The State of Poetry, as Seen by Baltimore Poets
In honor of National Poetry Month, City Paper gathered a representative sample of local poets to talk about the state of poetry. Bradley Paul, a professor at Towson University and Maryland Institute College of Art, and Kathleen Hellen, creative writing professor at Coppin State College and poetry editor for the Baltimore Review, represented the more traditional academic pursuit of poetics. Femi Lawal (aka the dri Fish) and his partner in rhyme David Ross (aka Native Son) represented the new jacks on the hip-hop-infused spoken-word scene. Linda Joy Burke, writer-in-residence at the Howard County Center for African-American Culture, was a performance poet before the dri Fish and Native Son were even born. Meanwhile, Christophe Casamassima, editor of Ambit: Journal of Poetry and Poetics and proprietor of Furniture_Press, found a way to reject almost any orthodoxy offered.
City Paper: How do you keep poetry alive in the days when people no longer gather around a parlor in their homes to read and you have to compete with video games, television, and the web?
Bradley Paul: Even though I think we like to talk about the golden age when everybody used to sit around and read poetry, I donít think it ever really existed. Itís always been something thatís fairly marginalized one way or the otheróparticularly before the development of the novel, poems were more common.
I think the reason that poetry continues to live, despite not having any money behind it and being widely ignored in America for the most part, is that, unlike most kinds of electronic communication, thereís nothing passive about it at all. A movie can be going in the background, or television can be going in the background, but a poem requires your energy to make it happen, otherwise it just doesnít happen. It requires a more stringent attention than I think people are looking for.
Kathleen Hellen: Thatís very interesting that you said ďmarginalized,Ē because I think in the past it was more marginalized than it is now. It has left the academic world, and it has really moved into the street. So I think that itís more available to all of us as a product of consumption than it ever has been in the past.
BP: Well, as far as the percentage of entertainment out there, itís still a small [part]. If you go to any Barnes and Noble, even the one with the best poetry section, itís one wall.
Linda Joy Burke: Youíre talking about usage of poetry, though. And poetry, as Kathleen said, is being used in broadcast media, in commercials. So, I tend to agree with what [Kathleenís] saying about it being less marginalized. But I also understand what [Bradleyís saying] about going to the bookstore. If you want to find a decent collection of poetry, where do you find that?
I think itís like anything elseóif it doesnít matter to you, then you donít realize that itís there.
KH: I think poetry will always be competitive with other forums, like video games and television, because I think itís the last place you can tell the truth. I think all the other media has been co-opted to a very large extent. I mean, even novelsópeople write novels so they can make a blockbuster movie. But poetry, because it pays nothing, or very little, has still managed because of that to remain pristine and relatively pure, I think. And if youíre looking for the truth, thatís where to find it.
Femi Lawal: Itís funny that you say that. I guess the arena that weíre in is a very entertainment[-oriented] arena. Where I am today, when I think about poetry, I feel like itís turned into an art where people feel like they have to say exactly what is right, so that everybody will agree with them: If I say this, the general population will be in [agreement] with me, therefore I will shine, I will move my CDs, I will move my books. So, therefore, you stop writing for yourself and you start writing to appease the crowd.
CP: The Def Poetry Jam tour was just here this past fall, and if you talk about poetry that is pleasing the masses, I wonder if the organizers think: OK, we have to have our militant guy, and we have to balance him with this beautiful woman who only speaks about love. Itís almost like . . .
David Ross: They look for the packaging.
CP: Right, exactly.
DR: What I think it comes down to is that they still havenít found lucrative ways to market it. Poetryís always been here, but every so often it becomes very popular, as it is right now. But they still donít know what to do with it. They donít know how to package it. There are poets signed to record labels right now that are just sitting, because [the labels] donít really know how to put them out there yet. If they can find a way to get them on a Sprite commercial . . .
KH: The very fact that poetry resists that kind of commercialization says something very powerful about poetryóthat it has managed to maintain its own integrity despite this onslaught of commercialization.
LJB: Thereís a certain formula that appeals to popular culture in every medium. If the formula works, and thatís the direction that you want to go in, then thatís whatís happening. But the other side of it is, What happens with form and with poetic setting?
BP: And with the authorís original intention. I mean, one specific example I think that I half laughed at, half threw up about (laughter) . . . there was a commercial a few years agoóI donít know what company it was for, it was for an investment house. And it had different people in the streets of New York walking by, and theyíre saying lines from the Robert Frost poem ďA Road Less Traveled.Ē The thing is that poem, even though itís an incredibly popular poem, is actually, as with most of Robert Frostís stuff, itís really pessimistic. When he says he took the road less traveled and that made all of the difference, the idea is that because he took the road less traveled, heís broke. They dropped certain pessimistic lines out of the poem, ícause you donít want to have a pessimistic poem for an investment house. And so you look at this and you think: Well, what would Robert Frost think looking at this?
CP: What about the Baltimore audienceóboth those who buy published work, and those who patronize spoken-word events?
DR: I think Baltimore is still an industrial city. Itís trying to make that shift gradually, but I donít think thereís a base for art here. I mean, there are artists here, and I think we sharpen ourselves against each other. I think thatís probably why many of the best artists come out of Baltimore, because we donít have an audience. When we go to venues there are more artists than there are patrons.
KH: Well, this is the irony about being a poet and trying to get ďout there,Ē is that poetry by nature is a very isolated, lonely occupationóin the writing of it and in the creating of it. So to make that leap from my computer to a stage or to a podium is difficult. And then we live in times where every moment of the day is seized by some other needy concern. I think every night of the week thereís something in Baltimore you could go to if you really wanted to. I have to choose very carefully because I donít have all that time.
Itís the same thing with my purchases, too. I donít have a ton of money. Poets by nature and definition are poor, usually
BP: I really donít know much about the spoken-word scene, but as far as traditional or academic poetry, the poetry-going audience in Baltimore is lowóis lame, frankly. I donít want to compare one city to the other, or have this inferiority that Baltimore has, but you have a reading in D.C., New York, Philly, any of the East Coast cities, and you get a bigger turn out, and people who are more into it.
Christophe Casamassima: They have the university crowd, thatís why.
FL: Thatís funny because I just came back from New York on Tuesday, and itís not always the college crowd.
CC: But New Yorkís so big.
FL: Thatís true, but for instance, weíve thrown shows and been a part of shows [in New York] that are a weekly event. And two months later it will be a whole new crowd, but the old crowd is not there anymore. Itís like they had their feel for whatever it isóthe consciousness, the ďpoeticness,Ē whatever. They had their feel for the moment, and thatís enough for this year. (general laughter)
When we hear someone say that they really enjoyed the show and theyíve become regulars, itís because they find something there that connects to them. Somebody who just actually gave us a ride up there told us that seeing poetry is like seeing somebody being free when they perform their work. In a world where he goes to work and he comes home, goes to work, comes home, he doesnít feel free. So he goes to a venue and sees it, it feels really good to see that.
LJB: If youíre looking at it in terms of how many numbers, I always say if there are four people and those four people come every time and they love the experience and they learn something new about themselves and poetry, then thatís what weíre here for. But if we go to a venue and there are seven people in the audience, or 12, and we set up 50 chairs . . . (laughter) If I, as an artist, am worried about the fact 43 of the chairs arenít filled and my energy is devoted to those empty chairs, then why should I be there? Thatís not what the work is about.
FL: You said something earlier about the fact that being a poet is about being broke and doing art. I think that as long as we keep on saying, ďIím a starving artist,Ē then we sit down and we end up just making itójust struggling through life. Iíve been doing this full time for maybe about four years. And one of the things that really prompted me is that, I went to see a dance recital in D.C., probably like 10 years ago. And these were guys that basically break dance for a living. And theyíve been doing it since the í80s, and touring the world. So Iím thinking to myself, These guys just break dance, and they just travel the world. People play volleyball, people play video games, Tony Hawk rides a skateboard and he makes millions. So itís like, Why canít you get that kind of money doing what you love, too?
DR: I think we as poets perpetuate that. You know how you speak something into existence? Weíve been doing it so long.
CC: I want to make a note. Well, two thingsóeverybody here is very pessimistic about writing and being a poet.
KH: Iím not.
LJB: Iím not.
CC: But I mean the loneliness and all this and that.
KH: But thatís good, too.
CC: Itís good, but it shouldnít be privateóit should be public. You canít just say, ďIím a poet, I hide at my computer and then go out and read.Ē I started writing because I wanted to publish. And I got involved with a lot of people who were not public and who were very private about it.
What I do with these little magazines is I go around Baltimore and throw them on buses and leave them on benches, so that people can [say], ďWhat is this?Ē Itís poetry in the middle of the street, you know? But the thing to do is to not be so pessimistic. Not pessimistic as in ďI hate myselfĒ or ďI hate the fact Iím doing it.Ē Itís the pessimism in that you canít change anything, you canít change your attitude about it.
Does anybody do any type of self-publishing?
FL: I self-publish.
CC: So you sell this material?
FL: We sell it, right.
CC: I try to give away as much stuff as
FL: Weíve given away quite a lot. We do a lot of stuff in schools, weíve given a lot of stuff to the youth. But when we do stuff at venues with adults, they buy CDs for 15, 20 dollars a pop.
CP: Whatís the difference between poetry and spoken word? Is spoken word still poetry? Is spoken word becoming more about activism or about packaging, which weíve talked about a bit already. Are todayís spoken-word artists trying to get a deal or become a ďrock starĒ?
FL: Yeah, I want to be on MTV Cribs.
DR: Like I was saying earlier, people are still looking for ways to market it. And I think that poets feel like they have to add two or three or four more elements to it for it people to accept it or embrace it, to catch them on to people who usually wouldnít even think of it. And I think thatís what it for us. Thatís why poets do CDs or why poets add music to what theyíre doing, because initially I think it would be hard to grab folks who have a preconceived notion about poetry. Like [when] we go to schools, students [are] like, ďI hated poetry before yíall came.Ē
Something Femi always says is that 90 percent is [people] watching you. They listen to you later. Itís all about entertainment these days. And fast entertainment at that.
FL: [David and I] have this conversation every 45 days, about poetry and spoken word. And itís funny, because I actually have poems I donít perform because I feel like theyíre ďpoems,Ē and then thereís spoken word. But then that turns into, Is poetry hip-hop?
I did Shakespeare in theater in high school [and] I couldnít tell you what I was reading. I just memorized it, you know, and I knew how to [act] it onstage. I didnít come into doing poetry through poetry. I actually enjoyed the lyricism of hip-hop, but I loved writing and I realized the whole idea behind hip-hop these days had nothing to do with lyrics anymore, it has to do with musicóif it [werenít] for music videos, you wouldnít need a person in hip-hop.
CP: So then is spoken word fusion between poetry and hip-hop?
FL: Actually we call it a blend between poetry, theater, and hip-hop, what we do onstage.
CP: At this table, Bradley and Kathleen are the more academic poets. And we know that spoken word has gotten a lot of attention in mainstream society. Is that taking away from academic poetry?
BP: The most basic definition I would give is that poetry is a linguistic and metaphorical expression of experienceóother than that, I wouldnít refine it anymore. And that covers a wide range of stuff.
As far as feeling threatened or ignored or left out because of the popularity of spoken word or anything like that, um, no, not really. Though I think poetry does always have a sort of marginal presence in popular culture, I think it was Kathleen who was saying earlier that academic printed poetry is being read at a wider and wider audience. I mean, the number of MFA programs in poetry is literally in the hundreds now, and in 1985 there were like 12. The number of first-book contests, the number of poetry periodicals and stuff like that have absolutely grown. And I feel really awkward about saying anything good about big corporate chains, but frankly, the presence of Barnes and Noble and Borders, even though a lot of people see them as evil (laughter), suddenly that means that in Topeka, Kansas, youíve got a big bookstore. Itís brought a lot of books to everywhere thatís not in the big city.
CP: And then thereís Amazon.com.
BP: Exactly. You can be in the middle of South America and order a book, and FedEx will get it to you in one day.
Frankly, when youíre talking about feelings of competition or whatever, I havenít had any conversations [with any academics who said] that spoken word is crowding it out. I think itís the sort of thing where itís another kind of poetry, and itís making poetry popular, so itís just more publicity. Among academics the real hot controversy is, like, lyrical narrative poetry vs. whatís been called post-avant-garde poetry or the descendants of language poetry.
CC: Itís not ďpost-avant-garde poetry.Ē Thereís always an avant-garde.
CP: But isnít there a perception that traditional poetry or academic poetry is more highbrow than spoken word?
KH: I think itís what [Femi] said [at one point]óitís a gut feeling. I donít do this poem because it doesnít work on the stage. And I think thatís the reality of what we do. If you look at a poem, itís either a poem for the page or itís a poem for the stage.
DR: Thatís really the main difference. Spoken word is really about the performance. Itís about what theyíre seeing, what theyíre hearing, the wordplay, your delivery, as opposed to reading a piece and enjoying it yourself. I think another difference is that the language in spoken word many times is more plain, like itís not as cryptic.
FL: Itís all about your ability to get across what you have on paper in a way that you can connect [with the audience] in some kind of way. And thatís the only reason I say sometimes I separate some poems that I write in a fashion that, pretty much, only if you read it enough times you can unveil what it is I was trying to say, or unveil something for yourself.
KH: And on the other hand, thereís still a very strong formalist group for poetry going on right now. Itís like a smorgasbord out there. Youíve got your language poets, youíve got your formalists. People are still writing sonnets, villanelles, theyíre doing all of the formal types of poetry, and yet this (gesturing to the spoken-word poets) is going on at the same time. So I think you have more choicesó[which] probably is why the audiences are smaller, because people are trying to specialize, as we have in everything else.
DR: Whatever it is, it will always be there. But there are times when itís like an iceberg. Itís going to be that 10 percent [visible].
KH: But you will still have your faithful. Which goes back to that question thatóI think thatís it. Thereís so much to choose from, but we are almost always talking to ourselves.
CP: In my observation, most people who frequent slams or spoken-word nights or regular poetry readings seem to be younger. When I say younger, I mean like 40 and younger. Is poetry now an art form that is only for the young?
KH: No, because if you go to JHU, youíll see all of the old farts there.
LJB: Right, exactly. Goucher
CP: So it just depends on where you go?
KH: And it depends on whoís reading.
LJB: Yeah, because there are two generations. I was doing performance poetry before spoken word came out. I remember back in the í80s you either created a venue or went in search for a venue, and Iíd wind up being the only poet at Cacao Lane in Ellicott City, which is a folk music venue, or the 8 x 10 [in Federal Hill]. And then, the young people came in.
But I just want to go back to the question: Is poetry revitalizing? What youíre talking about is do human beingsóare they revitalizing? What you have is a cultural shift from the malaise of the í80s into, you know, all kinds of crap was coming down in the í90s. And the young people kind of got woke up and said, ďNo, we canít deal with whatís going on and we have to have a say.Ē So if you go to spoken-word venues and you see more young people, itís [because] the young people finally came into a culture where they were the seen-not-heard.
This is the culture that was able to have freedom of speech in a way that my generation hadnít. I mean, I came up in the í60s and í70s. We were in the love, peace, no-care-in-the-world kind of thing. And this generation is the rage-against-the-machine generation. Itís a whole different time. And thereís a reason why there are more young people at slams and spoken word, because they can relate. And thereís a reason why the elders are going to the more traditional academic kind of readings, because they can relate to the visions that they are seeing.
FL: (speaking to Burke) I feel like within the last, say, 20 years, the issues that weíve been facing are not as direct as, say, your age. When you were about my age, it was like, ďYou canít do certain things,Ē and it was flat-out in your faceóyou canít. Now, itís like we feel like weíre struggling in a different way. Itís the same machine, itís just working differently now, and everybodyís still struggling.
BP: I donít mean to oversimplify or generalize, but I had a friend who was starting a poetry slam at a place in Mount Vernon a couple of years ago, and their readings started at 10:30 at night. Iím 33, and I went to it, and [it made me think of] a joke some comic told: ďYou know youíre getting old when you go to a club and youíre looking for a chair.Ē (laughter) A lot of poetry slams start at like 10:30 at night. And frankly, 10:30, if youíre past 35, youíre probably like, ďHey, Iím going to bed in a half-hour.Ē
DR: Itís like, for every generation itís brand new. So when you [saw] us come on the scene you were like, ďYo, I remember that.Ē But to us, weíre like, ďWe want to do this, we want to do that. And this has never been done beforeĒóand it really has.
FL: Time and time again.
DR: Time and time again.
LJB: Buy you know, I want to say something about ďthereís nothing new and never been done before,Ē because thatís like one of the most defeating things that a poet can say. It kind of scares you off from finding whatís new, creating whatís
new . . .
Thereís a web site called [BornMagazine. org] thatís an integrated arts web site, and it is the most amazing thing that Iíve ever seen. What theyíve managed to do is to use artists, to use visual artists, to take words, pages, and make them do things. To make poetry . . . to take it to the next level of the interactive experience. I think we had lost our sense of creativity as a culture, and Michael Meade, who is a storyteller and mythologist, says that weíre needing to come back to that part of us that is pure imagination. And Born is one of those places that is experimental.
CP: How has technology Changed the poetry business for you, and what changes in technology will affect poetry in the future?
LJB: I think that what it does is it gives the artist another way to look at what theyíre doing.
FL: Youíre accessible to all over the world, at the drop of the finger.
DR: Weíve been selling CDs all over Canada. And we donít have a publishing company, but people from the U.K., they [e-mail], ďWhatís this, whatís that? And I want to get it.Ē I think that helps us a lot, having those types of technologies to help you make your work more accessible. It gives you potential to have a wider audience.
KH: Technology is widening the interest group. Basically, we were just small pockets of poets working within neighborhoods, communities. And now weíre poets talking in this large global community, and technology has done wonders for that. What it has done to the quality of writing, though, I donít know.
BP: I think just in terms of the amount of stuff thatís out there, it maybe makes it harder to find stuff that you like, you know? I donít think it like prevents people from writing good poems, thereís just a lot more stuff to wade through.
CC: If you look at writing poetry as a political act, then the fact that these people are doing it, no matter how bad it is, that theyíre doing something constructive and consciously, and theyíre becoming part of the sphere . . .
KH: Oh, good Lord, no. Itís like Gary Snyder says: ďLike in the infant world, some can sing, and some canít.Ē
CC: You know what I have to say about Gary Snyder? Fuck Gary Snyder.
DR: But for some reason, itís not simple like that for poetry. Generally, we can pick out a good comedian and a bad comedian. Or someone who can sing or someone who canít sing. But when people hear poetry or read poetry, theyíre like, ďI donít know.Ē Like, are you supposed to be using punctuation or not? Are you supposed to do this? Well how is your line breakage supposed to look?
CC: What do you think for you?
DR: To me I just do what I do. But there are a lot of poems that Iíve hated that Iíve heard.
CC: I mean, fuck other poems. You donít have to read them.
FL: And thatís what makes art, art. Art turns into . . . itís all an opinion. Art is simply an opinion.
CP: Linda Joy, do you believe that the poetís persona is part of what makes the poet?
LJB: I used to. And I donít anymore.
CP: Really? What changed?
LJB: Age and wisdom. I think that it really contributes, certainly. There are poets, like a poet named, you know, Adrienne Rich, whose persona is not the sparkling persona, but I love her work on paper. And Iíve been reading her for years. Poets that I like that are really human beings, like Lucille Clifton, sheís just like your aunt, Ethelbert Miller is like your brother. There is a kind of quality that Iím drawn to that I think people are drawn to. I think itís about the work, and the persona is . . . the audience is going to make you who they want you to be anyhow.
KH: Well, this goes back to the Robert Frost thing [Paul] said. Because Robert Frost, who was our U.S. poet laureate, the first, it seems to me the persona that he had to project in order to be poet laureate was this happy old grandfather image. And youíre right, heís so dark. And the same thing happened with Billy Collins. [After] 9-11, when he was named poet laureate, I was disappointed, because to me his poetry reads somewhat superficially, and at that moment we needed a poet with a great voice to speak to the issues, and he wasnít there. So why did Billy Collins go up and all of the people who actually could address that issue fade into the wilderness?
DR: Even with Maya Angelouóher presence is like, you know, but . . .
KH: But Lucille Cliftonís better. (laughter)
DR: Exactly. I didnít want to say it out loud.
FL: But like David said earlier, it turns into whoís backing you, and how long are you willing to dedicate the same percent of grind. Sometimes we find ourselves working really hard, say, for a year. Some people, whether theyíre talented or not, they keep up that same level of grind.
DR: Like we met some guys selling CDs wrapped in toilet tissue . . .
FL: For $5.
DR: And people [were] buying them. But you have to go that hard. We put together our publishing and try to make it look nice, and if people ask for it, you know, weíll sell it. But there are people out there who really donít care what their packaging looks like. Theyíre telling you, ďYeah, you want this, even if itís wrapped in toilet paper.Ē
KH: But look at Walt Whitman. He self-published, he put out all of his little pamphlets. He did what youíre calling ďthe grind.Ē And thank God he did, because if he didnít do it, we would never have one of the greatest poems in American literature.
DR: But so many of the geniuses donít. You lose your encouragement after a while.
BP: I think about what you were saying about why Billy Collins is such an incredibly popular poet, and my theory on it is because heís very NPR-friendly. Heís the kind of poet that heís in that range of writing thatís going to appeal to a wide variety of poetry [fans]. But the thing is, really great art, whether itís poetry or painting or whatever, isnít going to actually usually have a wide appeal, even among like serious artists. Itís usually going to be like a certain number of people feel really strongly about it, positively, and [others are] going to feel strongly against it. The thing that appeals to like middle level to a wide variety of people is not going to be that good. By definition itís going to be mediocre.
I mean, if you want to really know how to make money selling books of poetry, it is to figure out the kind of poem Oprah Winfrey likes to read and have her put it on Oprahís book club, and youíll sell millions of books. I donít think itís going to be a particularly good kind of poem, but youíll absolutely sell millions of books.
CP: Which kind of brings me to our next question. What is the clearest way to financial success as a poet?
All: (laughing) Get another job.
LJB: Get several other jobs, sell used cars . . .
CC: Sell crack . . .
BP: In a way, itís a question that begets a lot of jokes, because I donít know a single person who got into poetry thinking about making money.
CC: Itís a lifestyle, itís not a career.
LJB: There are poets who have garnered significant endowments and fellowships, going back to Adrienne Rich, who won a $500,000 fellowshipówhat was that? Ten years ago or so? And sheís what, near 80 now? But every once in a while, Iíll read that through the Academy of American Poets has voted certain people to get specific endowments. And, you know, they are pennies in the scheme of things, in the corporate world, but I guess thatís my light at the end of the tunnelóthat when Iím 65 I will have written the great first book of poetry that somebody will throw money at me for.
BP: I mean, you look at one of the biggest poetry prizes, which is that Wallace whatever.
LJB: Lila Wallace-[Readerís Digest Awards].
BP: And itís however much it isólike $100,000 or something like thatóthatís a ton of money for a poet to make. An absolute ton of money. And itís a starting salary for a lawyer. And if youíre a first-time screenwriter, you usually sell for above that.
What, to us, is like a phenomenal amount of success, in other professions that require a great deal of expertise, itís sometimes like beginning level. If you get a job as a full-time professor making 40 grand a year, thatís good for a poet. Thatís great for a poet.
CP: Itís amazing that being a poet, a teacher, a policemanóthose are the jobs that we assign low salaries to.
KH: But hereís the other take. If youíre in it for the money, I would say, youíre not doing it for the love of the craft.
DR: But see, I have to disagree with that. I think being a poet can be just as much of a career as being a carpenter. You are who you are. And if youíre a carpenter, nobody says, ďOh, you love cutting wood, so why do you want to get paid for it?Ē Iím a poetónot even a poet, Iím a writer. And thatís what I do. Everybody canít write. When we allow ourselves, and then in turn allow other people, to accept, yes, this can be a career, like this is who you are, you know?
KH: Well, but, OK, as soon as you bring money into it, then poetry ceases to be the last place you can tell the truth. In a way Iím kind of glad that poets donít get paid huge amounts of money. Look at all of the new artists that come out in the music industry. Theyíre really brand new. Theyíre wonderful. Then they get brought into the system. And then what happens to that talent when theyíre brought into the system? ďHow can I market my next piece? Oh, Iíve got to come out with an album in another hour or so.Ē Or else, you know. And then what happens to you? What happens to the art?
DR: I mean, weíre all being pimped, no matter what you do in this life. Someoneís paying you.
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