Monday, April 09, 2007

“It must be hard getting out of graduate school without a book contract.” That sentence, which was spoken publicly at a party a few years back by a poet who has received both a Pulitzer & a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, is still the single dumbest thing I’ve ever heard said about contemporary poetry by somebody actually involved in the practice. Most poets, even School-o-Quietude prima donnas, don’t get out of grad school with book contracts – the speaker here meant by a trade publisher like FSG, since indie presses seldom bother with contracts at all & university presses for the most part work on a book-by-book relationship. A poet with an ongoing relationship with a university press, the way Alan Dugan was situated with Yale, is rare and noteworthy.

That sentence came roaring back into my head for the first time in awhile over the weekend as I pondered what, in fact, it might mean for two more or less simultaneous anthologies to appear with 193 poets between them, 180 of whom must all be instances of the School of Quietude, while sharing just four poets who appear in both volumes. Now obviously there are differences between the two volumes that go well beyond the fact that one is well edited, the other rather poorly so, or that the Poetry Daily website has a fondness for the patterned poetics of so-called new formalism that Pittsburgh editor Ed Ochester doesn’t share. The simple reality is that of the 149 poets included in the PD anthology, just four were from poets included by Ochester in his misleadingly titled American Poetry Now.

So it’s worth taking a closer look at how each book was edited. PD picked 149 poets who had appeared on its online Poem-a-Day web feature since an earlier anthology in 2003. That suggests that its editors had maybe 1,000 different poets to choose from – and this no doubt is partly why the book has a shapeless Noah’s arc feel to it – it was just trying to represent too much. The Pitt Poetry Series that Ochester has been editing now for forty years prints four books a year, meaning that he had something akin to 160 possible books to choose from. If I go on the PD website, I can look at the archive for just the past year – another bad editorial decision from Boller & Selby – so that I can see at most about one-third of what the editors had to work with. If I go on the Pittsburgh Press website, I can find a catalog for the Pitt Poetry Series that lists 128 titles, a few of which are listed twice (presumably because these volumes came out both in hardback & paper bound editions), so maybe 120 or so books overall, with a list of exactly 80 authors. One of those, tho, is Ed Ochester for editing APN¹ itself. Whether or not this represents the entire series is impossible to tell, tho I suspect that there may be at least some older volumes that are out of print and thus not listed.

In any event, in picking 47² poets for this anthology, Ochester also omitted at least the other 31 listed in his catalog, including Allison Joseph, Carol Muske, Odysseus Elitis³, Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon, Gabe Gudding, Gary Gildner, Aaron Smith and Rick Hilles. Going through the catalog, I don’t think there was a general principle determining who did or did not get included, beyond say the fact that those poets with multiple Pitt volumes – Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Robin Becker, or Alicia Suskin Ostriker – are all represented. The real reason is, I suspect, Ochester’s sense of how many pages he wanted to allocate to each poet and the size volume the press could afford.

There are, as it happens, some Pitt poets in the PD archives who did not make it through the much tighter funnel in that anthology. One case in point is Penn State professor Robin Becker, whose poem “Sound View” appeared on the Poem-of-the-Day website on August 7 of last year, excerpted no less from her most recent Pitt book, Domain of Perfect Affection. The poem begins with the sort of labored simile & hyperactive verb phrase that seems to parody the notion of “creative writing” itself:

Like driftwood,
        a deer
foams toward shore.

It’s impossible not to guffaw at an opening sentence like that. Unfortunately, the rest of the poem makes plain that this isn’t a satire on bad writing, but rather is the real deal itself. Reading Becker’s selection in APN, however, suggests that “Sound View” represents some sort of lower limit of bathos toward which her work might descend. It’s not that Becker’s not given to ludicrously figurative language –

I like to watch
your breasts float like two birds
drifting downstream

– but rather that, at her best, she’s not a poet of figurative language at all, but rather of relationships. Indeed, in “Adult Child,” likewise in APN, the only false notes occur precisely where Becker uses metaphor as filler:

Now that my parents are old, they love me fiercely,
and I am grateful that the long detente of my childhood
has ended; we stroll through the retirement community.
My father would like to call the woman who left me
and tell her that I will be a wealthy woman someday.
We laugh, knowing she never cared about money
but patiently taught him to use his computer and program
the car phone. In the condo, my mother navigates
a maze of jewelry, tells me the history of watches,
bracelets, rings, pearls. She says I may sell
most of it, she just wants me to know what’s what.
I drive her to the bank where we sign a little card
and walk, unaccompanied, into the vault, gray boxes
stacked like bodies. Here, she says, are the titles and deeds.

Ignore détente and stacked like bodies and this is a decent piece of writing, concise & perceptive. The two metaphors don’t add anything – they really are filler – but they’re not so wildly inappropriate as to cause more than an instantaneous wince. And this poem is much more characteristic of what Ochester has chosen to represent of Becker in his anthology – and indeed even from Domain of Perfect Affection on the Pitt web site. So the mystery is not why did Boller & Selby not choose to include Becker in their anthology, but how did that particularly garish & silly piece get chosen for Poem-of-the-Day in the first place.

Again, I think this may come down to Ed Ochester being a better editor than Diane Boller & Don Selby (tho, I suppose he could have done Becker an even bigger favor by just getting her to drop “Sound View” from her book). In trying to represent a much broader view of American poetry than Ochester, Boller & Selby lack a perspective that enables them to select out what’s best about a poet whose work might differ from their own aesthetic. There are poems in their anthology – Ron Slate’s “The Demise of Camembert” for one, Meghan O’Rourke’s “Anatomy of Failure” for another – every bit as embarrassing as “Sound View.” Ochester at least makes a case as to why Robin Becker is a serious poet & why I might want to read more of her writing. That really is his job as editor and he executes it consistently. With its one-poem-per-poet for all but two of its contributors, PD leaves everyone pretty much exposed to whatever the individual poem might happen to be. In some cases, that’s a fatal mistake.

Although Ochester himself argues in the introduction against “poetry gangs,” it’s the certainty of his vision that makes his book work. In general, Ochester likes poetry that is straightforward, narrative & not too given to literary flourishes – he himself notes the presence of humorous poems here, and it does sound as if the one participant of the New American Poetry he actually enjoyed was Frank O’Hara. There’s also a lot of writing by people of color here, to such a degree that I went through Ochester’s omissions to see if he was upping the quota to give the end product more of a multicultural feel – he’s not, Pitt really does have good track record in this regard. It may well be the single best publisher of conservative poets of color in the country.

The end result is a Pitt poetics that is as internally consistent from one poet to the next as anything you could want from any movement, including language poetry. Indeed, I think the range here is quite a bit more narrow than one finds in In the American Tree, let alone something more recent & post-avant like Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics. So in what way is this not a cabal? Is it because it theorizes itself as not one? Or because the poets just aren’t in touch with one another? Because they don’t support each other in the development of their work? Because they don’t find ways to build on one another’s insights & perceptions? In what way here is not having a community an advantage? It’s hard for me to figure this one out, other than to say that “not being a group” is one very important feature of this very cohesive gang of poets.


¹ Ochester doesn’t publish himself in the series, although nobody would think less of him if he did. He may feel that there is a value in having an outside editor for his work. Autumn House, a Pittsburgh-based press that mostly focuses on School of Quietude poets from Pennsylvania, has been his publisher in recent years. Although I live in Pennsylvania, I’ve never seen an Autumn House book in a bookstore. Four of their books are available through SPD. At least if Ochester published his own work, we’d be more apt to see it.

² On Friday, I characterized American Poetry Now as including “four dozen poets,” and the back cover lists 48 contributors. However, Muriel Rukeyser, tho listed on the cover, does not show up elsewhere in the volume.

³ Arguably the author of the single best volume ever published by the series. Given that Axion Esti is an outlier for this series, which generally doesn’t publish poetry in translation, the omission makes sense.