Forgets His Heroes
This talk was given at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco on February 15, 2003 as part of SPTís "New Experiments" series.
Did human nature change on or about September 2001? That's American solipsism, Exhibit A. The 11th has turned from paradigm to myth in just a year and a half. We will never know what *really* happened that day, and we may never know what it really means.
I was talking to John Mulrooney Thursday night, just back from Dakar. He reports that the bumpers of cars there generally declare two names: OSAMA & MADONNA. The power couple of the new hideous globalization game if I've ever heard of one.
The lasting impact of that September wasn't the impacts. The Administration's response: that will last. Flag-waving, anthrax, bombing, invading, propping up new puppets, cutting deals with further devils, cutting taxes and the whole Iraq watusi--these have served to distract our fractured and freaked populace while the Bill of Rights was looted and hostages sit in Guantanamo awaiting a trial or simply to meet with a lawyer. Should it make a poet feel *safer* that the Administration holds people who have not been charges off American soil and sends them to Torture States so they can give us enough nuggets to turn the warnings up to orange and send us off to horde bottled water?
We've done nothing but speak about 9/11 since 9/11, and we know far less for all the chatter. The breathless declaration of the Boston poet Don Share at a reading in late 2001, that we'd all be transformed into "war poets" made me wish immediately that he'd be sent to the front lines, wherever those are. Rage Against the Machine famously, furiously sang "There be no shelter here, the front line is everywhere" in the late 90s. It was an apt Nostradamus moment, but I still resist this talk about being at war to describe our American condition. Real bombs fall on real people in real places with real consequences. No war has been brought to the American street, just a jittery, paranoid peace. Those real bombs are ours, those real casualties aren't and won't be.
Anyone in this room who sees anything but tough times ahead, please raise your hand. What time is it, have we invaded Iraq yet? Plus North Korea's saber-rattling, but that only effects you folks on the West Coast. This while we brace for Al-Queda's counterpunch. We have resigned ourselves to living lives in fear, looking up at all aircraft as they pass.
Whatever further doom awaits us down the road has become an understood, a matter of time, a bright color on some chart. The American electorate, unfortunately, as always, deserves what it gets: a half-assed, dangerous reflection of its own disappointing vanity and depressing stupidity.
Somebody please pass the duct tape.
I wish, especially as a poet, I could live in a static bubble, unaffected by the horrors of the post-freakout world, unconcerned about the damage our country is doing to itself and others.
What does this mean for poetry? Poetry has endured endless eras of human silliness and has shone through all our dark ages, right? Not to be overdramatic, but, to be put simply those attacks, and more importantly the ongoing aftermath are context for whatever we write now, and a marker for whatever was written before.
How late is it, and what does that mean for the younger generations of poets? Business as usual in the poetry world now includes petitions, protesting, organizing, agonizing. Also a huge helping of some serious motherfucking *dread* This country stands for something unspeakably different than when I wrote that letter to Larry, c/o the POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER:
Your recent interview in the POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER made me very angry, and upset many poets I know. How angry did it make me? I performed a dramatic reading of your interview at a recent Friday poetry reading, reciting your interview answers in a voice that was a cross between Burgess Meredith and Charlton Heston (think: cranky and old).
I posted an angry message on to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, in which I accused you and others of a "new-old fogeyism:"
"What we are witnessing, what we are enduring, is a new old-fogeyism: a fanatical, nostalgic golden look back at our art, at all art. These voices tell us, 'Sorry, kids, we had it great and you missed it."
"Bullshit. These voices tell us 'Poetry doesn't mean what it used to, poets aren't as smart as they used to be, our magazines were better, our poems were better, our poets were better. Our weed, our sex, our boys and our girls--it was non-stop heaven."
"Bullshit. These voices tell us 'We had greatness, we had rhythm, we have our Mt. Rushmore of poets, and now we just need to stop."
"Bullshit. I donít think you had to be a white guy and go to Harvard in the 1950s to be a poet in this country."
"Do we need poetry? Yes. Do we need poetry from you? You decide. Curl up with your favorite golden oldies by the fire and remember how great it was, nobody's stopping you. The rest of us will be writing."
"Mom and Dad, I'm glad you don't like my music. It's 9:30, why don't you go to bed now?"
What set me off, why did I feel so angry? You sounded so smug, you sounded like a real asshole. That young poets aren't smart enough to write poems, that we don't have control of "diction and destiny." That we're no fun. That because I have to work for a living and can't get stoned all day, I can't write poems. That all young poets write is "lame stand-up comedy." That everyone should stop writing "for say, five years."
It's possible that you are a smug asshole. It's possible that you got caught up in the interview. Maybe you just don't know what you're talking about.
I'm happy to report that you are a lousy critic of the current generations of young American poets, that you have no sense of the great work that is taking place across this country. Mr. Fagin, you don't know what's going on.
There's as much good poetry out there as there's ever been, some truly wonderful work is being produced. I'm thrilled to be a reader, an editor, a poet, at a time when there's much energy, these many voices.
Is every young poet great? No. Have young poets figured it all out? No. But neither did you, Mr. Fagin, neither did the poets of the 50s and 60s.
Younger poets didn't invent poetry. This is the American Poetry you have given us. If we love Ashbery, Schuyler, Koch and O'Hara, great. We should love them, and love a million others. You are our teachers, you edit the anthologies, you publish the books, you raise the rent, you show us the way.
We didn't invent sounding derivative, we didn't conjure up "clubbiness", and we're not the first to write bad poems. As the wise anti-drug commercial of my youth said, "We learned by watching you."
This is your wake-up call, Mr. Fagin. You ought to find out about some of the great poetry being produced.
You now owe that to young poets.
I'll say it again. The kids are alright. Why don't you give them a fucking chance?
I may find out how Roger Daltrey feels, playing the same tune for the rest of his life.
Larry's home phone number is (212) *** ****.
I never intended to become a spokesperson for my generation, whatever my generation *is*. Larry's interview bothered me because I think it represents the feelings of many older poets. The latest POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER sends us thoughts along the same line from Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian.
Ron wrote in his weblog: "There has been a depoliticization of younger people generally and that has impacted poets. You see the long term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically."
Lyn is quoted from a RAIN TAXI interview from 2000: "I think poets in their mid-20s and mid-30s now do not have a comparable historical moment [to the Vietnam War].
The responses featured in the issue are worth a read, particularly Renee Gladman's, Chris Stroffolinoís, Laura Elrick's and Alan Gilbert's. But John Yau's, to me, stands out: "Hejinian doesn't recognize that all moments are historical." He correctly points out the emergence of the AIDS virus as a defining/altering moment for younger generations. I would say these current dangerous moments, and my generation's ongoing reaction to them will ultimately define us.
Why do some older poets dis us? How should we combat this narrowmindedness, should we waste our youth in this endeavor? Now is the time for the self-beatification of some established poets to end. Your war is not our war. Your answers may not be our answers. There are no saints in American Poetry. What have you done for us lately and why is that *better* than what we've done?
I think youngsters have been too admiring, too eager to please our teachers, our publishers, our blurbers. We define ourselves through their impressions of us. We, like them, are an ambitious and competitive bunch. But it feels as though Poetry, Inc. is top-heavy, loaded with immovable established management and lacking in upward mobility. Welcome to the Working Week.
Should Creative Writing Programs exist? Innovative and mainstream poetries are defined in the universities, pitting poet against poet for jobs, books, laurels, scraps. Students can be secondary to some teachers: more important to them is status and the status quo. Sure, the hours are great. But isn't it all a big scam, a pyramid scheme to replace real dialogue, real innovation, real communities? Why are CVs more important than poems just now? I think Larry's indulgent statements stem from his endless role as a workshop leader. To him American Poetry means 25 blocks of Manhattan 40 years ago.
You define yourself as an irrelevant blowhard by living solely in the past. In the millisecond a poet of any age is no longer open to new work, you should grow a large asterisk on your forehead and become a walking footnote. Lyn and Ron are open to new work of the younger generations, and write smartly about that work. Which is why they both should fucking *know* better. They wouldn't have put up with garbage like this and why should we now?
I find it amazing that Larry can mouth off to an interviewer on one hand, but also, somehow, publish great first books by David Perry and Jacqueline Waters.
Bitterness is the enemy of innovative poetry. No one was promised anything when they were drafted into out art, no one is entitled or deserving of anything more than to work hard and write as best we can. It's silly to begrudge and bemoan the success of others, which doesn't preclude our own successes. What academia gives us is far outweighed by what it takes away. The professionalization of poetry is laughable, there is no smaller American payday. The university presents poets with a tangible corporate ladder, a way to measure ourselves against one another. But when poets start their young lives in the art in a $40K debt-hole, what else is to be done then but somehow also teach?
Teaching is *not*, and should not be the only profession poets can thrive in. We need more bookstores, magazines, publishers. There should be a Small Press Traffic, Poetry Project or Innovative Poetry Shack in every major U.S. city. We need lawyers, doctors, pretty much everything else. We may have teaching covered.
If you're going to teach, you ought to be a great teacher. Students place themselves in debt, in awe and in bed with you to glean something profound from the exchange. We've listened to you, what don't you listen to us? We continue to march in your silly poetic wars as if it was 1980. It's not 1980. It's closer to *1984*--that sad terrible mixture of technology and fear.
Magazines cannot sustain themselves on flash and ego. The table of contents of innovative magazines should never be more impressive than the contents. And why are editors of magazines sometimes a 24 point bold declaration? Sure, take the credit for the editor's hard work, but not for all of the work between the covers or behind the links.
Laziness, complacency, self-importance, celebrity: these are the enemies of poetry. Can anyone here name one poet who became a better poet after becoming enormously famous? No, not ever. Why do some of dream of being the next John Ashbery? Universally-heralded across all aesthetics, reading to hundreds? They have to invent new awards for him. It's a dangerous, silly dream, which leads, to borrow from Jedi Master Yoda, "to suffering." But also garbage office politics bullshit that talented poets should be above.
I think now is an exciting time to be a young poet and to be experimenting.
Many older poets missed the chance to let punk, rap and noise seep into their work. I'm thrilled to be influenced by Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, ABBA, Beck and The Pixies. I feel I'm surrounded by amazing contemporaries.
Maybe that's why I feel like I have to answer Larry and his pals.
Innovative Poetry has become too comfortable and too commercial on this watch. The mimeo revolution has been replaced by weblogs, which might someday become a compelling way to critique. Right now they seem saturated with jism and self-splatter. Maybe we need to become post-review/post-blurb/post-author-photo poets. The important thing is to remain open to the new, and to tell it on the mountain when it does come.
We've listened to older generations, maybe it's time for them to listen to us.
American Poetry is moving toward more hyper moments. Computers can play better chess than we do. They will some day write better poems, paint better canvases and write better novels. English will not forever be the dominant language on our continent. Very soon we will have to overthrow the U.S. government. Nothing's sacred and no one lives forever except Dick Clark.
Robert Creeley writes, "Poets are a company and poetry must finally be a tribal art, despite the fierceness of the contest." I'd say poetry is a Casanostra. The vast majority of older poets are supportive mentors and heroes, and we should jump into bed with them at our earliest opportunity. They need to get louder than the Fagins. We've come to live in an unbearably anxious, unstable and indecisive regime where, literally, anything's possible. If we turned on the TV tomorrow and the Moon had fallen onto the Washington Monument, that would be par for the course.
It's better to snuggle beneath the covers with the poets we admire and who admire us, across all ages. Sleep with Larry Fagin if you want to. But if you're looking to get tuned in, to find out what's really going on, please don't. Please sleep with me instead.
Remember, you Fagins! Younger poets have you outnumbered at least 25 to 1. Come out with your hands up, we've got you surrounded.
Behrle's latest chapbook is Recent Sonic News (Please evict us, 2002). He serves as Roving Poet for WBUR's noontime syndicated Public Radio newsmagazine "Here & Now." Behrle lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he also edits the online journal can we have our ball back? and serves as the poetry editor for Pindeldyboz.
Editor's Note: Look for an SPT anthology stemming from our New Experiments series sometime in late 2004.
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