I love you, but please stop it. So many of you do it all the time. You’re talking about poetry in a blog or a magazine, or a Facebook post or tweet, and will say “the poetry community,” presumably meaning all the poets in the U.S.
Here is the Poetry Foundation doing it, right at the top of their page. Kate Angus does it here in her post “Americans Love Poetry But Not Poetry Books,” in The MIllions, here is The Guardian doing it in an article about poetry plagiarism, and here is Seth Abramson doing it The Huffington Post. This isn’t a new thing; here it appears almost 20 years ago in an article about the Yasusada controversy.
Please stop it:
1. It’s inaccurate and too broad.
There are many thousands of poets in the U.S., and while community studies scholars do discuss communities that are national in scope, those communities have to agree on the same values, and they tend to be hard to sustain over time. Whenever I hear someone say “the poetry community,” I undergo the same conniption fits I do when someone says “the gay community.” I am gay, but do NOT feel in community with gay women who are fervent followers of LGPA golf. I mean, come on, it’s not like golf is really a sport. I similarly do not feel in community with cowboy poets or hallmark poets even though I’ve nothing against them. But the fact that we call ourselves poets is not enough.
2. It obfuscates real difference in values.
Saying “the poetry community” obfuscates differences between me and a cowboy poet. I know I do not share their aesthetic values, and it’s possible I do not share their political or economic values as related to poetry. Sharing values–agreeing on what poems should look like, how they should sound, the depth and breadth of their concerns–is important to feeling “in community” with other poets. Sharing values about how and when to raise funds for poetry, how to run poetry organizations, what kinds of social goods to advocate for, and who to hold up as exemplary poets is important to feeling “in community” with other poets.
While the perception that there was one American poetry community was somewhat supportable a few decades ago, it’s not true now. Poets who saw the same names printed in the same poetry journals as theirs, or poets who saw the same poets at events or in the small amount of MFA programs at the time might be somewhat forgiven for thinking that they belonged to a strongly delimited yet national poetry community. I say “somewhat” because some of those poets worked hard to obscure and discount poets and poetries that did not fit their aesthetic or political points of view. For these poets, saying “the poetry community” was a way to exclude and erase poetry they did not like. If you’re someone who tends to say “the poetry community,” you should be aware of the multiplicity of poetry communities out there. You may have had poetry mentors who believe that there is one sort of “good” poetry and community to which all poets should aspire, and that you should ignore anyone who isn’t a “spokespoet” for that poetry. We know now how problematic that belief is: it often emerges from unexamined assumptions about aesthetics, language, class, race, culture, and privilege. I contend that it also does damage to specific and local poetry communities and organizations who work to build audiences for poetry.
3. It covers over geographical / local difference.
The problem with claiming a national poetry community is that local poetry scenes or literary ecologies are ignored; there are poetries influenced by the regional and local. We have to be careful, however–are all the poets in a city in the same poetry community? Most of the time, I don’t think so, though it’s better than saying “the poetry community” and meaning all of a country’s poets. There are multiple communities of poets in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I do not feel a part of all of them. I wouldn’t normally say “the Twin Cities Poetry Community” or “the Atlanta Poetry Community.” You have to have the same values, not just the same locality. You’ve got to have something more specific. That said, there are times when local poetry scenes can feel like unified communities–often when they have a common goal or concern. But this feeling (and the cooperation it creates) can be ephemeral and fleeting.
4. Fluidity and Temporariness Is OK; That’s How Communities Work
I also wonder whether saying “THE poetry community” betrays some anxiety that comes from wishing for what sociologists call “pre-modern communities”: distinguished by their specific locales, lack of individual freedom, and relatively small size. Modern communities, in contrast, are now flexible in both definition and membership. In the field of community studies (which includes social scientists, theorists, and activists), there is less of a desire to define communities than there is to think about how they work, and how different cultural changes affect our experiences of communities. From “liquid modern communities” to “imagined communities,” to “the symbolic construction of communities,” there is an extraordinary multiplicity of opinions about how communities work and what they look like, especially in the digital age.* Not only are communities a lot more liquid, but people join and leave them more quickly, and their membership is multiple. Poetry communities need to be specific, clear, and consistent about who they are and what they want from poetry and their members.
5. How To Knock It Off & Stop Saying “The Poetry Community”
Use modifiers! For example, when I talk about the poetry / literature communities that I feel a part of, I will say: “the Rain Taxi community,” “the Poetics List community,” “the Maine poetry camp community,” “the Hamline poetry community,” “the Coconut poetry community,” and “the Georgia Tech poetry community.” Yes, we’ll sacrifice the dream that all poets in the country share values and / or approaches. But what we’ll get is a more accurate and ethical vision of our diverse poetry landscape.
* A great resource on the current picture of community studies is Key Concepts in Community Studies, edited by Tony Blackshaw.