Please Stop Saying “THE Poetry Community.” Please?

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:

Screenshot of tweets w "the poetry community." 11.19.14.  R.Weaver

Screenshot of tweets w “the poetry community.” 11.19.14. R.Weaver

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.

Community? Scene?

Community? Scene?

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.

Festivals, Community, Dig It

When I talk about my scholarship, I often say I focus on the conflicts within literary communities because I think those conflicts–what we say when we argue about poetry–teach us something about our values regarding poetry.   I started my research by looking at two poetry communities that started in the 1970s: the Loft in Minneapolis and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa.  I wanted to know what their early major conflicts have to teach us in literary communities now, and this is the guiding direction of the book I’m working on.

But I rarely get a chance (at least in traditional scholarship forums) to say why questions of literary community concern me so. Over the last 15 years, I have had the great luck to be involved in a number of literary communities   In job applications, I call this “experiential scholarship,” the learning I’ve gained by by participating in poetry communities.  One of the most important things I’ve learned from my experience is how important literary communities are to the work of literature.  The work that literary communities do, from putting on events, running workshops, providing space for informal and formal gatherings, and encouraging the writing, is vital.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday as I walked back to my car from The Letters Festival, an independent small press festival held in Atlanta.  I met poets, fiction writers, teachers, journal and zine editors, publishers, and reading series organizers.  I got to see folks such as Bruce Covey, Christeene Alcosiba, Adam Robinson, Laura Relyea, and CA Conrad again and meet the amazing organizers of the fest, Scott Daughtridge and Stephanie Dowda, as well as many other editors and organizers.  The fest was held in Goodson Yard, a large and open re-purposed old brick factory building at the Goats Farm Arts Center.  The book market part of the fest had about 25 tables circled around a seating area with a few couches, chairs and side tables.  A room across the way held readings and workshops throughout the day.

It felt so familiar; it felt like the early years of the Twin Cities Book Festival, held for the first time in 2001 in the Open Book, a re-purposed old brick factory building in Minneapolis.  Bookstores, presses, journals, and literary organizations staffed tables upstairs and down, many table occupants knew the people at the table across the way, and a friendly mixing of editors, readers, writers, and bookstore owners was the rule of the day.  There was a spirit of “little fish can make a large school.”  Most independent literary journals, presses, and organizations don’t have the budgets of mainstream or commercial presses, huge marketing departments, or the institutional heft of the universities in town.  But together, they represented the wide liveliness, energy, and diversity that many in Minnesota and the region now look to the Twin Cities Book Festival (and its sponsor, Rain Taxi) to promote and support.

RW at TCBF 2009

Yours truly & silly, TCBF 2009

While the focus and reach of the fest has expanded somewhat (to include a Children’s area and other elements.), founder Eric Lorberer and the TCBF team have been very careful about how and when to grow; thus the TCBF has retained this lively spirit of independent camaraderie and a celebration of local and regional scenes as well as ties to national and international scenes.

I came to the Twin Cities to attend Hamline’s MFA Program and I was looking for literary community.  Soon after I arrived, I met Eric and started to volunteer. I learned so much about poetry, about how literary communities and scenes work, and about small press publishing from being part of the Rain Taxi community and working events like the TCBF.   I learned that while it’s possible to be a successful writer (whatever “success” means to you) without participating in literary communities, it’s usually a lot harder.  As I said in my previous post, communities help train you into the work of being a writer, editor, or literary activist.  An added benefit of the emphasis on small and local is the joyful welcome afforded to new members, not just because you pay your table fee, but because you show up and want to take part.

Since moving to Atlanta two years ago, I’ve been looking to get more involved in poetry communities, and I’m heartened by yesterday’s experience, the same joyful welcome (even during the short time I spent there). Though only in its second year, TLF has the potential to do for Atlanta what similar festivals and book fairs do for literary scenes in other cities.  With a focus that’s emphatically different than commercially-sponsored book / arts / neighborhood festivals, events such as TLF celebrate small and independent presses, journals, and organizations and the local and regional scenes they emerge from.  They encourage collaboration, cooperation, and invention: they develop ways to keep doing literature and community without a lot of resources.  They welcome newcomers into the work.

Poetry Communities = Poetry Discourses

Welcome back!  If you assumed that I haven’t updated the blog in awhile because Ive been working on other things, you’re right.  But with the new school year and the reinforcement of the lesson that writing more helps you write more, comes new determination to re-vivify this thing and keep it alive.  Please feel free to suggest blogs I can add to my follow list, and please comment and ask questions.

I’ve been thinking about the discourses of poetry communities a lot lately, after spending the last few months immersing myself in the field of discourse analysis–I realized that it’s what I have been doing in my work for almost my entire scholarly career.  As I mention in my previous most here, I have always been really fascinated by the arguments about poetry. Now I know that this is because those arguments convey and express dearly held discourses.  In the field of discourse analysis (Introduction to Discourse Analysis), a “discourse” is a way of performing a certain kind of identity that is recognizable to community members.  We use language, actions, interactions, ways of being, and various tools to “enact” these identities.

I think that this is what poetry communities do: help poets develop and enact poetic identities.  I’ve been working on a paper for the upcoming American Literature Association’s Poetry Symposium in Savannah.  In it, I argue that discourse analysis can help us usefully read poetry conflicts, and then I perform a discourse analysis of a manifesto produced by the Croatoan Poetry Cell, involved in protests at the Poetry Foundation in 2011.  The text shows how differently the communities involved feel about countercultural poetry, institutions, and poetry funding.

I’ve also been corresponding with the poet Meryl DePasquale about a “how to submit to poetry journals” chapbook draft, and I was reminded of a talk I gave through the “Works In Progress” series at Minneapolis College of Art and Design three years ago.  In this talk, I wanted to explore the question of why we might still need communities, when anyone can publish a poem online, without an editor, now. I said that in the past, communities helped train poets in how to be members of poetry communities: how to build supportive networks supported poetry by setting up readings, space, classes, and events; how to start presses and journals; and, yes, how to get one’s own work published.  Most importantly, a poetry community will teach new poets the values / aesthetics of the community, and this is, I said, why we still need poetry communities in the age of instant digital publication: without those people who share your values and aesthetics, there aren’t readers for your work.

Communities disabuse novices of the romantic ideology of the isolated genius writer, and educate them in how to be a poet in that community through the discourse of that community: publishing practices, belief systems, methods, purposes, and behaviors. The poetry landscape in this country  is made up of many different poetry communities, scenes, and networks, online and offline, who welcome the involvement of new poets. By training themselves in the discourses of communities of poets whose work they like, new poets exchange “labor” (ranging from peer reviewing poems, volunteering at events, cleaning or building spaces, working on websites, etc.) for a community of readers, of people who recognize that poet as a poet.

Discourse analyst James Paul Gee (linked above) is fond of saying that through discourse, we “say, do, and be.”  In this technological moment, poets need communities because communities show poets how to speak as poets, do poetry, and to be poets.