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  Carter Monroe’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)

 

 

I long ago ceased publishing opinions such as a response to Jake's fine essay "Poetry Wide Open." It just never seems to bear any fruit and despite the often very high intellects of the participants, things can easily slide into the realm of an adolescent game of "gotcha last." I incurred varying degrees of wrath from "friends" a few years back when I remarked in an interview, "There's no such thing as underground poetry anymore. How can it be underground when anyone in the world can access it in a matter of seconds?"

 

Jim Chandler once told me that his idea of poetry was like The Supreme Court's definition of pornography. "I know it when I see it." And, quite frankly this simple definition works for me. Other than writers like Jake, Jeffrey Little, Tim Earley, and a very few others whom I've befriended over the years, my tastes in poetry are far more experimental than those of my status quo poet friends. In short, if it's different, I'll buy it and read it and recommend it. And, I also look for it all the time.

 

There are certainly many things that need to be pointed out in regard to this discussion. I'm thinking of a quote from William Burroughs here. In paraphrase, "Art is only a three letter word that can mean anything you want it to mean, a word this is defined by the user." Was it Shakespeare who said, "It is too starved an argument for my sword?" So, the definition of "art" is always up for grabs. I think a person who sets out to write a hit song and is successful, is an artist even if his/her song is mundane, obvious, and gimmicky. I've told countless people that when I read Poetry Magazine and then read what I've written, I know why I'm not there. I've also told many of those same people, "If you want to be in the 'big' journals, read them religiously and write like the people they publish."

 

I also think that having written and published "sheaths" of poems doesn't necessarily make one a poet. Of course, I'm saying this in terms of contemporary culture where just about everyone who tries hard enough can get published somewhere. I think artists are like athletes. If you only have 16 major league teams, the average player on each team will be considerably better than if you have 32 teams or 48 teams. Of course, this fact would play directly into one of the wheelhouses of this essay because the fewer outlets for poetry, the greater the control the academy or the big publishing houses would have.

 

I, personally, operate from the vantage point that virtually everyone who reads poetry, buys books of poetry, or attends poetry readings, writes poetry on some level. Bluegrass music was very similar in 60's and 70's. It was sort of a closed room. If you were in a stranger's home perusing his/her record collection and said collection contained a notable amount of bluegrass, it was safe to start looking for a guitar, fiddle, or banjo somewhere in the house. Based upon such an assumption, those who write poetry often succumb to the human condition which can often be defined by saying that humanity is driven by a need for reassurance along with the tools of justification and denial. Hence, our tribalistic or "group" nature. We write poems and we wish to interact with poets. We write a certain type of poetry and we wish to interact with those who have a similar view. It's like the need to "be" compared to the need to "be a part of."

 

While I'm not exactly sure how major college presses work from a budgetary point of view, I'm pretty sure I know how the big publishers do it. They are not in the least concerned with art and they know that accessibility sells or at least it sells more than other types of art. It's been noted in more than one place that many of the big publishers publish poetry as a tax write-off, not that such makes a great deal of sense to me. As for the small press, it has drastically changed over time. New Directions started out as a small press as did City Lights. Jargon was small, but certainly prestigious. The advent of home computer publishing technology followed shortly by the internet has made the proverbial small press huge at least in terms of the number of publishers even if the distribution is sorely limited.

 

While the academy maintains a certain control over what's being taught, professors inevitably lean in the direction of their own subjective tastes. Not to mention that virtually all of them select their own texts. Of course, we never know what tomorrow will bring. Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were in The Norton Anthology by 1973 or '74. I think there are also two very important points regarding the contemporary academy.

 

First, there is the law of supply and demand. There are more undergraduate and graduate writing programs in this country than ever before. And, as is the case with colleges and universities in general, most of the best students go to the best schools. I would opine that most students who take their first creative writing class or who enter into an undergraduate writing program are not truly there to learn to write. They have one or more manuscripts in hand, poetry or prose, and are there to try and find out what to do with them. The most common comment I, personally, have heard from undergrad writing profs is, "They already know everything." But, as is the case with the sports reference above, there are only going to be so many good writers no matter how many writing programs there are.

 

The second point is somewhat tragic and that is that colleges are now trade schools. Unlike the reality of the pre-1970 academy where there was both professional and personal value in a liberal arts degree ("It will improve the quality of one's life"), it's all about job and career now because in many practical instances, the bachelor's degree has become the new high school diploma. When I got my degree in English in 1974, I was the only English major at my college who didn't get a teaching certificate. I knew what I wanted to do, which was to work in industry. It was an environment at the time in which a motivated individual could create a career for him/herself and I was fortunate that the plan worked. Try getting your foot in that door today with a B.A. in English. The odds are that you won't even be hired to do an hourly job. The person doing the hiring will assume that you have resumes and applications everywhere and that the moment something comes through, you'll bolt. I foresee in the not too distant future a de-emphasis on sophomore literary survey courses as a degree requirement. For all I know, it's happening now.

(I know. I'm rambling.)

 

Another consideration in this riff is something that occurred to me recently when reading a sort of bio that Ann Charters did about John Clellon Holmes. That is that in the 1940's and before, the idea of becoming a writer and deriving one's sole income from said pursuit was basically considered a legitimate career path. Now, no one with an ounce of sanity who is part of the aforementioned college writing programs thinks that he/she is going to graduate, fire into writing, and make a living in the short run.

 

I "will" acknowledge this from personal experience, which of course is somewhat limited. I find most of the undergraduate and graduate writing students who I encounter to be very under read. I'm reminded, here, of what I think was the best advice ever given to a beginning writing student. Tim Earley was asked in one of his classes, "What do I need to do to write poetry?" His response: "Read a thousand books and write your first poem." I have also found that the literary tastes of these students is certainly driven by the academy. Yet, when I show them a book like Jake's "Brambu Drezi," they are astounded and they love it. While they have been influenced, they have not been programmed. I'd even go so far as to say that a high school student who had written and was interested in writing poetry who came to me for advice on what to read and was influenced as a reader by me would have a difficult time adjusting to the academy.

 

Yet, we are still left with another version of the "us -vs- them" debate. One very striking reality in said debate is the fact that virtually none of "us" would deny The Norton Anthology the right to include any of our work. It's like part of my "Monroe" Doctrine. "You know you're not a whore when you turn down the money."

 

Another aspect of said doctrine involves my being a rabbit hunter in my youth. I had three beautiful beagles that could have posed for a picture on a placemat. Yet, many of the old men in the community with whom I often hunted had a lot of mixed breed dogs. More than once I heard them in the background muttering, "I wouldn't have a pretty dog." It was more jealousy than anything else, but a young kid is not the best interpreter of motive. One day I simply lashed out. "Pretty don't make a dog hunt, but it don't keep him from hunting neither." Being part of the academy does not preclude one's ability to enjoy or make good to great experimental art. Or, to teach it for that matter.

 

I get and understand the concepts of "Otherstream," "Mainstream," and "Knownstream," but hasn't history shown us that at some point art either becomes the latter or fades into obscurity? Of course, the movements that are forever occurring will always find champions who were minor in their day and who become major in some manner as a result of the championing. Zukofsky comes to mind here and Spicer as well. Visual and certain other genres aside, most of what might be referenced as "Post-Avant" is still Language. We, as experimenters, have to be fully aware of the difference between Jackson Pollack and slinging paint. Or, the difference between something new, exciting, and pertinent, and The Emperor's New Poetry.

 

   

 

 

copyright © Carter Monroe

 

   

 

Carter Monroe lives and writes in The Provinces of Eastern North Carolina. He is the author of a novel, a collection of short stories and essays, and five books of poetry, the most recent of which is The New Lost Blues: Selected Poems 1999-2005 (Thunder Sandwich Press, 2005). He has received both Pushcart and "Best of the Web" nominations. He founded Rank Stranger Press in 2001 and has since published over 20 books including poetry, short stories, and novels for poets and authors across the country from Wilson, NC to Los Angeles CA.