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Why poetry still matters

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
Let's face it: Poetry readings can be deadly. Sometimes they're full of energy and spirit and riveting language, but more often than not, they're full of angst-ridden mumblers reciting lines that make no sense. (I'm fine with avant-garde poetry as long as it has some resonance; experiment for experiment's sake leaves me cold.) So imagine my pleased surprise when I attended Small Press Traffic's "30th Anniversary Reading: 30 Year Old Poets" earlier this month (co-curated by SPT's executive director, Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson) and found a trio of potent readers who made me laugh and think.

SPT is a nonprofit literary arts center that supports writers -- often poets of a renegade bent, local and national, published by small houses without a lot of resources -- by promoting their books, holding readings and conferences, and publishing a twice-yearly newsletter, Traffic, that reviews small-press titles. (That last is especially important given that Publishers Weekly, the bible of the publishing industry, which booksellers often use to decide what to carry, stopped reviewing new poetry for a couple of months this year.) The organization, housed since 2000 at the California College of the Arts, also maintains an archive open to the public of small-press books and magazines dating back to the '50s; it includes the work of many renowned artists, among them John Ashbery, Robert Glück, Kenneth Koch, Ishmael Reed, Ntozake Shange, and Anne Waldman. All of those (and dozens more) have read at SPT events over the years. It's an impressive roster.

Now 30, SPT is somewhat diminished from its heyday. It no longer has a bookstore, for example. As the history by Nikki Thompson on its Web site ( states, "In the old days, once a writer decided to start a press, the SPT bookstore was a highly visible means of distribution. But with SPT's emphasis on small presses, new and innovative writers, and writers at the literary and cultural fringes, it was hard to remain financially solvent." Amen. It's hard for plain old bookstores not at the cultural fringes to remain solvent -- and that goes double for small presses publishing good work that mainstream houses won't touch. Grants have dried up, charitable giving suffers when the economy is tight, and government funding is virtually nonexistent (and will likely shrink further if Bush wins again).

Which is why I'm relieved that SPT's readings have continued, because they're a window into the still-vibrant small-press world and an easy way for those who don't know much about poetry to experience it. The event on Sept. 10, for example, was a revelation. About 90 people showed up -- twice as many as at most of the group's events -- and they filled the auditorium at CCA. It wasn't the usual poetry-reading crowd, either; not as many (how do I say this graciously?) middle-aged women in flowered skirts. The audience members cheered and laughed, their clapping unabashed, not the standard polite golf-tournament clap of boredom.

We weren't bored, especially in the middle of the program (the first and last readers were the weakest, I thought). The second reader, Kate Colby, supplied a long, intense prose poem of immense power and humor, standing poised and confident at the podium like a dancer in the wings preparing to enter the stage. She got knowing laughs when she said, "No one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them." In her strong, fine voice, she provided lucid glimpses of a relationship in flux, a young woman aging ("I was getting older, and bleeding"), and some of the absurdities of writing poetry. She called out, "To be so extreme is a privilege I hope never to enjoy," but the only extreme element of her reading was its clarity.

Cynthia Sailers stood on tiptoe while reciting her poems in a sweet, young-sounding style, evoking college days, when you feel "like a hole in the ground, reading the alumna magazine." The pieces were little prose vignettes, often funny: "A friend has a girl who likes poetry," she said, "but she doesn't like it in the right way." Sailers, whose first full-length book just came out from Oakland's Tougher Disguises, co-curates a reading series in Oakland called "New Brutalism." It's refreshing to hear that prickly observations like hers are back in vogue.

Fourth on the stand was Stephanie Young, who has a chapbook coming out from You Ripped Your Dress What a Mess Press -- how can you not love that name? -- and a first collection from Tougher Disguises. Her poems were quick and perky (she mentioned her own "potent spunk" in one piece, and I took it to mean verve rather than anything sexual), but also emotional and genuine. There was real energy in her delivery. She even brought up the vagaries of publishing poetry in a world where it always comes last: "Whenever the novel comes in, the other genres go out."

Fortunately, poetry seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Despite Publishers Weekly's brief retrenchment, the magazine is again reviewing the genre once a month. There are poetry readings in countless venues around town, from the 3300 Club in the Mission to the Simple Pleasures Café in the Richmond to the Edinburgh Castle in the Tenderloin. Last week San Francisco hosted various events connected to The Best American Poetry 2004 anthology; next week is Youth Speaks' Living Word Festival. S.F. State's Poetry Center hit the half-century mark this year with great fanfare.

Even on a national level, the form's getting some respect (despite two jokey political books, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, scarily brilliant as it is, and Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme, silly doggerel from Calvin Trillin). The new U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser, is a plain-spoken former insurance salesman (like the much more famous Wallace Stevens) who doesn't pay much heed to literary fashions. In a recent interview in the New York Times Magazine, he defended his choice of what the interviewer, Deborah Solomon, called "quotidian pleasures": "Poetry can enrich everyday experience," he said, "making our ordinary world seem quite magical and special." (He also had a smart response to Solomon's stupid question about why he's not "better acquainted with European poetry": "Think of all the European poetry I could have read if we hadn't spent all this time on this interview." Take that, snob.)

The point is, poetry isn't something removed from daily life. It's of, by, and for daily life. When it's good, it takes up the world around us and distills it to a perfect moment, in language so sharp it can cut the air. Kooser is right: You don't have to do a lot of background reading to understand it. Just show up at an SPT event and keep your ears open.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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