The Future of Poetry: a dialogue between Rob MacDonald (Sixth Finch), Matt Hart (Forklift, Ohio) and Gale Marie Thompson (Jellyfish Magazine)
How do you feel poetry is perceived by the masses? As an elitist art form? A dying art form? An unapproachable art form? Something else?
RM: Sadly, I think that a lot of people see poetry as completely inaccessible. If your initial exposure to the genre leaves you feeling baffled (or even excluded), then it makes sense that you might be reluctant to give it another shot. I wonder what portion of poetry's potential audience has been pushed away by some sort of negative experience.
MH: Rob, I agree with your assessment here for the most part, and clearly there are some folks who feel pretty excluded when it comes to contemporary poetry, but I really think the larger issue is that poetry’s not on people’s radar at all. Poetry is for various reasons irrelevant to a lot of people--and yet, it’s interesting that it’s one of the things people turn to in highly charged, emotionally intense--celebratory and tragic--situations, e.g. weddings and funerals, etc. Certainly, some people have had negative experiences with poetry, and that’s a contributing factor to its marginalization as an art form, but there are lots of other factors too, e.g. it’s not fast and easy, it doesn’t flash with bright lights and glitter, and it simply isn’t as fashionable as Project Runway or as cool as whatever the hip, new here-today-gone tomorrow trend happens to be--and unfortunately those things matter in our contemporary lives.
I might note that in high school (now 25 years ago for me) I was one of those people who had a negative experience with poetry. Even then, I really bristled at being required to interpret a poem “rightly,” as opposed to thinking about its more radiant, associative possibilities. But I also think the other issue was that the poems we were asked to read were ones that I had a hard time accessing because of their formal constraints, or when they were written, or their highbrow Romantic or Modernist diction, etc. The problem--the negative experience--thus came from three things: 1) my own immaturity/ inability/ inexperience to read the work in a way that would make it relevant to me, 2) the rigid way it was being taught, and 3) the fact that I wasn’t being exposed to poems in which I could find my way and find myself (and people like me); they weren’t poems that seemed to have anything to do with what it is to be human in our time. It wasn’t until I got to college and took a poetry workshop (because I thought it would help me write better song lyrics) that I found poets like Etheridge Knight, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman--not to mention also the Beats, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists--that made poetry something more accessible and alive to me.
Actually, hearing another student read Etheridge Knight’s poem “Feeling Fucked Up” was a real conversion moment for me early on--it made me aware of poetry's power, and it all made me want to write poems. “Feeling Fucked Up” is a litany of expletives, which is also a love poem and a prayer, “Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split / and I with no way to make her / come back...” I was bowled over by the violence of the language in the middle of the poem, too, and then the way it winds up being entirely heartbroken and penitent at the same time. It spoke to the punk rocker in me, but also to the romantic. The poem literally and literarily throws a fit. I was hooked. Suddenly, I wanted to write poems. All that to say, the question is how to combat poetry’s general irrelevance by acquainting poetry’s potential audience with the poems that will make all the difference. Negative experiences can be reversed and made into something positive, but if something’s irrelevant it’s just totally ignorable.
GMT: Yes, Matt!—I did not like poetry in school. When I wrote as a kid, it was always songwriting or short stories. When I was in high school, the poems we read were still magical little riddle boxes, where boring, verbose language was a code meant to muddle the meaning, and only a teacher or someone very lucky and smart could decipher the code, and finish our job—and that person was never me. I remember this one time in class we were reading Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” which starts off:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
And when our teacher called on me to tell her what was happening in this poem, I talked about the angels, I talked about how they were in all shades of white and types of fabric, and how it’s beautiful to think of them in the morning like this, spiritually, and so on and so forth. My teacher’s response was, “No. It’s laundry day.” And it definitely was laundry day in that poem. And I’m not saying I wasn’t bored, or distracted, or coming in late from having skipped 4th period, but that totally turned me off from poetry, or at least from “school poetry” for the longest time. But I read Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath when I was about 15. And then I started to understand these really intense metaphors and what language could actually do, and that women’s voices and lives (and therefore my voice and life) were important. Plath was the first contact I had with poetry that really stirred me, that let me see the possibilities of language and image. And let me see it. Not tell me what to see.
So, yes Rob, I totally agree that so many people see it as inaccessible, as something too smart for them. As my entire family has probably said at some point. It’s like we can’t trust our own reaction or imaginative associations—we’ve been taught to have it fed to us. And, Matt, it’s also not on our radar for a lot of these reasons—so much of the media, literature, anything we consume these days, is based on gut reaction and consumption. We need tropes, conceits, easily swallowable nuggets of information from the world. We’re not interested in sitting with a piece of writing and letting our imagination take hold. Then we take those poems we all know and love and use them for weddings and/or funerals because they say something quick for us. I’d say even though I’m a poet I’m totally implicated in this sort of feeling. We’d much rather share a quick meme that sums up our political belief than sit with the gray area that comes with complex thinking.
Then at the same time, I think subconsciously people have come to distrust language and what it can do—the main problem of post-War literature: how to use language to convey a meaning when it’s been absolutely and irrevocably abused to almost successfully destroy whole groups of people. What do we do with that? Moving forward in time, we’re watching more and more of the manipulation that goes into things like political speeches, memes, articles about nutrition or lifestyle (an example that comes to mind is the title of the article “Lay off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters”) and even kids’ shows (we’re told at the beginning of “Ni-Hao, Kai-Lan,” for example, exactly what our kids are going to learn in this show—emotional intelligence, or problem-solving). We’re so cognizant (and yet at the same time very incognizant, of course) of language and its uses in controlling or teaching us. And we get questions all the time about why poetry exists if songs are just words set to music—how can we trust something built entirely on language?
Which is where more of contemporary poetry can exist, I think. Let’s return back to the language rather than the content that is being conveyed/”taught” in the language. There’s nothing more alienating than a didactic poem, especially for a 16-year-old. Let’s open ourselves up to strangeness and possibility and attention to language and uncertainty.
RM: It’s reassuring that all three of us recovered from bad initial experiences with poetry, I guess, but was it just luck that we ended up discovering poems that got us excited and inspired us to write? You both throw out some good suggestions about how poetry could be taught differently, and I wonder how much of an impact those changes, on their own, could make. I’m lucky to teach at a school where we give kids space to think deeply without the pressure of a test looming over them. We build (and rebuild) curriculum around questions that don’t have “right” answers. It does feel like we’re pushing back against the culture of gut reactions and quick fixes that you mentioned, Gale. So, it takes work to create a different kind of culture within the classroom, but once you’ve done that, it’s a blast. When my students are talking about one of Wendy Xu’s poems, for example, they’re not feeling overwhelmed or exhausted or defeated--they’re energized, and I don’t need to be driving the discussion or judging the validity of the different perspectives in the room.
Can the public perception of poetry be changed? If so, how?
RM: I work hard to expose my students to a broad spectrum of poets. The wider the range, the more likely it is that students are going to find that poem that hits a nerve or that reflects something in them. If no one had introduced me to Fugazi or the Pixies in high school, I might not have discovered hundreds of other bands and gotten passionate about music. If every kid in an English class got a taste of what poets like Emily Kendal Frey and Mark Leidner are doing, I think we’d create a lot of new readers.
MH: Additionally, we can also read our work (and the works of others) in public as much as possible and make ourselves accessible as human beings in ways that engage rather than alienate people. I’m always happy to talk with people about poetry and why I’m excited about it, and when I do, I go out my way to try and come up with aspects of what poetry is--or particular poets/poems--that might be relevant to whomever I happen to be talking with. This means that besides just advocating for the art and my own work, I have to be genuinely interested in other people and the things that interest and excite them. Poetry is such an illimitable art, capable of addressing the vast array of surfaces and depths of our experience. As Dean Young once said to me, “Poetry wants to be as big as the world.” And he’s right. It is the language of possibility, surprise, and the future, but more importantly it’s the language at the heart of human being, the messy, contradictory, ecstatic, unsayable wildness of the soul. It is the pathway to eternity in terms of human connection and consciousness (our rootedness in language) via the imagination--which MAKES the world. But we have to get out in the world and demonstrate it--and not just to other poets, but to other people who are not poets.
My students and I have been setting up our manual typewriters at various arts and community events around Cincinnati and typing poems for people while they wait (an idea I got after participating in a similar event in Chicago--thank you Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner). People give us a topic and we write them a poem, but it’s a poem on (or in response to) something they choose. As part of the process, we often have conversations with the people about their topics before we write, and much of what they say goes directly into the poem. Their language leads to more language, and thus we find our feet with each other, the (un)common ground between us. It’s a blast, and people love it. Poetry becomes something immediately and directly relevant to them as individuals--and it’s inspiring as hell to us as poets. What could be better?
GMT: Both of you are totally spot-on.
Most kids start out writing poetry because, above all, it is a system of meaning-making that allows for disconnect, for the unknown. My 8-year-old niece left a poem in my bathroom the other day called “Blue Blue Birds” with the last line: “blue birds are much better than the blue sky.” And I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Are they better than the blue sky? Better how? Why does it matter? She probably doesn’t mean it totally literally, or believe it at all, but somewhere in her head the power to make comparisons and observations is connected to writing poetry, and she’s able to wield that power in language and perspective in this way. She doesn’t know everything yet, she’s still learning that her voice has power, but by God in poetry she gets to say that the blue birds are better than the blue sky. Where does that go?
In my open-genre creative writing classes I get a lot of students who are not interested in poetry—but then they leave, if not loving poetry, at least with a greater appreciation for how it works and what it can do. All it takes, from my experience, is that one poem—one poem that totally freaks them out, but once they talk about it and understand it, it becomes their favorite poem. And then it changes everything. For my students that poem is often a Dean Young, Dorothea Lasky, Ben Kopel poem, etc. “Poetry can be funny?” “I didn’t realize poetry could have the f-word in it!” etc. etc. Last semester it was a tie between Lasky’s “Ten Lives in Mental Illness” and Nick Sturm’s “Lettuce” that got kids riled up and interested in poetry the most. But those are people who already consider themselves, in some way, “writers.” But what about readers?
I think it’s also about representation, which is where this could get nasty. My parents have said before that if it weren’t for me, they would have thought poetry died out a long time ago. But because of their connection through me they are able to see this whole huge community out there that is not dying. There’s not much being represented of poetry, and when it is, it’s been made swallowable, solely content-based, boring. That’s where we open ourselves up, and let people come in. That’s where online magazines come in, where readings come in, where more and more of the zillion poets out there can open up and let people in.
It’s so important to be open personally about what we do, engaging with others in the world. I mean, for me the goal is to understand something new, or experience something new. It’s to step into someone else’s mind for a second, and see how it works, in all its messy, complicated glory, and what watch language can do to our heads. My favorite poetry readings are the ones that involve the audience, yelling, drinking, music, excitement. They have to do more with people and friendship and connection.
RM: I’m sure all three of us have been to some brutal readings, and those aren’t doing poetry any favors. I love the way that the typewriter events offer nearly the opposite of what you’d get at a traditional reading. Chad Reynolds has been doing Short Order Poems in Oklahoma City, too, by the way; I need to think about putting something like that together in Boston. If we’re going for human connection and imagination, why do we keep setting up these events where the audience has to sit silently in rows? People don’t feel included or comfortable, so we shouldn’t be surprised each time a few of them sheepishly make a run for the exit during a break in the action.
All of the stuff that happens before and after readings has been just as important to me as the readings themselves. Each year, I have some great conversations while I’m manning the table at AWP. Poetry may be inherently individual, but I think you’re both right that it can’t be isolating.
There’s some interesting stuff going on with technology, and I wonder how that links to these ideas of connection and isolation. I have mixed feelings about social media--there’s at least the potential for it to generate a self-absorbed approach where the communication is frequently one-way. Twitter was getting killed over the “here’s what I ate for breakfast” thing at first, but it seems like people have gotten past that. When Bill Henderson (in his intro to the 2012 Pushcart Prize anthology) said that writers should “not just barf into the electronic void,” it pissed me off, but on some level, I think I understand what he was getting at, and I think that more focus on real dialogue between poet and reader would be a good thing.
In what ways does poetry already attempt to break into the mainstream? Do you feel these ventures are successful or do they have drawbacks?
GMT: I can only speak for my tiny little world, but it seems like to me that, while it’s true that the internet has brought an abundance of poetry and that not all of it is “good,” its connection through online magazines and social media has reached far far beyond what it could have.
And “mainstream” is an important word to think about, for sure. What do we count as mainstream? Do we want it to be mainstream, if Transformers movies and Cosmo and Nickelback are also mainstream? And then there’s the difference between getting famous in the mainstream and getting people talking/thinking.
The first and possibly best example I can think of is Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” poem. Within hours this poem went viral, within and without poetry communities, and got people talking. Talking about misogyny, talking about their experiences, talking about real issues. And talking about poetry. And it’s a poem that obviously has extremely important content, but also works in ways that forces the reader to look at language and what and how we’re being told and talked to and taught. That’s mainstream, and also important.
I take heart. And that’s the issue here—poetry is not dying, and I don’t think it’s going to any time soon. It’s not irrelevant. What needs work is its visibility and openness.
One thing I would like to mention is the O’Miami Festival in April, formerly the “University of Wynwood.” It focuses on poetry’s exposure to audiences through a very very large variety of means, as you can tell by the website. The festival’s mission is essentially that everyone in Miami will encounter a poem during the month of April. So, there are a ton of literary and cross-genre/artistic events that draw people in, but there are also these saturation campaigns. Things like: printing up poetry coasters and sending them to all the bars in the city, Mary Ruefle “scratch-off poems,” etc.
We’re *expecting* to see poetry in certain places, and when those places don’t fit in with what we’re wanting to see, we don’t look anywhere else, or we reject what we do see. It’s almost like changing the “packaging/delivery system” (as my friend/poet Caroline Cabrera said to me), but not the goal of poetry itself.
RM: Poor Nickelback. I agree that “mainstream” probably shouldn’t be the goal, at least not with all of the connotations it conjures up for me. I’m thrilled if one of my poems gets read by a couple hundred people. What’s that--maybe 1 out of every 35 million people on the planet? I don’t have any interest in going mainstream, but maybe there’s some healthy middle ground. Maybe it’s okay to aim a little higher than poetry’s current standing.
I was psyched to see that a bunch of my favorite poets had the chance to read at Newport Folk Festival recently, and they were there in connection with Third Man Books, Jack White’s new publishing venture. That’s just one example of poetry connecting to other corners of the creative world and broadening the audience. We ought to look for more opportunities to do this sort of thing.
I don’t think poetry has all of the answers, and I don’t think it should reign supreme over other forms of art, but I do think that plenty of potential readers are missing out. Discovering poetry isn’t like discovering plantains. It’s okay for us to take this work seriously, right?
A diversity of voices, styles and perspectives is a good thing. I’ve heard people say that we need more narrative poems, while others say we need more political poems, more heartfelt poems or more poems that matter (whatever that means). Instead of banking on any one of these approaches to bring people to poetry, let’s keep writing all of those poems. Thank god for the poems that wake us up out of our stupor, help us feel like we’re part of something, push us to be better...but thank god for the poems that test the limits, experiment with language and insist that mattering doesn’t matter, too. If we’re going to grow poetry’s audience we need all of those poems--and all of the poems we haven’t imagined yet.
MH: I agree with both of you, of course, but this question bugs me a little bit. Poetry’s only obligation is to poetry. We have to try and make the best poems we can make by any means necessary, and then make ourselves available as people (in whatever ways we can) and ambassadors for the art itself. For some people writing poems by any means necessary is going to lead to writing poems which are actually about things, tell stories, sing feelings, or what have you. For others, this will mean making poems which are largely performative--demonstrations of a particular way of being or paying attention in the world. For still others, it might be collaging Google search results together or participating in Poetry Slams. I don’t really want poetry to be a mainstream art form unless that just happens as a result of us all in our various ways writing the best poems we can write and getting the word out about getting the word out. I realize that this is not really an answer to the question and maybe a bit of a tangent, but I felt like saying here that I want poetry to be whatever it can be, and I’ll be happy to try and keep expanding those possibilities, but I also don’t necessarily care about the mainstream of anything all that much. Mainstream means money, and money turns everything to shit. If it sounds like I’m contradicting some of what I said earlier, I’m not. Or maybe I am.
Maybe I’m making an obvious point, but our first (and maybe only) obligation is to make the best poems we can in whatever ways we do that. Poetry’s large enough to accommodate a plethora of aesthetics, sensibilities and approaches--some more readily accessible by non-poets, others more hermetic. That this or that poem is topical and gets talked about a lot, or gets read by many many people, doesn’t necessarily make it a good poem or good for the art itself, since any one poem might be considered anomalous by the million people reading it. In contrast, just because a poem is a wildly difficult demonstration of sophistication and prowess with regard to the deployment of language, doesn’t necessarily make it cutting edge and or good in some avant-garde-ish way either. My point is that I’m interested in the art as a living thing where poets are constantly pushing the limits of the art. Poetry’s finding its way into the mainstream is not in and of itself something I value all that much. Does this make any sense at all?
RM: It makes perfect sense, and I’m right there with you. It felt like this perspective was missing from the recent Does Poetry Matter? debate, and one of the reasons I’m excited for us to do this interview is to ensure that what you just said is part of the discussion.
Rob MacDonald lives in Boston and is the editor of Sixth Finch. His poems can be found in Gulf Coast, Birdfeast, Sink Review, iO, inter|rupture, H_NGM_N and other journals. He has books forthcoming from Rye House Press and Racing Form Press.
Matt Hart is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012) and Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 2013). A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL.
Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Soldier On (Tupelo Press, forthcoming) and two chapbooks. Her work can be found in the Best New Poets 2012, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Volt, Guernica, Better, The Volta, H_NGM_N, and others. She is creator and editor of Jellyfish Magazine jellyfishmagazine.org and lives, teaches, and writes in Athens, GA. You can find her online at galemariethompson.com.