Wanda Coleman; Academic Canon Formation

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I am still in a state of begrudging acceptance that Wanda Coleman is dead. I can close my eyes and still see her at Beyond Baroque’s first site on West Washington Boulevard reading Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Green. I want you so much, green.” The Los Angeles poets had gathered to read their favorite poems by other poets and no one tipped their hands about their choices. Wanda’s choice was the most delightful one in an evening of splendid recitals.

Laurel Ann Bogen called last night and informed me that a memorial service for Wanda is planned for Sunday, January 19, 2014, at 2 p.m. at the Church in Ocean Park on Hill Street in Santa Monica.

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Today, I am going to post what I had originally planned to insert as my entry on the day that I found out about Wanda’s death.

In my book, Holdouts, I cite Brother Antonius’s comment that that the East Coast is the canon of judgment and the West Coast represents the canon of creativity. That not much has changed since Brother Antonius (William Everson) proposed that binary was made clear to me when I was visiting Lynn McGee in Brooklyn a little over a month ago; one morning she went through her book shelves and pulled a couple dozen volumes for me to read while she went and visited a very dear friend who was in the hospital.

D. Nurske’s A Night in Brooklyn and Dean Kostos’s Rivering were the two books I’d recommend the most enthusiastically out of all the books I looked at. I have yet to get my own copies, so I can’t quote from them, but they were far better than most of the work cited and praised in Lisa Russ Spaars The Hide-and-Seek Muse, which was one of the books I spent a fair amount of time perusing. Part of the problem with Spaars’s evaluation of contemporary American poetry is that she has accepted the restrictions of her job as a reasonable compromise because it rewards her with social status within the critical realm.

“My only charge was to write about current compelling poetry for readers who are intelligent and interested in poetry but who might not necessarily be poets. The only other stipulation made by the Chronicle was that I consider for presentation poets with some sort of university or other higher education affiliation and/or who publish with a college or university press” (Spaar 11). It is the “only other stipulation” that is the central problem. In submitting to that requirement, she has announced that any poet who lives outside the domain of her employer is (by implication) someone whose writing is not compelling enough to deserve the attention of intelligent readers.

Spaar’s attitude has a term in the locker rooms of competitive athletes: trash talk. Teams will often use this kind of commentary as motivation to make the extra effort even when they are exhausted from a long season of practice and performance. Her willingness to dismiss a significant number of poets from the conversation about American poetry is not new. I met all too many academics in the 1970s who were not interested in the poets I was publishing because neither they nor I had any university affiliation.

The consequences of Spaar’s attitude lead directly to a purging of the accessible canon from the professional conversation of those who shape the anthologies used in college classrooms. As a result, students have little chance at an early stage of their development to read work that originates outside the confines of academic discourse. The dismaying part of Spaar’s and the Chronicle’s smug discrimination is not just that the poems of Scott Wannberg and Marisela Norte are not accounted for, but that their social value as cultural workers is left by the wayside.

Spaar does not even have the grace to admit in her introduction to the book that her willingness to accede to the Chronicle’s cultural immigration policy poses a predicament. I would be more in a mood to grant her some critical amnesty if she had at the least said something to the effect that her employer’s restriction would have played out like this in the early 1990s, when the late Wanda Coleman won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize: “I’m sorry, Ms. Coleman, I cannot speak up for your writing. You are not published by a university press. Not only that, you do not have a B.A., let alone a M.F.A. Surely you understand your place in our society.”

I suppose the rules that Spaar ends up affirming as intellectually justifiable guidelines make sense when one realizes that her end goal is to be able to determine who deserves top billing in the corporate world of poetry writing. It takes slightly over two hundred pages to get to the key sentence, but Spaar’s not been doing all this reading and writing just to turn intelligent readers into committed fans of contemporary poetry. Rather, every academic critic must anoint a poet laureate; otherwise, one risks not being taken seriously. Spaar’s nomination? “Charles Wright is arguably the most significant, original poet writing in America” (Spaar 202). She’ll need more than a Chronicle article to prove that “arguably,” but it would almost be beside the point within her realm. The “blurb” has been written and has the credentials of academic citation.

All of this is not to say that I dislike the poets Spaar’s column has chosen to write about, such as Debra Allbery, Jill Bialosky, Alison Seay, Joanna Klink, Brian Teare, Ravi Shankar, Mary Szybist, Larissa Szportuk, Mary Ann Samyn, Srikaat Reddy, L.S. Klatt, Paul Legault, and Amy Neman. Of this list, I know and admire Brian Teare’s and Kate Daniels’s work and intend to take a close look at several others on this list whose work I am not yet as familiar with as I should be.

For the record, here are some of the other books I spent some time reading at Lynn’s apartment:

Jan Beatty – The Switching / Yard – University of Pittsburgh

Amy Lemmon – Saint Nobody (Red Hen)

Gerry La Femina – Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist

Joseph Millar – Blue Rust (Carnegie Mellon)

Nance Van Winckel – Pacific Walkers

Ann Lauinger – Persuasions of Fall

Elizabeth Haukaas – Leap (Texas Tech, 2009)

Kate Light – The Laws of Falling Bodies

 

Every one of these books had stronger moments than the prosaic efforts of Eamon Grennan, whose collection, Out of Sight, was very disappointing. His poems have little sense of efficient narrative and dramatic construction; his use of detail needs much more compression if his poems are ever to attract the enduring attention of readers. When Lynn returned from visiting her friend, I showed her a poem in Grennan’s book that required all of two minutes of attention to improve. Rarely has a supposedly mature poet needed so badly the firm hand of a devoted editor.