Saturday, November 14, 2009

Poetry Speaks

Is there a role for commerce in poetry? Ezra Pound worked his (crackpot) economic theories into his Cantos. Katy Lederer wrote a book using her hedge fund experience to spin the stuff of the money-drunk 00’s into metaphors for longing, ambition, sex, God and grief. Money is considered anathema to the dream of poetry even if (especially because?) most poets make a middling salary in gigs as college teachers. Poetry magazine’s $100 million windfall from a pharmaceutical industry heiress caused all kinds of anger and belittlements from poets (including me). Complements for the Poetry Foundation’s wide-ranging efforts since then have been grudgingly given, even though the money has not only been used to revivify the magazine, but also to support a relatively wide range of the art through mainstream outlets and through building up its own vibrant online center of blogs, links, videos and essays.

But this week a project launched that throws money and poetry in a way that can’t be dismissed as charity, or scam, or mere academic exercise: PoetrySpeaks. To even type the words “.com” after a poetry site instead of “.org” feels like I’m pimping for one of the sleazy contests that charge a bundle and deliver nothing but profit for the organizer. PoetrySpeaks is made equally out of a love of poetry and a keen business sense, and it displays the potential of both to enhance each other rather than cancel each other out. You can explore and even contribute to its resources for free. Or you can buy books, videos, or individual poems. One of the advisors to this project, Guy Le Charles Gonzalez, comes out of the Nuyorican scene from the 1990s and makes the case that this new .com site offers more dynamic possibilities than the current scene. And he’s right. While my own background is traditional, I can’t ignore the ways in which traditional readings have grown stultifying: long-winded, academic introductions, a prevalent anti-performance style (as if the material itself is so deep it needs to be flattened to be accessed), and audiences that are either half-asleep or all the way there. How have we come to this? Surely this is a total waste of our time. While my own preference is for quieter, page-based work, spoken word events are much, much more entertaining. You are much more likely to have an experience at spoken word than at a traditional reading. There’s something of a vacuum, an anti-experience, about a traditional poetry reading.

Poetry’s as relevant as the people making it. But as makers we owe our audience an experience. Otherwise we’re just keeping a diary. It doesn’t matter who your audience is--your lover, the guys on your soccer team, word-gamers, philosophers, whichever people are in the room with you right now--you owe it to the work to connect with them. One way of doing that is to create new works in new forms than the paper page: video and audio, digital and physical. MFA programs should offer classes in Flash, Illustrator and AfterEffects. These are the newest tools for working “by hand” with your words. But as Kat Meyer mentioned during a chat on Twitter with the founders of, digital poetry now simply means anything that can be tagged with metadata and accessed digitally. So the old ways of working by hand can also be considered digital: the hand-stitched letter press book, the hand-built box with free-floating typewritten lines.

Poets need to break with the idea that their words deserve to be archived because simply because they’re labeled “poetry.” The work falls for its audience before the audience falls for it.

No comments: