Best American Poetry Reading 2014 or a Plea to Stop
Talking Trash on American Poetry and Maybe the Problem Isn’t American Poetry or
the Anointed (and yes of course there are some who are anointed) but maybe the
problem is you. Read the work and shut
always talk shit on American Poetry, as
a dead art form, as solipsistic, elitist, stuck up, part of the 1 percent power
structure. And who does it more than the poets themselves? And actual that is
true, but what isn’t implicated in some form of oppression these days in
America the Prisontocracy. But what
these critics forget or chose to ignore is American Poetry is huge, pluralistic
and often and always an argument with itself and America. It is both elitist and anti elitist at the
same time, and it is this prismatic sense of itself that makes it one of the
most alive and living art forms in the world right now, and an affront and
insult for example to the far greater
elitist and Nobel driven European poetries.
September 18th I drove down from my small working class city of
Erie, PA to participate in my first ever appearance in Best American
Poetry. My poem was chosen by recently
awarded McArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes.
Terrance lives down in Pittsburgh. I know Terrance. He’s cool. But he had never done anything for me, it
wasn’t like the lauded great younger writer was my patron or anything. So it was a grand surprise to be selected. You see, I turned my back on things academic
years ago. I don’t apply for jobs, don’t
go running off to conferences, rarely ask my publishers to submit my books for
awards. But I do perform, I perform like
a banshee. I travel like a gypsy. I’m searching for something else you see, I’m
searching for something through language that only poems can explain.
lot of my friends on the other hand are mostly caught in the poetry system,
fighting for jobs, tenure, publications mean something more to them than just a
cool book to be in. The subtle jabs and
insults I received from some of them were so hurtful. Their jealousy direct. They said things like “I wonder why I haven’t
been in there.” Or bizarre statements
about me as a “semiotic indicator that the elites can manage.” I have no idea what that means. “I’ll never be published by BOA.” Or the really insulting thing “well of
course, because you know Terrance” who I have seen face to face once in 5 years
despite him living a couple hours just down I-79. You have to understand these
“friends” of mine have multiple books, teaching positions. I haven’t been able to find a full time job
in years and finally just gave up. What
more do they want?
I learn from them. I learn how dead they
already fucking are, how they are actually everything they pretend to
hate. And how truly free I have become.
have to say all of this because it points to the sense of hierarchy and
desperation that the system of American poetry both enables and dissipates and
also to the great disappointment I often feel with other artists. Envy, jealousy, back stabbing, all the attributes
of artists in Ancient Rome, the new 21st century artists for the New
Empire in Decline. Why wasn’t I admitted
to Breadloaf? Why didn’t I get that
Fellowship at Princeton? All the poets
of color get everything? Or the Old White
Men. There is always someone in poetry
getting something you deserve. But do you?
Yes those are the kinds of things so many poets say. And yes, I know plenty of young poets of
color with one book and a fancy job, The Anointed Ones. And could point out plenty of the white old
Guard still there. Or the old Gay
guard. Or… but those are institutional
questions of power and privilege I have no interest in.
leave that to my jaded friends. I leave
them to the Anointed ones and the Gatekeepers and the Norton Anthology makers,
to the professors and the police. But
you have to realize sometimes the Annointed ones are anointed for a
reason. They are really great artists.
just leave me alone and let me write I often have to say. I live along a big dirty
lake. I try as best I can to take care
of my kids and my slowly dying girlfriend.
I talk to Ritsos in the basement.
I play poker with Frank Stanford.
We wager the blues. What I am
searching for only a few can understand anyways. Except you, Dear Reader. You know what I am searching for. You are searching for it too.
so finally this gets us to the idea of Best American Poetry. Or anything Best. What is a Best poem? Or even a better poem? Honestly I haven’t thought about those terms
in over a decade. I simply make.
let’s remove the idea of Best and simply look at Best American Poetry as an
indicator of what is happening. And we
see in this 2014 such a diverse range of aesthetic, race, gender, language that
speaks a deep health of the art form.
That tells me both at the center, and on the edge, what I am searching for, yes
they are searching for too: That light inside the language.
drove 7 hours that morning to Bronxville to visit my old friend Jeffrey
McDaniel’s class at Sarah Lawrence. I’ve
known Jeffrey for decades, he too came out of the American performance poetry
scene and is one of the poets whose language drives me and teaches me. He’s an old friend who makes me feel safe,
and he’s very aware and inside of the power structures of poetry but he rarely
talks that talk with me. He knows I live
somewhere else, lost in that light along the lake. When we talk of poems we talk of the inside
of a poem, of how things are made, of life.
Of a sandwich. We know a sandwich
is a kind of poem.
am often lost so having Jeffrey with me made my chance of getting to the Best
American Reading good odds. I was
honestly a bit scared. I was going to be
reading with some huge American poets and who am I? It wasn’t their prestige that made me
nervous, but my admiration for their work
everyone was nice. Don’t expect everyone
to be nice. But expect everyone to be
they will surprise you. Cordial goes a
is a breakdown of some of the
read quietly and beautifully. She has
the When I AM A Cool Old Woman artist-ness to her that could get her mistaken
for a crazy old lady but instead she is just a genius artist. Long on the all hair poetry team she had her
amazing blonde gray hair around her like a dangling BOA as she recited from her
poem “Bird, Singing”
letter opened was an oyster
Of possible bad
news, pried apart to reveal
probable pearl of your death.
Joel Dias Porter nailed his bluesy
song “Elegy Indigo”
How long does it
take to hear what silence can say?
I stand at a
stoplight, waiting for the colors to change.
Natalie Diaz read her tough
mythological love poem “These Hands, if Not Gods”
Haven’t they moved
over the seven
days of your body
Mark Doty asked us in his
poem “Deep Lane”
If you don’t
hold still, you can have joy after joy,
but you can’t
stay anywhere to love.
price, that rib rattling wind
that’s the price
the wind pays.
I got up to read a bunch of people cheered which really surprised me. I saw BAP even sent a twitter out at that
moment on the pre applause. I mean who
am I, just some old punk from the shores of Lake Erie? I read
my poem like I might punch the air. I
read it twice as slow as I meant to. I
have no idea how it went over but I read it clear. It’s a bitter poem. It’s made of Rust and unemployment. It leaves
a feeling like chipping a tooth.
All the street
assassins know you can break
A man’s neck in
a second flat, they grin
electronic palms. They enter and exit
Cornelius Eady is a poet I’ve
turned to since the late 80s for inspiration.
He has long been the leader of the New Guard in American poetry with his
founding of Cave Canem, working to change American poetry for the better. He read
his small lyric with a cool ease a cool
breeze of a poem reminding you maybe of what you’ve “Overturned” along the way
where there should
Be pine. And now you doubt
Everything. Don’t you hate
Ross Gay is a cat I’d never meet, one of the anointed
in a lot of ways. But his poems
groove. He wasn’t exactly overly
friendly but he read wonderfully. He
passed out Figs before his reading then read his lyrical, thin lined Nerudesque
poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”
Le Hinton I’d met at
Elizabethtown College where he attended an afternoon talk I gave, a real
Pennsylvania gem I was so happy to get some notice. He read “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get
Yusef Komunyakaa I had
never met, he signed my book. His
graying hair is like God, and he invoked for me both in presence and word the
ghost of Aimé Césaire
My negritude is
the caul worked into the soil
Frannie Lindsay I did not get to meet. I missed her in the
arrival room and couldn’t find her afterwards.
I was sad because she is one of my favorite poets and she read my favorite poem in the book “Elegy
for my Mother,” it was so utterly moving and full of astonishing metaphors:
But I still have
and all her
mother who never is cold,
just a Dear. There is no other way to
say it. He actually gave me a hug. I had only met Major once, very briefly, even
before he had a book, and I used to do a teasing formal imitation of him. I also used to unfriend him on Facebook just
to mess with him. Because I so love his poems.
He’s the best poet to come out of Philadelphia since Tim Seibles. Which is saying a whole lot. He DID NOT though have on a cool hat and I
was disappointed. Later he would read
“OK Cupid” a series of leaping similes that filled out loud our ears and hears
with wonder and surprise that began “Dating a Catholic is like dating a tribe”
and moves to such wonderful absurdities and connections as
“and dating a
fireplace is like dating a mantel
dating a mantel is like dating a picture frame
and dating a
picture frame is like dating Martin Luther King with Jesus
Cate Marvin was perhaps the
coolest poet there, in dress, demeanor, attitude. She was super nice to me, and I got to talk
to her a little bit. She blew me away. her
amazing opening lines from her amazing “Etiquette for Eyes”:
have run out of time when this blog is due so I will close by simply mentioning
Shara McCallum powerful voice you
have to read. Valzhyna Mort who gave a beautiful and angry recitation. Mort is a world class poet and a beautiful
person. I recommend her books to
everyone. Eileen Myles was her usual amazing self. She is now one of the grand masters of our
art. D. Nurke, a really kind soul read a quiet lyric that was exemplary
of his best work. Greg Pardlo, read his poem
about a powerful human collision. It was
so so moving.
friend Patrick Rosal read in B-Boy
baddest voice, one of his best poems ever “You Cannot Go to the God You Love
with Your Two Legs.” The great
performance poet Jon Sands made the funniest line of the night when he
walked to the stage, and said, “well I just found out I’m allergic to
figs. Everyone cracked up. They were still wipping the seeds off from
Gay’s luminous figs. Then he read his
inventive poem “DeCoded.”
Jane Springer, Afaa Michael Weaver, Rachel
brought the night to a close with poems of history and language. So marvelous.
on the stage with us was the spirit of Jake Adam York, who sadly died last
this night was indicative of the health and breath of American Poetry, than
rather than lamenting its Death, the critics should acknowledge its ongoing
inventiveness and courage. Yes people we
are living in a Poetry Renaissance and that night in mid September in New York
City, on a stage far from the shores of Lake Erie, I heard it sing itself. And drove away down the highway toward home
the next day, still humming, still singing, with a heart full of ghostly words.
Buy the book (and honestly, don’t you absolutely feel compelled to right now??).
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author
or editor of thirteen books including All
You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994- 2014 (2014 BOA Editions) Scything Grace (2013 Etruscan Press) and
Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line
(2010 BOA Editions) He is the recipient of two Pennsylvania Council for the
Arts Fellowships in Poetry, an appearance in Best American Poetry 2014, and a US
Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans. Known for his electrifying performances
he has performed at hundreds of venues across North America and Europe
including the Lollapalooza Music Festival, South Carolina Literary Festival, the Old
Dominion Literary Festival, the Dodge Poetry Festiva, and across Albania
and Macedonia where he appeared on national television. He has taught creative
writing at Syracuse University, Penn State University, Case Western University, Chatham University
and Cleveland State University. He currently
works at a Gold Crown Billiards in Erie, PA and tours for performances.