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)