Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Binnie Kirshenbaum and Katha Pollitt

Some of the readers did not have much to say in commentary or in addition to the texts they were reading -- and sometimes I was listening too attentively to be writing stuff down. Binnie Kirshenbaum, for example, did a very powerful reading from her most recent novel, The Scenic Route. I have no evidence of this in my notebooks. I remember she was talking about how women doing dark comedy have no chance of publication these days. Is this true? At the reception that followed, my friend Marie and I were immediately inspired to write more dark comedy. Later I learned that Marie is, in fact, an accomplished writer of comedy already. And I fully expect to see her novel, "Singing," on the shelves of supermarkets within a year. (This is not wishful but rather magical thinking.)

Another reader who had a lot to say about the status of women in contemporary publishing world was a poet Katha Pollitt. She was preoccupied with the generational conflict and quoted Wallace Stevens: "You always think that you're at the end of the tradition." (Is this really from Stevens? Google is ambivalent on the matter.) But perhaps, you are also at the beginning, Pollitt questioned. Women, she said, are in a much better position today (than when she was starting out). At the same time, "The way the culture has become more visual" -- she referenced the author's photographs on the dust jackets -- and how it helps female authors to be beautiful -- "this was not true in the 60s."

The statement "Poetry is dead & nobody cares" actually makes people feel good about reading poetry, Pollitt posited. She referenced Ireland as a place where poetry is to the day plays a central role in the society. In the US, she said, we lack consensus about what matters. Billy Collins, she said, Mary Oliver, Charles Bukowski -- there are still poets who make a commitment to a coherent group of readers. Poetry is as self-referential art as can be. A poet, she said, creates a taste by which she is understood. Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? she asked. Some poets think of writing a poem as similar to conduction an argument, and others (Robert Lowell?) would put a "not" in a poetic phrase simply to get an extra syllable.

Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? Somehow, this question struck me as unduly intimate. Like talking about sexual positions or vaginal lubrication, that kind of thing. Do poems ever feel unduly obscure? I don't know, but why don't you try using K-Y jelly.

Of course, in poetry, I remain outside of discourse.

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