Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Town of Gown?

Gifted with two great sets of blog comments last week, both provoked by posts related to the Rethinking Poetics conference, or the little I gleaned from it without being there
or on Facebook. Chris Piumas went up Monday; here’s an exchange with Mark Wallace.
Mark: I appreciate these two excellent thoughts, Rodney.

Here in San Diego County where I live, theres essentially no poetry scene at all that isnt not simply university-related, but literally university-housed. The only regular reading series that takes place off campus, the Agitprop Series, has been run by a series of people (Lorraine Graham currently) who likely wouldnt be in San Diego at all if it wasnt for their connection to university employment. In La Jolla, D. G. Wills Books, a non-university affiliated bookstore, hosts a few literary readings every year, at which about 12-20 people, most of them retired, will listen to a reading. San Diego has almost no other beyond university context for literature, besides a few yearly slam events.

Not sure where Im going with this—maybe its that with so much financial trouble in California, and so much debate about limiting and shutting down university access, I wonder that while poets are so often fretting, and maybe rightly so, about being swallowed up by the academic world, maybe they also ought to be thinking about what might happen when the university-context for literature, however slight, also disappears. Would that make things better in some places? Im not sure, but in San Diego it would more or less mean the entire end of literature as a public activity.
Me: Hi Mark,

Thanks for this! Chris Piuma and I exchanged a couple comments on my earlier Shadow Poetics post, talking about similar questions in the Portland context. What you say about San Diego here gives some helpful perspective.

My snap response is to wonder how certain strands of poetry—lets be bold & say our strand (call it, what, maybe non-Mary Oliver poetry?)—would fare outside of academia, especially in second-tier cities like Portland or San Diego, if it got more attention in the wider culture. Imagine if the weeklies reviewed small press poetry the way they review independent movies, local bands, or offbeat graphic novels. Then again, the po biz would probably grow even more balkan and fractious with that kind of publicity on the line. And publicity like that only comes where theres merch to move—tickets, beer, meals, CDs. I dont think contemporary poetry fits any more comfortably into that system than it does in the world of professional scholarship.

But I agree (to a point) with Chriss point that poetrys not really a numbers game. And while the arts in no danger of vanishing anytime soon, its chief enabling institution right now is the university, just as surely as classical musics institutional enabler has become the civic orchestra. Salon music, amateur quartets, accomplished bourgeois children tickling the ivories—theyre more or less gone, and I dont hear anyone grousing too loudly that theyre gone (tho they do complain, in almost exactly the same terms as poets, that classical musics become marginal to the culture at large).

Still, in places like Portland—and San Diego too, it sounds like—seems to me you need a critical mass of audience to make certain kinds of events, and a certain level of discussion, happen. Whether that mass comes from inside the university or outside of it seems less relevant at that level than just getting momentum at all.

I like your description of literature as a public activity.

P.S. You know, it just occurred to me to mention this massive reading road trip Zachary Schomburgs on—9,895 miles so far, according his blog. I dont know much about it beyond the photos he posts, but seems like it opens a window on this academia/local scene paradigm my mind tends to get stuck on. Blogs help, too.

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