I have friends who are into the “local food” movement, refusing to eat anything not grown within a small radius of their home. I have other, and some of the same, friends who are into local music, rejecting the corporate world of big labels in favor of bands they can follow at local clubs. I know one person who “dresses local,” refusing to use any material in her clothing not generated within a short journey from her home. Local is the big thing now, and with good reason. I wonder, however, if in this rush to embrace our inner Wendell Berry we haven’t overlooked one very import category of the local: the local poet. I think it is often assumed that “local poetry” is amateur poetry, and only the poet of national reputation matters. This certainly seems to be the attitude of most MFA programs, which, with a few notable exceptions, rarely encourage their students or faculty to get involved in the coffee house readings, critique groups, or small journals and presses of local poetry scenes. So, let me outline some of the reasons why local poetry is worth investing one’s time, and even one’s money, in.
All good poetry is rooted in some particular place, and a local poetry scene helps to keep poetry rooted and particular. Think about how much television has done to flatten out the rich variety of American dialects and accents. If we think of American literature as only significant on the national level, then we are in danger of flattening out the rich variety of American poems, reaching only for some nationally acceptable standard: the flat non-accent of the nightly news anchor. Honestly, I sometimes think we are already on the verge of a literary culture in which every poem takes place in some unidentifiable and uniform suburbia. A thriving local poetry scene encourages a poetry of particular place, images and topics grounded in the shared experience of the local audience. Rather than creating an insular poetry, this opens up avenues to the universal through the particular. Think of Robert Frost’s or Jane Kenyon’s New England or Christian Wiman’s Texas. Like food, poetry that seems substantial, that seems real and nourishing, comes from someplace identifiable. The poetry that best embodies real experience and real particulars is not produced purely for export. It speaks into a place first and then through it to the wider world.
If local poets in the smaller places of this country aren’t so focused on exporting their poems, they are free to focus on building literary community where they are. Local poetry scenes provide a support group for practicing poets. For poets who have graduated from MFA programs, the local scene can be a place to continue the camaraderie and support they have come to rely upon. Perhaps more importantly, the local scene provides encouragement, support, and feedback for poets who are outside the MFA system for cultural, financial, or other reasons. Long before the rise of the Iowa workshops, developing writers were nourished by rich local scenes: think of Ben Jonson and associates gathered at the Mermaid tavern or of American expats in the cafes of Paris. It is only the success that time has brought them which keeps us from thinking of these writers as “local.”
I might add that it is in these local communities, and certainly not in the academy, that the great developments in poetics have taken place. In reading David Lehman’s fantastic account of the “New York School of Poets,” The Last Avant Garde, I was recently struck by just how local these poets were. Ashbery, O’Hara, Schyluer, and Koch may be very cosmopolitan in their outlook, but it was their proximity to each other (with the exception of Ashbery’s time in France), their appearances at the same parties and the same bars, the same galleries and the same readings, that gave them the opportunity to develop together approaches so needed to freshen up American poetry at mid-century. One may counter that these sorts of incubating communities can now occur nationally via the internet or through the gathering of prominent poets onto campuses, but I would argue that internet versions – unlike the communal life, the shared-experience – are always more plastic and contrived, more about abstract ideas than about literary passions and tend to fizzle out quickly, fossilized forever on abandoned websites. As for the campus as a place for new poetics to emerge through creative community, one might point out that such artistic cross-fertilization is often nipped in the bud by the alarming vagrancy, the nomadic spirit, of the typical creative-writing faculty. When it isn’t, when one finds a core group of writers working side by side on a campus year after year, then what one has is, in fact, simply a very solid, relatively well-paid version of the local poetry scene, at its best often interacting with local poets off campus as well. Sadly, though, even poets long established on a particular university can focus all their literary energies at the “national level,” neglecting the literary world just past the edges of the campus, especially if they happen to be located somewhere outside the traditional centers of literary activity on the east coast. When local poets, on campus and off, interact, however, one gets the variety of influences and pressures, of poetics and approaches, that fosters innovative thinking. Contrary to what snobbery would dictate, poets grouped nationally are much more isolated aesthetically than the poets at the local coffee shop reading, where one might hear a language poet reciting a string of punctuation marks one minute and a neo-confessional poet detailing his latest break up or break down the next.
Perhaps less obviously, the local poetry scene gives poets a chance to define artistic and career success in terms that are both more realistic and more meaningful. Accordingto Seth Abramson there are 45000 poets graduating from MFA programs every decade and 20000 books of poetry published every ten years in the U.S. If, as Ecclesiastes put it “there is no end to the making of books, then the deciding factor on who “makes it big” and who doesn’t – out of the pool of the thousands of most talented, ambitious, and determined poets— is more often than not, simple luck. The smaller, local poetry community, however, provides an arena in which a poet can build a meaningful reputation based more on accomplishment than luck or connection. Before you dismiss this notion as simply settling for the minor leagues consider that when Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne were building their great reputations during the Renaissance, the combined population of England and Wales was about four million, which is not significantly more than the current population of Oklahoma. London, the real home of literary reputation in the age of Shakespeare, was itself significantly less populated than Oklahoma City today. Dante made his great reputation as the national poet of a country a good bit smaller than the state of California. If you figure in the lower rates of literacy in the past, it becomes even more apparent that a contemporary American writer aiming for national importance is up against numbers unfathomable in any precursor literary community. A local poetry scene, with established readings, journals, and presses, gives a poet a more reasonable measure of her success. There is great honor in being one of the best of where you are, wherever that may be.
We’ve recently gone through another perennial round of hand-wringing over the supposedly dwindling audience for poetry, the ever-present “Can Poetry Matter?” debate. Over at the Huffington Post Seth Abramson posted a list of 200 “national figures” who will make you care about poetry. As much as I admire the people on the list, and as grateful as I am for their large-scale investment in the art of poetry, I couldn’t help thinking that local poets can do a heck of a lot more than any “national figure” to revive the public’s appetite for the art of poetry. The uninitiated into the marvels of poetry are much more likely to wander into a coffee shop reading than into a large lecture hall to hear a national poet. Local poetry can spread a love for the art from person to person, neighbor to neighbor, at the “grassroots” level. This is why states have poet laureates.
So, if you care about poetry at all, support your local poets. Go to readings (heck, you could even host a house-reading at your place). Buy books. Subscribe to the journals that live where you live. You don’t have to stop paying attention to the big, nationally-known poets. Just try to save some of your support and encouragement for the poet whose kid goes to school with yours, or who sits in the pew behind you at church, or who teaches at your local community college. And if you are a local poet, wear the mantle proudly.