Monday, March 19, 2007

Did Poetry Win the Lottery: Part II

In an earlier post, I linked to the New Yorker article about the Poetry Foundation. A response to that article appeared recently in the New York Times. What are your thoughts?


[Edit -- I'm bored this morning and figured I'd weigh in... I’m embarrassed to admit I just read the first article Andy posted, so now at least I know what everybody at AWP was talking about. But frankly, I’m not sure I see what all the controversy is about. Poetry got a lot of money, and it now wants to spend lots of it in silly ways to try to make poetry more appealing to ordinary people. Let me look into my crystal ball for a second… oh, ok, it’s a spectacular failure.

I mean, it’s no secret that poetry ain’t popular. It was once, sure, but that was when people who were educated were actually taught how to engage with a poem. I think back to my K-12 education, and I remember only one class in which we were taught to read and write poems: It was in first or second grade, in a “gifted and talented” class, and I was encouraged to write little poems about things like dinosaurs and ghosts.

And there was one day when we were taught about simile. I wrote a poem called “Winter,” in which I said something like “it tastes like chocolate cake, sounds [or looks?] like the ocean.” The cake thing was because my birthday is in December (I guess I should have known my audience and said “tastes like candy canes”); I don’t remember what was going on with the ocean part, but I know I was mocked mercilessly by a neighbor kid, who was not in said GT class. Even years later, when I bumped into the guy, he said something like, “Hey, remember when you wrote a poem about how winter tasted like cake? That was so gay.”

So there you have it. I was given an introduction on how to read and write poems by a teacher who knew how to read and write poems. He was not. I stayed interested in poetry. I think it’s safe to say he’s not a fan. Getting a poem or an essay on poetry placed in Maxim isn’t going to change his mind, unless maybe it’s tattooed on Fergie, who is fergalicious.

You know, that's not a bad idea. Note to self: draft grant proposal and perform legal research on avoiding restraining orders.

This (the poetry thing, not Fergie) is something I was talking about with some folks at AWP. If they want to make poetry more popular, they should spend the money paying me a salary in the low six figures (I’ve got law school loans, you know) to travel the country and teach first and second graders how to read and write little poems. Or hire someone else to do it and pay them less; I know plenty of good writers cheaper than me who would probably do a great job teaching the kiddies (that is, not opening with, “Do you like iambs, Jimmy?” or otherwise turning poems into the literary equivalent of brussel sprouts).

But that’s, as far as I can tell, not what they’re doing, and I’m not too upset about it. Based on what I’ve now read, the Poetry Foundation is a little like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, in which Pryor’s character inherits millions and has to spend it all in a week without accumulating any assets. So he buys icebergs that are going to melt and million-dollar stamps, which he then uses to mail postcards. In the end, it’s their money. If they want to spend it giving awards for funny poems, I guess that’s fine by me. I'm way more annoyed by the New Yorker's process for selecting its poems, though I guess I really shouldn't be.

Now I’d better get back to my latest poetry manuscript, A Polack Walks Into a Bar // (ouch).

- Chris]


Amanda said...

Hi, I just started following your blog a couple weeks ago after following a link from Jen Tynes' livejournal. I agree with the idea that an effective way to encourage more people to read poetry is to get out there and teach kids to read and write poems. I really admire the work that Kenneth Koch did in this regard. I think it's no coincidence that Koch's own poetry shows a great sense of humor; you can't take yourself too seriously if you're out there writing poems with kids: you have to be down-to-earth and thinking of poetry as something with the potential to be fun. Besides teaching kids, Koch also did workshops in nursing homes and other places: he took poetry out into the world, where everybody could play/experiment with it. I know someone in Seattle (where I live) who is doing a similar kind of project, not a teaching project but a project where she takes her desk out to a public park every Sunday and writes poems and talks with people about poetry. Her blog is

Amanda said...
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