The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, hosted part of the fourth annual Salem Poetry Festival

The first event we attended at the Salem Poetry Festival was at the House of the Seven Gables: “Song As Poem/Poem As Song.”

(We looked for the “Robert Burns, Poet Laureat, or Original Folksinger/Songwriter?” but it had moved to a new location, and Jackie, wearing her orange Salem Poetry Festival T-shirt, couldn’t find it for us, either.)

“Song as Poem/Poem as Song” had promise, but it was ruined by the presenters—who read prosey poems of their own which had no song-like qualities at all; these efforts were supposed to evoke a similar feeling to a few original songs sung by a fellow with a guitar, helped by a female vocalist.  But they did not. The poetry and song felt miles apart.  There was no reading of the song lyrics as poems—nor were poems sung as songs: it was simply a display of ego—a poet or two reading their own poems, a songwriter singing his songs, and the twain shall never meet.  The participants traded a few lame remarks: Poet: “I am jealous of the songwriter’s harmony!”  Songwriter: “To be naked with just words, now that’s what I admire!”   Perhaps the worst moment was when a black poet read an angry poem over the improvisational, sweetly jazzy playing of the event’s songwriter/guitarist, a stoic guy in a knitted cap:—the poem so didn’t fit the music, it was embarrassing.

A nerdy poet kept reading his own work as the audience wondered what it had to do with song.  The nerdy poet’s poetry had lines like, “I want to take you in my arms and call you an asshole” and “if it was a false god, it was a cool one.”  The nerdy poet read two poems on the warm, fuzzy feeling and comraderie you get after going to a live music concert; apparently the post-concert vibe “bled into the street” as he and his friends talked about it.  Wow.

The nerdy poet made a stab at theory: songs, he said, can repeat a beloved’s name with effectiveness, but a poem can’t.  Joan Hunter Dunn came to mind, but the nerdy poet was on a roll.  We let him be.

Later that evening, the Friday Headline Reading rolled out a local Dylan-esque musician (who was good, but unfortunately did an awful song called “Lloyd Schwartz”) then Princess Cheng, a young Asian slam poet, spouting hyperbole the way those slam poets do, before the Headline readers, Major Jackson, Maggie Dietz, and Robert Pinsky, did their thing.  Jackson dropped rap group names in his poetry, Dietz cute and domestic, gave us an elegy for her mother, a poem comforting demoted pluto, a found poem from her young son’s observations on God (“God’s a bird, I think”), and a poem called “Demolition Derby,” with the lines “oh, America!” and “mosh pit of metal.”

Pinksy, with his great, determined, exact, lisping voice, was a wind-storm of pedantry…every poem sailing along on a harmony of facts…history, etymology,  more history, more etymology…language compared to petroleum…cultural mixing the big theme…”I’m against purity,” Pinsky proudly announced.  We’re all blended!  No ethnic type!  Which is good, I suppose.  Pinksy, the anti-standup comic.  The weight of Pinsky’s pedantry slowly and irrevocably crushed the audience in its vise.  By 9 pm, everyone rushed out of the grand Peabody Essex museum atrium to breathe.  Mr. Pinsky, historian, wise man, poet-declaimer, had nearly killed them.

Looking for more punishment, we went back to the Festival on Saturday for a “State of Poetry” panel in a beautiful gallery in the Peabody Essex.  The beautiful art was silent, but we might as well say a few things about what went on.

The first panelist to speak, a Mass Cultural Council guy, condescendingly bored the audience with ‘how to submit your poems,’ etc.  Some even walked out at that point.  He warned about the big companies that accept any poem one sends them—so that one can then pay a fee to be in their big book of poems—but  he had nothing to say about all the other contests.  He really had nothing to say at all.  He had a big, deep, booming voice, though, and boomed for about 15 minutes.  The “state of poetry,” indeed.

The second guy was an outgoing New England PEN director, and he inspired the audience with: poetry is how one fights the ugly American politics of the corporations.  “I’m not read or reviewed by the magazines that count,” he said wistfully at the start, but once he launched into his anti-corporation paean, he had the audience in the palm of his hand.  One could tell this theme  makes poets very happy and comforts them.

We were confused by one thing: the panel made it clear that selling a lot of things was something only evil corporations did, and yet there was all this talk about how you had to get out there and sell as many of your poetry books as possible: traveling the country and reading from your book.  The confusing advice was: Hate corporations, but turn yourself into one.

The PEN guy, touting his optimistic “small-is-beautiful’ theme, also said a Knopf or an FSG “just prints your book” and doesn’t give you the attention you’ll get from a small press.  But is this really true? A large publisher “just prints your book?”   Aren’t the big guys interested in selling?   We have to conclude the PEN guy lets his emotions get in the way of his understanding

The third panelist, after reflecting on how “he couldn’t pay his rent” after graduating with an MFA, maintained the best route to poetic bliss was to form a group of friends based on similar ancestry.  He mentioned Cave Canem a lot, and was looking to do the same with his own particular group.   “Community is important.”  More important than the poetry?

The fourth panelist represented women and she talked about how she found a really nice hotel on the Oregon coast for a woman poets’ retreat.  A delightful idea.  The Oregon coast is lovely.

They even had time for questions.  “What about the eco-system of performance, as opposed to publishing?”  The panel was caught a little off guard by this question: well, what of performance?  The response was that publishing is performance.  The woman panelist said one of her poems was on a shower curtain.  The PEN guy pointed out that Leonard Cohen—who performed—was a poet.  PEN had just given him an award, in fact.  Performance, publishing, it’s all good.  The Mass Cultural Council guy said, “you must enjoy selling books and giving readings!”  Sell, sell, sell, said the anti-corporation panel.

Someone asked why every book of poems is “a project” now, with a theme, a topic, an angle, instead of simply a  ‘book of poems.’  Everyone agreed this was an American phenomenon and the reason for it was because publishers were looking to market books of poems the way they market other genres, like fiction.  Those damn corporations, again?  A book entitled “Poems” doesn’t sell.   The phrase “culture of the poetry contest” arose as a way to explain why every poetry book has to have a theme.

But on reflection, what does a book’s theme have to do with contests?  What in the world has theme to do with it, really?

Is a “theme” the last refuge of the fool?  It isn’t exactly like the pugnacious fellow who gruffly asks, “What’s your (selling) point?” (what’s your theme?) when there may be many valid points at play, each full of nuance. The issue is two-fold: 1) the inability to judge poems as poems without a “theme” to latch onto.  And 2) the habit of fitting every product with a theme, which, over time, needs to become narrower, until we find the example of the fellow with the Ph.D. who has no general knowledge of anything.

Perhaps the only book of poems one should trust is the one entitled, simply, “Poems.”

But we stray from our point.

(to be continued)



  1. David said,

    April 25, 2012 at 5:34 am

    Perhaps the only book of poems one should trust is the one entitled, simply, “Poems.”

    Mazer will appreciate the plug. 🙂

    Fascinating report on the Salem Poetry Festival. It would make for a great faux documentary. Or imagine Shelley and Byron landing in the middle of it by way of time machine. They would be both amused and appalled.

  2. Dawn Potter said,

    April 25, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I was at that festival (which I believe is called the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, although it was held in Salem) co-teaching a session that focused on Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Perhaps we unwittingly crossed paths.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 25, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      I’m sorry I missed that, Dawn! I love “My Last Duchess.” There were a lot of events… Tom

  3. noochinator said,

    April 25, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Scarriet’s readers,
    I knew you wouldn’t fail ’em–
    I eagerly await
    Your next byline from Salem.

  4. noochinator said,

    April 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Lloyd Schwartz writes for ‘The Boston Phoenix,’
    Classical music his beat—
    All the talk of selling reminded me of this song,
    From ‘O Lucky Man’ — sweet!

  5. Dawn Potter said,

    April 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Yes, “My Last Duchess” is a wonderful poem.

  6. Ovid Yeats said,

    April 26, 2012 at 1:37 am

    These meaningless sentences were removed in two minutes.
    Somebody up there likes me. I wrote more, the intention
    to go in and disrupt the government, effect a mass

    fluttering of resignations from the powerful few who rule,
    writing only for rhyme, time, sign, whining widgery do,
    reading Rita Higgins, speaking treasonous things, reaching

    for the impossible, talking in lunges toward bright red
    heaven, believing in aliens, leaving links to David Icke
    in every post, these eccentricities, things that make us

    credible, edible do, spreadable and foolish, timing the line
    to arrive with a clunk, always undercooked, over analyzed,
    made and disguised by a terrible voodoo: these are things

    that make make one pathetic, eclectic, elliptical and unmoved.
    The spreading stew of boo ha oh, what a pity the poems’

    petty particular, pious enforcing agents of stasis quo, make
    no room for those dottier souls sending out an sos, accept
    these formal requests for forgiveness, a bit of a swizz

    at the top of the tree, clashing and meshing, fee fie foe,
    three old jokers tired & bruised asking the ether to kick-on
    through the serendipitous ploop, and find a form of voice

    heard all over the wold from Ormskirk to Burscough, Tarleton
    to Tenby and beyond, a byword for bigotry
    and the disappeared, always eliminated with a curse, bores

    of one colour droning together in a freakish capricious foible,
    found falling fairly from the bough of a bodhran tree,
    eloquent and delicious, in Cairo & Mauritius, Chorley

    and Massachusetts, smug know-alls on Chaucer,
    conservatives from Chatsworth House claiming black’s white
    and vice versa, the honour johnny, you know who,
    the anonymous shutters-up stealing a voice to make it silent.

  7. Ovid Yeats said,

    April 26, 2012 at 2:45 am

  8. April 26, 2012 at 9:44 am

    From “Reading” by Robertson Davies, collected in The Merry Heart:

    …I can recall from my undergraduate days a girl who used to moan, when she was slightly drunk: “I’ve read everything on the Senior English course lists, and where has it got me?”….That girl had gobbled eight plays of Shakespeare, a play by Ben Jonson, all of Pamela, the whole eight volumes of Clarissa, eight novels by Dickens, one by Thackeray, one by Trollope, a large wodge of Henry James, a substantial vegetarian mass of Bernard Shaw and God knows what else, and at the end of it all her mind was as flat as Holland. All she had gained were thick glasses and a bad breath, doubtless the result of literary constipation. I once asked her if she had read Browning’s The Ring and the Book, which was an enthusiasm of my own. She had not. She said it was “not required reading” and that was that…. She was the most over-read girl I have ever known, but she still said “Between you and I.” God deliver me from all such….

    I myself have a taste for Browning. There are times when nothing but Browning will do. He is not particularly musical, and that is odd, because he is one of the few poets who was a technically trained and skilled musician. His language is knotty and there are times when his reader feels like

    The old man of Ashokan
    Who loved to chew wood, mostly oaken;
    Very often he’d quip
    With a smile on his lip,
    Ah sho’ can gnash oak in Ashokan.

    Browning’s tough colloquialism used to be held against him, as as an undergraduate I encountered professors who would quote:

    Irks care the crop-full bird?
    Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

    —and then go off into paroxysms of dusty academic mirth at what they thought was Browning’s wilful clumsiness. But once you have accustomed yourself to his voice, Browning has golden things to say, and I have been a lifelong champion of The Ring and the Book, which is neglected by many readers because it is long and intimidating. But it is also a very great poem, and you do not have to read it all at once. But to sense its worth you should read in it, and reread, at various times in your life. Frequently it recalls to me the Loathly Damsel of medieval legend, who was repellent at first encounter but who, when embraced, changed into a girl of inexhaustible charm, wisdom, and beauty….

  9. April 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience with Pinsky – I’ve always found him to be a very compelling and charismatic figure when he reads. Arguably, I like listening to him read his poetry and speak than I do actually reading his poetry.

    • noochinator said,

      April 26, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      I would love to hear Pinsky “live,”
      E’en at the bottom of his game—
      Brady the reporter, maybe he’s jaded?
      Dunno, I’m not here to defame.

      Before we return to the next MM match,
      Will we get another Salem despatch?

      • thomasbrady said,

        April 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm

        I have more to come—I did miss the Saturday Headline Reading with Joy Harjo. If anyone went to that, please tell us about it.

        • noochinator said,

          April 26, 2012 at 11:06 pm

          Joy is a sweetheart—
          Just stating the facts—
          A poet of passion
          Who can jam on the sax.

          (I hope that my comments
          Aren’t beyond the pale—
          I’m biased ’cause she replied
          (Twice!!!) to my emails.)

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