Thursday, December 11, 2003

Blogs in space: Now blogging to you from 39,000 feet, on my way to San Jose. Seemed like a better way to pass the time than watching the four hours of golf commercials that the video screens seem intent on bringing to me.

This will be my first trip back west since moving to Chicago in August. Everyone always assumes that the weather is what I’d miss, but honestly the Chicago chill (admittedly mild thus far) hasn’t bothered me. In fact, I’ve missed the Bay Area much less than I thought I was going to—most likely because I’ve been busy almost nonstop since moving. But also because Chicago has proved to have its own pleasures, old ones and new.

What I did miss about the Bay Area—as evident from my cry-for-help post last week—was a poetry community I’d just started to feel a part of, especially my good ol’ poetry swappers, who I’d come to think of, in a lot of ways, as the primary audience for my work. The couple of weeks before I moved I remember desperately bouncing from one Chicagoland academic website to the next, casting around for a class to take or sit in on—anything that might connect me to a new group of writers.

I guess my post last week must have sounded pretty pathetic, because it brought in an email from Chuck Stebelton, and on Sunday I found myself sitting down in a cozy apartment with a group of poets whose names I’d heard and who I’d even had some email contact with but never met: Jesse Seldess, Kerri Sonnenberg, Ray Bianchi, and Mark Tardi, as well as Chuck.

Driving up to Jesse’s place I was feeling a weird twinge, as if I were somehow, I guess, cheating on my old group. I realize lots of people are in multiple writing/reading groups at once, but when any of the Bay Area poetry swappers would talk about going to their book group or having brunch with a bunch of other poets I’d always feel oddly jealous, like I didn’t want to share—just a sign, I guess, of the weird intimacy of such groups. And even stranger, then, to be the interloper, joining a group already in progress, shifting the dynamic just by showing up.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. This group, it turns out, is just getting off the ground, and everyone was warm and welcoming. The format, too, was different than what I was expecting: rather the bring-a-poem poetry swap, the group had decided to read a critical essay for each meeting and discuss it in depth.

The selection this month was now-NEA chairman Dana Gioia’s "Can Poetry Matter?", which I read years ago when I was working on my undergrad thesis but haven’t had a chance to revisit since. In memory, I’d lumped Gioia in with other "poetry is dead" hand-wringers, usually of a reactionary bent, and useful mostly for his diagnosis of the dullness of the workshop aesthetic. I was surprised to hear the other people in the room meeting Gioia’s claims for poetry’s irrelevance with earnest concern. I suppose I’ve never had much use for the myth of the "general reader"—it usually seems, in the context of contemporary poetry, as a covert way to lobby for an anti-experimental aesthetic. But in hearing the others talk about it I realized it’s also part of a desire for relevance, for an audience, for a sense of connection to the larger communities in which we live.

In fact, as the conversation went on it became clear that what Gioia frames as a national problem—the invisibility of poetry in the mainstream media—has really become, for poetry, a local question. Kerri and Ray both brought up their work in the Chicago schools, teaching poetry to young students, which opened into the question of what the place of poetry in Chicago was, anyway. I remember thinking this, too, at the Notley reading at the U of C, with an audience of about 60 people, compared to the packed auditorium she read to in San Francisco. Is Chicago a town that just doesn’t care about poetry?

By the time I left I’d actually come to feel that the Bay Area was a place where poetry did seem important, relevant to the cultural life of the region. I even developed a theory about this: that it was San Francisco’s very provinciality, the smallness of its other cultural institutions (Chicago’s art museums, opera, and theater—as least at the marquee level—could eat San Francisco’s for lunch) that made it possible for poetry to seem important there. In Chicago, perhaps poetry, always a low-budget endeavor, was being drowned out by the more glamorous (and more corporate-sponsorable) hoopla of blockbuster Impressionist exhibits, Barenboim and Boulez, and Frank Gehry architecture.

There was some grumbling over Ron Silliman’s recent remark (which I hadn’t read) about "poor Chicago," which didn’t even have the poetry scene of a place like Milwaukee (one of the few cities insecure Chicagoans allow themselves to feel superior to). Surely there was no shortage of poetry activity in Chicago; the poets right there in the room were actively running reading series, editing magazines, and teaching. But even in these folks Silliman’s remark touched a nerve; somehow things didn’t seem to quite be coming together. A lot of speculation as to why: Chicago’s non-coastal position? the remoteness of its universities from its cultural life? Chicago as a breeding ground for talent (Second City, Steppenwolf) that then moves elsewhere, erasing all evidence of its embarrassing Midwestern roots? gentrification leading to the culturally deadening rule of the Trixie?

Well, it’s not really true to say that Chicago hasn’t made a name for itself in contemporary poetry; what it’s known as, though, is as the birthplace of the poetry slam. So the real question is whether more experimental, textual modes of poetry have a foothold here. A "scene," I think, happens when an institution (and it can be anything, a reading series, a magazine, or just a regular gathering at someone’s apartment) lines up with a distinctive aesthetic, a set of goals or problems that a certain number of people are working on at the same time in the same place. Maybe that’s starting to happen in Chicago, between Danny’s and the Discrete Series and everything else; I can’t quite tell yet. Maybe we just need an army of bloggers to report on it.

No comments: