The applications are in for the City of Philadelphia's next poet laureate. The two-year term of Sonia Sanchez, the city's inaugural poet laureate, concludes at the end of 2013. The appointment of the next poet laureate is being processed by the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (with final approval by Mayor Michael Nutter), and the choice will be telling.
Philly is called "Poetdelphia" because there's literally a poet on every street corner. There are city-based poetry magazines and zines like The American Poetry Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Poets Journal and the New Purlieu Review. Every year in April (or National Poetry Month), Larry Robin of Moonstone (once part of the now-defunct Robin's Bookstore) hosts Poetry Link, in which hundreds of poets sign up for an opportunity to read their work on stage for 3 or 4 minutes. Poetry Link is an all-day event. It's a chance for the city's poets to come together and network. As a participant in several Moonstone readings, I can tell you that there's a huge range of poets in this city.
Here's a sample:
There are good lady poets who sometimes come to Moonstone dressed a little bit like Emily Dickinson.
There are "come to Jesus" poets, or earnest missionary types (usually women) who list the things that Jesus has done for them lately.
There are girlfriend-boyfriend poets who write about their love for one another, and female poets (dressed in black) who write about how they got even with cruel ex-boyfriends, while spurned boyfriend poets write about their "Medusa ex-girlfriend" who is "still on the loose."
There are the purely sexual poets who go right to the G-spot with words and images meant to shock; poets stuck in an "F" word vortex; jazz poets who try to sound like Ella Fitzgerald; first-time poets who blush and stutter and are afraid to make eye contact with the audience; black activist poets who remind us of the evils of slavery; academic poets who do their best to ape Virgil's The Aeneid or the lyric poetry of Quintus Horatuis Flaccus (Horace) but, more often than not, just make the audience yawn; slam poets who combine their words with body motions -- a wiggle or twerk here, a twisted palsy arm spasm there -- before they end it all with throwback "operatic" head motions.
There are occasional prose-to-poetry poets like me.
There are retro, San Francisco-style, goatee-sporting beat poets who scream louder than they should as the cocked fedora on their head falls to the floor.
There's the mom-with-grown-children poet from Cherry Hill who likes to talk about her rabbi, or the angry ex-Catholic poet who will "sandblast" lists of priests and nuns. There are poets who take 15 minutes to explain the poem they are about to read, or who take 25 minutes to read a series of poems after promising to be brief. Beware of poets who approach the podium with a portfolio of notes. These poets, you will find, are often champions at self-promotion. They'll spend five minutes filling you in on how to buy their discounted books on Amazon.
Sometimes the display is so embarrassing in its no-holds-barred narcissism that it makes you want to give up poetry altogether.
There are poets who breathe heavily into the microphone. I call these the pause-and-refresh poets, the listen-to-my-breathing poets who should really have been singers or dancers.
There are very good poets at Moonstone, to be sure, which makes Poetry Link worth the effort.
Still, there's the question: Who will replace Sanchez? As the city's first poet laureate, her ability to work with mainstream audiences through the Mural Arts Project was exemplary, but will other city poets be so easily homogenized?
Consider the very talented CAConrad, who continues to stun audiences everywhere with his Deviant Propulsion word missiles (e.g., "It's True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon"). If Conrad becomes the poet laureate (assuming he's applied for the position), will his style go over at a City Hall business luncheon? After all, the poet laureate has to be able to relate to many different types of people, from grassroots bohemians to the Union League bowtie-wearing crowd.
It's too bad that the Fishtown-born poet Jack Veasey is now a Harrisburg native. Veasey would make a good Philadelphia poet laureate. He's the author of 11 books and reads his work in different cities across the nation. In a recent interview Veasey even talked about growing up in Fishtown:
I had plenty to struggle against in Fishtown. The neighborhood's old atmosphere -- when it was industrial, before it became gentrified -- still pervades a lot of my work. My poems are often set in gritty urban locales. I was oppressed as a kid in Fishtown -- I was a target for bullies -- and that gave me an outsider's perspective, and made me identify with the underdog, which I still do. That colors a lot of my choices of subjects, and the viewpoints from which I write, when they aren't my own.
Everybody in Fishtown in the old days had a story to tell if you let them -- and I went through a period where I re-told a lot of those stories in my poetry, particularly in my book "No Time For Miracles," which came out at the end of the eighties.
Poet Lamont Steptoe, an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War, has a "Sanchez kind of magic," but would a Steptoe-Sanchez succession interfere with the city's racial diversity goals? This brings us to the question: How much will politics play in the next appointment? I mean, would a vegetarian, Asian, female poet laureate with a penchant for socialist politics be a safer bet than, say, a latter-day Paul Goodman ("He was a beautiful mechanic / till his wife cut him down to size")?
Would a gay/feminist poet laureate be deemed too risky, or a waspish W.H. Auden or Robert Lowell type dismissed as "too white bread?" How about a safe mom poet with three names who likes to write about Longwood Gardens or Palmer Cemetery? While a poet like this probably wouldn't make waves, what would happen if she changed her style and became controversial in some way? What if she ended up sounding like Sylvia Plath?
What about an angry, revolutionary poet like a Leroy Jones, or a dense wordsmith like Hart Crane or Ezra Pound, whose words would have most Philadelphians scratching their heads?
The City is looking for a poet who can appeal to a great many people, which means not too classical, angry, political, obtuse, obscure, dense, out-there or slam-theatrical. In Poetadelphia, this may be a hard bill to fill, although there are poets who could fill Sanchez's shoes. Besides Jack Veasey, I can think of Daisy Fried. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates once said that Fried's poetry is as "fluid and quicksilver as life seen close up. Here is an original voice: provocative, poignant, and often very funny." Fried is the author of three books of poetry, including My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again.
Whoever becomes the next poet laureate is going to have a big job on their hands. Writing poetry is a dangerous business, and in general a poet ceases to be vital the minute they become a City Hall bureaucrat.