No middlebrow for poetry

There really isn’t a place for the middlebrow in poetry publishing.

I don’t like ranking people’s tastes by their supposed expanse of forehead. First, it’s mainly marketing, defining us by how we spend. Second, we’re all more mixed than that. I’m more adventurous about food than music, for instance: I like edgy vegetables and songs with round corners. I am attracted to weird art but have zero interest in experimental novels. I don’t even know how to describe my taste in poetry. Yet an artist-friend has been sending me links to articles on middlebrow art, including the recent New York Times piece. And at the same time I’ve been helping an acquaintance with a poetry manuscript and thinking, “in fiction, there would be a place for this.” Her book retells a politically complicated historical episode in a straightforward style, shifting from speaker to speaker with nary a qualm about appropriation. No lacunae, ellipses, apologetic verbal hedges about the fundamental inaccessibility of the past. Yet the writer, while not versed in the politics of contemporary verse, is ultra-competent, with a long multigenre publishing resume. It’s not that she’s writing badly. She’s just not writing for me.

Fiction does this all the time: storytelling depends on imagining points of view one person can’t truly access. Fiction I’d call literary does this very persuasively, with psychological and intellectual sophistication, in prose full of surprises. Fiction I’d call popular is more predictable, from its similes to its characters and plot, but I read my share of it and I’m glad it’s out there.

There is some range in recently published poetry collections. Some are much, much more abstruse than others, yet even the most approachable are still literary in their values. And unless you’re a former US Poet Laureate, you’re probably finding it increasingly hard to publish narrative verse in a straightforward, grammatical style.

My poetry predilections are probably highbrow, because I’m nerdily delighted when I cut my fingers on the edges of a stanza. But among the poets I meet through publishing and conferences and festivals, I feel kinda lowbrow. I’m attracted to story, and if a poem doesn’t show the author’s attention to potential readers–eagerness to be interesting, willingness to come clean about what’s at stake–I put it down and go back to poetry that seems to want my company. My own feeling of resisting certain avant-garde pieties, however, is relative to a tiny, poetry-obsessed readership, because there isn’t much of a general audience for contemporary takes on this particular art form.

It’s different for Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Hughes, etc–non-poetry-specialists do read older verse. I’m talking about print, too, and books in particular. Poetry readings can have big, open-minded audiences–I hear accessible, middlebrow poetry more often than I read it. In slam, there’s plenty of popular stuff a professor might deem bad, and that’s good. When an art’s healthy, there’s a big enough range in contemporary practice that there’s no way one person would appreciate all of it. For instance, I can go to an art house film if I want, or sink into a high-box-office 3D noisefest, because the movies are still for everyone.

I wish there were more room for poetry books that might be called middlebrow or lowbrow or accessible or populist, stuff you don’t have to be an insider to get. My own favorite field, as in the novel, is crossover stuff: literary fiction that flirts with mystery or thriller; fantasy that’s smart and well-written. I want more poetry that works at both levels, too–highly readable but sharp and worth lingering over. But how likely is that, when the poetic equivalent of popular fiction can’t find a friendly curator or a book-buying audience? Everything is aimed at the cognoscenti.

Well, that’s enough big-foreheadism. The advance of August always lowers the hairline, but it’s worse for the woman resigning herself to a stint as department head: I have advising sheets to revise, after all, and capstone sections to sort. Time for the mid-career middle-aged medium-height poet to muddle back in the midden of middle management.

Speculative spoken word

What to do during a class meeting in which you strongly suspect all the students will be sleep-deprived and unable to complete any assigned reading? Well, snacks, of course. Open-ended discussion, too, of the problems of research writing: my speculative poetry students are, I hope, revising like demons, because version one of their big essay is due tomorrow at 5. I’m also going to show them some speculative spoken word poems and use them to discuss whether speculative poetry is, like, a thing.

I know, of course, that by most measures, it is: fantastic poetry is fostered by multiple communities and has a history that’s decades or millennia long, depending on your perspective. However, some definitions of speculative fiction are potentially very wide, encompassing all kinds of fictionality. It’s “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (Suvin on science fiction). Hume labels as fantasy “any departure from consensus reality.” Calvino identifies fantasy’s theme as “the relationship between the reality of the world we live in…and the reality of the world of thought that lives in us.” Then I think: well, those are pretty good descriptions of poetry by Wallace Stevens, or Bill Manhire, or Mary Ruefle, right? So is speculative poetry just good poetry, or is there a sharper way of drawing the line?

We’ll see what they say tomorrow. Here are the poems I intend to spring on them (trusting that no student reads her professor’s blog to get a jump on the lesson plan). I’ve divided them into a few handy/ spurious categories. My criteria: the poem has to be a performance piece (meaning as much at home in the voice as on the page), and tropes or strategies from sf have to be pretty central (yes, I know that’s even more arguable than the first criterion). A recording also has to be easily available online.

Fan Poetry:

To find poems from fandom—except for “I Am That Nerd,” an influential poem I’ve shown to classes for years—I  ended up scrolling through WAY too many clips of Star Trek’s Data reciting “Ode to Spot” (it’s not the poem I mind, but the extended, painful reaction shots of other cast members). Most of them I found really depressing, but Rostad pointed out a few things about Cho Chang I hadn’t considered.

Shappy, “I Am That Nerd” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJxZfpu-kG0.

Rachel Rostad, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFPWwx96Kew

Poetry is Magic:

And some slam poets are wizards, dude.

Saul Williams, “Ohm” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJHquOEChRg

Megan Falley, “Long Island Medium” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHiDjFVplg

 

Dystopian Chronicles:

The scary future is happening right now. The implicit argument: realism IS sf. The world we live in is deeply, damagingly weird.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, “Crack Squirrels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngUa9HjKV8o

Reed Bobroff and Olivia Gatwood, “La Llorona” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKxtq1_ebNg

Shira Lipkin, “Changeling’s Lament” http://stonetelling.com/issue5-sep2011/lipkin-changeling.html

 

Thanks to Max Chapnick, who scouted out many of these during a season attending New York City slams, and some friends who made suggestions over Facebook. If you’re not satisfied, enjoy a couple more. I listened to some Tracie Morris recordings because I really admire her sound poetry.  “Mother Earth” isn’t sound poetry, but it’s sf and I like it. And Tim Seibles’ poetry is pretty page-oriented, but “Natasha in a Mellow Mood” is pretty weird and man, he has a great voice.