The Lost Poets

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking again and again about something Mark Doty posted on Facebook related to the connection between poetry and the idea of (or the term itself) “the academy.”

I was initially irritated by Mark’s implication that poetry existed only within colleges and universities these days, as from my perspective, this is not the case. Then I went back and, in an effort to refresh my own ideas, reread his Facebook note and found myself not in disagreement with him as his actual writing was much more measured and fair than my initial reading of it. The text follows:

I’d like to encourage everyone concerned to just drop that tired descriptor, “academic.” It no longer means anything. Here are some reasons: 1) Much of the reading, thinking about, and appreciation of poetry in our moment takes place within the context of a university or college setting. 2) Since poets are the ones teaching poetry, the curriculum reflects a great variety of preferences; there’s no one sort of poetry favored. 3) If you’ve ever taken a workshop, taught one, been engaged by a book of poems by someone who makes their living as a teacher, been to a summer writers’ conference, or been to a reading sponsored by a college or university, you’re “in” the academy, too. 4) The idea of “the academy” is a myth; a great variety of educational institutions in the U.S. support the reading and writing of poetry, in one way or another, and these schools do not collude, conspire or even agree. 5) It’s hard to imagine what would have become of American poetry without university support, given the character of the second half of the 20th century here. Like a lot of people, I found the art because of a Poetry Center sponsored by a school (in my case, the University of Arizona). It was a place that furthered the education of my spirit, and — I don’t exaggerate — probably saved my life.

But regardless of my personal experience, it seems pretty clear to me that “academic” now means zero, nada, zilch! Let’s bury the term.

I’ve been trying to negotiate these ideas both through my own experience and through my perception of the poetry community as a whole (if it can be so examined). My conclusion is difficult to come by; I feel a tremendous sense of conflict about the notions as stated, what they represent on a larger cultural scale, and how I and others can fit into the current perceived situation.

I recognize many of my peers and colleagues earn their living and health insurance through teaching in some way. It’s true that even I, in the last few years, have worked in this way, either directly in a workshop room or indirectly by coordinating workshops for others. But I don’t know if my personal experience in this area–literary nonprofit organizations–fits with Mark’s assertion. While yes, we were teaching people how to write (at best) or simply engaging their interest in writing (at least), we were perceived by our audience as non-academic, as not the academy. I would say this is true of our national organizations like The Loft, Grub Street, Centrum, The Attic, and Lighthouse Writers, all of whom exist very purposefully outside of the more concrete identity of the “academy” and tend to draw audience to them for precisely this reason.

Does the teaching of how to write poetry alone make something an “academy”? If so, we should let the rest of the traditional academy know as in my own experience, the creative writers were reviled, devalued, or simply ignored by the more “serious” academics who toiled there. I pose this as a serious question.

I was introduced to how to write poetry in 8th grade, by a poet who provided a weeklong residency to my school. I also had a teacher in high school who very intentionally fed me the criticism, readings, and support necessary to continue writing. Are these, too, academies, even if their content fell far outside the normal realm of lesson plans and curriculum standards? Almost all of my poetry instruction in high school occurred in after-school meetings or independent studies. And true, in college, I participated more traditionally in the workshop model of instruction, and true, I pursued an MFA in the academy. All of these were necessary steps for me. But not for all.

Over the last few years, I have encountered and had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented poets who live entirely outside the academy. I’ve come to understand this is more common than many people think, particularly those who spend the majority of their lives and careers within the academy.

These “outsider” poets generally have no idea that poetry is so entrenched in higher education. They perceive poetry as open to everyone, not as a cloistered and privileged pursuit. They have less awareness of the inner machinations of what some folks call “pobiz” and are generally the happier for it. They may or may not have heard of AWP if they’ve attended it. They read many poets, focusing, perhaps, on what their friends in their poetry circles are reading, what has been nominated for national awards, or what their booksellers or librarians recommend.

I think this community of poets is growing not more larger, but more visible. We can account for the growth in MFA programs as one factor contributing to the ever-larger crowds at AWP, but I think, too, that the Internet has afforded outsider poets new opportunity to become tourists in the other world of poetry. And I believe they are enriched in their visits–they encounter new journals they may otherwise have little or no access to in the real world, they meet new colleagues, they hear their favorite poets give readings.

I respect Mark’s perspective and don’t wish to imply his statements are wrong. I will say my experience suggests the divide between “the public” and “the academy” is generally only perceived by those within the academy. Those who are outside are fortunate for they generally have no idea they are outside of something.

In my thinking, poetry is something many Americans do respect, appreciate, and value. It’s just not the way most contemporary poets would prefer they value it. We (and I include myself here) would rather our fellow citizens read our books, attend our events, engage in dialogue. We want citizens to come to us–to find our location, which, as Mark wrote, is very often within the walled garden of the academy.

But poetry in America, I think, is less about location and more about occasion. You can lead an American to poetry, but you can’t make her or him read. Americans want to read poetry not where they want, but when they want.

Poetry is our natural impulse for processing sadness, grief, and loss; for celebrating momentous happiness like births and marriages; for ushering in a new era when a President takes office; for communicating the tremendous value a single person has or had in our lives.

The most widely read form of poetry in America? The greeting card.

Poets all over America who read this just cringed. I’m not overly thrilled about it myself, but I also think that’s my own arrogance creeping in. Who are we to determine what poetry is “valuable”? That’s a dangerous path to tread as it invites us to make all sorts of exclusions–some random, others purposeful. It is precisely that impulse to exclude that has helped us construct a falsely white male canon of literature.

A tremendous number of people also write poetry. If you want to determine how many, simply let the person sitting next to you on an airplane know that you write poetry. If you make them feel comfortable enough, you can bet they’ll regale you with some of their own verse. Of course, these poets are “untrained,” so they’re probably not worth listening to–which might be an attitude you’d find inside the academy, where training is the necessary credential for access. Outside the academy, nobody cares. Those people aren’t writing for audiences and adulation; they’re writing for themselves, maybe their families, maybe some friends. And that is awesome.

The people will select their own value. We live in the era of self-aggregation, where everyone gets to curate their own content to their own liking. I’m not saying poetry should take over the greeting card industry, although I would enjoy sending cards so much more if we did; but I am saying that we need to remember that poetry matters to a great many people, in ways that extend far beyond our own books, our own classes, and our own presses. We don’t get to choose the way it matters to them, or even when. They will find us when they need us. In the meantime, we keep writing, we keep recording, we keep remembering.

Lost in the Amazon(.com), or Amazon Puts a Scarlet "A" (for "Adults Only") on some GLBT’s writers’ books

Currently going around:

Yes, it is true. Amazon admits they are indeed stripping the sales ranking indicators for what they deem to be “adult” material. Of course they are being hypocritical because there is a multitude of “adult” literature out there that is still being ranked – Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, come on! They are using categories THEY set up (gay and lesbian) to now target these books as somehow offensive.

Now in fairness I should point out that Amazon has also stopped ranking many books in the “erotica” categories as well which includes straight erotica. But that’s a whole other battle that I’ll leave to the erotica writers to take on.

Now I could probably convince the automatons at Amazon that The Filly is YA and therefore not “adult” in the least, and I could probably even convince them to reinstate my ranking. But if they are excluding books just on the basis of being “gay” then by all means exclude mine too because I don’t want them just to reinstate just the “nice” gay books, they need to reinstate all the gay books and if they are really going to try and exclude so-called “adult” material, then how come this has an Amazon ranking?

This morning, the official response:

“There was a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed,” Amazon’s director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, said in an e-mail Sunday.

As of Sunday night, books without rankings included Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” and Jeanette Winterson’s “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” The removals prompted furious remarks on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere online.

X Furniture Is Evil, 2

The day after the right chair arrived in the wrong color, I called X Furniture to discuss the problem.

A young woman answered with a bright voice. “How can I help you today?”

I said, “Can you please pull up my order invoice and tell me what it says?”

Sounds of her clicking some keys, clearing her throat, breathing. She says, “Okay, I see it here. You got the chaise lounge in the ivory.”


[Ivory]

I said, “No, that’s what I bought. What I got is a chaise lounge in beige.”

She says, “In beige?”

“In beige.”


[Beige]

She turns in her chair and it squeaks loudly into the phone. “Lemme check something,” she says, and I hear the sounds of papers flipping. She makes thinking noises. “Oh, okay, I see here. The guy who sold you the chair typed in ‘Ivory’ as the description of the color, but he typed in the number for beige.”


[Side-by-side comparison of ivory and beige]

I felt a little relief. “Oh, god,” I said, laughing a little. “Well, I’d like to get the ivory one delivered, then.”

“Okay, we can—” She stops suddenly. “Oh.”

“What?”

“That chair doesn’t come in ivory,” she says awkwardly. “It comes in black, sage, honey, and beige. But no ivory.”

I scoffed. “Well, that’s really irritating because I was sold an ivory chaise,” I countered. “I mean, the guy offered it to me in that color, it’s not like I just made it up.”

“But that chair doesn’t come in ivory,” she repeated.

“YEAH,” I said, getting louder. “I heard that. But that’s what you sold me. So that’s a big problem.”

“You don’t want the beige chair?” she asked, a little incredulous.

“NO, I want the chair I plunked down my credit card to buy.”

“But sir, it doesn’t come in ivory.” Her voice took on a confidential tone. “Sir, I don’t mean to be offensive,” she started, signaling that what she was about to say would be horrifyingly so, “but the man who placed this order? He’s, um…well, he’s foreign.”


[Some languages spoken by foreigners, none of which are English.]

“So?”

“So maybe he got confused between beige and ivory,” she finished.

“You think that being foreign makes someone laughably color blind?”


[Example of tests administer to determine color-blindness]

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that only a legitimate blind person would mistake beige for ivory!” I shouted, suddenly becoming very angry and, at the same time, very authoritatively gay, like Martha Stewart with a beard. This is never a good combination, although it does tend to get good results.


[Martha Stewart, beard not pictured]

“Sir, this isn’t my fault.” She was clearly confused and wanted off the phone.

“I realize it’s not your fault,” I said with quiet assertion. “I know you didn’t cause this, but you’re the one who’s going to fix it.”

“Well, that chair doesn’t come in ivory.” Sound of her going back to the book. “It comes in…black, sage, honey, and….and beige.”

In my head I imagined the scene from Carrie when the girl, drenched in pig’s blood, humiliated, taunted, bursts into anger and causes all the exits to slam shut with the power of her mind. In that moment I was that girl, covered in blood but it was beige blood, both bland and disgusting, and I, too, was being taunted by Z Furniture’s color-blind, foreign staff who were unable to tell the difference between two unmistakably different shades of two different colors!


[Dramatization of me during this phone call. Do not attempt.]

A friend of mine once noted that nobody ever identifies themselves as being “evil,” that “evil” is a label society constructs and places on other things, usually things outside of the body politic. And yet, every day, reasonable people are driven to the very cliffs of their sanity by retail industry workers. “I know,” I said, “So it means you basically stole from me. You sold me a product that doesn’t exist and now here I am with a chair the exact same color as my beige walls, my beige carpet, and let me tell you, this chair has become the invisible jet of chairs because in this room, Wonder Woman’s the only person who can find it to sit in it!”

So the woman says, “Sir, we can exchange the chair for you if you will simply choose between black, sage, honey or…or beige,” she seethed.

We were locked in an epic battle of wits. We each knew neither would relent or back down, but we also knew no one was hanging up the phone. There were principles to think of, our sanity to preserve…and plus, we had to win.

But suddenly, an odd calm came over me. I looked around my living room with its black furniture and gray couch. Would another color be so bad, I wondered. I remembered back to that day many weeks ago when I, younger and with an idealistic sense about the world of retail, walked into their showroom and sat momentarily in the black chaise lounge on their showroom floor.

I cleared my throat. Very quietly, I told her, “The only compromise I would be willing to accept at this point is getting a black chair.”

I could hear the tension break. “Fine!” She said. “We’ll have it delivered tomorrow. But you’re getting the one off the showroom floor,” she said quickly, her voice fading slightly as the phone moved further and further from her head. And then the line went dead.

And the very next day, much to my overwhelming surprise, this was delivered:

A black chaise. And you know what? It works.

Why I Hate X Furniture

The weekend after I moved here, I decided to “treat” myself by going out and buying a chair for my living room. I am not a big spender by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, I simply hate parting with anything larger than a $20 bill. But, because I had been such a big brave boy about my cross-country move and was still relatively emotional/crazy about Beau’s trip back to Arizona, a little retail therapy was helpfully prescribed.

I saw the chair in an ad for X Furniture in the City Paper, a free weekly here in DC. It was a beautiful, majestic chaise that had “Nintendo Wii chair” written all over it. How wonderful to laze in a fully reclined position whilst tapping out rhythms in Guitar Hero or thwarting demons in Zelda?

It was my first big Metro experience when I went to their showroom, sat in the chair, and bought it.

“It comes in black, beige, red, or ivory,” the salesperson told me.

I thought about the color scheme developing in my apartment with its beige carpet, beige walls, and black furniture. I briefly considered red, as all of my accents in the room are red, but then blurted out, “Um, ivory,” thinking about the potential contrast, about lightening things up in there.

He ordered the chair. “It’ll take a week,” he said, and then charged my credit card.

* * *

The next two weeks were a blur of getting situated in my job, going to every single literary event in the metro area, meeting people, rushing home, riding the Metro, running to Target, etc. I was exhausted, but, come Sunday of the second week, I realized I was still missing my chair, noticeable only as my boxes unpacked themselves and went to the dumpster. With Beau gone, there was a big empty place in my heart, but now there was also one in my living room. At least the latter I could fix. Theoretically.

I called X Furniture and explained I was still waiting. “Oh, I see it here,” the man told me. “It’s on its way to the warehouse now and will be delivered by the end of the week.”

“Great!” I said.

* * *
Two weeks later, there was still no chair but the empty places in my heart and my apartment were getting wider and developing their own zip codes.

I called the store again. This is when I was finally starting to get angry. A woman answered. I explained the situation.

She said, “It’s sitting in our warehouse.” Oh, I thought. “Let’s set up a time for delivery.” She and I set a time for late last week, in the evening when I’d be sure to be home. I thanked her and, feeling my anger subside, began considering the precise placement of the chair.

* * *
Four days later, I was in my apartment waiting for the chair. Arden had been walked and fed and I was catching up on my Bravo shows. 90 minutes into my delivery appointment, I got a phone call.

“This is X Furniture delivery guy calling,” he mumbled, barely coherent. “Can you reschedule please the appointment.”

“No,” I said. The next day I was traveling for work and besides, I fulfilled my end of the commitment. Uncharacteristically, I said, “You need to come tonight.”

An hour later he called and said he was outside, which, with the configuration of my apartment complex, is similar to saying you are “right outside” at LAX or, maybe more appropriately, sitting outside the Smithsonian waiting for me. I walked outside, wandered around, and then finally saw him on the opposite side of the courtyard, lumbering toward me with the chaise slung over his shoulder.

He dropped it on my floor. “Sign,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. Then he left.

I pulled off the four layers of wrapping on the chair: An exterior canvas-like wrapper, tied around the edge with string; a thin, white foam insider; a series of packing tape ribbons ringing the entire object; and, finally, several enormous foam rubber pads cradling the chair like the folds of an ear.

And that’s when I saw it: my chair in all its glory.

And, it was beige.

Tomorrow: Part II.