Poet Mark Nowak was in Chicago last week promoting his new book which chronicles the realities of coal miners in Sego, West Virginia and China. The book is haunting. An interesting work that brings voice to groups of people who ignored by poets and by the rest of society. When I encounter a poet like Nowak I think allot about Poetic/Political activism and it is not hard to compare Americans in general to other poets in other lands and see a difference.
The recent Nobel Prize winner for example (Herta Muller) made her name opposing the Communist regime of Romania. Her work was banned for years and she was a prophetic voice. It makes one wonder about our prophetic voices?
I was asked to introduce Mark Nowak and I chose to use a quote from a speech that Eliot Weinberger- Critic and Essayist- included in his new volume of essays Oranges and Peanuts for sale. I chose this quote because in many ways Nowak is the antithesis of this critique .
"We are where we are in part because of American Writers--- supposedly the most articulate members of our society-- have generally had nothing to say about the world for the past 30 years. How many of the 8000 poets in the Director of American poets have ever been to a Third World Country (except for Beach Vacations) How many think it worthwhile to translate something? How many can name a contemporary poet not living in the US, in Latin America, Asia or Africa? In Short how many know more about the world than George Bush Knows?"
I have often argued that the lack of critique in poetry in America is one of the things holding back the art form. Apart from Mr Weinberger and Marjorie Perloff poetry in America normally is not taken seriously by critics. There are few if any poets in America who have social relevancy the way an Allen Ginsberg had in the 1950's.
This is not as true outside the US in the same way. In my recent experience translating Brazilian poets I have found that while less poetry in actually bought in Brazil than in the US poets have more relevancy. Poets like Regis Bonvicino or Maria Ester Maciel are figures of cultural relevance and their ideas are more readily available in ways American poets are not. The idea of "poet" is different in those places.
In Oranges, Weinberger includes a speech he gave at the poetry project regarding poets and poetry since the late 1960's. The quote above is from that talk. He brings up a reality that I think today needs to be addressed in light of our current Great Recession and that is the poet's place within a political/economic discussion.
Weinberger argues that most American poets are myopic and self centered and that we do not even know about global writing much less spend time translating that writing. He also argues that most poets are ignorant of the greater world and that this has contributed to poets marginalization. He also forcefully argues that the MFA politics scene is part of the problem.
Weinberger brings some very valuable points. but there are some great exceptions however the following presses and poets are exceptions ; Action Yes (website), Action Books, Aufgabe, Circumference, Dalkey Archive Press, Mandorla Ugly Duckling Presse,Moria (Website)Burning Deck, Kenning Editions, Jennifer Scappettone Daniel Borzutsky, Matvei Yankelvich, Jen Hofer, Patrick Durgin, Mark Tardi, Kristin Dykstra,William Allegrezza, E Tracy Grinnell, and many others.
While there are major exceptions most American poetry presses and poets are not interested in the greater world and are not really politically engaged either. Many poets have retreated into academia or proto academia and dwell there not engaging the larger world. But that false safety is now under assault and the assault requires a response.
The University system in the US in the humanities is being assaulted by the economic realities of the Great Recession as colleges and foundations run out of money. While science and social science can generally argue for their importance in research it is hard to argue for the creative writing faculty and win a funding argument with say Sociology or even History.
The result is that while poetry and literary criticism was on the margins now are they be pushed into oblivion? This is a real possibility and so these questions become even more important.
Weinberger in his essay of 2003 argues that American poets in their myopia and careerist tracks have de fanged poetry's power to be prophetic and to challenge the social order. I would argue that in many ways poetry and poets are part of the social order and so cannot challenge it.
Unlike visual artists and novelists who can generate capital for their work and challenge the existing order poets are dependent on universities and foundations to survive. Being too prophetic might mean no money. Just look at our most prominent poetic institutions; The Poetry Foundation is a corporate entity and will never challenge in that way; Many poets of note are University professors and they are in a position where large institutions hold their futures in check. How does one challenge a social order that you benefit from? In the end it is a deadly circle. Poetry and poets do not have large paying audiences so they are dependent on institutions that are part of the establishment and so poetry and poets who are activists like Mark Nowak are few and far between.
I think in many ways Weinberger's critique in his essay and my critique here is not totally fair. The reality is that poets like Mark Nowak who are politically engaged benefit from both worlds. They are academics and activists and these two things together are kind of their schtick. If they were just activists they would not be listened to, hell Michael Moore makes multi million dollar films and no one listens to him.
A slam poet like Kevin Coval for example has the schtick of activist and performer. This means that he gets to eat and be an activist. Being able to eat is a powerful force in one's life. In the end it is all about building a great life.
Much of the poetic infrastructure today is not set up to critique society. What normal American Poet who has a family or a regular job can afford to take off a month to go to the MacDowell colony? Could a poet like Robert Creeley or Kenneth Rexroth even become part of the conversation with the structure as it now exists?
This means that only a certain sort of poetry gets read and certain vision is seen. In the end why be a political activist if it does not pay off? You are not going to be listened to. Why translate other's work? There is so little poetry translated in this country that the last two Nobel Laureates work is generally unavailable in English.
So what is to be done?
In our current global situation there are allot of people who are just surviving and whole swathes of presses and poets are hanging on by their fingernails. I know from my own experience that small presses that are normally run by the owners putting in their own money are cutting back and retrenching because of the economy.
In academia the current structure is under assault even the U. California system once the greatest in world is under draconian cuts- where will these scholars go? What presses will exist after this is over? At the top 500 Universities in America the the total amount full time professors is about 600 according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed in Creative Writing and and not all of those are poets.
According to Weinberger there are over 7000 poets in the Directory of American poets. So what are the other 6000 poets doing? Weinberger argues for the internet ,activism, translation and globalism and these things are valid and interesting but is their more to be done?
I would argue that we as poets need to ask ourselves this question?
Can the poetry written in this moment to respond to the Great Recession?
Recent poetry 'movements' in America like Conceptualism and Flarf have been essentially inside baseball that does not reach out to the greater world. Are these sufficient responses? I have argued that in the age of Obama irony is dead. But what is to replace the last 30 years or are we to move more toward more irrelevancy?
Modernism was magisterial and possessed many big projects, Post Modernism was cluttered and flustered, Language Poetry is important but I will wait for Barrett Watten to tell me its significance.
All these movements had within them responses to their moments.
What will be our response to the Great Recession moment?