How to Be Community

Been thinking about Steve Fellner’s post here about perspectives on gay male poetry community.

There are a few things I personally think are important about being in a community, any community, and having good experiences there:

1. Be nice to other people.
2. Don’t say shitty things about other people in the community.
3. Help other people get to where they’re going.
4. Respect that people have different expectations of the community.

Not saying shitty things about other people doesn’t preclude the necessity of critical writing on others’ work–but such writing can be done respectfully.

I think about Tyra Banks, how she hates girlfights. A girl got kicked off Top Model a few cycles back for throwing beer in another girl’s weave. You know why? You don’t throw beer in another girl’s weave. This cycle, Tyra called out Celia for revealing to the judges that Tahlia didn’t want to be in the competition. She made coy allusions to her feud with Naomi Campbell.

“You don’t mess with another girl’s money,” she said. Or, for us (since there is no money in poetry): you don’t mess with another girl’s right to write what she (or he) writes.

I don’t love all gay poetry. Some of it I don’t even really like. But I make no claims of being the arbiter of good taste (in fact, I think we can all agree that I often confess to being the Arbiter of Questionable Taste, or at the very least, the Arbiter of Fourteen-Year-Old Girl Taste). And I wouldn’t want to do anything to someone in my community that would, in Tyra’s words, mess with another girl’s money.

It’s not true for everyone. And so what? Everyone has different expectations of the community. So I don’t get to say they’re doing it wrong if they spill beer on my weave or mess with my money.

I don’t go into the community expecting to get something. I try to go with something to give away. Maybe I sound very Buddhist right now, and I’m okay with that, but I always think about what my mom used to tell me when I’d complain about not getting any mail:

“You have to send a letter if you want to get a letter.”

Yeah. Community’s like that.

I’m not above a little self-googling…

…because it yields little gems like this:

“One of our pivotal poets,” writes Sarah Vap and Charles Jensen in their front-page interview of Lynn Emmanuel. (I will refrain from playing with Sarah’s last name, though it would be quite appropriate.) A PIVOTAL POET? Why not one of our TENURED POETS or SAFE POETS or POET FELLOWS, instead? It is quite amazing the different terms poets invent to inflate themselves and their activities, which are far too often diversionary, inoffensive (maybe it’s damn time poetry offended!), self-serving, and sociopolitically disengaged. How deft of Emmanuel in her attempt to make herself appear as a non- establishment poet by mentioning her having been a mere assistant to one. “When I was a fellow at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, like everyone else, I was an assistant to an established poet,” she notes. Why didn’t Vap and Jensen ask how many asses she had to kiss to get to Breadloaf? The interview is an example of base hagiography, as most such interviews tend to be in the world of poesy. No tough questions at all!

“Not long ago, somebody asked me about what is being called the proliferation of MFA programs at universities,” notes Emmanuel. “I think we should discuss the proliferation of ROTC programs at universities. Should there not be as many MFA programs as ROTC programs on university campuses? In fact, if the draft is re-instated, I think every young man who is drafted should also be required to get an MFA.” Her response, of course, is a non-answer to this pertinent question. Emmanuel could have at least added that every young woman should be required to demand equal opportunity regarding any future draft. That would have permitted complete deflection of the question, while at least propping up the non-answer with a statement of equality.

But why did the two interviewers, Vap and Jensen, fail to push her on that pertinent question? Why didn’t they ask if perhaps the real reason for such programs was to assure jobs and grant money for TENURED POETS, advertising revenues for magazines like Poetry Flash, indoctrination of students in the canon (i.e., the celebrity poet game), selling more books for the big publishers, and especially increased size for university corporations obsessed with growth? Do not MFA programs constitute a multimillion-dollar business in America? Why did the great poets of the past not need such programs to fill their heads with canon? What MFA programs tend not to do is question and challenge canon. Instead, they tend to reinforce it. “The majority of poems written in the 1950s have long been deemed inconsequential” (Edward Brunner), quotes Emmanuel. But the same can and will be said about poems written during any decade and regarding any MFA graduating class. But more importantly note how Emmanuel fails to ask the question: who did the deeming? This is what is being taught (or rather not taught) in MFA programs.

Nat Hentoff had once asked: “What caused the ivory tower to become such a snake pit?” Well, I dared answer that question: “snakes in black robes!” Thus, we have POET SNAKES too… in black robes. Yes, they do exist. I’m not saying that Emmanuel is one of them, but that’s certainly a possibility, at least when she was in charge of the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburg. In the interview, she evokes, unsurprisingly, the activist poetry of the 60s. Perhaps by mentioning it, she is able to avoid dealing with how she, child of the 60s, sold out like so many others to become a tenured poet of the 21st century. Well, she doesn’t use that term, preferring instead the vacuous term “outlaw” to describe other tenured poets, including Ginsberg and Creeley, who were quite canonic and establishment in the long run. Perhaps Emmanuel is also an outlaw poet or maybe even a “poet from hell” (the words are those of Tratford Press). Perhaps one day soon she’ll be featured next to the verse of Pirate Poet Johnny Depp. In any event, hopefully posterity will not fall prey to the outlaw charade.

On another note, why does a well-to-do academic poet write poetry about poverty (the central theme in her book, The Dig)? Write what you know, not what you don’t know, goes the adage. Emmanuel should be writing about the sell-out snakes in her immediate surroundings, the ivory tower, and how, in the long run, they really support the system, proponent of war and Big Business. Why do Vap and Jensen fail to ask that question? Wouldn’t it be a lot more effective if poets who dared be engaged wrote poetry critical of the hand that feeds them, as opposed to poetry critical of BUSH or what happened during 9/11? Poets need to write poems that RISK. Criticizing the war risks nothing at all. In fact, it probably constitutes a good publicity stunt, at least for the celebrity poets. Poets need to criticize the core of corruption found in every damn institution in the nation, including the University of Pittsburg. But for a TENURED POET, criticizing ones chairperson or university president or the NEA or Breadloaf IS RISKY, which is why most do not do so. Most poets cannot comprehend this fundamental principle. Have they been all too indoctrinated by MFA canon-pushing programs?