Monterey versus Idyllwild: Poetry’s Exemplars

Monterey Bay versus Idyllwild

Now that the Fall semester is in full stride, with two full weeks of instruction having taken place before the Labor Day weekend, I finally have a chance to reflect a bit longer on a very busy summer. The success of “Poets Metamorphosis” at CSU Monterey Bay has led several people to ask that I organize another such gathering in the summer of 2017. I appreciate the encouragement, but the amount of work required to bring together the level of poets I secured for the students, and then to secure the enrollment that would enable the poets to travel to Monterey Bay, was simply more than I am capable of mounting once again. If I were younger, perhaps, I would find the opportunity hard to resist. After all, how many times does one get a chance to assemble something that ranks with the very best of its kind?

The level of poet-teacher I aimed for at Monterey Bay was set by Cecilia Woloch’s tenure at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival. The poets she asked to lead workshops at Idyllwild, as well as the poets she invited to be featured readers at the final Saturday afternoon gala reading, would easily constitute the core of an excellent anthology of contemporary American poetry. Such an anthology, in fact, would serve as a superb self-guided tutorial for any young poet in this country. The table of contents in such a book would include Tom Lux, Natasha Trethewey, Christopher Buckley, Terrence Hayes, Doren Robbins, Aleida Rodriguez, Harryette Mullen, Robert Wrigley, Bill Mohr, Ted Kooser, Richard Garcia, Charles Harper Webb, Eloise Klein Healy, Maurya Simon, Chris Abani, Cecilia Woloch, David St. John, David Lehman, Peter J. Harris, Steve Kowit, Brendan Constantine, Marilyn Nelson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, James Baker Hall, Ellen Bass, Cyrus Cassells, Ellen Bryant Voight, and Marilyn Chin.

Obviously, in asking Marilyn Nelson and Ellen Bass to be part of my class, I borrowed quite liberally from Cecilia’s roster, but I didn’t want a completely copycat version. My goal was to bring both at least one older poet and one younger poet, who had not appeared at Idyllwild in a featured manner, into the mix, and I was very pleased that both Juan Felipe Herrera and Douglas Kearney agreed to be part of my gathering. In particular, it was the presence of both Herrera and Kearney that marks the difference between what I put together and the current version of the Idylliwild Poetry Week, which has featured poets such as Luis J. Rodriguez, Matthew Dickman and Natalie Diaz in recent years. Rodriguez is the poet laureate of Los Angeles; Herrera is the upcoming poet laureate of the entire United States, although that appointment was nowhere in sight when I asked him to be part of “The Poet’s Metamorphosis.” I would see the gap between Herrera and Rodriguez, however, as being equally as huge, regardless of whether Herrera had been appointed to this national role, and I believe Rodriguez would concede that I might the right choice in asking Herrera to be a headliner in my class.

In the interests of giving future organizers of such events some insights into the process by which this kind of intermingling takes place, I would like to comment further on the challenges raised by having to deal with the publicity engines of American poetry. In particular, I look at Idyllwild and the choice of Matthew Dickman to have been part of its summer faculty. Despite the glowing praise his first book received from poets such as Tony Hoagland and Dorianne Laux, it hardly deserved to be published. All-American Poem is one of the more mediocre first books published in the past quarter-century. Dickman’s second book, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, should have been his first, and would have merited a modest amount of praise. His unwillingness (or inability) to recognize how weak the poems in his first volume were raises questions about Dickman’s judgment as an artist, and whether a poet who is too easy on himself can eliminate that flaw from the capacities as a teacher. Ambition, indeed, should be made of sterner stuff, and self-assessment requires a more discerning touch. (I would emphasize, by the way, that Michael Schiavo’s vitriolic post really did overstate the case. On the other hand, one can almost sympathize with the exasperation that Schiavo justly feels when encountering the rewards heaped on unimaginative writing.)

All this said, I might have been willing to consider having Dickman instead of Douglas Kearney, except that I attended a reading by Dickman two summers ago at Idylliwld. He read eleven poems, none of which served much more than being pieces of quickly passing entertainment. He opened with “Lives of the Gods,” and ended with a poem entitled “Glass Pipe.” In between were two poems with dogs in the title (“Shooting Dogs” and “A Very Good Dog”) as well as three poems with the word “Poem” in the title (“Poem for Being Liked,”  “Poem for Washing Your Hands” and “Poem for Learning Lessons”). Other poems included “Strawberry Moon,” “Long Division.” It was not a set of poems that matched the quality of work I heard read at Monterey Bay or at San Luis Potosi. There is a glib quality to Dickman’s poetry, as if he were trying to be the court jester to the search engine generation. In an odd way, Dickman seems to be a distant nephew of ee Cummings, minus the quirky typography, but only very distant. Like Cummings, sentimentality stretches its safety net under the trapeze act of emotional commitment, but Dickman’s grasp seems to slip far, far more often that Cummings’.

Dickman has an off-hand, genial and charming manner that seems to have carried a fair amount of water for his poems, and perhaps his poetry will continue to improve as much as it did between his first dismal effort and the follow-up collection. Until then, he remains off the list of those I would consider to have as a poet for a course or conference such as “The Poet’s Metamorphosis.” It can be difficult to resist the fellowship of the various poetry gangs and cliques that smooth each other’s paths to success, but it must be done if courses such as the one I put together are to have the imaginative scope that aspiring poets need to be exposed to.

In case one might wonder, by the way, what kinds of informal gangs and cliques I might be referring to, consider the blogpost of Seth Abramson two years ago, about the same time I heard Dickman read at Idyllwild, in which Abramson listed the top 200 advocates of American poetry. Both Matthew Dickman and Natalie Diaz made the list. None of the poets I had as my guest artists made that top 200 list. Imagine that. Juan Felipe Herrera, who was just named poet laureate of the entire United States, did not make Abramson’s list. Nor did Marilyn Nelson or Ellen Bass. Abramson’s list, in particular, seemed amazingly unaware of the contribution that poets in California have made to American poetry in the past half-century. It’s always those who fantasize that they know more than they do who are quickest to believe that they need read no further. Abramson needs to spend several months in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Fresno, and Portland, and then post a revised list. For those curious about the poets selected by Abramson over such contenders as Herrera, Bass, and Nelson, here’s a link to his list.