Response to Douglas Messerli's introduction of the PIP Anthology of World Poetry: Intersections: Innovative Poetry in Southern California.
Douglas introduction correctly places the anthology among a group of anthologies of southern California poetry which have excluded almost all of the poets included in Douglas'.
He correctly notes what has come as a surprise to me -- that the leading curators of LA writing (not just poetry), as well as the anthologists, aren't very good curators. That is, they do not dream up innovative programs, bring more audience members than expected to a reading, or stretch beyond a very narrow view of what writing is in their presentations. They are not inclusive, wide-ranging, or terribly well-informed.
It is possible to know these curators and anthologists quite well -- to teach with them, be on panels at conferences with them (or, in fact, offer them plum spots on panels of my design), read with them in reading series, feature them in reading series, etc. -- and be totally "unknown" when it comes time to schedule a poetry festival, assemble an anthology, etc.
While this behaviour is quite inexcusable, in three cases, it derives from a desire not be made seem stupid, perhaps, or perhaps more than that, to be made to seem more "official" or knowledgable than is the case. It is this nervousness in the face of "public opinion" (actually quite a narrow audience in Los Angeles) that I decry, this wish to seem "comprehensive" without putting one's critical and professional touche on the line.
For example, one poetry curator, who is actually quite nutty, but sometimes in a good way, got her MFA later in life from a working-class state mfa program, and has one book out, seven years ago, which was not self-published. She is usualy to be spotting wearing a wool beret in a bright color matched to brightly-colored pumps. I like the poems in her book a lot. Her deal is presenting her LONG TERM students (many of which have been my students, for example) as potential poets with a heck of a lot to learn, a heck of a lot of private and public workshops to take. And *information* in these workshops -- actual insights about ways of writing -- are few and far between. It comes as no surprise that a great deal of money must be spent by students of this teacher to read in various venues she curates or readings she curates. Her vision of LA poetry is not a vision -- it is the LA poetry that she understands that is a good setting for her own and her own teaching practice. For this (self-referential) way of teaching guarantees good attendance at events, purchase of books, etc.
[Another poetry teacher who is an editor makes pages of journals available for purchase by students -- wanna be published -- see how easy it is?]
It is unfortunate that the "performance poets" of the city -- perhaps accustomed to this type of behaviour by ad hoc acting coaches? -- consider these types of poets and teachers to be "iconic" or -- because of the advertising / promotion / self promotion necessary to fill private workshops -- consider these poets and those they include in their readings and anthologies to be the ONLY poets in town.
Another popular curator who knows more about poetry has a vision of poetry focussed on old fashioned ideas like "vision," "persona," and Lorca's "duende." This psychological but not post-Kristevan approach to poetry is understandably difficult to apply to a wide range of poetries. A skewed and personal approach to poetry is of course what is wanted in one's own writing. This curator -- who is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic person who works very very hard & also is not trying to be a local poet in any way -- seemingly curates series by reputation and association. Thus, a recent pairing included James Ragan, not a good poet, but head of the USC MPW program, a decent old white guy raconteur, and Anne Waldman, a sometimes-on, sometimes-off but brilliant and important performer and writer who is head of Naropa. Should one feel left out of this cult of "eh" poets who self-promote well? Or, do these poets self-promote so much as make their audience, such as LA poetry curators and anthologists, feel less worthy than they are?
[I have written -- I don't know if here or not -- of the cult of Pushcart Prize nomination in local poetry introductions. Don't they realize almost everyone has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize? It is like including "Who's Who" Marquis guide inclusion in one's resume -- or a poetry.com related publication in one's biblio.]
The third and fourth curators run series at local music venues which garner large and enthusiastic audiences to their programs in other major cities. These venues here only feature local performance poets, and bring such small audiences, other writing-related programming is allowed "must be more popular there than here" the excuse for "what we have is really bad."
The cult of the open mike is quite a vicious cycle here -- but I think part of it is that this is a circle which actual information about poetry and ways to write is not available in a form that is palatable or affordable.
Whatever happened to the good free Beyond Baroque workshops? Ah, well.