Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Present and the New Yorker: Not Quite

I was in a bathroom recently, and there were a couple of New Yorker's (the magazine) on the back of the toilet, so at least I knew that I was in friendly territory, and if the loud-mouth soup came out I was fairly sure I wouldn't be shot when I started spouting (something I wouldn't have been sure of if say, Shot Business, was sitting there instead).

I started leafing through it, then jumped straight up front to the contents, and looked up the poetry. Now I'm working hard, and have been, to make a go at being a professional writer. And part of that is getting published, and mostly getting paid, and so I'd tried many times before to get some work in print at the TNY, as their email comes back, but nothing doing. And a big reason I wanted to be in print there was the rumored $1,500.00 an accepted piece would bring.

A young writer would feel pretty pleased with such a tidy sum, especially when looking at the total owed in student loans which haven't even started to be paid.

Elizabeth Bishop. This was one of the two poets who the NY-er published.
Elizabeth Bishop?

Que? I mean, I used an anthology last time I taught a class which featured Elizabeth Bishop. National Book Award. Nation Book Critics Award. Neustadt Prize. She visited Pound while he was confined. She used to write for the NY-er, and friends publish friends, which is one of the great elements of literature, but come on, it is not like she doesn't have a fair bit of reknown.

Anyway, I sat there, reading why she was being re-published, to promote a new book examining her work (which is amazing) and life(which I know only details of), because she is, sadly, dead.

Now the NYer does a good job on a lot of stuff, but the poetry just holds me back. Shouldn't they be clue-ing us in, giving us directions to the edge so we can stare over, instead of leaving us wrapped in a blanket back by the fire so our toesies don't get cold. I can't fall into the majority of the poetry in there, and for a while now I have been questioning why.

Well, after I saw Bishop's name, I went to find a quote I read not so long ago from Dale Smith (who I saw read last week at The Poetry Project with Hoa Nguyen, his wife. They were great). He wrote, "
Poetry should be present, and in the present, providing recursive paths through current situations. The cult of the person doesn't interest me so much as the range of the person's work."

Right on. If you've never heard Dale read, I choose to describe, and not label him, as a fast reader of angry and acquiescent prose and verse. That's my sound-bite. I'm a fan.

Hoa is sublime, and her readings can transform you. Again, fan.

Moving on from the pleasant, they are both present. They are both present in the discourse of their work, channeling the personal present, the sensory present, the public present, the ethereal present. They have put Skanky Possum, the journal they edited, on hiatus, moving instead into individual artist's books, because that is where strength of the present can be built for poetry. There are journals out there, lots of them, and many great ones(click on the links to the left) which need to be subscribed to and need to continue being published because it is in these amazing compliations by those who are exquisitely engaged in the work of poetry, rather than the cult of poetry, that we are finding what the NY-er just doesn't bather to give us: a way to kick ass.

That's what art, great and small and difficult and challenging art, does, it kicks ass. It kicks societies ass. Artists are on the fringes, are on the forefront, delving into the earth to pull out the bits and fragments of where we are now in order to re-create our understanding of where we are now, and most people feel like they've just had their ass kicked when that happens. But you know what happens when you get your ass kicked?

You end up breathing a little deeper, and that makes you humble, which makes you wise.

The hiatus of Skanky Possum is important to the small press culture because from the small journals must spring larger works, longer, more complex examinations, and deeper investigations into the slices of cultural perspective of those authors. Jonathan Skinner's Ecopoetics has been a fabulous way to move poetry away from the 'art for art's sake' world, but his book Political Cactus Poems provides a cornerstone around which to build a school of the Ecopoetic. And just in time too, because when he publishes his Katrina poem, as he is the person most uniquely qualified to write that response, having crafted a piece capturing the weight of the event soundly, and devastatingly, it WILL solidify the birth of that school. That piece is going to humble people. Guess what else it is going to do?

Let's put down our mirrors and take up our hammers.

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