A Level Playing Field for Poets

The annual announcement of the finalists for our major book prizes is always a time to celebrate. Many outstanding poetry collections get their due in these moments, drawing more readers, more reviews, and more attention to the work therein.

Between 1992 and 2008, 12 of the National Book Award winners for poetry were collected or selected poems. Since then, only 3 such collections have been nominees for the award, and one of them won the award in 2017, making it the 13th omnibus book in the last 26 years to do so. By comparison, only 4 such books have one a Pulitzer Prize since 1992. Only 1 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and that was in 1992.

Poets who reach the stage of their careers when they can release a New and Selected or Collected Poems are almost invariably worthy of praise. This post is not about rejecting their worth or the value of these books. Instead, I think this post is about making a better space for them to earn recognition.

There seems to be an inherent inequality in placing, for example, a poet’s first collection against a Selected Poems in the race for these major prizes. A selected poems will always represent the very best work from a series of published works, some of which, too, were already nominated for these major awards at their time of their publication.

A first book represents a different kind of labor, a different career moment. For as much as the selected poems is a kind of laurel, the first book shows up with greasy hands, sweat on its brow. A first book to achieve such significant recognition as a nomination for a major book award—well, that is already a major achievement.

Rather than placing these books into competition with one another, trying to somehow equate the difference in labor between a first book and a selected works, why not create categories where like can compete against like? If poetry book awards only recognized individual collections—and, let’s be honest, there are more of those being published now than perhaps ever before—while another category honored selecteds/collecteds as a more career-celebrating award, it would do more to benefit both early and mid career poets as well as our most treasured voices.

When looking to other awards and categories for similar issues, we find only 1 nominee in a similar vein for the National Book Award in Fiction from 1992 until now, and that was in 1994 for Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. Only 1 new and selected stories has ever won the NBCC Award for Fiction (in 2011). And only 2 collected stories have been finalists for the Pulitzer, in 1994 and 1995 (with Paley getting the ’95 nod too), but neither won.

Greatest hits albums aren’t eligible to win Grammys in the standard categories. Those awards are designed to reflect the spirit of the times more than celebrated careers. But in poetry, while it does seem like tastes and mindsets are changing, we haven’t made a strict distinction yet. But I think the time has come.

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New Review of Barbie Chang

Poets & Artists recently published my review of Victoria Chang’s new poetry collection Barbie Chang, which I enjoyed and admired a great deal.

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We first meet Barbie Chang, the character whose life and thoughts populate most of Victoria Chang’s fourth collection, at a conference, when everyone stands to give the speaker a standing ovation except Barbie, who walks out of the room. It’s a stark image of a woman who “once worked on a street called Wall,” and it’s this act—quiet defiance that isolates her from those around her, a kind of idealism—that will come to define her again and again in these poems.

Read more…

Against Genre

The concept of genre—a defined category of writing, like poetry or novels or plays—isn’t currently fashionable. Many people find such categories too restrictive or fussy. Much of the energy of contemporary literature is in crossing and mixing various genres in single pieces of writing. Yet when it comes to poetry, it can help to think about genre in a more isolated way, at least temporarily, because the question of genre is really a question of purpose: Why did the writer choose a certain type of writing, and how does that choice affect how we should read the work before us?

Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry

I offer this quote from Matthew Zapruder’s book because the concept of genre, for me, is very different, and I wanted to write about the idea of genre from another perspective. My intent in this post isn’t to drag Matthew for his perspective, though I will respectfully disagree with some basic assumptions in his essay (and also note the quote above is just a quick aside and not at all a major point he makes in the essay).

First, I don’t believe genre is a concern for the writer. Genre is a concern of the publisher and the bookseller, and this is because genres are sales categories. Genre indications tell booksellers where to shelve certain books in their store, at the recommendation of the publisher, who has assigned it a genre in order to ensure the book is able to find its most likely readers.

Genre is taught to writers, for sure. These categories have become part and parcel of the writing program, so much so that many programs don’t allow students to take classes outside their genre of admission. I find this troubling. While I agree that deep knowledge of a mode of writing is valuable, exclusive study isn’t necessarily as valuable. But I say this, in part, because my own writing practice was deeply shaped by and informed by film form and film theory, two areas I never would have learned in a poetry workshop but whose ideals—sequence, suture, juxtaposition, narrative, composition and mise-en-scene, persistence of vision—all remain present in my poetic practice. So, yeah, I have a horse in this race.

Zapruder suggests in his essay that “stories and novels create characters and situations and tell stories; journalism communicates information; essays engage in that hard-to-categorize effort to explore, however loosely, a certain idea; editorials and sermons tell us what we should and should not do, and believe; and so on.”

But I would argue a poem, too, can do all these things. That an essay can have characters and situations. That novels can communicate information. That short stories can explore an idea, however loosely. I think very clearly of the Juliana Spahr essay “Spiderwasp, Or Literary Criticism,” a foundational text for me, or any of her books (Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You and thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs in particular).

So if this is the case—if my assumptions about what genres can do is valid, that is—then the categories Zapruder puts forward here become less enforceable.

In 2017, I had a reckoning with my relationship to genre. I had been writing novels, short stories, essays, screenplays, and hybrid pieces that cribbed from all genres for many years, but I noticed I always knew what form a piece of writing would take when I began writing it. I always knew when something would have a line break, or when it was a narrative that would unfold over many pages. I also knew when I would need to stitch together many approaches to discover the story in the interstitial moments it created.

I started to wonder if all writing was poetry, and any further categorization was just describing a mode of poetry.

Poetry is, after all, the oldest or one of the oldest modes of literary expression. Does it not make sense in some way that the novel is offspring of the poem?

I think all of this can stand if we’re thinking about genre from the standpoint of artistic production. Writers, be free to write how you write. Let it be your own.

The complicating factor is, as always, the marketplace.

Few writers have made careers while consistently eschewing genre’s restricting embrace. Mark Z. Danielewski is a writer particularly adept at it, as has Carole Maso, whose own book of writing about writing is called Break Every Rule, an artistic philosophy I endorse. When it comes time for us to move our writing from the desktop to desktop publishing, well, then things do get a bit more sticky and, I agree, they look a lot more like what Zapruder put forward.

This is because book buyers want to have a reasonable understanding of what they’re buying. They want it to meet their expectations. This means a mystery novel should have a mystery at its center, that a horror novel should be terrifying, that literary fiction will likely explore the internal lives of its characters. And that a poem…should have line breaks?

Except prose poems.

And poems with long end-stopped lines, I guess.

And poems in which the poet has decided not to use line breaks.

It’s much easier for me to think of poetry as “not other genres” than of a thing itself, and partly this is because for me, the magic of poetry is its permissiveness. Its inclusion. Its ability to morph and change and invite experimentation and innovation. (Other genres can do this too! I’m not saying they can’t.)

When I approach poetry as a place to invent, I find myself taking much more interesting risks, experiencing more foundational failures, and discovering what literature is capable of.

But poetry that doesn’t play by genre-based rules may struggle to find a readership, which poetry already struggles to do (for a lot of reasons that will probably be its own blog post later). So, no, I’m not doing Poetry (as a field) any favors with my ideological stance. I’m sorry, Poetry. I’m not doing it to hurt you.

Poetry contains multitudes. It should not be tamed.

 

You Will Be Held Accountable

Because I am super serious about my 2018 Literary Boss To Do List, I made a Google Sheet to track my progress on each of the areas I indicated would be a priority.

I’m pleased to report that it is only January 11 but I am just three items away from having all my January tasks complete: two more blog posts for the month, and one more submission to a literary magazine or book contest. This means I have read two books so far, and written a book review. Ta da!

My book reading will be supported in part by the young adult novel writing class I’m currently taking; I have to read 5 YA novels assigned by the course and a sixth of my choosing. But I imagine they’ll be quick reads.

I also reorganized my bookcase this morning, which was in a sad state of affairs after being disorganized by some nice folks repairing my apartment from a small flood in December. For this reason, I now know exactly how many unread books I have to choose from. And it’s a lot. A lot. It’s embarrassing, actually.

Piles of books

Onward.

The New Year

First, this post owes a big debt of gratitude to Kelli Russell Agodon. A few months ago, Kelli tweeted about “the old days” when poets blogged widely and regularly. I, too, missed that spirit of community, and in the tweets that followed from others, a movement took back its shape, and many, many poets committed to returning to blogging in 2018.

So, here I am. Here we are.

My first post in this blog was published on August 31, 2004. I was going into the last semester of my MFA program. I was thinking about poetry community and where I might find it. I was thinking about my writing, and I was thinking about LGBTQ voices in poetry. I was reading widely, voraciously, and I wanted to talk about those books. I was constantly inspired.

Through blogging, I found….everything.

Now, with six chapbooks, a full length collection, and a forthcoming second collection, my writing career is a lot different, but my writing life is the same. I still crave community, to talk with poets and share ideas and discuss books. But having rested in my efforts to challenge myself the last few years (for a variety of personal reasons both publicly known and publicly unknown), I started to fall short. Reading less. Seeking community less. Hiding in my house. Working on poems–sometimes.

There’s something about this format I don’t get on social media, and I miss that thing. I can’t wait to read people’s deep dives into the books they’ve just read and the creative questions they’re asking themselves. I hope this blog ends up inspiring people the way blogs have been such an important resource for me.

Here is my 2018 Literary To Do List. I’m trying to get back into the habit of setting good habits.

  • read 1 book per week
  • write 1 book review per month
  • write at least 1 blog post per week
  • submit to 2 publishers per month
  • attend 1 literary event per month

Maybe it’s too small. Maybe it’s too ambitious.

But here we go.