Monday, April 11, 2011

National Poetry Month Guest Blogger: Poet David Saitzeff Grossman on a Writing Community

Thank you to D.C.-area poet David Saitzeff Grossman for today’s guest blog. He earned his BA at University of Maryland, where Stanley Plumly taught him much, studied in England, where he attended a weekly Writers' Group that liked to drink and merry-make after eviscerating each others' work, and he earned his MA from Johns Hopkins, which has allowed him the opportunity to teach college English to enthusiastic students... at 8 am.  He has written about many things and considers writing about a few more, not including surviving the music industry and life as a marketing executive.  He has often been encouraged to publish and occasionally asks his drawer of wearied work if it is interested in being trotted out yet, but doesn't like to force the issue because, well, it feels rude.  He's also not sure what's next, but who is?

Building a Writing Community

“Poets are,” the man behind the counter began to say in a tone as reserved as his buttoned sweater, “not very reliable.” Maybe he said, “disciplined” – he used one word and I thought the other.  Neither my friend, a fiction aficionado with whom I traveled from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore to see a featured poet who had canceled without notice to the store owner hosting the event, nor I could argue.  As I recall, we both chuckled and, in a moment of self-effacement, I kidded, “what do you expect from someone who can only commit to a single page?”  This attempt to deflect, one I agree with unfortunately, got a laugh but it hurt to hear myself utter it so reflexively.  This is not to say that reliability is the cornerstone of good writing, but it is important in the building of a writing community.

It is true that the Internet has in its way helped poetry flourish and bubble into corners of the mainstream.  Whether it’s Zuzu’s Petals and other ejournals in the 90s, the poetry blogs of the 00s or the many print journals expanding to the web now, poetry is everywhere there’s a screen.  One need only visit to find several vibrant communities of writers sharing their work, workshopping, honing craft or discussing poetry in general or specific poems.  Earlier this week, I read a wonderful New York Times piece by David Orr about Oprah’s magazine, O, celebrating poetry month with “Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets.”

I have friends and former colleagues who have started their own journals (among them, 32 Poems and Lines+Stars), a laudable endeavor that requires serious commitment, or who are working hard to improve the stature of poetry in their respective school systems and doing other arguably anonymous work in service of the arts.  For my part, as a small business owner ten years ago, I hosted monthly open mic nights at my shop for three years.  They were generally well-attended and there were two core groups:  poets and musicians.  Having spent lots of time talking with members of both subsets I came away feeling that the musicians, perhaps because they had to tote instruments which they had to commit to learning… and tuning, were more invested and interested in discussing their craft, learning new techniques and so on.  Perhaps it’s the nature of musicians to be a more gregarious than the typically hermitic poet, but this is no place for Myers-Briggs.  Poets would return monthly, often sharing the same poems or, just as often, different poems recycling all the ingredients of their previous work.

In 2003, my business having run its course and feeling the same, I returned to academia, both teaching and pursuing my MA at Johns Hopkins University.  At its best, and almost across the board, the program was what MFA programs want to be:  engaging, constructive, intensive, frustrating and, for lack of a less cliché word, inspiring.  Rarely, it could be what writers such as Franz Wright, a poet I greatly enjoy, disdainfully claim them to be:  a sort of conveyor belt of instructions and theories teaching what “can’t be taught” (my phrasing, not his).  From my perspective, fraught with the unlikely air of objectivity, the strengths and weaknesses of the program largely reflected the diligence of the individual students.  As in any setting, academic or otherwise, there were those who coasted by with semi-permeable skins, rarely absorbing, and there were those who made difficult strides, internalizing.

Since 2008, due largely to a nagging need to eat and therefore divert energies to work that is often anti-literary, I have withdrawn from literary pursuits – active writing, participating in conferences, judging, editing, etc.  I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, though, since I continue to observe, take notes, and also have found common denominators between my artistic, academic and professional realities.  In an ideal world, I would work full time in academia, where it is easier – not easy – to explicitly intertwine these worlds.   The sad part is that outside of the academic bubble, it can be difficult to develop conversation about poetry that doesn’t end up being lopsided pseudo-lectures to folks not bitten by the bug or casual conversation about song lyrics or Shakespeare that have the awkwardness of a stilted scene from The Office.

This is where community comes in, and the gentleman in the sweater.   He told us he’d been running these events for ten years, but that now he was reconsidering them.   Not getting rid of them, but maybe not emphasizing the poetry as much and focusing on writers of longer form; folks who are more reliable.   I was reminded of the time I finally had to stop hosting the open mics because during a financially tough time they were quantifiably hurting business more than helping it.  The average person was put off by the poetry and it bled into the unforgiving bottom line.  True, there was a serious loss in the sense of community among that group, but it was as necessary as it was painful. 

While poetry can thrive on the Internet, everything can thrive there in some measure.  Poets compete with kittens walking on pianos, girls sharing cups, Farmville, Angry Birds, and so on.  To me, the best poetry always benefits from contemplation, something that the Internet at large is often at odds with.  And yet, now everyone can be published.  With one hyperlink I can be a step removed from some of my favorite poets, Merrill, Addonizio, Strand, Bishop, (Gregory) Orr.  But it’s a fractured state, just as is the cosmos of journals, each with their microcosmic audiences.  The meaningful success, I believe, is creating a real world group of writers, no matter their publishing record, focused on their craft and sharing a space.  In a recent NPR review of the film The Sweet Smell of Success, the reviewer lamented that in an age where everyone can be Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist on whom the film is based, can anyone be Walter Winchell?  Dismissing that (despite a wicked turn of phrase and a penchant for using ellipses like Dickenson used dashes) Winchell was no poet, and this raises the argument whether it is better to have an ivory tower or a democratic field, I think this can be applied easily to many fields, including poetry. 

It often feels that outside of academia, building a community of serious writers is not possible, whether it’s the natural way family, work and artistic pursuits are fissured by limited time, or that “serious” is mutable abstract that alienates more than it welcomes.  Personally, I find it a tough fit being a writer with academic leanings who does not exist in the academic system.  Almost as tough as being a writer who doesn’t write.  Thankfully, after picking up the latest O, I’m sure all will feel better and I can write a poem that will, as David Orr writes, use “poetry to overcome [these] personal challenges,” or at least enjoy some nice pictures and dream of being better dressed in hopes of getting into next year’s issue.

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