Thursday, October 9, 2008

That Ignorance is Restraining

That Ignorance is Restraining

“Americans are too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

With this quote Horace Engdahl the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize for Literature dismissed American literature and the possibility of an American winning that prize. This quote caused much uproar and indignation among the American literati. How dare a Swede criticize America’s literary relevance and importance?

Imagine anyone suggesting that our writers are not worthy of the Nobel Prize?

I think that this quote caused such an uproar because in short it is true. I do not often interact personally with fiction writers but I do interact with Poets many of whom are ‘important’ in American literary parlance. I think that the structure of our literary culture in America leads to this Restraining Ignorance. While this I do not know if this is true for Fiction writers it is often true for American Poets.

Many American poets are trained in “creative writing” which means that their education is in how to write rather than in what to read. The result of this training is that their literary knowledge of poetry and prose in English, much less in other languages is very thin indeed.

Also, because most of the people who can afford to take two or three years to ‘study’ creative writing are from a particular social class and because graduate study is often a luxury whole parts of American society that might be more open to the world are excluded. When it comes to international writing very few American poets have any interest in global writing or poetry.

Most American poets know nothing of poetry outside of their particular small insular community and this is reflected in their work. Many American poets dwell in the poetry subculture which is concerned with poets, writing for other poets getting published by small presses run by poets, and getting reviewed by other poets. There is not much room in this subculture for the larger world.

In the United States, the world’s largest book buying market, the number of presses and magazines that give space to global writing and poetry are so small that I can list many of them here; Aufgabe Magazine and Litmus Press, Mandorla, Burning Deck, Ugly Duckling Presse, Circumference, Dalkey Archive Press, Action Books, occasionally the Chicago Review, occasionally the University of Texas Press and occasionally the University of California Press. The combination of the insular hothouse of American poetry and the lack of translations is slowly suffocating poetry in America into some sort of replay loop .

The fact is that most American poets do not have any interest in global writing or poetry as evidenced recently by a group of events that I organized here in Chicago recently. I guest edited a Brazilian section for the New York magazine Aufgabe which does a fabulous job of highlighting a global poetry scene in each issue. I was honored to translate and guest- edit an issue on Brazil in 2007.

The Brazilian consulate general and Litmus Press which publishes Aufgabe magazine invited four very well known Brazilian poets to read in Chicago. The four poets who read, Paulo Henriques Britto, Virna Teixeira Sergio Medeiros and Maria Esther Maciel are well known globally and inside Brazil. We organized three events in this city over four days. We advertised and publicized the events widely in Time Out, on all the poetry list sites, Facebook and via email lists. I figured with over 50 poets who have published books in the past five years here in Chicago they would jump at the chance of seeing four well known poets from one the world’s most important poetry communities.

The first event was organized at Northwestern. Professor Reginald Gibbons did a great job on that campus and we had a great turnout of people interested in global poetry. The event itself was a success The fact is however that no one from the local Chicago poetry community chose to attend that event in Evanston. The students at Northwestern were great and Dr Gibbons was great and the poets were honored to spend time with them.

The Second Event was at the University of Illinois at Chicago and it was also well attended by non poets. Some local Chicago poets of note did attend, Garin Cycholl organized the reading and Christina Pugh who is with the Poetry Foundation and poets brought her class, Francesco Levato and Chris Glomski also attended the event. This reading had a good crowd and I was very thankful to UIC for hosting it.

The final event we produced at the Harold Washington Library Center was on a Saturday Afternoon. It was also well attended with many people from the local Brazilian community but the number of Chicago poets who attended was small, Patrick Durgin William Allegrezza, Melissa Severin, Kerri Sonnenberg and a few others attended.

By my count about 10 Chicago poets of note chose to attend the readings over the four Brazilian poetry events. In fact of the approximately 100 people who attended these three readings only 10 were local poets of note. I think the local reaction attests well to the insularity of so many. This level of interest is indicative of the state of poetry and poets- to say nothing of literature in a major city in the United States.

Many American poets exist within a poetic hothouse. They live insular lives in which they get published by friends they knew at grad school. Their work is often reviewed by ‘critics’ with whom they are friends. The result of this is a poetic culture of insularity that approaches a clique. There are very few American poets who choose to dialogue globally.

You can count on two hands the number of poets in the United States who care about global literature and translation. Poets/Writers like Charles Bernstein, Jennifer Scappettone. Tracy Grinnell, Sawako Nakayasu, Jen Hofer, Patrick Durgin, Douglas Messerli, Pierre Joris, Kristen Dykstra and others are rare exceptions to a hard rule of ignorance of the wider world. Most poets in the United States would rather exist within their poetic hothouse. If you want to see this culture in action come to Chicago in February for AWP where itwill be in full flower.

To expect insularity from Americans is understandable we are an insular people. Iff you wonder however why an American poet will not be the winner of the Nobel Prize this year don’t blame the poor Swedish bureaucrat who spoke the truth- blame the poetic culture in the USA which is often insular and ignorant of the outside world.

1 comment:

Providence said...

Well said. For the record, I hope Kenning Editions can count as one of the presses concerned with a more global view of poetry w/in the U.S. When it was a journal, Kenning fairly consistently published works in translation from South America, Eastern Europe, France, etc. Of three titles to date, the trade paperback series includes one title from Mexico.

Enough blowing my own horn. I think you're right, though, that we need to push the connection between class issues and monolingualism/cultural exceptionalism in this here United States. Judging from the job lists in literature this year, the call for multi-ethnic literatures of the U.S. far outweighs last year's brief bump in calls for scholars of "world literature."