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The Poetry Feminaissance

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Are you a poet? Do you feel overwhelmed by negativity? Feel like there's no hope for a poet in this world? Especially a female poet? Well don't despair. Spend some time with Amy King. She's the author of Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox), and, with Ana Bozicevic, she co-curates the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry, and, maybe most importantly, she has ideas. Over the past few weeks we've been emailing back and forth about her ideas of what it means to be a poet today. Here's a few slices of the force for your perusal. Enjoy.

Do you think it's a good time to be a female poet in America?

Poetry remains one of the most undervalued arts because it brings neither fame nor fortune. To boot, women have historically resided in the realm of the undervalued or "behind the scenes," where everything from child-rearing to minding the minute details necessary for a society's survival takes place. There's a freedom in those positions though; one may escape popular notions of success, and instead, interrogate the origins of such notions right on through a host of other personal, cultural, philosophical and moral considerations.

The "undervalued" tag disguises another truth; poetry consistently spearheads the most transformative force every cultural history attests to: the power of the word. Children of the Baby Boomers, now in their 30s and 40s, are hitting their writing strides and, thanks to the women's movement, daughters especially are benefitting from their foremothers' efforts to identify and break the machinery that kept women working quietly in the domestic world of letters and diaries. We need only look to the work of so many innovative female poets for inspiration and incentive --models such as Kathy Acker, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino, Anne Waldman, Rosmarie Waldrop, and more-- to understand why younger female poets are experiencing a "Feminaissance," to borrow the title of a recently-published anthology focused on women's poetry and poetics.

These women are thrilling readers, male and female alike, by expanding definitions of just what poetry can do, broadening the scope of how poetry interrogates and, ultimately, challenging the way things are. I'm motivated by new books and anthologies of younger women hitting the shelves these days; their voices stand firmly on the liberating permission of our foremothers' work and are daring in ways largely unprecedented. The potential I feel in my own writing resonates with a larger chorus that confidently and publicly explores what has either been buried or unspoken. No doubt: it's exciting to be a female poet today because the sense of possibility, and the transformative power in that possibility, is palpable. The catch, of course, is to sustain the momentum by getting more of these poetries into the world despite relatively low distribution due, in part, to poetry's marginalized position in the capitalist value system. Poetry also wants to change that system, so poetry's peripheral position is no accident. Only safer, "tamed" poetry is marketed by the big machines today.

Do you think the traditional publishing industry still dictates what poetry does (and does not) get read?

This year, Barnes and Noble poetry shelves shrank from half an aisle to a few shelves. Trade publishers print fewer poetry books, and while the traditional model retains a slipping foothold on what uninitiated readers may encounter, interest in poetry is a running wildfire, likely to turn up in your neighborhood next. Evidence the exponential increase of MFA programs, local poetry readings, online journals, Facebook reviews, Twitter challenges, and the like. Poets are full of ingenuity, embracing it with an eye towards the shapes language takes. We see the changes in literacies, the technologies altering how people read and receive texts, and we react. With the advent of POD (print-on-demand) and the proliferation of E-books, small presses are springing from the giant's loins and poets are doing it for themselves. From numerous niches, Whitman is stirring beneath our boot soles.

No mainstream publishing industry exists anymore for poets than does a single readership - for example, the dwellers of a small town who we in the city might imagine only access what's offered in the mall B&N could just as well be tapping into a lively poetry circuit, which might range from the county laureate to experimental eccentric to local academic to nature poet mom to open-mike Mike to talented country songstress, all with access to blogs and YouTube and POD. How people read & how they publish is a wholly new Borgesian beast in the 21st century, and I think this is cause to celebrate.

A few from the old guard characterize this growing multiplicity as "chaotic" and the "watering down" of poesy, as though mediocre poems never fell from industry presses, as though we might breach a mythological stalwart horizon and create too much. Really though, they fear losing the power to dictate the canonical and omit the peripheral, a fear that opposes asking exactly how we determine value and engage with texts, now that literature is opening to more democratic vistas reflective of our ever-changing population. That power speaks mountains about sustaining status-quo-think and keeping specific people "in their places."

While traditionalists may sit safely in stasis amid old tomes keeping others out, they will miss this evolving engagement, this poetry that refuses to stay still and reflect only what has passed. James Baldwin wrote, "A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey." For better or worse, the means by which people exchange ideas are rapidly changing, and poetry, if it is to have a say, must adapt and innovate. We have never needed and hoped so much of poetry as we do today. Poets across the food chain have a chance to be heard in unrestricted ways, or as Susan Howe wrote in The Midnight, "Where philosophy stops, poetry is impelled to begin," and, in these new formats, become the vehicle for what and how we might imagine.

How do you think the means of publication for poetry and poetry itself are related?

If you have the freedom to publish online or through a small press and reach a good number of people, you will likely feel more comfortable writing exactly what you want. If a small press accepts even the outré or controversial work you do, you'll feel less pressured to conform to what a big publisher might deign to shill in the local B&N. In short, alternative means of publication=creative freedom, the mother's milk of experimental and progressive writing.

This raises the question, "What does it mean to 'sell out?'" The range of writing might be simplified on a scale from that which simply entertains to that which calls attention to the unusual and discomforts. Popular literature puts readers at ease, providing the familiar and comfortable. The latter challenges a lot such as what we expect and is expected of us, what else can stimulate and charge us, what peculiar and unjust matters have we suppressed, etc. Big publishers steer clear of the latter because those issues tend to be political, complex and encourage us to think in ways that seem odd or unpermitted.

For example, I'm often told that I have an occasional beautiful line or image but my poetry sometimes doesn't "make sense." I'm told to "move on" from poetry and write a memoir because I relay great anecdotes. These encouragements are grounded in the notion that reading should please rather than challenging what people know, thus asking them to step beyond that comfort zone. For them, there is a progress from poetry to memoir that is, in fact, a move towards ease and comfort, rather than opening up and exploring what else our minds are able to conceptualize. It's the equivalent of my students asking me, "Why do we have to analyze these texts? Why can't we just enjoy them?" As though analysis disallows pleasure--try telling the teenager who is suddenly fascinated by cars not to analyze why he likes them, what goes on under the hood, or which tires work best on what surfaces; tell him instead to just to sit back and enjoy how graceful the cars are as they speed by.

Experimental poetry, and writing in general, challenges the "natural" order of things, the surface of "what's real" or the status quo mentality. Such poetry, by default, requires unusual methods of distribution to enable "difficult" or challenging literature to unseat the mainstream model and the politics of our prescribed co-existence (via religion, gov't law, social mores, etc), or else writers will "sell out" and remove those elements, reducing literature to mere popular entertainment. My students learn that literature can usually be boiled down and characterized as doing one of two things: you can simply write what everyone sees and reflect the culture you live in or you can change it by giving shape to new ideas, concepts, and voices silenced or ignored.

How does book distribution and online publication tie into a project like Poets for Living Waters?

Poets for Living Waters, as an action and project, would be next to impossible without the Internet: from two separate states, Heidi Lynn Staples and I were able to create the site, post a call, and begin publishing poems in the face of a national tragedy--all within a week of conception. We are only two weeks in now, and the site's audience grows daily. We have helped organize readings across the U.S. for World Oceans Day, and video and audio from these will be posted on the site. Everything has been done at no cost, except our time, and with the support and desire of so many. The fact that submissions and comments come from a range of "established" and unknown poets is testament that we really are entering a time when the Internet is just as, if not more, relevant to the poetry community than print. Eventually, we may edit an anthology from this project, and I know of several small presses that would likely be interested, or we could publish it ourselves; the stamp of "print" adds yet another facet to the project's reach. The measures of "legitimacy" are inevitably and presently changing.

A few folks have asked me what this project will "do" in the face of such a tragedy, as if responding with words is not an action or won't have an effect. Of course, donating money, time, and energy to clean up the BP oil spill is a direct address, but why can't we, as poets, speak directly to this experience as it unfolds? Must we all sit, in the media age, watching the saga play out on screen via television programs that leave us feeling impotent and removed? One of the roles of poetry is to raise awareness and broaden our own understanding at the same time. Besides feeling angry and impotent, what else can we feel? How are we to proceed in the future? What else can we do as clean up progresses and later damages appear? How will we address the aftermath and how must we change our lifestyles? This "queer" questioning is something I was getting at in my essay, "The What Else of Queer Poetry" - what can we learn, through poetic dialogue and exploration, that the media and our limited awareness can't teach us? This "we" includes those willing to step outside of the "normal" mediums that process information for us, the mainstream media and publishing companies, swallow our trepidation and venture into uncertain territory where we become actors in the world, speaking and listening through the poetic, words carefully chosen and shared in an effort to respond and act, however cacophonous our symphony, instead of being told exactly what is and how it will be by those in charge of the big distribution machines. The Internet provides us with the tools to respond, and we're doing just that.

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