Saturday, January 26, 2013

Despite Obstacles, Why Poetry Matters

After a bout with the fake flu that everyone is giving to each other like a hot potato that you don’t want to catch, the Steiny Road Poet is back from what she will now call her Life of Poetry tour. This is the tour that started January 15, 2013, in San Francisco with Poetry in Red Dress that offered poems of Muriel Rukeyser and Gertrude Stein and featured Karren Alenier, Mary Mackey, Evelyn Posamentier, and Margo Taft Stever and concluded January 20, 2013, in Venice, California, with Beyond Baroque:East & West Coast Poets that showcased Karren Alenier, Andrea Carter Brown, David Del Bourgo, and Margo Taft Stever. More about this tour shortly but first the Steiny Poet wants to talk about how poetry in America is treated.


Apparently The Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri has been stirring the embers where sick potatoes are roasted to raise the same old question about whether poetry is dead. In the Saturday January 26, 2013, print edition of The Washington Post, the editors finally saw fit to print Richard Blanco’s poem of elegant heft “One Today,” which he presented at the public swearing in of Barack Obama for a second term as president of the United States. In the same print edition, the Post editors also published Petri’s essay “Ode to an obsolete art” where she sarcastically wrote, “Poets are like the Postal Service—a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.” Petri also stated, “We have movies now capable of presenting images to us with a precision that would have made Ezra Pound keel over. All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better.” What Mad Men sold Ms. Petri this bill of goods?

While Ms. Petri, a 2010 undergraduate of Harvard knows her ancient poetry assuring us that all literature in its day—The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh—used to be poetry, she apparently has not read Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. Rukeyser, who had a thick FBI dossier and who worked in Hollywood as a film cutter, said in her book published in 1949 that Americans see poetry fit to be “passed on but not … used” except for ads and greeting cards. According to Rukeyser, good poetry is “time-resistant more than monuments.” She said Americans fear poetry not only because they are afraid of not being able to understand it, but also it might expose their feelings and cause them to respond. She says poetry prepares the reader for action in perhaps unexpected ways, ways associated with emotional exposure.

Rukeyser said the images produced by Hollywood are all about advertising. Rukeyser was enlisted to work with the WWII effort to fight against Fascism, but ad people elbowed out the creative thinkers saying the people at home during wartime were customers (as opposed to citizens) who needed to just win without considering the meaning of what the country was fighting against and for. She also wrote in her manifesto, “The writer becoming an employee in Hollywood, forced to conform to a code which dictates emotional limits, and producing material which can be censored and re-arranged, with or without his knowledge, is a key figure in our society.” Why? Because movies are part of our every day fare? Why shouldn't poetry fill this gap?


So now that Steiny Poet has completed her Life of Poetry tour in California, the question most people would ask is what difference did it make? Actually, the better question is what was learned?

Lesson Number 1—the literary community in San Francisco does not support its writers. Two outsiders, Karren Alenier of the Washington DC area and Margo Stever of the Greater New York City area landed at the San Francisco airport on January 12, scrambled over to an Alameda meeting of 20 plus women poets of the Greater San Francisco Bay area, read poems with this group for two hours (everyone sharing their own work) and got exactly one person in attendance at the Poetry in Red Dress reading and that one person had been someone that Alenier had attended three of her readings held in the DC area over a period of several years. Two of the Red Dress poets—Evelyn Posamentier and Mary Mackey—were San Francisco area poets well known to this salon. Salon member said during that warm and gracious salon reception that there were too many readings going on in the Bay Area and they were not sure what to do about it.  However, everyone agreed that it was important to keep on doing readings. Also despite several emails to Joyce Jenkins of Poetry Flash and help from a Poetry Flash insider, no notice of Red Dress was listed in their community calendar.

Lesson Number 2—don’t count on local writers in San Francisco to draw audience. While the Steiny Poet and her traveling mate Margo Stever were trying to arrange a reading in The City by the Bay, one desperate bookseller, who later apologized but nonetheless did not schedule a reading for Red Dress, demanded that book sales and audience count be guaranteed. The fact was Red Dress at Books and Bookshelves had a respectable audience numbering around 30 people and over $275 worth of books was sold.

Lesson Number 3—the most interesting reactions come from audience who were not literary writers. Poetry in Red Dress which had a script that included group readings of work by Rukeyser and Alenier as well as solo readings by each participating poet and presentation of poems by Gertrude Stein, got such comments as:

“I go to a lot of poetry readings with my wife (this was science professor by training) and this program was so interesting and well done. It may be the best I have ever experienced.”

“I enjoyed the variety of subject matter in the poetry and the pacing. I am now excited to go back to reading poetry which I haven’t done in a long time.” (Artistic director of an Asian-style theater company)

Lesson Number 4—don’t underestimate efforts at blogging and social media like Facebook and twitter. What really made the Steiny Poet’s day for Red Dress was having a couple show up who said they came because they read about it in the Poet’s blog posts.

Lesson Number 5—Californians have a much more laid back approach to how they handle things that can frustrate the get-it-right-the-first-time East Coaster. Beyond Baroque, a struggling arts organization with budget issues (just like every other nonprofit in America), took weeks to get an announcement up on their website calendar and then the information was incorrect and, worse, accented information that had no relevance to the workshop and reading that Alenier and Stever orchestrated. Slowly things were corrected. The Steiny knew from talking to a San Francisco poet who had also scheduled a Beyond Baroque workshop and reading that if there was to be any audience at all, it was strictly up to participating poets.

Lesson Number 6—reach out to people whom you want to see in your audience with personal one-on-one conversations well before the event. The Steiny Poet and her travel mate did this for both the Red Dress and Beyond Baroque readings. It worked in both cases and especially interesting was that a member of Alenier’s Coursera Modern Poetry class showed for the Beyond Baroque workshop and the brand newly appointed poet laureate of Los Angeles Eloise Klein Healy attended the BB reading much to the pleasure of everyone associated with the arts center and those in the audience. Also Alenier was able to connect with her former teacher James Ragan (well known at Beyond Baroque and a poet who has read his work to thousands on international stages) who brought his daughter, the poet Tera Vale Ragan.

In the end, the communication of poetry in America still goes between a small number of people. Giving poetry readings is a kind of frontier, where only the brave or foolish travel. Those of us, who carry a torch for poetry, do it because we know it adds meaning to our lives and we hope to the lives of others. For Alenier and Stever, this was not a vanity tour. Both extended themselves to other writers living and not. Both hoped to pass on knowledge about why living the life of poetry matters.


And while Alenier missed the live reading of Richard Blanco’s “One Today” because she was flying back from her Life of Poetry tour , she would be happy to illuminate why Blanco’s poem, written for a special occasion in our American history, will be “time-resistant more than monuments.” For starters, think about how it evokes Martin Luther King’s I-had-a-dream speech, the Newtown murders of 20 little children, and 9/11 without prosaic commentary.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we all keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

(excerpts from Richard Blanco’s “One Today”)

Copyright © 2013 Richard Blanco


No, Alexandra Petri, poetry is not dead and there is no hot potato to catch. It’s time for you to go out with your friends and support what poets do. And by the way, Natasha Trethewey, our new American poet laureate, is reading at the Library of Congress January 30 on the subject of the civil war and how it still affects us today. Ask Ms. Trethewey if poetry matters. Ask her if poetry is dead.