Spring flips to summer, more sun, more son, more daughter, more space, less fast pace, more time TO READ! Two-thirds of the poetry I read in a year is done in the summer. During the school year, alas, I wrestle with the poets I already know; summer gives me the mental state in which I can butt heads with "new" writers. One of this summer's delights is Luljeta Lleshanaku, her Fresco, a selection of poetry edited and co-translated by Henry Israeli.
Luljeta Lleshanaku's vibrates, keeps you alert, line to line, stanza to stanza, shaking Breton, Aragon, Eluard out of their trees, out of their boots, turning me inside out. On the surface, plain, but roiling, roiling underneath, perhaps like Albania:
What Is Known
The search for unknown words
is a complete failure.
They have all been discovered.
They are round and soft, without mystery
little planets festering with ants too tired
to mount a hobo's shoe.
Rosary in hand
the words count crimson drops
of silence dripping from above
and repeat themselves over and over
like demented men.
But they take pride in their age.
After all, they are exhibits in a museum
and I, transitory, passing before them
can only cloud their glass
with my breath.
Peter Constantine's introduction was superb (as was Israeili's, a bio of sorts of Lleshanaku), summarizing Albania's post WWII history, with especial focus on how the Stalin-era silenced anything but state-approved literature. Constantine points out that when the dictatorship ended in 1990 "for the first time there was complete freedon of expression." Some poets expressed their pent-up hatred for the recent past, writing poetry "loudly voicing the terror that had been and the terror that was perhaps to come." Lleshanaku went another direction, eschewing political and social themes--you have to look deeply under the lines in her poems to catch a tinge of the terror that was Enver Hoxa's Albania. That's what makes her work standout, makes it readable to someone in Moscow, Idaho, 2007, with little knowledge of the Balkans.
I grew up as a reader in the 1970s with New Directions. In my late teens/early twenties, three publishers earned my trust. From each of them, I'd buy new books from writers I didn't know because City Lights, Black Sparrow, and New Directions never let me down. Never (and that's not an easy word to use).
I intend to pass the New Directions baton to my students (worried though I may be that "parent" corporation W. W. Norton will muddy the depths of its body). With glee, I recently snapped up World Beat: International Poetry Now, edited by someone I trust, Eliot Weinberger, hoping it's rich enough to adopt for a World Lit class I'll be teaching.
Through the course of a year, I try to spark as many discussions on innovative art as I can--whole class, small group, one-on-one. I provide examples and as much context as I can (many of these discussions arise during discussion of other topics). One genre bends students' resistance more than others: Book Art. I've got samples throughout the classroom and a binder of photographs of alternative books over the last ten years. Below is a "book" by Carolyn B. that currently sits near the front of the room. It's got eight pieces of writing tucked under flaps on the head, arms, hands, and legs.
Chris Piuma: Are your students representative of people (Americans?) (younger Americans?) as a whole?
Hmm, perhaps. Such a small sample to generalize from. Though from a small, safe, clean, monocultural university town (22,000 residents including students) eighty-plus miles from an interstate, they nonetheless share most of the cultural mechanics of other young Americans--MySpace, YouTube, mp3s, downloaded music, cable tv, video games, wikipedia... So like other high school students, they want what they want by the click of an icon.
But they also regularly take part in activities not common to other young Americans. Rugged mountains, whitewater rivers, forests virtually undisturbed by logging, just a short drive away, many of these young people have a larger, deeper connection to the outdoors (potential Whitmans?). Do those activities make them more patient for learning things not on the map? The jury's out.
1. Are your students representative of people (Americans?) (younger Americans?) as a whole?
2. Are they more or less resistant to new art than a similar sample would have been 10 years ago? 5? 50?
3. Does their resistance carry across all genres? Are they as unexcited by new music as they are by new words or new images?
4. Do they feel that they enjoy a wide array of types of artwork? Do they feel that the various artworks that you think are varied are, in fact, varied, or do they think that they are rather similar compared to the range of artworks that they appreciate?
5. Is the goal of art appreciation the endless quest for novelty? Is the goal of art appreciation the ability to appreciate all art? Is the goal of art appreciation to make one happier? Is the goal of art appreciation to make one able to appreciate all types of art so that no matter what artistic situation you are in, you will be able to appreciate it, and thus be happy? (Substitute other words for "happy" ad lib.)
6. If your students loved novelty, what would your job as teacher be? If your students loved novelty, would they have already sought it out for themselves? If your students loved novelty, would it force you, as a teacher, to search even harder for novelty, in order to "stay ahead of them"? If your students loved novelty, would it lead to a situation where they were teaching you as much as you were teaching them? If your students loved novelty, would you be out of a job?
7. Which experimental poets have best taken advantage of audiences' love of being fast-fed their entertainment? Which experimental poets have used audiences' love of being fast-fed their entertainment to negotiate with the audience by giving them what they want in order to drag them to a place they didn't know they wanted to go to? Would such an approach still be "experimental"? Would it be "selling out"? Would it be "worthwhile"? Would it make you "unpopular in the experimental poetry community", perhaps like a populist historian among academic historians?
Then, over the next week or so, I'll work on answering Chris' questions.
An e-mail from Jim McCrary: "Good to see your take on idiots at Poetry Mag. Certainly agree with all you said. My experience working with HS kids is the same. Spent several years with kids from very rural Kansas at writers' camp. These were kids living in broke dick farm communities under the thumb of, among other things, cruel hostile evangelical parents. BUT they loved what I brought that was, to them, unknown. The favorite every time was Greiner!! Not just the easier work but the "scrawls" - they loved to read and disect them - and had no problem 'seeing' through them. Ditto Silliman, Howe etc etc. Also yours, Bennett and Leftwich stuff from old Lost and Found Times which they howled over when I passed them out. I think that what they recognized was a text that looked a hell of a lot more 'familiar' to them than the usual 'school of quietude' crap. Anyway, the money ran out and the camp no longer in existence, which is sad to me.
But you're right we should all spend more time in schools.
Other works that have engaged high school students that an institution like Poetry Magazine wouldn't sponsor? Got to get those works into the hands of emerging readers, multi-million dollar stink fall or not.
Give a man or an organization $175,000,000 and they think they can save the world.
Hey, I think even with $1.75, you can save the world. It all matters what you're going to do with it.
In the January 8 issue of Boston Globe, Poetry Magazine editors mention a couple of their proposed projects. There's enough flak on the interwaves, so I'll not take the space to comment on them.
I would argue: spend the money in the schools (I remember the California Poets in the Schools program of the 1980s). Teachers K-12 are beleaguered by the current testing frenzy; arts education -- including time for creative writing -- has been left behind. To counter this, I say every poet who cares about creating new readers, volunteer in your local schools. Read a variety of poems to one student at a time, to small groups, to entire schools.
Current Poetry Magazine editor Wiman argues that more "poems should rhyme. More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways. More poems should do the things that people like poems to do," he said. ''There is great stuff that's being written in an insular and esoteric vein. But there should also be a broad band of poetry available to common readers."
I doubt he's been in a K-12 classroom recently. Yes, students K-12 appreciate rhyme and meter (who doesn't like a good beat?), are engaged by narrative poetry, but we would sell these budding readers short by simply bringing rhymed, metered, narratives to them. I know from experience that they also are capable of loving B. P. Nichol, The Four Horsemen, Lyn Hejinian's My Life, Ron Silliman's Tjanting, Score's "Laughing Song for William Blake," Michael Basinski's sound poems, the visual poetry of Nico Vassilakis, Karl Kempton... Poetry that their parents might find difficult.
The educational system simply does not have many teachers who read a wide-range of poetry (we can thank their universities for that). I modestly propose that every poet give them a hand and an eye and an ear in their classrooms.