Poet's Country: A Home for Literary Nomads

11/03/2016 09:50 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2016
“At the end of the day, Poet’s Country was and is meant to be a home for people on the move.” - Sam O’Hana
www.ericgriffinart.com
Eric Griffin
www.ericgriffinart.com

The Friday before Halloween, I gathered around my table with Alexandra Franklin and Sam O’Hana, and over potato soup and two bottles of wine, we discussed Poet’s Country—their latest and biggest project to date. Originally co-founded by O’Hana and George Kovalenko in 2014, Poet’s Country is an established reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club (one among many), and now, a new literary journal (also one among many).

When I first encountered Poet’s Country, I was struck by the inclusive and inviting ethos portrayed in both the work represented, and the core people involved: O’Hana, Kovalenko, Franklin, and Taylor Lannamann—four friends who met while doing MFA programs across New York City. It was apparent almost immediately to me that Poet’s Country was created first and foremost as a dwelling place for post-MFA graduates who couldn’t find a home in a city where literary culture exists everywhere. I wanted to know more.

Though we were meant to sit down for forty-five minutes, the three of us ended up talking for almost two hours. It was a thrilling and engaging conversation—one I’ve obsessed over and thought about for days. We discussed the maintenance of literary magazines (please consider donating to their Kickstarter campaign!), and talked about the ethics and poetics of an increasingly diverse world, the role of poetry and of the poet, and what it means to be a good “literary citizen.”

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Sam O’Hana: First of all, it’s really good to be here. Thank you for having us over, Hillary. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about yet, exactly, apart from the fact that we all have one thing in common, which is the upcoming Poet’s Country Reading Series—informally known as Poet’s Country Club.

Hillary Ferguson: Yes! So, where did Poet’s Country come from? Where did you get the idea and when?

SO: Back in 2014, when I had just arrived to New York from the UK to do the MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, I had a pretty rubbish living situation. It was a loft and didn’t have a lot of space, and when my friend from NYU, George Kovalenko, took a look around the place we had a conversation about starting a reading series. What I had noticed about the MFA programs in New York was that there were a lot of them—about ten or so. All these students go into the universities for two years, pay large sums of money to attend classes, but don’t really get the chance to interact with students from other programs across the city.

At the time, we just wanted to put something fun together. We called it the Poet’s Country Club in a kind of “tongue-in-cheek way” and wanted it to be a reading series that brought together MFA students from all over of the city. It wasn’t designed to be exclusive—in fact quite the opposite. People quickly took to that idea and started submitting from all over.

Alexandra Franklin: When I first started coming to these readings, it was apparent immediately that the connotations of exclusivity were completely gone. It’s anything but exclusive. The whole point of it is to be inclusive. In its genesis, Sam and George were most interested in the idea of both literal and figurative landscapes, and how we think about our place in the world. And how that’s affected by the place you come from. That was the driving concept behind the journal. Even as editors, we all come from vastly different places. Sam is from the UK, Taylor Lannamann (our prose editor) is from the New England area, I’m from the South, and George is from California. Among the four of us, we have a good deal of geography covered. It was just interesting for us to think about what it could mean to create a new space where we could bring together different ideas of what it means to be a part of a community, having come from totally different landscapes.

SO: I agree. It was meant to inclusive, and a space for those who don’t have an exclusive community. You know, poets don’t have a role in the economy in the same way that other professionals do. The Poet’s Country Club was a space that we could own, that could be ours. We appropriated it for the production and dissemination of new work and art that our peers were and are making. That went on for two years and when I graduated from my MFA program [The New School], none of us knew if we’d all be in the City at the same time or if we were staying or leaving. That’s when we decided to look into producing a journal—something we could work on no matter where we were in the world. At the end of the day, Poet’s Country was and is meant to be a home for people on the move.

HF: So, it started as a reading series and gradually evolved into what it is now—a bi-annual journal and a quarterly reading series.

SO: Right. And the idea was that the two would be in conversation with one another. The reading series would inform the journal and vice versa. The work that goes into the journal can and often will be influenced by the voices heard at the reading series. And the first issue of the journal will launch in January at the next reading series (which is hosted at the Bowery Poetry Club). We are going to publish some of the work heard in the reading series over the last year, but it will also contain the work of Caoilinn Hughes and Noam Chomsky, amongst others.

HF: That’s good company to be in if you’re an emerging writer! I’m sure we’ll talk about Noam Chomsky in a bit, but I’m really curious about the economy of putting something like this out into the world. Financially and logistically speaking, how do we get literary magazines and journals off the ground?

SO: Well, America has such a good corporate publishing history, but it also has this underground history where artists like Allen Ginsberg, Hettie Jones, Ted Berrigan, and others would literally gather around in someone’s apartment, mimeograph a bunch of pages of their poetry that had been typed, and then staple it with a cover they had designed themselves. They would give them out to friends and people they knew. It was almost like a stamp or a passport that said, “You belong to the literary community.”

So, that’s one way to do it.

HF: I want to ask you first, Alexandra, because I’m really curious about what your response may or may not be. In what ways do you feel Poet’s Country is contributing to the literary community—I guess what I mean is, what are you doing that’s different compared to all the other literary programs/series/journals that exist in New York. I mean, the literary community here is just so big.

AF: Well, that’s an interesting question for me, because I do work in corporate publishing. I love my job. The publishing world is taking on some risky and important works of art right now. There are just so many incredible voices coming out. This is maybe the first time in a long time, or ever, that mainstream publishing is really giving a platform to things other than the traditional white, male voice. It kind of blows my mind that we’re just recently starting to have these big discussions now in publishing about diversity, but I am really proud to be a part of that discussion. So I’m seeing both sides of this on a daily basis. The rise of diversity in mainstream publishing, but I’m also seeing a lot of things getting published that feel, to me, like stories that we’ve already read so many times. I know why that’s happening and I like those books (and I read them), but it’s really important to me to be a part of something like Poet’s Country, where we’re actively seeking out new voices--including, and especially, those who haven’t traditionally been afforded mainstream representation.

What sets us apart, and what I think we actively try to do, is contribute to the discussion of what it means to be from a certain place and landscape, or cultural background. It’s very exciting. There are so many creative possibilities when you’re working on a project where there are no limitations on what you can or cannot publish. And I think it’s making me want to take more creative risks at work, too. It gives me permission to seek out art that is really different and new.

HF: What about in your own work? You’re reading and editing the submissions to Poet’s Country, and getting acquainted with so many different voices. Do you feel like it’s influencing your writing at all?

AF: Sure, yes. Everything we read becomes a part of our own voices in some way. Right now, I’m really excited about finding good writers and helping them get published. And I do think that affects the way I think about my own writing and its place in the world. We’re always writing something whether or not we’re engaging in the process in a traditional way. I don’t think we can really get away from that.

HF: No, I totally get that! There are so many times when I’m walking and writing in my head or taking mental notes for later because everywhere you turn in this City there’s poetry. The other day, for example, I was coming up out of a subway station and there were two cops harassing an African American guy who was backed into the wall and had his hands up. They stepped back to let me walk through, which made me feel highly uncomfortable and then also hyper-aware of my privilege. As I passed by them, the guy shouted, “What home do you want me to go to? I have no home!” At the same time, another guy zoomed by us on a hoverboard and I was so wrapped up in that moment. The fact that technology is so advanced that hoverboards really exist as a mode of transportation, but we’re still trying to figure out how to appropriately handle poverty and homelessness. It blows my mind. But yeah, I couldn’t help but immediately start crafting a poem about the very clear and discomforting juxtaposition in that moment.

AF: Yes. It’s moments like that when I really feel like literature can be a powerful agent for social change. These are things we should be writing about and acknowledging.

SO: I think there’s an important point to make here, and I think it’s being brought up more and more in literary culture, which is the D-word: diversity. The bottom line about urban societies—perhaps now more than ever—is that it’s incredibly diverse, and anything not diverse exists in an enclave. It’s really worth looking at what productions get made that don’t accurately or literally represent the diversity that is society, not necessarily what diversity you can find in society. So, seeing juxtapositions like “poverty in the midst of plenty” and other types of contradictions, written out in a way that isn’t complex, is important. And writers have been doing this for a long time, going back to William Carlos Williams. Writers who said this is the way it is. It’s not that it’s complex; it’s just not what we’ve been taught to see. This is what Poet’s Country journal is trying to do. We want to realign ways of seeing. And I think one of the most important parts of working in the publishing industry is opening up new ways of seeing and thinking for those who haven’t quite yet formed their own ideas. For young people to have access to information whose production is not meant for profit is very necessary. Michael Schmidt, in his critical response to John Ashbery, said, “His work doesn’t confront, but invites…” A big part of Poet’s Country is about inaugurating an enthusiasm for subjects that are neglected because they appear to be inhumane, cold, or inaccessible. Poetry can be part of that.

AF: I think a good example of what Sam is talking in regards to the journal is our interview with Noam Chomsky. He was a pacifist and protester during the Vietnam War and has, for years, been regarded as a leading intellectual in America. The fiftieth anniversary of his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals is coming up, so Sam went to MIT to discuss what, if anything, had changed from his perspective since then. That interview will be available in the first issue, which comes out in January.

HF: I apologize if this comes off as crass, but how did you score an interview with Noam Chomsky? I mean, he’s a big hitter in the literary world and Poet’s Country is a journal in its infancy, run by people who are fresh out of MFA programs.

SO: We’d been in contact because he’d given vocal support to the graduate student worker’s campaign for recognition by private universities– a struggle that is ongoing despite the federal ruling of the NLRB. After I graduated from The New School I just reached out to him and asked. Honestly.

AF: It was pretty much just this side of a cold call. I was a little surprised at how quickly it happened. I read Noam Chomsky in college, and we all know him as this influential intellectual, and we have this idea that we can’t reach out to these lofty figures. It’s so easy to think that they’re beyond us, or above us, or don’t have time to speak with us, but actually, I think, they want to. It might only be thirty minutes with someone like that, but it’s invaluable time. It’s scary to reach out and intimidating, but they’re available and accessible people.

HF: Yeah, it’s still surprising to me when I meet or talk to a poet I revere how remarkably normal they are—especially when you and I sort of look at writers like celebrities. My next question is more related to the idea that we’re still very young and new to this world, but I am curious: now that you’re out of the MFA bubble, do you feel like you’re in some kind of liminal or in-between space?

SO: …..yes.

AF: Yes. Definitely. And I don’t know when that’s over. I don’t know. Maybe this is just what it feels like to be an adult. What’s nice about a liminal space is that it kind of gives you the freedom to do whatever you want.

SO: One of the first tasks of coming out of a program is asking yourself, “what is it you want to produce” and “what do you want to leave behind.” The poet Jeffrey Schultz—who is helping us out with Poet’s Country—decided to start completely fresh when he finished his MFA. The result, What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other, won the National Poetry Series in 2013.

AF: Another thing we’ve seen is people starting new reading series and journals. Hillary, you have this awesome reading series at KGB Bar, which you started as a first year MFA student. That’s impressive to me because I don’t think I would have had the moxie to do that.

HF: It was a total narcissistic move on my part, honestly.

AF: We all want to be a part of this community. We want to contribute to it.

HF: Well, I was probably 21 or 22 the first time I went to KGB, and (I think?) Deborah Landau was reading. I fell in love with the space immediately and knew I wanted to read there one day. So, that’s kind of the root of why I started The New School reading series there. Although, now, it’s morphed into this incredibly fun monthly series and it’s just such a joy and a reward to curate it every month.

AF: So many of our friends and peers are hosting amazing reading series. That’s one thing I love about being a writer in New York. You have Nicole Basta and Trinity Tibe’s Say Yes series and Sarah Madges does Mental Marginalia, which is phenomenal. We came out of the MFA program seeing that people wanted to bring together a community and give back to that community by being good literary citizens and participating, even though there are things about it that are difficult.

SO: Actually, I disagree. Getting reading series’ and journals off the ground is very easy. It’s the maintenance that’s the real challenge. All projects in their infancy are like this: you get a thrill when you’re doing something fresh and new, and people are cheering you on, but then by the third or fourth reading, people forget about it. That’s why Poet’s Country only does four readings and two journal productions a year.

AF: For the next fifty years! Well, unless Trump becomes President...

HF: You’ll be in Canada running Poet’s Country. 2.0.

SO: You joke, but that’s actually part of the motivation for Poet’s Country. It’s meant to be a discursive dwelling place for people who don’t feel at home in their current location.

AF: Do you feel like part of the issue with the post-MFA literary world is that people don’t always feel at home in it?

SO: Yeah, I do. MFA programs expose you to writing that doesn’t always make you feel comfortable and when you’re done, your exposure to different forms of writing is significantly reduced. In turn, you’re not as incentivized to take on new modes of writing, and that’s when you start to feel out of the loop, so to say.

AF: Right. When you’re in an MFA program, you’re constantly surrounded by literature and the discussion of literature. Even down to conversations like, “what is poetry and what is the role of the poet?”

HF: Matthew Kosinski, another poet and a good friend of mine, is actually doing a project right now (Let Me Think That For You) where he’s engaging with the audience and asking that precise question. What do you think your answer would be?

SO: Well, there is no world without poetry. People are making art always, whether they know it or not. I’m going to venture to say that none of us came to poetry in a deliberate fashion. I think most of us just come upon it and then want to know more. But, yes, of course poetry can play a role. Look at Claudia Rankine. Her work exposes so many blind spots and fault lines in society. That said, not all poetry has to function in that manner. There is space for fun and play, and a full spectrum is important.

AF: Claudia Rankine does do some experimentation with form, though. I’m not sure I would call it “play” exactly. But, for example, every time Citizen is reprinted, she adds new information, updated data on police brutality, so it’s constantly evolving, which mirrors the way we receive information via social media. It’s not a static thing; it’s like a living organism.

One thing I’m really interested in is what we’re allowed to say in poetry. For example, e e cummings sometimes wrote in voices and dialects that were not his own. I’m not certain I feel comfortable appropriating another culture's voice in my work, but I also think it would be dangerous to tell someone they can’t. It’s the privilege of writers, especially poets, to say anything. You’re allowed to do anything. And people are allowed to react in whatever way they see fit.

HF: I think that’s so interesting. And it also touches on the concept of accessibility. So many people who aren’t in the poetry world feel like it’s this very exclusive, tight formed art, but it’s not. The kind of poetry you’re familiar with coming out of high school or even college is sometimes so inaccessible and anthologized that it scares people off. People look at it and say, “oh, well, I can’t do that.”

AF: Exactly, which I find incredibly unfortunate. Honestly, I find poetry much more accessible than a lot of fiction. There are times when I’m reading manuscripts at work and I think, “I don’t know how to start with this.” It’s so monolithic by comparison. With poetry—like Sam said—you have a little bit more space for play and experimentation.

SO: Well, I think we have to make one distinction between accessibility and marketability. Poetry is not marketed the same way that fiction or nonfiction is. It doesn’t hold the same commercial value, and because of that, people don’t see it as commercial art. Personally, I think that’s fine. If poetry survives the commercial practices of this era, then it’s good art. Good poetry is bigger than the market. Poetry is marketed to other poets, and we’re really the only people who see a value in it.

AF: Yeah. Novels like Gone Girl, for an example, will have whole publicity teams assigned to it—you don’t often see that with poetry. In some ways that’s incredibly freeing. As poets, we can work from a space where nobody is really paying attention until suddenly they are.

SO: Poetry doesn’t need to attain the status of being part of mass culture, though. It’s wishful thinking and it would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. And that’s ok.

AF: I’d say creating the audience for poetry is a complicated part of it, especially in running a journal.

HF: Well, I don’t know if you remember, but Matt Kosinski and I tried to get our own journal running and we failed miserably. It’s hard, and a real labor of love, because there is no economy or profit.

AF: Yeah, there really isn’t a lot of capital being poured into literary magazines. But we’re crowdfunding this journal through Kickstarter right now, and the support we’ve received is amazing. It just highlights how much of a community-based endeavor this is. When George set up the Kickstarter, he named the different levels of contribution things like “Citizen” and “Statesperson,” which is how we’re thinking of this--it’s a collaborative effort. We’re really grateful. We’re very close to reaching our Kickstarter goal, but we’re hoping we might even exceed that. Any donations past the original goal will go toward printing and distribution. We’re just excited about getting it into people’s hands and looking toward our next issue.

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Alexandra Franklin received her poetry MFA from The New School in 2016. A Mississippi native, she now lives in Brooklyn. She is a literary agent as well as Associate Editor of the literary journal Poet's Country. Her work has been published in The New York Times and elsewhere.

Sam O’Hana is from Manchester, England and works at the Bowery Poetry Club. He is a Fulbright scholar, and a co-founder of Poet’s Country. His work has recently appeared in Seventh Wave and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

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