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Sue Brannan Walker’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)



“What is the answer?” she inquired of Alice, and getting no answer said, laughing, ‘In that case what is the question?”


Indeed, how do we assess poetry in the 21st century? Is it “Knownstream” / Mainstream, the kind of poetry espoused by literature professors and published by academic presses and major publishers? Is it “Otherstream” / “Outside and Otherwise”? 


Stream? Branch, brook, beck, burn, creek, crick, ghyll, kill, lick, rill, bayou? Bayou Canot in the heart of the Mobile-Tensaw where the largest train wreck in U.S. history occurred in 1993, killing 47 and injuring 103 people, casting all into the streamage. But I am talking about poetry and preparing my skiff, boat, canoe, double-ender—even as and even when there may not be a stream at all, but only an arroyo, a dried river bed. 


And maybe the question is not how—but where and who and what constitutes poetry that goes by so many names language fails to address its poetic Being. The Present Age of poetry is visiocollagic, xenological, hypertext; it is contragenteel, cyber and mathematical, Iowa Plaintext, neo-psalmic, asemic, flarf; it is fundaesthetic / anthraesthetic pleasure. It is words swimming upstream. It is what Bob Grummand calls “apodization,” a foot out water. It is a question in search of an answer.




O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up-for you're the flag is flung for you the bugle trills, . . .

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still . . .


The Captain cannot answer, for he—like the author—is dead. Dead. Where, then, does “author-ity” lie? Is the Academy the place, the shore from which the poetry skiff should set sail, even in troubled waters? The place where the Captain’s spirit will rise up in all of its profundity, even if the Captain lies ever still.


In an essay entitled “The Academy In Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets The MLA,” Charles Bernstein writes that Williams “vociferously rejected the predominant academic forms of writing he confronted: verse fiction masquerading as poetry and logocentrism claiming the rights of philosophy and science.” Bernstein said that William’s work has been so “decontexualized” and “neutralized” that it will be “unrecognizable on his own terms.” 


The applicable term, “Knownstream,” is what Bernstein calls the “official verse culture,” the work “published and reviewed by The New York Times, The Nation, American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses (the University of California Press being a significant exception at present)” (247). 


“The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships” . 

. .

If the Academy is the Titanic, it lies under water—and the Captain of the Whitman ship is dead. That is more than frightening, for even if there is a boat to be had, it is rudderless, and for those who would set sail, there is no map to follow, no real sense of direction.


Question(s): And who says? Say what? Eh? “The way to speaking is present within language itself. The way to language [. . .] is language as Saying.” A voice in the wind? Martin Heidegger yakking on about poetry, language thought? And is it permissible to answer a question with a question, in spite of the fact that Alice B. Toklas did?


Question: And where did Stein get her Ph.D.? Even though she was said to have read voraciously, she dropped out of medical school.


Question: She was a failure then, was she not—for she vociferously claimed, in her senior year—that she “could not remember the things that of course the dullest medical student could not forget?”


And she sat there in a ground floor flat at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, no less, “like a great Jewish Buddah surrounded by the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque” while the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pound positioned themselves at her feet. And she never got an M.D. like Williams or Ph.D. And neither did Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Pound, but they’re “Knownstream” in spite of it.


Question: Academicians love Gertrude Stein, yes? They study her—as one would study streams and waterways and surface hydrology.




The Question Once More: How do we assess poetry in the 21st Century?


Question(s): What is the answer when answers are questions? Could there be a midstream and commingled waters—a shore where those who are “Knownstream” academicians might voyage harmoniously with those who are “Otherstream”?


Question(s): Are poets—and is poetry in the 21st century—at bay? And isn’t there, wherever “there” may be and, in spite of oil-spills and muddy waters, a place where the future of poetry lies, a mid-stream of opportunity, a place of commingled waters?


Question(s): In this time—eleven years into the 21st century, is poetry adrift? The economy a maelstrom? Academic presses are financially unmoored, off course, and many don’t publish poetry anymore. Small presses are asking that poets sell books in advance to cover the cost of publication. Poets are e-publishing. Books are designated “print-on-demand.” Anyone can upload a document one day and sell it on-line the next. With luck, the poet may recoup the cost of publishing.


Question(s): What about quality? If anyone can publish, what authority says that the poetry is “good”? Noting that quantity is not synonymous with quality, is “good” a relevant term, and does it coincide with winning awards; is it a matter of popularity?


Question: And what of grants? Art organizations have suffered cuts in funding. On February 7, 2011, Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback issued an executive reorganization order abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission effective July 1, 2011. In many states, even though there may be Poets Laureate, there is no financial remuneration associated with the position—not even an allowance for travel. William Carlos Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” but with the demise of many organizations and programs, might poetry may be thought of as moribund? Drowning?


Question(s): And what of the Academy? It appears, at least in this writer’s university, that many Ph.D. recipients are taking Instructor positions in which the teaching load is often 4 or more classes per semester and that includes a heavy load of Freshman Composition. Are there not enough professorial jobs to be had? And this brings up the issue of tenure. Should any teacher, regardless of degree, be granted a job for life, especially when evaluations show that they are not good teachers? One of the country’s more influential college presidents, Gordon Gee, former president of Brown and Vanderbilt and now of Ohio State, says that “a new approach to tenure is needed to ensure the university stays relevant to students and the outside world. It is time to question the issue of tenure as permanent job protection.”


Question(s): Where does this leave poetry and its practitioners? If there is little funding for the arts, little money by way of grants, and if books in print are no longer the chief means of disseminating poetry, do the touchstones of old cease to be valid determinants regarding the assessment of poetry in the 21st century? It is impossible to keep up with on-line communities and blogs, impossible to read even a fraction of what is posted on the Internet. New York, San Francisco, Iowa, as well as Alabama, Mississippi, and Nevada are at the tip of anyone’s fingers. It’s not necessary to take a boat, a train, or a plane. Just go on line. A good “google” can supply a response to anything. Note: a response is not an answer.  




Poetry is, in many instances, leaving the enclosure of the classroom, the seminar room with its green-board and students sitting around a seminar table. It is streaming out into the community and questioning its Being-in-the-World.


Question: Does this streaming so water down the very essence of poetry that it cannot be designated poetry at all? Can poetry be called, not always, but sometimes, “the thing that is found there” that sustains and nurtures beyond classification?


Last year, in Mobile, Alabama, a class of undergraduate poetry students volunteered to go once a week to “Place 15,” a Homeless Center—and teach poetry writing to a gathering of those who had no place called “home.” This was in addition to class time. The students said the experience changed their life. At the end of the semester, they arranged a Poetry Reading in which the University students and their “homeless” students read together at a nearby restaurant. One student placed a poem written by each “poet” in a helium balloon, and on a warm November night, everyone went out and released the poems to the sky. The restaurant provided barbeque. Those who could sing did so; those who could play an instrument joined in. Everyone read the poems they had written. A local law firm paid for the publication of 15 Place Poems, Unheard Words From The Street.


There—across America, poets participating in the Dead Poets Society of America Grand Tour gathered, are gathering each year, in cemeteries, marking the graves of dead poets, and reading from their work. High school students are participating in Poetry Out Loud, a National recitation program in which they memorize three poems from different time periods, as well as write and recite a poem of their own. The Nation’s winner reads at the White House. Youssef Biaz’s performance, featured on You-Tube ended with a reading of Elizabet Bishops’s poem, “Filling Station.” What this says about poetry is that young people are involved in poetry. Young men are reading and performing the poetry of female poets. Poetry is no longer solely the province of male poets, be they Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. Poetry is losing its gendering; male poets are not superior to female poets any more than female poets are superior to male poets. “And rising out of the ground like a swamp mist,” all people, with “black hands and brown, and yellow hands” are writing poetry, are “touching each other natural as dew” in a dawn of music that is poetry, that is song, that is “daybreak in Alabama,” in Arizona, Arkansas, Alaska, in Angola, Albania, Afghanistan, in Africa, Asia, Australia, in cities such as Atlanta, Athens, and Altoona. Every what and everywhere when “there is no there there,” and “Matisse, there is nothing inside of you that fights with itself anymore.”


But look there, there on the wall at Bus Boys and Poets restaurant in Washington, DC. Look at those lines scrawled on sidewalks in cities through the USA? Listen, “When I get to be a composer, I’m gonna write me some music,” some poetry, for “to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.


Listen to what was heard—there, in a coffee shop in San Francisco when a boy on a bike with cache of books on the back asked patrons who were leaving if he could read them a poem. He read Li-Young Lee. He read Wordsworth. He read Sonia Sanchez. Poetry, alive on the street. Poetry alive, residing in the many Low Residency Creative Writing Programs that are everywhere proliferating? Poetry alive in University classrooms, even ensconced in Universities where M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s are granted to certify that one spending the requisite years is qualified to be deemed “Poet / Professor?” Poetry alive in Homeless centers when a student cried as she wrote: “I have a terminal illness. How do I die when I’ve never learned to live?”


So there! And there and there and there. Ellen Hopkins’ verse novels have appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list. Two of the most popular textbooks used in teaching creative writing poetry classes are by women: The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio and Addonizzio’s Ordinary Genius.


The waters are muddy; it’s impossible to see the bottom of the stream. Seems it’s been raining for days. Like the treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean, there is all that “Knowstream” represents – the best academic programs, the best presses, the best journals and magazines, name recognition, validity. But, there, in the waters of the world, the bays, gulfs, straits, rivers, oceans, seas, there is other than “Knownstream” to be found, and there are many names by which waters may be called. MFA programs are including concentrations in New Media Poetics. Anybody can log on, wade in, and listen to Carol Frost’s lecture on the lyric. Anybody, any one, anywhere, inside and outside the classroom, with or without any particular degree.


Question(s): But is it possible, just possible, that Knownstream is trickling into Otherstream? Is there a commingling of waters? Are terms rewriting themselves? Does thinking make it so?


And then, the voice, the voice in the wind, in the wilderness, uptown, downtown, the voice crying:


There ain't no answer.
There ain't gonna be any answer.
There never has been an answer.
There's your answer


                                                                                                                                                                      Gertrude Stein




copyright © Sue Brannan Walker




Susan Walker is the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and Poet Laureate of Alabama. She has written numerous critical articles, including Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and is completing a critical book on James Dickey under contract with Mellen Press. She also publishes fiction and drama and writes and performs one-woman one-act plays. She is the publisher of Negative Capability Press.