Philosophy behind the project
I’m often at aesthetic odds with what many academics (not to
be confused with intellectuals) in established institutions of
secondary and post-secondary education consider to be “quality
poetry.” However, with a skills-based curriculum, it
is still possible to teach “experimental” poetry that isn’t so
didactic in meaning.
I love listening to and reading poetry, but the poetry I enjoy the most is often not the poetry that I am expected to teach in preparation for the AP test. These “Official Verse Culture Poets”1 do not speak to me and are far removed from the population that I teach—smart, urban, diverse (linguistically and ethnically), high-school students.
But, as Jerome Rothenberg points out in the preface to A Secret History on the Lower East Side,
[since] everyone loves a paradox, let me start off with this now-familiar one…American poetry, the part by which it has been and will be known, has long been in the margins, nurtured in the margins, carried forward, vibrant, in the margins…And this is because poetry as we know & want it is the language of those precisely at the margins—born there, or more often still, self-situated: a strategic position from which to struggle with the center of culture & with a language that we no longer choose to bear.2
My preference is to teach this literature that exists in the margins, though I do try and expose students to all types of writing. As long as the skills of how to closely read a poem and how to write a coherent analysis about poetry are cultivated, they can then be applied, especially if the focus is on how the poem “works” rather than simply what the poem is about, or means.
But I do often wonder—if a vast majority of students aren’t reading books of poetry outside of being assigned to do it, then maybe we have to consider the value of the academic, “established” poets that school systems, governmental agencies, textbook companies, and institutions of higher learning promote—what Ron Silliman calls the “School of Quietude”3. Maybe the problem is not the genre, or the students, but the quality of poetry that we are showing students.
This project is, in part, my response—but the students deserve all the credit for their hard work and intellect.
1 A phrase I learned and learned to love from Anne Waldman.
2 Clay, Steve and Phillips, Rodney. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: adventures in writing, 1960 – 1980: a sourcebook of information. New York: the New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998. 9.
3 This is what Silliman has to say about the School of Quietude (SoQ), a common topic of discourse on his blog, “The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing. I’ve resurrected the term for a couple of reasons:” He then goes on to explain in his 5 January 2004 post that “It acknowledges the historical nature of literary reaction in this country. As an institutional tradition that has produced writers of significance only at its margins – Hart Crane, Marianne Moore – the SoQ continues to possess something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement, a denial that the SoQ enacts by permitting its practitioners largely to be forgotten once they’ve died. That’s a Faustian bargain with a heavy downside, if you ask me, but one that is seldom explored precisely because of the SoQ’s refusal to admit that it exists in the first place.” http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2004_01_01_archive.html
Shout-outs to the poets
I'd especially like to thank each of the poets for their time, energy, patience, practice, and help with this project. My students really connected with you as people and as artists.
To Suheir Hammad: who taught my students that “institutions [are] not here to serve the needs of poetry." And that poetry calls "for the questioning, if not the erasure of, authority and cannon” (Hammad, Email to Olivia Kahn). Also for making them want to investigate and embrace gender and diversity in literature and in life.
To Micah Ballard: who unlocked the idea of collaboration and community and punk-parish-mysticism as well as the magic and play in the act of writing. In fact, I thought it was fitting that the students collaborated on writing the biography. Also to Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Cedar Sigo, and Will Yackulic for corresponding--(all great writers and artists as well), as the students realized that researching influences was a necessity.
To Regie Gibson: who sonically inspired my students and wove them through a world with scat and myth and love and blues & who also produced a manifesto from answering some student questions--a document that I'd like to leave in its entirety below, because it says so much about poetry.