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 up motherfucker.
By Sean Thomas Dougherty
Everyone 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.
On 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.
A 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?
But 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.
I 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.
I 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.
So 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.
And 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.
But 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.
I 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.
I 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
Not everyone was nice. Don’t expect everyone to be nice. But expect everyone to be professional.
And they will surprise you. Cordial goes a long way.
Here is a breakdown of some of the reading.
Lucie Brock Broido 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”
Then, every letter opened was an oyster
Of possible bad news, pried apart to reveal
The imperfect probable pearl of your death.
Then 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 like rivers—
like Glory, like light
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.
That’s the price, that rib rattling wind
waiting to sweep you up,
that’s the price the wind pays.
Sean Thomas Dougherty
When 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
At their electronic palms. They enter and exit
Through broken arteries….
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
Maybe the wrong story,
Palm trees 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”
Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
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 Another Hat)
how does a poet
fall back into the sky
(what time is it)
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 my river-mother
and all her glittering fish,
my sycamore mother who never is cold,
Is 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
and 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”:
I don’t know
If I wore you
When I met you
But I know
the last time
I saw you you
Drank a drink
I bought you
Was far uglier
Than I have
What a devastating poem.
I 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.
My 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 Zucker brought the night to a close with poems of history and language. So marvelous.
And on the stage with us was the spirit of Jake Adam York, who sadly died last year.
If 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.