Review: The Best American Poetry 2010

Question: How is reading a contemporary poem like banging your head against a wall?

Answer: You feel better when it’s over.

Actually, that’s not being fair to the wall, because the poem is more likely to result in permanent damage.

The feeling of banging my head against a wall, and not breaking through, is something I experienced throughout the annual anthology Best American Poetry 2010. This year’s guest editor, Amy Gerstler, pulled together a group of 75 poems that seem to me to embody what Tony Hoagland recently described as the poetry of vertigo (see Poetry September 2010)—verse that tries hard to make you dizzy.

But that’s not quite right either. Vertigo demands perspective. You find yourself at a great height, and the act of looking down, viewing the wide world, instills an overwhelming sense of unease. You become unstable, unsure of your footing. You think the world will come smashing up to meet you, and often it does.

No, this is a poetry of WTF. The poetry of being dumped in a forest without any breadcrumbs to follow, no perspective to tell you which way is up or down. The person who dumped you in the forest couldn’t rouse enough empathy to care that you’d never make it out alive. What I find here are many poems that have taken Archibald McLeish’s dictum, “a poem should not mean, but be” too far. It’s not that they defy explication or understanding. They defy engagement. They set themselves up as their own barriers as if daring the reader to get interested enough to give a damn.

Devotees of BAP (I have maybe eight of them) will know that it’s an inconsistent series almost by design. It does not represent the best poems of the year. What it does is (I hope at least) represent that year’s guest editor’s favorite poems from books and lit journals (online and off). Gerstler basically admits as much in her introduction when she writes “I could no more escape my own proclivities, preferences, and tastes when editing this book than I can when writing my own poems.” I respect her honesty in that regard.

This edition is heavily peppered by what passes as contemporary surrealism, non sequitur and postmodern gimmick. There are about ten prose poems, something I think is flarf, a whole lot of random associative poems and at least one that reads like a compilation of Facebook status updates. How a Billy Collins’ poem fits into this I can’t figure, but maybe the series editor, David Lehman had to remind Gerstler that Collins sells.

And there are even a few poems that left me gaping—in a good shock-and-awe way. Both Tom Clark’s “Fidelity” and Amy Glynn Greacen’s “Namaskar” are so stunning as to make me not regret the $16 I spent on it. “Namaskar” was particularly surprising—love it.

Finally, as much as I’m clearly not a fan of the selections in Best American Poetry 2010, I’m glad the book exists. Each year BAP is (along with the Pushcart annual) one of the best ways to take a crash course in major (?) trends in contemporary poetry. I may not like all those trends. I may think that too many writers get too much attention for too insignificant work, but at least it gives me something to think about. At least a publisher has put out the money to back a major poetry project like this. At least there are hundreds of poetry outlets, thousands of poets and readers (mostly the same people) and a strange little thing called po-biz that takes it all semi-seriously.

Also, and this is a good thing, The Best American Poetry 2010 is completely different from the Best American Poetry 2009. I don’t mean simply that there are different poems, but there’s a completely different aesthetic at work. This series allows the guest editor to say to the poetry world, “hey, this is what I think is important.” And as much as I may disagree with what Amy Gerstler thinks is important, I believe it’s very cool that she gets the opportunity to say it so loudly, and I’m glad I get the chance to pay attention. For a collection like this, it’s more important for the potential buyer to be familiar with the editor’s sensibilities than it is to be familiar with the included authors.


Who’s Going to the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival?

In less than a month the biggest poetry event on the east coast, the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, is coming to Newark, NJ (yup, Newark). Ah well, it’ll still be worth the trip. The final schedule of events was just released. You can check out a PDF of it here. Hope to see you there. If you’re going, what will be the main events you plan to attend? I’ve never been so I’m open to suggestions on how to navigate the whole thing.

Here are a few video samples from the 2008 festival:

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More Does Poetry Matter Nonsense

I assume that Anis Shivani was just trying to stir up trouble by his HuffPo post “What is the State of American Poetry.” In it, he questions if poetry in the US has reached a dead end. To answer that daft question he rounded up a handful of reasonably prominent poets and asked for their opinion.  Shivani’s post is a form of link bait as he knows other bloggers will not be able to resist throwing their gauntlets into the ring. So maybe he’s succeeded with me, if only because I think this argument will lead to predictable and boring results. One side will argue that poetry went stagnant after whatever generation they align themselves with, while the other side will claim this is be best time ever for poetry.  Yup. Heard this before.

Here’s a list of the poets who were invited to the fray:  Campbell McGrath, Kevin Prufer, Akilah Oliver, Elaine Equi, Chad Prevost, Cathryn Hankla, Martha Rhodes, Sidney Wade, Ben Lerner, Steve Healey, Alfred Corn, Cynthia Cruz, Julie Carr, Wayne Miller, Anna Rabinowitz, Maxine Chernoff, Claudia Keelan, Rebecca Seiferle, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Shelley Puhak, Raymond McDaniel, Jane Satterfield, Becca Klaver, and Catherine Wagner.

The arguments are being strung out in a series of posts. First up was Claton Eshleman, who seems to think most poets under 60 are boring without offering any evidence to back up his derision. He wants would-be poets to pack up and head abroad and take up translating or criticism.

Next, Annie Finch writes that poetry is at a dead end because modernism pulled it so far away from traditional form and craft that, well, traditional form and craft is seen as a fringe element. OK. Or maybe she’s just saying she doesn’t like a lot of contemporary poetry. Well neither do I (which I’ll go into in more detail in my review of The Best American Poetry 2010 later this week). But that doesn’t mean poetry is at a dead end. It just means she’s fed up with some of the trends.  Also, she makes a big plug for her own writing program.

Here’s a bit of her take on the scene:

It worries me that so little published mainstream poetry is intended to be heard by its readers. As a result, people who encounter a poem on the page tend to think it exists on the page–they don’t hear its patterns resonating aloud inside them. Since repeating language patterns are the core distinguishing feature that demarcates poetry as a genre from any other form of language, there’s a lot at stake.

Finally, Ron Silliman, in recognizing that a genere that claims tens of thousands of active practitioners can’t be dead, asks what I think are more important questions. One being, if everyone and his mother is a poet, than how do you measure success—or how do you distinguish yourself from the rest?

His advice to young poets:

You need to both understand the full field & history of writing and to recognize that we are in the very first moments of whatever the next age in history will be, and that the poetry of the future cannot simply be the past dragged on by habit.

Good advice. And he didn’t mention the School of Quietude even once.

The last poet included in Shivani’s survey is Daniella Pafunda, who overall seems to favor the state of American poetry except for the overabundance of millipedes and the lack of more non white, straight, males in the mix. Depends on where you look I think, but if she’s referring to the top tiers of popular academy po-biz, then yes, she’s got a good point.

Anyway, I’m a bit sick of this question, especially when the question seems to really miss the point. Poetry isn’t a career path. Poetry isn’t a competitive sport. Poetry matters simply because it does. That’s about it. Nothing more.

I was watching the show Hoarders last night and one of the subjects described a feeling of pain and bursting if she didn’t rescue every bit of discarded crap she picked up at yard sales and trash cans. She said she couldn’t stop herself from picking things up and giving them a home. I know that feeling, and it’s not because I’m a pack rat. Anyone who takes their poetry writing seriously knows that aside from some rare, brief and fleeting chances at recognition, cash or career, poetry is something you do for yourself because you’re happier when you’re doing it.

Do I want readers? Hell yes, but getting them is really just a matter of effort (I got you to read this). There are open readings happening every night of the year. Journals, both print and magical, for nearly every sort of poet. And if that fails, I’ve got family that I can abuse with my poems. But that still misses the point. Like fishing or camping—poetry is a kind of work we do because we like the experience. We like what we find when we dig there or we feel badly about ourselves if we ignore the urge too long.

Update: I know a lot of people are reading this, so please add your comments. Am I justified at being annoyed by the nature of Shivani’s questions or not? Did poetry tank 20, 40, 100 … years ago? Is the the web a trash heap of poetry or a Trader Joe’s of delight?

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Interview: Poet Rafey Habib

Last week (or maybe it was longer than that) I posted a review of Rafey Habib’s new book of poems, Shades of Islam. I followed up with him later and convinced him to answer a few questions about his work and other things:

You’ve been writing and translating poetry and writing about literary theory for years, but until now never published your own poetry. How has the process of assembling a book of your poems been different than what you’d done earlier?

It has been an altogether more pleasant process; for one thing, you don’t have to do any research (at least, not of an academic nature); and I feel that I’m attempting to speak in my own voice rather than one borrowed from academia and which is intrinsically adjectival on the work of others. And I feel that this book (of poetry) does not require a specialist audience.

Many of your political poems can be categorized into two groups: those aimed at Muslims who perform injustices (To a Suicide Bomber, Poem for Neda) and those aimed at explaining Muslims to Western readers (The World Does Not Hate America, Home). What reader are you predominantly trying to reach? And what’s the message?

I am trying to address both non-Muslims and Muslims; I want the former to see the beauty, compassion and pathos that inheres in Islam; I want the latter to see themselves in the light of their larger responsibilities in the modern world (such as acquiring and disseminating an accurate knowledge of their religion).

In the poems that deal specifically with the poet’s relationship to religion, themes of otherness, unworthiness and doubt are common. Are those traditional themes in Islamic literature or are they more connected to your own sense of cultural identity (an Indian Muslim, educated in England and living in the United States)?

They are certainly inherent in my own somewhat torn cultural identity as a Muslim, born in India, raised in England, who migrated to the U.S. But these themes of religious struggle also inform writers in Islamic traditions, such as the Medieval Arab poet al-Ma’ari, the thinker al-Ghazzali and the great C20 Pakistani poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal.

Many of the religious poems don’t make specific reference to things readers would easily recognize as Islamic. Is that intentional, and does it suggest commonality among the major religions.

Yes: our religious dilemmas are often the same; and Muslims experience the same emotions, passions and dilemmas as everyone else.

Your two Tsunami poems are written in a more narrative style with more dependence on images than anything else in the book. Why is that? Can you talk more about the experiences the poems are based on?

I stayed with my family in Malaysia for a year; so we had the opportunity to visit a fishing village in Penang that had been struck by the tsunami. The sheer scale of destruction of that event haunted me for a long time, with its implications for the perennial philosophical questions of God’s justice etc. I was appalled by the facile “religious” explanations offered. It seems to me that it is precisely these unintelligble phenomena that the poet must investigate.

Name a few poets, from any tradition, your draw inspiration from? What do you admire in them?

Shelley, of course: his sheer imaginative and verbal genius; I admire poets who are capable of addressing complex philosophical issues, such as Rumi, Hafez, Milton, Donne and Iqbal.

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