The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Poetry Flash: A Poetry Review & Literary Calendar for the West

The following review resulted in the inspiring blog page "Tod Slone, Retard? You be the Judge", a classic example of ad hominem gone wild.  Ad hominem rhetoric is the chosen weapon of those incapable of dealing with logical argumentation.  As for the cartoon, Poet Laureate Hirschman did not like it at all.  Yet, where is the lie in the dialogue?   
Jack HirschmanWinter/Spring 2006.  Joyce Jenkins, Editor and Publisher.  Free.  Berkeley, CA.
If you want to explore the crap or pap industry that has grown up around poetry over the years in America, Poetry Flash would be a good place to begin.  The advertisements occupy much of each issue, so it is no wonder the newspaper is free.  Thus, you can read about poetry contests, private poetry editorial consultations, institutes for creative writing (institutions for creative writers?), a campaign to establish the International Poetry Museum (who gets in it, who doesn’t, and why?), foundations of poetics, dancing poetry festivals (“3 Grand Prize Awards—winners receive $100 cash, a Dance created and performed to their poem, and a Video of the Poem and Dance—a $1000 value”), MFA writing programs, and even a Poetry Boot Camp run by an “NEA award-winning poet” (all poets tend to be award winners or award nominees, of course):  “Write 6 poems in 6 days and get immediate, kind and intelligent, e-feedback.” 
The proliferation of poetry seminars and workshops is in itself amazing.  Apparently, there’s a lot of money to be made in such things as long as peppered with the names of prize-winning celebrity poets. “Diane di Prima is now reading manuscripts for a new poetry group which will begin in October 2006, and continue till June 2007.  The course consists of nine four-hour classes and six one-on-one private sessions with Diane over the nine months.” (The fee is $150 per month)  Apparently, Joe-average poets think they too might become rich and famous if they can only get to rub elbows with a rich and famous poet.  The days of the poet as a staunch individual and loner have long since passed.  The Great American Poetry Show, another poesy magazine, sums up the phenomenon:  “Submit any subject any style any number any length any time.”  The smug and/or ultra serious, self-important faces of poets appear on each page of Poetry Flash, which is supported by a number of corporate foundations… for evident reasons.  Indeed, it seems that American poetry and poets have been melding quite well into the happy-face fascist landscape of today’s America. 

“One of our pivotal poets,” writes Sarah Vap and Charles Jensen in their front-page interview of Lynn Emmanuel.  (I will refrain from playing with Sarah’s last name, though it would be quite appropriate.)  A PIVOTAL POET?  Why not one of our TENURED POETS or SAFE POETS or POET FELLOWS, instead?  It is quite amazing the different terms poets invent to inflate themselves and their activities, which are far too often diversionary, inoffensive (maybe it’s damn time poetry offended!), self-serving, and sociopolitically disengaged.  How deft of Emmanuel in her attempt to make herself appear as a non- establishment poet by mentioning her having been a mere assistant to one.  “When I was a fellow at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, like everyone else, I was an assistant to an established poet,” she notes.  Why didn’t Vap and Jensen ask how many asses she had to kiss to get to Breadloaf?  The interview is an example of base hagiography, as most such interviews tend to be in the world of poesy.  No tough questions at all!  

“Not long ago, somebody asked me about what is being called the proliferation of MFA programs at universities,” notes Emmanuel.  “I think we should discuss the proliferation of ROTC programs at universities.  Should there not be as many MFA programs as ROTC programs on university campuses?  In fact, if the draft is re-instated, I think every young man who is drafted should also be required to get an MFA.”  Her response, of course, is a non-answer to this pertinent question.  Emmanuel could have at least added that every young woman should be required to demand equal opportunity regarding any future draft.  That would have permitted complete deflection of the question, while at least propping up the non-answer with a statement of equality.   

But why did the two interviewers, Vap and Jensen, fail to push her on that pertinent question?  Why didn’t they ask if perhaps the real reason for such programs was to assure jobs and grant money for TENURED POETS, advertising revenues for magazines like Poetry Flash, indoctrination of students in the canon (i.e., the celebrity poet game), selling more books for the big publishers, and especially increased size for university corporations obsessed with growth?  Do not MFA programs constitute a multimillion-dollar business in America?  Why did the great poets of the past not need such programs to fill their heads with canon?  What MFA programs tend not to do is question and challenge canon.  Instead, they tend to reinforce it.  “The majority of poems written in the 1950s have long been deemed inconsequential” (Edward Brunner), quotes Emmanuel.  But the same can and will be said about poems written during any decade and regarding any MFA graduating class.  But more importantly note how Emmanuel fails to ask the question:  who did the deeming?  This is what is being taught (or rather not taught) in MFA programs. 

Nat Hentoff had once asked:  “What caused the ivory tower to become such a snake pit?”  Well, I dared answer that question:  “snakes in black robes!”  Thus, we have POET SNAKES too… in black robes.  Yes, they do exist.  I’m not saying that Emmanuel is one of them, but that’s certainly a possibility, at least when she was in charge of the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburg.  In the interview, she evokes, unsurprisingly, the activist poetry of the 60s.  Perhaps by mentioning it, she is able to avoid dealing with how she, child of the 60s, sold out like so many others to become a tenured poet of the 21st century.  Well, she doesn’t use that term, preferring instead the vacuous term “outlaw” to describe other tenured poets, including Ginsberg and Creeley, who were quite canonic and establishment in the long run.  Perhaps Emmanuel is also an outlaw poet or maybe even a “poet from hell” (the words are those of Tratford Press).  Perhaps one day soon she’ll be featured next to the verse of Pirate Poet Johnny Depp.   In any event, hopefully posterity will not fall prey to the outlaw charade. 

On another note, why does a well-to-do academic poet write poetry about poverty (the central theme in her book, The Dig)?  Write what you know, not what you don’t know, goes the adage.  Emmanuel should be writing about the sell-out snakes in her immediate surroundings, the ivory tower, and how, in the long run, they really support the system, proponent of war and Big Business.  Why do Vap and Jensen fail to ask that question?  Wouldn’t it be a lot more effective if poets who dared be engaged wrote poetry critical of the hand that feeds them, as opposed to poetry critical of BUSH or what happened during 9/11?  Poets need to write poems that RISK.  Criticizing the war risks nothing at all.  In fact, it probably constitutes a good publicity stunt, at least for the celebrity poets.  Poets need to criticize the core of corruption found in every damn institution in the nation, including the University of Pittsburg.  But for a TENURED POET, criticizing ones chairperson or university president or the NEA or Breadloaf IS RISKY, which is why most do not do so.  Most poets cannot comprehend this fundamental principle.  Have they been all too indoctrinated by MFA canon-pushing programs? 

As for Jack Hirschman, featured on the front page, RADICAL POET LAUREATE is as oxymoronic as RADICAL TENURED POET… or PROFESSOR.  In fact, it is hard to comprehend what the hell a poet of “radical political cast” is doing as city poet laureate, even if the city is San Francisco.  One must ask how many “radical” asses he had to kiss to ascend to that position.  Evidently, Hirschman could not resist the ego boost.  Any poet dubbed laureate must inevitably be a person not apt to offend the liberal establishment.  In other words, a poet laureate must speak orthodox groupthink, as opposed to rude truth.  How can a poet respect a poet laureate?  How can a poet not ridicule such a personage?  Byron could not resist, nor could Pope or Swift.  But times are different today and not as open to criticism for we have armies of poets issued from groupthink canonic programs, manning the editorial boards, grant councils, and government cultural agencies.  Just try to get a word in that does not mesh with poet groupthink, right Jack?
—The Editor