I’ve been back from the Boston AWP for more than a day, but I’m still not fully recovered from all that talking, listening, and drinking. But mostly talking: it was great to get a chance to talk Belgian surrealism and Tom Raworth with Pierre Joris; Romanticism with Mary Biddinger; Canadian poetry with Lea Graham; C.S. Giscombe with Don Bogen; various literary schemes with John Gallaher; people who thank their drug dealers in the acknowledgment pages of their books with Grant Jenkins; ceramics and Montana with Sloan Davis; AWP haters with Steve Halle; poetry politics with Don Share; dumpy hotels with Jacquelyn Pope; book reviewing with Amish Trivedi; taxicab stories with David Caplan; hitchhiking stories with Kevin Prufer; Gnosticism and Judaism with Yehoshua November; small town mayoral campaigns with Fred Cartwright; Malört shots and small press publishing with Jacob Knabb; Charles Bernstein with Keith Tuma, Lee Ann Brown, and Chris Cheek; and so much more with so many others—and to finally shake Charles Bernstein’s hand, to tell Rae Armantrout about not quite recognizing her in the airport, to (literally) bump into Derek Walcott, and to see my former sophomore student Alexandra Diaz on her way to a panel on her writing. Also, it was good to have a damn good bowl of chowder at Brasserie Jo. But mostly it was about talk.
So now that I’m back in Chicago, it’s time to give the vocal chords a rest and get back to reading—and I’m in luck in that department. As if on cure, the new issue of Salmagundi has dropped from the sky, people, loaded with good stuff from William Logan (on Lowell and Heaney), Allan Gurganus (in conversation), Mary Gordon (on enmity), and Tzetvan Todorov (reporting from Paris). The issue also contains “Cousin Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a wonderful essay on John Matthias by Terence Diggory, which makes mention of my book Laureates and Heretics and its take on the making of poetic reputations. Here’s a passage:
In an essay on John Berryman, another of his teachers, Matthias observes: “It took me a long time to realize that Berryman’s reputation had been slipping on the literary stock market. As a teacher, I made his work central to my syllabus and continued on my enthusiastic way only half-aware that Elizabeth Bishop had overtaken not only Berryman but even Lowell.’
The gender politics implied in this observation can be explained in terms of “the literary stock market.” Robert Archambeau has attempted to do just that in Laureates and Heretics (2010), a study of [Yvor] Winters and his “sons” (James McMichael and John Peck in addition to Hass, Pinsky and Matthias). In this account, Matthias, along with the other “sons,” was a straight white male—i.e., heavily invested in “blue chips,” to continue the stock market metaphor, when the market became segmented by the emergence of niche audiences “based on historical grievances”: African-American civil rights, feminism, gay rights. Under these conditions, the straight white male who could define an alternative “American” identity that transcended identity politics had a chance, like Pinsky, to become poet laureate.
Part of me wants to shout “Wait! It’s all more complicated than that!” but I’d be wrong to do so: Diggory gets the gist of the argument down in just a few sentences. I do argue in Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry that one way for a straight white guy like Pinsky to make a reputation for himself in the age of identity poetics was to articulate an idea of a common national identity (as he does in An Explanation of America), something that would appeal to people who felt nudged toward the margin by the new challenges to notions of American identity. I do think it had something to do with Pinsky's multi-term appointment as Poet Laureate, and his comfort in that role. But my sense of how poetry finds a public (or not) has evolved: I think that's one reason I had to write the essays in the first part of The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, the book I was signing at the AWP this year.
Anyway: back to reading Salmagundi, and to soothing the throat. I’ll need my voice back for whatever bar-room conversation comes up at the next conference.