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5.31.2003

One of the great challenges, for me at least, has been separating writing from its business - to write without any thought, however subconscious, towards where I will submit the work later, whether it will "fit" in a collection, how it would come off at a public reading, etc. Even now, years since I wrote anything like a standard narrative or lyric poem, I still find myself wondering if Joseph Parisi would like my latest.

I'm not an MFA-basher and find the whole to MFA or not to MFA debate tedious, but one valid criticism is that the academic environment can - and often does - convince young writers that avenues to validation are limited to those marked with a "III" in Poet's Market. I suspect that this anxiety is not limited to writers who came up in what Charles Bernstein calls "official verse culture." I'm sure there are plenty of poets just as anxious to appear in Skanky Possum as others are to be in Poetry and for precisely the same reason: it's the place to be.


I began to wonder a few years ago whether there is some unwritten rule that poetry books have to be in sections (usually three) and contain a minimum of fifty-some-odd poems. Randomly yanking books off my shelf - most published within the last ten years - I only found one that was not sectioned: Roger Finch's According to Lilies, which is on Carcanet, a British publisher.

Recently a friend had a book accepted by a major publisher, whose editor(s) then asked for ten more pages. Not ten pages of existing work they had seen, just ten more pages. Is this a matter of publishing economics? A magic cover price-to-page ratio? I have a hard time believing this does not have a profound effect on the integrity of a book as a singular work, and I can't count the number of times I've read a new book only to feel it would have been stronger at two-thirds or even half the length.
In thinking about Arkansas I was reminded that at least two of its graduates appear in Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism. They are R.S. Gwynn and Paul Lake (I've met Gwynn once but don't know either of them - before my time). I was going to post some thoughts on New Formalism, but I'll defer to Thomas Merton:

Many poets are not poets for the same reason many religious men [sic] are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves ... For many absurd reasons, they are convinced that they are obliged to become somebody else who died two hundred years ago and who lived in circumstances utterly alien to their own. --from New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962.[ellipses mine]

Which is not to say I reject received forms or that all the poets who have been counted among the ranks of these "rebels" are unworthy of note, only that the idea of 25 poets agreeing, apparently, that there is a right way to write strikes me as silly.

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A recent exchange with Joe Duemer got me thinking about how many poets and kinds of poetry I may never have come across if it weren't for the web, particularly experimental or "post-avant" (a term that's hard to love) poetries. Finding Antin, Bernstein, Hejinian, Howe (Susan and Fanny), Silliman - to name but a few - in the mid-nineties was both exhilerating and somewhat depressing. At that time I was struggling in my own work to "make it new," only to discover in these poets that some of my idea-germs had already been brought to fruition a decade or more prior.

At the time (1996) I had an MFA in hand from Arkansas, a program with an emphasis on received form and what is generally referred to as "the tradition in English verse" (No apologies; I would do it again),* and was living in the Tokyo burbs, as mind-bending a language environment as a writer could hope for.** That coupled with my finding - via the web - of a vast body of poetry from "the other side of the century" resulted in one MFA thesis being shelved.

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*The Arkansas program is still - to my knowledge - the only program modeled on the original Iowa program: 60 hours (only 12 of them workshop), four years to complete.
**It was enlightening to see what a bookstore in a foreign country deemed to be important in American poetry/poetics as opposed to what one finds here. The Kinokuniya store in Tokyo is where I first came across Post-modern Poetries by Hank Lazer, the Poems for the Millenium anthology, essay collections by Bernstein, and others. There was no Billy Collins. I'd welcome an email as to whether this is the case in other countries.
First post. My subject is poetry, mostly. More once I get this all set up.

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