or on Facebook. Chris Piuma’s 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, there’s essentially no poetry scene at all that isn’t 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 wouldn’t be in San Diego at all if it wasn’t 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 I’m going with this—maybe it’s 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? I’m 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—let’s 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 there’s merch to move—tickets, beer, meals, CDs. I don’t 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 Chris’s point that poetry’s not really a numbers game. And while the art’s in no danger of vanishing anytime soon, its chief enabling institution right now is the university, just as surely as classical music’s institutional enabler has become the civic orchestra. Salon music, amateur quartets, accomplished bourgeois children tickling the ivories—they’re more or less gone, and I don’t hear anyone grousing too loudly that they’re gone (tho’ they do complain, in almost exactly the same terms as poets, that classical music’s 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 Schomburg’s on—9,895 miles so far, according his blog. I don’t 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.