 1 and 2, I’ll revisit your initial question, Mark. If you want to write and be considered relevant in New Orleans, write comic books. Write fucking comic books. Maybe someone else should draw the pictures, though. Otherwise, in the USA, move to the East or West Coasts. I will say, though, that if “difficult” writers such as Javier Marias (in my opinion, superior to Roberto Bolano) from Spain, Laszlo Krasznahorkai from Hungary, and Nobel Award winner Elfried Jelinek from Austria can be well known and best sellers in their own countries and abroad (except in this country), then what is our problem in the USA? And there is a major problem. The cultural ignorance here is staggering and stifling. A United States writer of discerning style needs to eventually either seek an international audience or simply move abroad.


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