The Top 4 Wants As I Heard Them at Simone White’s Unofficial AWP Off-Sight About How the Professionalization of Poetry is a Hoax Because Poetry Is Not a Profession
The Poetry Project, Wednesday, February 8, 2017
by Anna Vitale
1. Poets want to be together, to think with one another, and to make things in a social and cultural space that does not threaten to clean up antagonism and difference with the hygiene of professionalism.
People read some really beautiful writing about some messy-ass shit. I can’t remember who read the poem with a lot of limbs and bone marrow in it.
Filip Marinovich marvelously disoriented us by addressing the audience as if he were Jack Spicer and we were in Vancouver.
Mel Elberg read a poem whose words unfolded before our eyes. There was tiny writing on a page that was big enough to flop upside-down in Mel’s hands as if to suggest it had been scrawled out moments before. Being able to see the writing produced a sense of spontaneity, lack of composure, and an excess of exposure.
Anselm Berrigan read a poem by Jim Brody, one of hundreds of poems that Jim would have written in a year. Learning of that drive, commitment, and obsession was intense, and Anselm offered us the room to respect that which we do not control, which is marvelous all the same, even if not exactly pleasurable for the writer at the time.
Adjua Greaves and Bob Holman found themselves at the mics, across the room from each other, at the same time. It was a charming and playful accident that they embraced. In another world, one of them would have sat down, but Adjua invited Bob to stay. I imagine a video where a flower grows very fast. They volley slowly across the room in what feels like the creation of more space where you don’t know more space can be made. This is the impromptu theater of the collective.
Matvei Yankelevich pretended like he had written something by holding a notebook in front of him. Then he admitted to having written nothing and put the book in his back pocket. He told us about how the invention of MFA programs in the US was some cold war shit, Iowa trying to one up Russia.
Jennifer Krasinski read a beautiful poem by Ed Smith (LA/ Beyond Baroque). All Ed Smith seemed to ever have was a pencil and, listening to this poem, that felt like everything and yet a pencil isn’t enough to live by.
Lee Ann Brown told us how exciting it was to go to her first AWP with Allen Ginsberg and how she had just learned of Tom Raworth’s death. She cried in front of us, for him, and we were quiet together. I am grateful for and disoriented by so much vulnerability and strength between us.
2. Poets want more time and space to be with one another in meaningful ways and we want to engage with one another’s work outside of the perfunctory bulk of capital.
I have always loved the idea of off-off-Broadway or off-off-off-Broadway because I imagine that’s where there is the most fake blood, swearing, addiction, and potential for feeling, discovery, desirable representation, destruction, and life. Now that’s complicated and likely problematic for lots of reasons, but one thing to notice is that off-site and off-off-site poetry events are a sight, a stage, a place for us (to cite the Indigo Girls) and not-us. And some of us who have been separated geographically from centers of poetry have relied on AWP to connect us and reconnect us to those with whom we desire connection. AWP is also a way to circulate publications, but how valuable those publications end up being and feeling in the grand scheme of the book fair is an open question.
3. Poets want to do more than survive.
The idea that poetry is or could be our career gets in the way of other meaning-making and other understandings of what we are doing and want to be doing. Poetry is not a career. Career comes from the word chariot and describes the wall around people who joust (MC Hyland). Poetry is the dirt or it is the sword, to stick with the scene of jousting, but it is not the wall; it is a thing, a world, a love, an action, but it is not a profession. Being an educator is a profession and it often seems like the profession of most poets. Poets are not the legislators of the world, but it can feel like we are the educators of our little worlds. We are grossly underpaid for our work, which is teaching people how to read, write, and think, and we are not recognized politically or economically for having dedicated our lives to learning how to read, write, and think.
We are anxious/ angry/ fed up/ desire more from each other/ desire less and need another version of this world, but this is the world we live in. We need ways to make a living and to take care of ourselves and each other. Poetry can do this socially but not economically, not for us, anyway, for the most part. I cannot say this enough: many of us, perhaps all of us in that room in one form or another, are educators, adjuncts, community leaders, advocates, activists, mentors, publishers, and organizers: all people doing something that pays not nearly enough. Sure, we sort of made this choice. I could have become a nurse midwife or a wife or something, but probably like lots of others in the room, I wanted to continue to move and be moved by something I had developed an immeasurable affection for but did not and do not understand. My bad. But this is the world we live in right now. And as Simone White bravely charged, you better get with it. This is a hard pill to swallow. I am still swallowing it. And as Dia Felix, with a beautifully dark humor conveyed, it can feel unsurvivable.
4. We are very strange (Adjua Greaves)
And we want to stay that way. And we want to be able to afford to stay that way.
Here is the original call Simone White made to participants:
“hey, you there, boss, i’m talking”: AWP OFF-SIGHT*
EVENT DETAILS: Wednesday, February 8, 2017, 8:00 pm
YES OR NO
- The primary purpose of AWP is professionalization;
- It is difficult if not impossible to make money from writing and/or selling poetry; therefore, professionalization is a hoax insofar as poetry is not a profession.
Simone White hosts this groupthink, reading, strategy meeting, party for AWP reflections, critique, defenses and proposals for alternative gatherings. Participants include: Montana Ray, Dia Felix, Judah Rubin, Jennifer Krasinki, Anselm Berrigan, Adjua Greaves, Lee Ann Brown, Katy Bohinc, Layne Brown, Matvei Yankelevich, E. Tracy Grinnell, MC Hyland, Mel Elberg, Anna Moschovakis, and Filip Marinovich.
*Note: This event will take place at The Poetry Project in New York City!
Anna Vitale is a writer and performer interested in poetry, psychoanalysis, music, and improvisation. She is the author of Detroit Detroit (forthcoming, Roof Books), Different Worlds (Troll Thread, 2017), Unknown Pleasures (Perfect Lovers, 2013), and Anna Vitale’s Pop Poems (OMG!, 2010). Her writing has appeared in places like The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy, Gauss PDF, Jacket2, and P-Queue. Anna earned an MFA from Bard College and is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Brooklyn.