Sunday, January 30, 2011

Women's Writing and the New 2011 AWP Women's Caucus

As you may know, AWP  (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was founded in 1967.  The official AWP website states that AWP grew from "13 member colleges and universities in 1967 to 500 institutional members today" and  the "Annual Conference typically features 350 presentations: readings, lectures, panel discussions, and Forums plus hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings. The conference attracts more than 8,000 attendees and more than 500 publishers. It’s one of the biggest and liveliest literary gatherings in North America."

So it seems incredible that, given its long and illustrious history, there has never been a Women's Caucus at the AWP national conference.

Until now, that is.

The story of how the Women's Caucus came to be and how I got to organize and lead it goes something like this.

At last year's conference, when the AWP conference was held in Denver, I was having breakfast with some of my women writer friends. Somewhere between being served the first cup of coffee and finishing up the last bit of toast, I said to them: "That's it. I am not going to do anymore extra stuff at this conference. I'm not going to hold any official title; I'm not going to organize any more panels; I'm not going to wrangle with any of the 'powers that be. ' It's too much work! It's too stressful!  From now on, I'm going to this conference only as a participant."

And I meant every word of it.

But my friends just laughed at this.

And I guess they know me better than I know myself at times.

When our breakfast ended, I paid my share of the bill, hugged my friends and walked out of the hotel restaurant and into the conference center hallway. I tell you the truth, I was feeling kind of good about my new found resolution. In fact, I remember feeling kind of light--I was seeing my future at the conference as being more anonymous but much more fun.

Then, what must have been not more than 5 minutes after I made my declaration, I ran into a good friend of mine in that same hallway. My friend was, at the time, a current board member of AWP.

We say hello to each other. Then--and I swear this is absolutely true--my friend, who is a good bit taller than me-- smiles, looks down at me and says:

"You know, we need a Women's Caucus at AWP."

Now I'm just staring up at her. 

"You know, you're just the person to do it."

I think at this moment my lips were forming the word no.

"You know it's important."

And--I knew--know--she was right. It is important.

Now lest you think I'm a complete pushover, a work alcoholic, a whatever....let me explain a few things.

I have taught Women Studies courses for more than 20 years at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  I continue to teach courses at my college. I always joke that I am both the Creative Writing program and the Women's Studies program on my campus. Which always gets me a laugh, but is all too true.

Over the years, I have seen--first hand--how the various "issues," theories, paradigms and perspectives are realized in my students' everyday lives. They tell me things--private, often terrible, sometimes inspiring--things. They tell me these things-- and I am privileged to hear them-- because they trust me.  In northSight, my second book, I wrote poems for and about them which, I hope, honored that trust. And because a Women's Studies class is more than a course, it is a community.  A place where women can speak and think and feel safe.

As importantly, as a woman writer, I have had my share of those theories affect my own life, my writing and even my imagination.

And so, I knew full well how important this new AWP Women's Caucus was going to be. How important it is.

And so, I looked up at Kate and said, simply, "Okay, I'll do it."


Women’s Caucus 2011
AWP—Washington, DC

Event Participants/Panel: led by Lois Roma-Deeley, Patricia Smith, Cheryl Dumesnil, Anna
George Meek, Amy King, Katherine Arnoldi
Scheduled Day: Saturday, February 5
Scheduled Time: 10:30 AM to 11:45 AM
Scheduled Hotel: Marriott Wardman, Mezzanine Level, Coolidge Room

Where is the place for the women writer within AWP and within the greater literary community? The women's caucus discusses this as well as continuing inequities in creative writing publication and literature. In addition, issues centering on cultural obstacles in the form of active oppression, stereotypes, lack of access to literary power structures, historical marginalization of  women's writing, issues and perspectives and the diverse voices of women will explored. Networking opportunities.

Until now, AWP has not addressed intersecting issues such as gender race, class, sexual orientation and age that women writers face within AWP's own organizational structure. Further, not only does AWP need to address these issues by supporting a women's caucus, a caucus will pave the ways for the next generation of women' writers. Finally, a women's caucus will  create a  forum within AWP so that the diverse voices of women can be fully expressed and fully engaged.

The mission of the AWP Women's Caucus is the following:
 * to expand networking opportunities for women writers
 * to recognize the contributions of women writers nationally and
* to enhance  understanding of the relationship between gender and
     creative writing
* to expand  literary and cultural dialogue to encompass all genres
     of creative writing specific to women writers
* to encourage an open forum for dialogues about feminist literary
* to support education about the contributions of women writers
*to support women writers on local, national, and global levels
* to advocate for equity in creative writing for all

Friday, January 28, 2011

What Lang-uage Can Do (in northSight)

 The "Obligatory Sex" Poem in northSight

One of the goals I have for my poetry is to challenge the contemporary poetic aesthetic. I want to push the borders and boundaries of what poetry is and can be. I want poetry to be "bigger." I believe poetry has the power to shape perceptions: that makes poetry a powerful force in the world. And, I believe, that is a great responsibility for the poet.

However, I must confess, I do not consider my "Obligatory Sex" poem in northSight to be a poem "about"  morality or immorality. It is not a poem "about" sex and/or sexuality. It is, for me, a poem "about" something much more powerful.  It is, for me,  is a poem about imagination and perception.

The structure of the poem "Obligatory Sex"(in northSight) is based on grammar.

This is what Lewis Turco had to say about this poem in a review he wrote and  published in the Hollins Critic (Dec. 2006). (To read the entire review, please go to the "Review" link listed on this page.)

...And that's not all. She is no kind of metrician, but she has such an ear, and such a solid grasp of what the language can do that her experiments are sometimes amazing, like "Obligatory Sex," which doesn't have a sentence in it, just words: verbs in the first triplet; nouns in the second; adverbs in the third; nouns again in the fourth, adverbs and adjectives to end it, but it's one of the sexiest (maybe even one of the dirtiest) poems I've ever read. I suppose a teacher would have to tell students not to try to write like this, because the odds against its working are vast, but on the other hand we will be glad that Roma-Deeley probably never had a teacher who'd point that out to her.

Ultimately, this poem is meant to challenge our perceptions of sex and sexuality. The reader's imagination "fills in the gaps" of  the "plot" of the poem as he or she make the imaginative connections between and among the various parts of grammar. The form of the poem is really an "exo-skeleton,” the form and meaning being created by the prose form, white space and use of the virgule. (/////////)

The making of a poem, a poem's content and its ultimate "meaning" are often--for poet and reader-- separate entities and end up being greater than the sum of their parts. These elements can conspire to create a poem which is the summation of  happy coincidences. The writing of "Obligatory Sex " happened something like this.

While working on northSight, I had a sabbatical year in which I read well over 50-75 books of contemporary poetry. As I am particularly interested in poetry written by contemporary women poets, I had quite a collection sitting on my shelves. The stack of poetry books was so large that I decided to organize them--and then read them--in alphabetical order. Every morning--when my eyesight is at its best--I took a book down from the shelf and read until I finished it. Then, somewhere between the poets whose names began with "D" and those whose names begin with "H," I began to see at least one pattern emerge.

Every one of these books had a poem about sex.

No matter the subject of the collection, there always seemed to be a poem about sex. Indeed, no volume seemed complete unless it included an obligatory sex poem.

Suddenly I realized--and forgive my pun here--my body of work decidedly did not include such a poem. Not a one.

And I wanted such a poem!

Was I not--I reasoned--a contemporary woman poet too? Should I not have such a poem to prove my worth as a woman and as a poet? Was I not daring and gritty too?

At that time, I had also been reading various experimental poetry. Those works which included lots of )))))))))))))))))) and :::::::::::::: and ;;;;;;;;;; aNd interESTing uSE of PunCTuATION  to mitigate the flow of form and content. To challenge the reader.

It was then I decided that  I too would write my obligatory sex poem AND play with the use of lang-uage.

First, I devised rules for doing so. I would  avoid any vulgarities, as that would be "cheating"--certain  words  and phrases command immediate, thoughtless, reactions. To my mind, vulgarities take the reader out of the poem.  I wanted my reader to participate in the making of my poem not in creating his or her own overreactions.

I saw the "Obligatory Sex " poem as a word/imagination puzzle--a game of ideas whose sole object was to allow the reader to connect the dots and arrive at his or her own conclusions.

Then,  mid-way through the writing of this poem, I ran out of words!

After all---and perhaps this is no excuse but here it is anyway--I was brought up in a conservative Italian-American home.  Language of this nature was not used, ever. And, in my grown-up personal life, I tend to be shy about such things. It appears I am bereft of a certain kind of street education which some might feel  hinders me poetically.

Yet, as I was writing this poem, there on my shelf--  somewhere between The Complete Rhymingg Dictionary and A Dictionary of Symbols --was the book Our Bodies, Our Selves. And in this book, which is intended to inform and educate women --in a medical way--about their bodies, I found more than enough words for male and female body parts.  Now I could continue and finish my poem!

I had great fun writing this poem. However, after publication of the collection I was--I am-- surprised--and often embarrassed--when the others see this poem in purely sexual terms.

Yet it proves my mother was right when she said: "Sex is in the mind."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Alicia Ostriker: Why Study Women's Poetry

The following was first posted by Alicia Ostriker to the Women's Poetry Listserv (otherwise known as WomPo).  This is reprinted by permission of the author.

Dear Wom-pos,

I've been busy this morning telling my senators to vote against "enhanced interrogation techniques," e.g. waterboarding, the Feinman amendment which is about to be voted on, but finally got to Wompo digest, and bumped my nose up against this question.

Excuse me?  Why study women's poetry?

At the risk of immodesty (I've been called "modest" all my writing life and I'm sick of it) here's what I have published on the topic:

Writing like a Woman, Michigan series of poets on poetry, 1982--essays on HD, Plath, Sexton, Rich and Swenson, plus two personal essays, one on poetry and motherhood, one on re-writing mythology

Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, Beacon 1986--about which, everywhere I go women tell me "your book changed my life."

The title essay in Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic, Michigan series of poets on poetry 2000.  Here is a bit from near the beginning of that essay:

What I had to work from, in writing Stealing the Language (published in 1986), was eventually over two hundred individual volumes of poetry by women and a dozen or so anthologies.  From these emerged a large but indistinct picture of the women's poetry movement in America since 1960, which slowly assumed focus.  I wanted to define what was new here, what was altering and expanding the meaning of "poetry," the meaning of "woman.”  I needed to understand how the advent of this writing was causing the past history of literature subtly, lightly, irretrievably to change.  For as Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" so finely explains that the order of art rearranges itself whenever a genuinely original new work appears, so it must shift for larger scale literary movements as well.  The women's poetry movement, it seemed to me, was destined to produce some substantial rearrangements.  But of course one senses this in one's bones long before one can say precisely what has happened.

What then is important in contemporary women's poetry?  What follows from women’s cultural marginality and their equivocal relation to a canon which they appropriate, resist and transform?   First of all, there is the discovery that marginality, however painful, may be artistically useful. Some linked motifs announce themselves:  the quest for self-definition, the body, the eruption of anger, the equal and opposite eruption of eros, the need for revisionist mythmaking.  What Adrienne Rich has called "the oppressor's language" is examined suspiciously in this poetry, along with the language's rooted dualisms:  male versus female, sacred versus profane, mind versus body, public versus private, logos versus eros, self versus other, subject versus object, art versus life.  Not surprisingly, the strongest women poets tend to oppose hierarchy;  they like boundary-breaking, duality-dissolving, and authority-needling.   Formally and stylistically, too there are interesting developments.  I want here to sketch three of these, all of which derive from and relate to particular political issues and are, I feel, designed to subvert and transform "the oppressor's language into something a little closer to the heart's desire....I emphasize the matter of style because it has been claimed that the women's poetry movement is not interesting artistically.  But new meaning in poetry is necessarily signaled by new music.  When the music changes, the walls of the city tremble, says Plato.

Please, dear Wom-pos all, recognize that you are individuals, but you are also all portions of something larger, much larger than yourselves, a global movement that will continue long after your lives and mine, in which poetry actually plays a part.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Shelf "Must-Have"--Stealing the Language

Though published in 1986, Alicia Suskin Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Beacon Press) is so vibrant--and I want to say--so necessary-- that it becomes more important--not less--as time goes on.

Because every now and then a book comes along which goes beyond itself and lives somewhere in the future where we have to think in double-time just to catch up with it. And on our journey towards it, we catch a glimpse of our literary future.

This is one brilliant book. If you do not own a copy, buy one now.

"In this major study, Alicia Suskin Ostriker probes the origins and meanings of contemporary women's poetry since the 1960's. Proposing that women writers must be "thieves of language," Ostriker traces the struggle of women poets today to achieve self-definition in the context of literary tradition designed to repress the female voice. Stealing the Language examines this new poetry in relation to its female roots and as a powerful alternative to academic modernism and postmodernism, loking at the poetics of the body, of anger and violence, of "the imperative of intimacy," and of revisionist mythmaking in women's poetry."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So What's Literary Criticism to You

I will make a confession. I love to read literary criticism and I think you should too.

So let's begin our discussion with these two simple questions:

What is the purpose of literary criticism? And why should you care?

To my mind, intelligent well-written, well-thought out literary criticism is essential to our enjoyment of poetry because it

teaches the reader what to look for in the poem and/or the poet's body of work;

...and then puts the poem or body of work in context;

by placing the poem or body of work in context, the reader's understanding is deepened;

...which usually means the reader's understanding of the poem is moving beyond a reaction to one element such as theme or style;

--when the reader's understanding of poetry is more fully realized, the relationship between the reader and the poem becomes interactive. The imagination of the reader completes the poem.

To make it live.

And there is a correlation between the reader's understanding and the reader's level of appreciation.

Think how an educated musical audience or even a well-informed sports audience is reacting to, looking for--and finding--the interplay of elements particular to the discipline.

For example, because they are educated with respect to what they are experiencing in the music hall or sports arena, they are expectant. They know which strand of music or which athletic strategy echoes the past and so can compare this current event with past events. Or they experience one specific moment as an  event which is so groundbreaking, so different and new that the audience's expectation and therefore its understanding of the music or the sport is forever changed.

The future for the discipline is changed simply because the audience now sees what was once never before considered, never thought possible, never understood.   It's as if they are collectively saying: We didn't know (fill in the blank here) could do that! 

There's a certain excitement and pleasure in knowing how elements connect and combine.

It's a little--or a lot--like falling in love.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Language Culture

Where I live in Arizona is about 90 minutes from Tucson. My writer friends from around the country have been contacting me and asking about the recent tragedy that occurred in my state. In a neighborhood similar to my own.  At a shopping center almost identical to the one I go to every Saturday. With people I could call my neighbors.

How can any speak about this event except to say how terrible, how awful.

And while it appears there is no direct cause and effect relationship between how language is used in contemporary American society and the violence that happens more often than one cares to admit, these kind of events raise important questions.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

Does how an idea gets expressed add to or enhance its ultimate meaning?

For example, how many ways are there to say the word no?

Clearly, we understand the fundamental meaning of the word...yet, does how we say it add to--or, for that matter, take away from--its ultimate meaning?

Does the way in which we use language create an environment? That is, do the words we choose--or the ones we choose not to use--help create a language of behavioral expectation? Does the way in which we use tone, inflection, syntax and body language create a culture of language in which our minds "fill in the blanks" of what is not said, but implied?

Does the question then become one of the "expectation of civility" those measured tones and careful selections of this word and not that word, this emphasis and not that one, create a language culture wherein the overriding expectation is one where respect is a given?

Following this train of thought, one may conclude that our use of language can co-create culture and that culture can be one in which one feels safe--to think, to talk, to ponder, to disagree. That the ways in which all ideas get expressed and considered in our culture can be transmitted and received without fear of physical, emotional or spiritual threat.

Or not.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cultural Citizen: Your Rights and Responsiblities

Dear Reader,

I'm sure you know this, but allow me to say it one more time.

Your acts of buying poetry books, attending readings, supporting journals, participating in discussion groups are all the ways in which you contribute to shaping the culture of our time.

Or, to paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo--We have met Society and Society is Us.

As a cultural citizen you have certain rights and responsibilities.

You have the right to expect great poetry to be written in your lifetime.
You have the right to expect poets to create innovatively.
You have the right to have access to various themes, purposes, styles, types and forms of poetry.
You have the right to want publishers to take risks--groundbreaking books, writers, themes.
You have the right to want the future to speak to you through poetry, the past to breathe with you in poetry and your present to be distilled inside of poetry.

Your responsibilities are as follows:

Don't limit what poetry is and can be. Poetry is big and wide and encompasses many approaches
Have high standards. Expect the best.
Poetry is a learned multi-faceted  pleasure. Allow for that possibility. .
Read new and different kinds of  poetry. Be a risk-taking poetry reader.
Be uncomfortable.
Consider Poetry from different ages.  Let your imagination explore the dynamic natures of poetry.
Stop being intimidated.
Or impressed.
Or just plain snarky. Come to the poem with an open imagination.
Consider the individual poem as if it were a person. The poem as a reflection-- as well as revelation-- of its time and place.
Poetry has its secrets. Be nice and it will whisper to you.
Be an educated consumer of culture.
Understand that culture exists because you exist.

All Best,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

10 Stupid Poet Tricks

#1 The "Wind-Gets-In-My-Eyes Or I'm-Just-Too-Delicate-For-This-World" trick

#2 The "Pole Dancing for Publication" trick

#3 The "Competing for the Most Painful Attempted Suicide Story" trick

#4 The "Most Famous Drunk in the Room" trick

#5 "I'm-the-Real-Poet-and-You're-Gum-Stuck-to-the-Bottom-of-My-Shoe" trick

#6  The "You Should Sleep With Me Because I'm So Profound and/or Sensitive (Don't tell the Dean)" trick

#7 The "I Used to Be Your Friend But I Traded Up" trick

#8 The "I-Just-Published-a-Book-of-All-Your-Deepest-Secrets-That-You-Told-Me-When-You-Were Desperately-Lonely" trick

#9 The "Glamorous Addiction" trick

#10 The "You Scratch My Back and I'll Stab Yours" trick

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What Poetry Is

The following is addressed to those who will not be reading this.

The following is addressed to those who think they should like poetry--but don't.  The following is a kind of shorthand for what some people have actually said to me. Which is kind of strange because they will say these things even as they take a class in poetry or attend a poetry reading or buy a poetry book.  Or two.

These people say to me--just after I have given a reading or just before I introduce a guest poet--either in person or at an event for which I am moderator and have spent a considerable amount of time, effort and often my own money putting together--these people come up to me and--not out of a sense of snarkiness but more out of deep frustration--these people  feel compelled to say the following to me: 

Why can't all the poets just say it? Why can't they just come right out and say it! What's with all this fancy, have-to-have-the-Rosetta-Stone-of-Poetry-App- on-my-iphone-before I can--before-any-of-this-can-make- sense to-me...and-really-isn't-the--poet-just-showing-off-here?

Just Say I can understand it.

That's what they say to me.

And, today, I will give you my list of what Real Poetry is: 

#1    Poetry is not prose.
#2    Poetry is an experience.
#3    Poetry is not is beautiful but not pretty.
#4    Poetry is a distinct pleasure.
#5    Poetry as a distinct pleasurable experience can be taught...and it can be learned.
#6    Poetry that is simple for simplicity's sake or complex for complexity's sake is not great poetry- or  even good poetry--so why bother with mediocre verse?
#7    Poetry moves through move through poetry. This happens simultaneously.
#8    Poetry has been around for a few thousand years....human beings seem to like it, need it, rely on it.
#9    Poetry changes reality. Really, it does.
#10. Poetry is ever changing and always the same.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Word and Image: Working with Mirjana Ugrinov

Another one of my favorite visual artists is Mirjana Ugrinov.

My poem, "The Correct Yes,"-- a poem I wrote for my husband) --was selected by Mirjana as part of the first Poetic Dialogue project and was a feature at the Chicago Humanities Festival as well.  She created this work in response to my poem, incorporating many images from the poem into the painting. Moreover, she captured perfectly the poem's essence.

Mirjana's two panel painting was hung hanging in the Ambassador's residence in Belgrade and my poem was displayed along side of it.

This painting is magnificent and it is large. 

Left Panel: Between Pearl Birds
Right Panel: Fear the Sun Turning West
Two Panels, 36x48 inches each (acrylic on canvas)

You can find more information on Mirjana at

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Apologizing for the Rain:" Lois Roma-Deeley & Beth Shadur

The voice is this poem is every woman. I have seen her in the supermarket, at the bank, near the coffee shop and always, always, she is saying "sorry sorry sorry" for everything and anything. She says "sorry" before, during and after any and all fill-in-the-blank occurrences.

I have seen her...and I have been her.

This poem can be found in northSight, my second collection of poetry.

Below is another visual artwork Beth Shadur created in response to this poem.  I will post the painting as well as the poem here. 

For more  on our collaborations, please visit

"Apologizing for the Rain"
Lois Roma-Deeley (from northSight, 2006)

I'm sorry          The sky wouldn't listen to me      /the bakery  was  closed
sorry I bumped         into your shoulder         stepped on both your shoes/
I'm  sorry//the   wind   gets  in  your  eyes/some  voices like  to  screech//
sorry//really/so sorry   I   didn't   think   to    cook  your bacon/  the lawn
is still     unmowed    And I inconsiderately  was taken with an urge to let  
it go     sorry     I  use up all the air      sorry       I take up too much space
I/am/sorry/your mother didn't love you  and  your  father was  a  jerk  so
very sorry      that       car       ran    through    the      red   light/sorry/that
saleman  knocked  on your  front  door/    sorry    /those kids chalked up
the sidewalk/a nun  came collecting for the poor      sorry       you're still
yawning   that  the  water  isn't  cold   that  the  world  owes you a living
and I didn't even know.

Apologizing for the Rain
Beth Shadur
mixed media
36" x 38"

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Word and Image Projects: Beth Shadur

In collaborations with visual artists on several ekphrasis projects—most recently with visual artist and curator Beth Shadur—my poems have been exhibited nationally and internationally.

It will be my pleasure to share with you some of that work here.

Beth Shadur and I have worked together on a number of poetry/visual art projects since 2003.  We met at Ragdale when we were residency fellows.  Beth and I don't sleep well so we would meet each other in the Ragdale kitchen around 5:30 am. There, over coffee and bagels, we talked about art, about being women artists, about poetics, about our families, our husbands, we talked about make-up, politics, aesthetic theory and where to buy really good jewelery.  We had a immediate sense of each other--both as women, artists and friends.

It was at Ragdale where Beth first conceived of the Poetic Dialogue projects--pairings of visual artist and poets which result in a true collaboration of word and image.  Later, as the projects grew into being, I served as  "curator" for the poetry. 

While working primarily with Beth's visual art, I also wrote poems to the work of other visual artists--or had other visual artists create work in response to my poems. In addition, Beth created a entire series based on response to my work.

In November of 2004 and 2005, I was one of several featured poets participating in the interdisciplinary project called "A Poetic Dialogue: Poetry: Women: Art," a Chicago Humanities Festival event. The poetry/​visual art collaboration project has toured nationally, including at the Transconference at the University of Wisconsin, as well as internationally.

Here is Beth's work "Witness" which she created in response to my anti-war poem "Bougainvillea and TV" (published in northSight, 2006), both of which were featured at the Chicago Humanities Festival as a panel discussion titled "Poetic Dialogues: Poetry:Women:Art."  Our event preceded a reading by Sharon Olds--who was terrific. If you look closely at this painting and you can see part of my poem and my name embedded on the palms, upper left hand corner. Notice all Beth's multi-cultural symbols of peace.

Working with Beth on the third Poetic Dialogue project "Collaborative Vision " was a thrill.  This pairing of 31 poets and visual artists was a featured show at the Chicago Cultural Center from January through April 2009. This event was a big success and, even now, is one many remember and talk about. The Huffington Post even gave us a mention. Wonderful poets such as Micheal Ryan, Greg Pape, Martha Collins, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Steve Orlen, Micheal Burkard and so many others participated.

Further, one of my poems was featured on Beth Shadur's work as part of the "Cool Globes" project in Chicago, an innovative public art project of 124 globes designed to create awareness and inspire solutions to global warming. Cool Globes was on display along Chicago's lakefront from June to September, 2007. (I create the poem you see on this five-foot globe specifically for Beth's project. )

For more information on Beth Shadur, visit

Monday, January 3, 2011

Contemporary Audiences: Myth and Reality

I often hear from other poets and publishers that people just don't read poetry anymore. Yet the poets continue to write and the publishers continue to make books.

From my college students, friends, family and an eclectic assortment of the general reading public, I hear the one or more of the following: Why don't they [the poets] just say it! or I don't get's too [fill in your own descriptor here for any word which, ultimately, means boring]....or [my all time favorite] You call this art? 

Yet these audiences continue to buy books, attend poetry readings, take classes, read poems that matter.

Moreover, as my graduate professor explained to me one day when I asked him why he devoted his entire professional career to the study of Emily Dickinson, he said something like this:  People still read Emily Dickinson. People still buy her books. And those people are not all college students enrolled in this course. Everyday people go into a mall bookstore and buy Emily Dickinson. Her books sell. Her books are being read.

This same sentiment was echoed by a Santa Fe bookstore owner who said to me: If no one is reading poetry these days, then how it is that I can not keep a volume of the Collected Works of Wallace Stevens on the shelf? His poetry is supposed to be a 'difficult' to 'get.' But his books fly off the shelf as soon as they come in. Who is buying these books? Clearly, someone is reading them.

As for me, I observe audiences at poetry readings--at my own readings and at those I attend. And I see some a good number of people who seem transfixed by the experience.

Yet my experience does not reconcile with the prevailing myths surrounding poets, poetry and audiences.

So maybe  something else needs to be addressed.

More on this later on.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Guest Blog Must-Read: "Tenderness" by Sydney James

 From time to time I will reprint--with permission of the writer, of course-- various pieces of writing that I believe are a "must-read." This piece is written by the writer and editor Sydney James.


                           by Sydney James

So the other night my friend T. and I went to a place across town because
she said it has the best (though the most expensive) cocktails. We were
standing at the bar when my drink came, some mixture of stuff called, I
think, a "Florentini," and the guy standing next to me asked about it, so I
handed it to him so he could taste it. He was with a group of about six
beautiful men who all had their arms around each other, and I realized this
was one of those near-gay bars where everyone can come in but gay men
outnumber everybody else about 3 to 1.

So Josh, his name was, struck up a conversation with me about where he comes
from, which I know a little about because I work with people from the same
part of the country, and then he was introducing his friends-not so very
young (because they probably wouldn't have talked to us if they were, T. and
I being not) but really lovely every one of them.

Josh was one of those people who watches everything: motivations, dynamics,
shifting currents, and when his friends' tray of cappuccino martinis came he
handed one to me to taste in return for sharing mine. At church I'm used to
drinking communion wine out of the common cup, and with that much alcohol
sloshing through the glasses I really don't think either of us could have
caught anything, but even if we could (both of us were implying),
hospitality trumps germophobia.

And T. and I spent, I don't know, maybe half an hour with these men, and
they talked to us, they kissed us and hugged us; they were nice. It was just
basic human contact, and certainly it's a shallow thing when people are
saying "we love you" when you're never going to see them again, but it beats
a lot of other things you can get in a bar, dunnit? 

There was a certain gentleness on both sides that surprised me, a kind of
hope underneath the politeness that we were going to preserve one another's
dignity and value as human beings, that if fire broke out we would make sure
everybody got to the exits instead of trampling one another. T. and I made a
few comments about the difficulty of meeting kind straight men, and Josh &
co. shared some stories about trying to navigate through a straight world
when you're not, and really underneath I think we all felt a desperate
relief that for a little while no one was getting hurt-because we were all
old enough to know how often in an exchange between strangers, however brief
and trivial, somebody does.

It made me think that our culture-a misspelling, there, the first time I
typed "our vulture"-is dying of a lack of tenderness. It seems like
tenderness couldn't cost very much, and yet to be so rare it must cost a
lot. How hard is it to lay your palm against someone's cheek, how risky is
it to wrap your coat around them? Do mothers still do that? Mothers are
supposed to be the heavy hitters at this and yet I don't much see it even
there, at least in public. To tolerate a person's need or hurt or failing-to
not only tolerate it but accept it and make room for it-to put your arms out
under someone to keep them from falling into despair-I hope it's going on
between parents and children, between spouses, lovers, friends, but I don't
know for sure.

It's as if tenderness is more private (or more shameful?) than sex. I mean
at work you can get CAUGHT in the act, and somehow it's never an act of
kissing your cube-mate's temple or cupping their face in your hands. Do you
ever have to will yourself not to reach out and stroke someone's hair? Is
this just one of those things we never talk about, or are we so encased in
Lucite now that we're never even tempted?

We're not supposed to want tenderness from anyone, either-women put on their
mascara and high heels and pretend they don't because of course they're just
hard-drinking hos-men are ashamed of wanting it so they just [insert any
half-violent sex act you like here]. Only in the most extreme circumstances
are people so reduced that they can admit to needing it: you have to damn
near be standing in the smoking ruins of the world trade center.

That night T. and I were only standing at the bar, and at the end of the
half hour the guys' table was ready, and about half of them had gone while
two or three were still with us trying to extricate themselves gracefully. I
mean I think they were still enjoying the conversation, but Josh was wanting
to get his ducklings in a row and we knew they needed to move on. So I was
saying go on now, you have to have dinner-and one of the guys said oh, they
want to get rid of us, and I said no, no, we just don't want to get in your
way. And I didn't. I wanted to give them one last kiss and let them go
without leaving any kind of mark. But it was a little hard and sad watching
them walk away. It was a strange night and a strange encounter, and I do
kind of miss them even now.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Why Not Poetry?

Those of you who know me know I have more questions than I have answers. You also know that I am passionate about poetry and its role in our culture.

As with so much in life, if we don't define what our literary culture is and should be--if we don't define its value and declare its importance--then, I assure you, it will be--it has been-- defined for us.

Surely, you can see that.

So let's talk, okay?  

The Poetic Converation:
(a proposed list of a few items to be considered in this space)

Whose Poetry Is It Anyway?
A 21st Century Definition of Poetry
Poetry and The Cultural Conversation
Image v. Reality: American Poetry Audiences
What Responsibility Do Poets Have to Poetry Audiences? to Publishers
Ten Statements You Will Never Read In a Contemporary Poetry Book Review
Best Poetry Books on Poetry
Poetry, Self-Promotion and The Public Relations (or What Would Walt Whitman Do to "Sing Himself")
Creating a Realistic Creative Process
How to Develop an Audience for Poetry
Easy-Peasy Poetry: Why Bother?
Book Shelf Recommends
Why Audiences Leave the Room
Great Poetry Begins  Local: Five Objectives for For You, The Cultural Citizen
Poetry and You: How to Begin and What To Do Next (an on-going series for those who write--or want to write)