California Poets and the Academy of American Poets

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Academy of American Poets maintains a website that dispatches a state-by-state breakdown of poets. In addition to California’s current poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, five other poets receive marquee billing as featured poets: Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, and Gary Snyder. Thirty-four other poets are also listed into two evenly-divided, parallel columns. This page can be found at:

I have not been able to determine what guidelines were at work in the choice of poets delegated to California.  In terms of the progenitors of legacy, two of the poets (Robinson Jeffers and Edwin Markham) have been dead for over a half-century. Another pair (Kenneth Rexroth and Richard Brautigan) died around 30 years ago, while the two poets most associated with Black Sparrow Press (Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman) are now both also deceased. Ginsberg, Rich, Gunn, and Duncan have all passed away, too. In total, one-fourth of the poets on AAP’s list of California poets are no longer alive, which is not a problem at all as long as the list of the living poets demonstrates the links between the past and the present.

Unfortunately, the absences are prolific: who at AAP decided to exclude Michael McClure, Amy Gerstler, and Rae Armantrout from this list? Or Ron Silliman, Michael Lally, and Paul Vangelisti? Or Jack Grapes, Suzanne Lummis, and Eloise Klein Healy? Or Gail Wronsky, Sarah Maclay, and Holly Prado? Or Neeli Cherkovski, Jack Hirschman, and Harry Northup? The erasure of all five of these trios is beyond comprehension. The list of vigorous trios could go on and on…. Lewis MacAdams, Leland Hickman, Dennis Phillips; Michael Hannon, Brooks Roddan, Amy Uyematsu; Douglas Messerli, Michael Davidson, Diane Ward;  Scott Wannberg, S.A. Griffin; Marisela Norte. Far too many poets on this list, on the other hand, have only a superficial connection with the state. Heather McHugh’s most salient connection to California is that she was born in San Diego, and while she taught briefly at UC Irvine and Berkeley at various points, what exactly is it that would justify her association with California? This has nothing to do with the quality of McHugh’s poetry; I would be just as happy to attend a reading by her as McClure, Gerstler, or Armantrout. Perhaps, though, one of the reasons I find the AAP’s delegation of McHugh to California so puzzling is that I’ve never heard her read, whereas I’ve heard the other trio just cited read on multiple occasions. In other words, those poets are “local” enough to have given a multitude of readings, and I’ve been fortunate enough to hear them several times.

AAP’s website on California amounts to an anthology that reflects more ignorance than knowledge. It’s not so much little knowledge that’s the danger at work here, but a belittling knowledge. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the trios of poets I listed as missing from the list have largely been associated with the small press movement. In general, their books of poems have not been published by university presses, but by individuals unaffiliated with institutional largesse and privilege. Ultimately, the exclusion of the poets I have listed serves to reinforce a hierarchy of American poetry that pretends that cultural capital is not always already at work in canon formation.

AAP’s list is not without usefulness, however. It would be possible to descry a sense of the relationship between poet and region by considering the careers and writing of a dozen or so living poets in AAP’s list (Kim Addonizio, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Harryette Mullen, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, James McMichael, Philip Levine, James McMichael, Carol Muske-Dukes, Jane Hirshfield, Gary Soto and David St. John). If a critic undertook such a project and got it published, the key question would involve its usefulness to the next generation of poets. How much would a young poet who wanted to move to California learn from such a book? By extension, in fact, how well would an anthology of AAP’s California poets actually prepare a woman or a man for the ground level conditions of being a young poet in California in 2014?

Of course, it’s not just California that suffers from East Coastal Shelf Syndrome, where the rest of the country falls off the radar screen one hundred miles west of Philadelphia. One only has to go to Minnesota’s site and look at the list of poets and wonder how Jim Moore’s name never came up during discussions at AAP on who should be included in that state’s roster. The dismaying part of all of this is the degree to which a complacent version of “normality” is at work in the AAP’s website. The Academy of American Poets holds fast to the domain of its name: it is primarily interested in poets whose social investment has been institutionally granted a sense of cultural entitlement. One can only wonder how long it will take AAP to develop the literate discipline required of anyone aspiring to do curatorial work.