Tuesday, May 17, 2005

If Billy Collins Wore a Speedo...

What I cannot understand about many perfectly intelligent poets is the way that they are utterly content with their own irrelevancy in the world. What pleases me about a Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Robert Pinsky, etc. is the way that they promote and self-promote, the way they believe that ordinary folk should read poetry.

One of my ongoing concerns is figuring out why contemporary poetry is the unwanted jelly bean of the American populace. Why are poets seldom mentioned in the media, almost never outside the university context? Why aren't there any NY Times Best Sellers' Lists for poetry? Why is poetry almost never published in popular magazines, or relegated to the doldrums of filler, placed in small, rectangular cubicles like personal ads? Why don't more regular folk read and buy books of poetry?

One answer, which is the most common answer that I've heard from non-poets, is that poetry is an art form of the elite. Poetry is high art: a stuffed peacock: the glass antique that your grandmother warns you not to touch. Indeed, it takes a brilliant, imaginative mind to compose, read, and comprehend poetry...But I'm saying that this answer is actually just polite-speak for "most people are just too dumb to get poetry." Perhaps some poets do genuinely believe that many people are just too dumb to "get" their poetry," but I think that most don't. Most poets who seek to publish want a broad readership.

So I think that more Asian American poets need to wear speedos. That is, they need to do more to market themselves and make the public want to read them. I'm not sure how. I think I've suggested a bunch of stuff related to the education of poetry as well as related to substance and content. But see, that may be where I went astray -- being a sullen, little egghead who trusts in the triumph of Jodie Foster over Angelina Jolie.

My new proposal here is a "Calendar of Asian American Poets." Someone definitely needs to make one of those. And it should be a fun, sexy calendar. I'm not talking about a photo of John Yau reading Proust's Les Plaisirs et Les Jours while sitting on a rocking chair next to a floor lamp. I'm talking about a photo of John Yau dangling Pinot Noir grapes over his mouth while in a bubbling jacuzzi. And I've been politically correct here, but I think that female Asian American poets should work their appeal more as well. I'm using "sexy" here in the more generic sense of attracting the reader's attention. Once we have the calendar, we can then move on to other publicity moves.


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

I believe it was Orwell who once said "A poetry reading is a grisly thing," and I think a key element is that far too many readings sound like eulogies than poetry readings, which I and my colleagues have always contended should be a lively, almost convivial affair. A true celebration of life.

Poets need to leave their audiences with the same love of poetry that drove them to write poetry in the first place.

I think if more people took the time to explain, in layman's terms, what the real pleasures of good poetry are, especially in this day and age, you'd see a remarkable, perhaps even radical shift in the appreciation of it, especially among an Asian American audience.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Would we really want to see Garret Hongo in a Speedo?

5:49 AM  
Blogger CM said...

As one who does not really like reading poetry (but is a friend of Roger and thus reading this blog), I cannot give a great answer about why the general population does not read poetry, but I do have a few thoughts.

First, I do not think that intelligence plays a great factor in whether someone will enjoy poetry. Granted, a requisite literacy and base of knowledge are required for the reader to understand allusions and other literary techniques, but this makes poetry no different than much prose.

That brings up the second point: There are some people who seem to "get" poetry, and some who do not. I think the same is true of art more generally, actually. With some effort, these people can basically understand most poetry or art. And with some time and instruction, they can understand the more sophisticated aspects of the art form. But regardless, they do not look at art or read poetry and see magnificence. They simply do not "get" it the same way other people do. (I would consider myself in this category).

Since poetry is form of art (I think it is, anyway), I think it inevitable that it will have limited mass appeal. Of course, this does not mean that poets should not do their best to expand readership.

But maybe you should pass on the speedos!

1:50 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, yeah, I would add that too many poetry readings go on for just a little too long. Maybe it's just my attention span, but I don't think a poet should read past 30 minutes straight, not at least without some interaction with the audience. If ten or twelve poems are read in a row, they start to lose their individuality, IMHO.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Nick, actually, I thought of Hongo as well. I'm sure a photo of Hongo in a thong-o would at least draw the attention of Poets and Writers.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Yikes, my close law school friend, "cm," has posted! As you can see, he has carefully not outed himself as a poetry-lover, for as we all know, THE BAR is watching. :)

Seriously, though, I'm glad that someone not into poetry has posted. I've been waiting, but if your blog is called "Asian American poetry," you're not going to get many readers who aren't into poetry.

I agree with cm that "intelligence" doesn't play much of a role in whether someone will enjoy poetry. But I take that to mean that poetry is an artistic/literary form that potentially has mass appeal. Or it should, IMHO.

I understand that some people don't "get" poetry, but I'm more interested in why that is so. Especially with people who like to read fiction and non-fiction.

It's my Emperor Penguin question all over again. Why are some people, but not others, interested in Emperor Penguins? Is poetry doomed to be relegated to the "elite" status of Emperor Penguin-dom? Or is poetry something else that can have a larger audience? And how do we get there to that larger audience? (Interestingly, no one, yet, has taken the position that poetry should not be "dumbed down" into a popular art form. That poetry does not need a larger audience, and that poets shouldn't strive for one. I'd be interested in that position, since I know that most poetry-lovers aren't as populist as I am.)

4:12 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Well, I'll fall in behind the position that poetry need not (and should not) strive for mass popular appeal. There's much to be said (and has already been said) on this point, but in a nutshell I think mass popular appeal (in the US at least) is linked to consumer appeal and the market, and that art and poetry has a responsibility to stay out of the market as much as possible.

To put it another way, for me the point of art and poetry is to get at those elusive, often marginalized experiences of life that are simply ignored or otherwise inadequately addressed by mass media and pop culture. These experiences are vital and significant, and they need to find their outlet in art. So it's not a question of art "dumbing down" to the level of mass culture; it's more a matter of the art finding a way to make its message compelling enough to draw in the audience that wants to find it. There must be a way to locate this compelling chord without diluting the art's original "purity"?

Art shouldn't change or compromise itself. People who want to find art need to do the work required to find it, just like I need to do some work to find my favorite CD from some obscure primitive-rock Brit girl-band. Of course there are ways in which the art can make itself more easily found by those who wish to find it -- by toning down obnoxiously arrogant personalities, for instance, or by publicizing itself in terms that don't require a PhD or poetics MFA to be interpreted.

But in the end I think CM has the most important point. A reader who "gets" it, who is drawn to poetry innately, will seek it out. A reader who doesn't feel naturally drawn to it won't be converted by force, won't be persuaded to eat his/her brussels sprouts, so to speak, no matter how compelling the argument. You could say that the azn kids have solved this problem by making poetry/spoken word hip and endowing it with hip-hop cred, and that's all good, for what the azn poetry movement is trying to achieve in the social niche it's trying to achieve it in. But other types of poetry would lose their edge and even cease to be themselves if they chose this route.

12:19 PM  
Blogger pam said...

I should note also that a parallel discussion relevant to this topic of poetry's (lack of) appeal and popularity is going on at Gary Sullivan's Elsewhere blog.

He cites inadequate distribution vehicles for poetry books (esp. chapbooks)-- if the books don't make it to your local store, how are you going to know that you want to find and read them? But even more than that, he cites poetry's limitations in marketing itself, in clinging to the academic market with its academic lingo, rather than advertising itself as something enjoyable or pleasureable...

12:35 PM  
Blogger Eduardo C. Corral said...

Hongo in a speedo? No.

Jon Pineda in a speedo? Yes.
Oliver de la Paz in a speedo. Yes.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam,

Thanks for the link. Yeah, I actually sympathize with much of what you've said. And, yes, there isn't enough marketing of poetry as something pleasurable and entertaining.

Along your line, I would also add that the poetry industry itself, I would imagine, must feel an incredible sense of anxiety at having to keep itself respectable and professional. The top poets and editors need a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd -- and academic degrees, titles, and lingo, along with the economic backing that comes with all of that, are a good way to do it. To this extent, poetry publishing/marketing isn't that much different from any other profession, IMHO.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Eduardo, thanks for surfing on over -- and for blogging so often. I've found blogging often to be difficult lately, given time constraints and all.

I think poetry is that rare field where male poets are more objectified than female poets. No studies to my knowledge have been done, but I'm willing to bet that most buyers of poetry books are women and gay men.

On a more serious note :), come on now, let's give a little more loving to Hongo here. Just because the guy might have a slightly non-traditional swimsuit look doesn't mean he can't work the camera.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Anonymous Poet said...

Great post. Whenever I pick up a poetry journal it seems largely filled with dense, ponderous material that has little or no lasting relevance. It seems that, too often, density and obscurity are equated with profundity. To some authors, writing poetry seems to be like creating a Rubik's cube that requires a secret decoder ring to decipher. It's nice to see, however, that there are at least a handful of people who are still willing to write in a more accessible style.

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