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Alan May’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)


(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)

It’s hard to refute Berry’s narrative concerning poetry in the U.S. and his assessment of poetry in the 21st century, though I’d bet many will make attempts, if they take him/Grumman seriously. At a certain level his narrative is dead on. However, all narratives are subjective and problematic.


My response/alternate ideas/wildly subjective opinions:


Wide lens:

Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, (some of) The Beats, Charles Bukowski, and The New York School, (well, Ashbery and O’hara), Maya Angelou. These are American poets I can mention to college graduates and/or people who are “well read” and hope, for f^#k’s sake, I won’t get a blank stare for at least some of the list.

The rest of history (I look at the list; it infuriates me that I made such a list) is yet to be written.


One note on the above poets: most wouldn’t fit into either school Berry mentions. Okay, maybe Lowell, Bishop, and O’Hara would fit into The Iowa School, but to be honest, I included them (Lowell and Bishop), as an afterthought and Frank O’Hara gets a pass because he ran with some famous people, and Don Draper, a character from the HBO series Madmen, read one of O'Hara's poems aloud in Episode 1 of Season 2 (?). See how objective/informed decisions are made?


Narrow lens (and maybe too fine a point):

“Otherstream” seems broad enough that the term, by its very advent, if not by its definition, should include about 70% of poets in academia. (Perhaps Jake Berry means to include them in the Otherstream? I’m not sure.) If an academic poet (one who teaches at a college or university) hasn’t won prizes or published books with an academically accepted press, or if the books are only collected in a handful of libraries, his status is about the same as those outside of academia. 


Narrow lens:


Poetry journals run by universities are pretty darn conservative. Having been the poetry editor at a fairly respectable literary journal, I understand why this happens. More often than not, the poems in the slush pile are read by undergrads or grad students who’ve barely cut their teeth when it comes to reading poetry. They are responsible for jettisoning the bulk of submissions. The remaining manuscripts are then passed on to one or two editors or an editorial board. If a poet is doing something fairly new/interesting, she probably won’t make the initial cut; if she makes the initial cut, her poems may have to pass the noses of two or three editors or an editorial board. In this case, too many cooks spoil the soup.


The main reason this affected the Iowa School: tenure and promotion. A professor in a creative writing program once told me that administrators at his university would only acknowledge poetry and fiction publications in journals that were listed in a certain print index (published by a fairly conservative publisher). You don’t need to know the name of the index, but you should know that some university librarians and many academics in the humanities weren’t familiar with said index. Needless to say this index excluded MANY decent and even excellent literary journals. If a poet can’t get published in the “top tier” journals, then it’s unlikely that a university press will publish her book. If she can’t publish individual poems in “respected” journals, or if she can’t publish a book, then bye-bye academic job and hello cubicle or foodservice industry.


Wide Lens:


Most academic poets won’t be remembered. Most Language poets won’t be remembered. And, of course, most Otherstream poets won’t be remembered. Today, we remember Wallace Stevens, a lawyer who worked in the insurance business and reached something we could perhaps call fame late in his life; Emily Dickinson, a recluse whose work was found after her death; Silvia Plath, a young up-and-coming poet who committed suicide; Charles Bukowski who worked a variety of demeaning jobs and survived mainly through the grace of a very diligent small press editor; Walt Whitman, who self-published his own work and then hawked it in the streets. There are multitudes of contemporary poets out there. Survival will probably depend on the quality of the work (in a few cases) and whether or not an influential person finds the poet and champions his or her work. 


American poets I like from previous generations who aren’t in the list above: Charles Bernstein, Lorine Niedecker, Simon Perchik, C. D. Wright, John M. Bennett, Frank Stanfod, Jean Valentine, Hank Lazer, Edwin Brock, Bill Knott, and many you’ve probably never heard of. Will their work survive? I hope with all of my heart that it will/ I try not to worry about it.





copyright © Alan May





Alan May holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama. His poems have appeared in The New Orleans Review, DIAGRAM, 9th St. Laboratories, Scythe, Willow Springs, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. He is the author of two books and his latest e-chap, Tracking Systems, is available for free through Argotist Ebooks. He is a part-time lecturer in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee.