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'What Poetry Is' in a Workaday World

A couple of things happened during the past week that made me consider and reconsider what poetry is.

I teach an English composition class at a community college. We've been discussing the economy--what's left of it, where the jobs have gone, where the money's gone, where the future is (or isn't) going.

In preparation for an essay assignment, we're reading a lot of articles about GM and the bank bailouts and the decline in local factory jobs. We watched Michael Moore's Roger & Me.

Last Monday we talked, a lot, about the meaning of "work." This is not a literature class, but I threw them a changeup by introducing three poems into the discussion: Yusef Komunyakaa's "My Father's Love Letters" and "The Deck," as well as Philip Levine's "What Work Is." My students knew what work is before reading these poems, but now I think they've reconsidered what poetry is.

Did they all run out and buy poetry books after class? Probably not, but they did ask me about Komunyakaa's later work, and I promised to read them something from Warhorses this week. That's a start

The second thing happened last Friday on Twitter, when Kara Pelicano of Clerisy Press mentioned a Haiku on 42nd St. postcard poetry book.

On my office wall--hanging near a framed NYC subway "Poetry in Motion" sign with lines from Elizabeth Bishop's "Casabianca"--is a foamboard poster of Haiku on 42nd St. that I've had since the mid-1990s.

Haiku on 42nd St. documents a 1994 installation, curated by Dee Evetts, that presented 26 original haikus on abandoned Times Square movie theater marquees. The photos were taken by Richard Hunt, whom I first met when he worked for Bantam Doubleday Dell. Now he heads Keen Communications, which includes Clerisy Press.

Thinking about Haiku on 42nd Street made me wonder.

That's one of the fringe benefits of poetry--wonder.

So I asked Richard for the backstory.

"Years ago, my daily path from Port Authority to BDD was the gauntlet, aka 42nd St.," he said. "Some mornings it was a battle to choose the lesser evil: the boarded-up buildings, the stench of urine and garbage, or the sadness of what was once so vibrant becoming so grim. So to round the corner one morning and see this amazing collection of haiku displayed on the old marquees was magical. The simple presence of the verse graced each morning. These snippets of imagery, especially when juxtaposed against the seamier grotto of town, were enchanting, even uplifting.

"Nor was I alone in this sense of wonder. What the day before had been an eyesore, a slightly toxic warm-up lap in the daily rat race of workdom, became a jaunty stroll in the park.

"Tangled up in Haiku on 42nd St. is a confession: when I first photographed this wild feast of words and meaning, I didn't know why I felt compelled to capture it. But it was such an interesting and exciting display that I wanted to make a visual record before I turned the corner one morning . . . and it would be gone.

"My aspirations were simple: to preserve the proof that words and their creators can change the face of any city and improve the lives of all who pass by. Not being a full-time professional photographer, just someone who was touched by the display, I struggled with the best way to let others enjoy it. But as a full-time publishing person, literacy and spreading the word are the yin/yang and the perpetual quest.

"At first this collection of images was designed as a poster--pro bono on all fronts (thankfully)--and then cards, which I produced one at a time at home. But as you know from your time in a bookstore, finding a way to display posters and greeting cards is challenging, equally so the storage and shipping. There were a number of commission groups who carried them and an equal number of bookstores that ordered them, and to both groups I'm eternally grateful because it gave the haiku some exposure to a larger world.

"So when we finally discovered the postcard book format, we thought we'd give that a go in hopes of preserving this project in print. There are still no royalties attached, still haven't covered the printing cost, but someday hope to nudge enough into the black that we can donate proceeds to the Haiku Society.

"It won't surprise you, since you live it daily, but this enterprise has redoubled the respect I have for any and all independent operations and the pure joy of public art."

Just a couple examples of what poetry is in my workaday world.


Poetry Month at 15,000 Feet & Ascending

This year, National Poetry Month sometimes feels like Poetry Day or Poetry Hour or Poetry Minute to me . . . in a good way. The leisurely websiteseeing helicopter has been replaced by jet speed.

As I write this column on my laptop, I keep glancing over at my iMac screen like an edgy air traffic controller monitoring takeoffs and landings ("Seamus Heaney, climb and maintain 15,000; Cavafy, you're cleared to land on runway 27 left"). Twitter updates are scrolling by and poetry-themed Tweets take virtual flight in 140 characters or less:

  • @FSG_Books notes that Jonathan Galassi has written about Susan Wheeler's new collection, Assorted Poems.
  • @NewDirections offers thoughts on this Christian Bok Tweet: "Poetry is not language at play, but language out of work, deliberately unemployed--thus poetry commits a kind of welfare fraud upon us all."
  • @FaberBooks exclaims: "Wow, just got treated to Seamus Heaney reading in our offices! Don't worry, we've filmed it and will share it with you all soon."
  • @AAKnopf's Poem-A-Day is "On the Jetty" by C. P. Cavafy (and shortly after giving us that link, @AAKnopf ReTweets @ConnieAnnKirk's discovery: a video of Sean Connery reciting Cavafy's "Ithaca" to music by Vangelis).
  • @norton_fiction introduces the latest in Robert Pinsky's Poems Out Loud series: "I Love You, Man. Paul Rudd has nothing on Fulke Greville's poem 'Elegy for Philip Sidney.'"
  • @RichRennicks shares a "great website celebrating Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday."
  • @joebfoster notes that his "favorite book o' poetry to handsell" is New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer.

It's a stressful environment being a Twitter traffic controller, so I switch to the more leisurely pace of e-mails (the new snail mail) and some responses to last week's column.

Penny McConnel, co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt., wrote, "We have an annual poetry month event when people bring a poem or two to read; either their own or a favorite written by someone else. The audience ranges from kids to oldsters and everyone loves the event. We start getting inquiries in January checking to make sure it will happen again."

On April 16, Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont., is hosting "a 'Poetry Out Loud' night," noted co-owner Russ Lawrence, adding that the event is "particularly targeted at high school students but open to all. Read or recite a short piece, our judges will render their verdicts based on interpretation, passion, and whatever random factors enter into it. There are real, published rules for events like this, but I think we’ll mostly just make it up!"

Steve Scolca, who is a bookseller as well as manager of Internet marketing at Norton, sent a "Dispatch to the Poetry Month Website-seeing Helicopter" highlighting the publisher's "Poetry Month Bonanza," including "What Is Poetry For?" which was filmed at the AWP Conference in Chicago in February and features 11 poets answering that primary question.

Then I decide to abandon technology altogether for memory and confession. Maybe I'll call this the iPoem section. I've spent enough cash in Apple stores in recent years to permit momentary borrowing of the sacred "i."

Debates about the merits of confessional poetry are ongoing and probably unending, but since I'm not a poet, I can change the focus slightly and introduce another concept: confessional reading of poetry.

Here's my Poetry Month confession. In the late 1960s, during my sophomore year in college, I took a creative writing course. For the first class, the instructor asked us to bring in books by our three favorite poets. I chose John Berryman and Theodore Roethke (to whom I'd been introduced the previous term) and Rod McKuen. Yes, that Rod McKuen. The class response was brutal. I'm surprised I ever read another poem by anybody.

Shortly afterward, I discovered Gary Snyder's Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems and my career as a poetry reader was back on its flight path. Now I know that altitude--as well as attitude--is relative.

Setting websiteseeing helicopters and Twitter traffic controllers aside for a moment, I celebrate Poetry Month this week with the deceptive simplicity of Gary Snyder's closing lines from "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout":

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Later in the day, we fly again as @AAKnopf ReTweets @mcnallyjackson: "We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars."--Jack Gilbert, "Tear It Down."


Poetry-inspired Spring Cleaning

I love mildly deceptive headlines. Although this column is meant to be about Poetry Month, I must begin with a little spring cleaning in the form of an apology for leaving out an important contributor to the cultivation and preservation of Brian Moore's novels, which seem doomed to retail exile in the forgotten kingdom ruled by the evil Wizard of OP.

Elizabeth Davis of the Hartford Public Library, Hartford, Conn., offered "a gentle reminder: when an author you love is OP, turn to your library for the possibility of reading those more obscure gems! I read your article two days after reading Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Julian Barnes. Brian Moore being one of his favorite writers as well, I felt I must confirm what titles my library holds. Besides the 14 in our online catalog, we have another four from the days before barcoding. Until the last of us wears out, we librarians will defend and protect shelf space for the undeservedly forgotten author. P.S.: I am now reading Catholics and finding it quite fascinating."

Duly humbled, a mea culpa on order, I checked my local library and found seven Moore novels on the shelves there. So find him where you can.

And now I face the challenge of mid-column transition from Moore to Poetry Month. Maybe I'll just return briefly to Catholics and the scene where we began MooreQuest, with a helicopter landing on monastery grounds and the Abbot quoting Lewis Carroll's poem, "Jabberwocky," while musing about the vorpal blade going snicker-snack.

Soon the chopper lifts off again: "The frumious bandersnatch, the Abbot said to himself. The words fuming and furious made frumious, and frumious it was now as it rose, levitating a few feet above the grass, hesitating as though looking for directions. Getting its bearings, it tilted forward, moving up and out to sea."

Our frumious bandersnatch today is a websiteseeing helicopter, which will permit us to highlight a few National Poetry Month promotions that caught my Jabberwockin' "eyes of flame":

In addition to a number of events planned throughout the month, McNally Jackson Books, New York, N.Y., is featuring lines from favorite poems on Twitter, beginning with "Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you," from "Remember" by Joy Harjo.

The Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., is offering a 20% discount on all poetry titles for the month and has a special event next Tuesday, April 7, when Maria Luisa Arroyo will read from her collection, Gathering Words/Recogiendo Palabras. Odyssey notes that the the book "gives a voice to the oppressed, the abused, and the forgotten. It speaks from battered women's shelters and from inside homes that hide domestic violence and child abuse. Laying bare the stark realities of life with phrases that are alternately elegant, blunt, and rich with vivid imagery, María Luisa Arroyo writes with spine-tingling candor that does not allow us to deny the truth."

The staff at Politics and Prose Books, Washington, D.C., "has picked a table full of poetry in translation, especially for you! Russian, Israeli, Albanian, French anthologies; Neruda, Bolano, Rilke, Virgil, Akhmatova, Celan, Zagajewski, Szymborska, Mort, Rumi, and Hafez--just to name a few. Come and browse both this international display and the English language sections!"

Poetry Month is a year-round affair at City Lights Booksellers, San Francisco, Calif. The bookshop's latest e-mail newsletter carried the subject header "Poets Still Waiting For Bailout," and I really love this trailer for a documentary film, Ferlinghetti, that will premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 28.

Perhaps because I'm a Vermont native, I found an Associated Press report on this week's celebrity-studded Poetry Month kickoff event at Lincoln Center an especially apt example of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways poetry can affect a person's life. The AP noted that author and humorist Roy Blount Jr. "spoke of a high school teacher whose oppressive reverence for Robert Frost inspired an especially cruel prank: The students tricked her into believing Frost had died, so upsetting the teacher that she stuck her foot in a waste basket."

Said Blount: "That's why people in my high school were grateful to Robert Frost."

The Poetry Month websiteseeing helicopter will stay in the air for a while, its "vorpal blade" spinning, so tell us what you're up to.


April 1 Update: Smashmouth Bookselling for Hard Times

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a cool idea of the day, but Craig Wilkins of Best of All Possible Bookshops has an intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.

Wilkins said he realized last summer, as the economy began to slide, that his problem as a bookseller was "the damned readers. They weren't listening to me and even when they came to the bookshop, they often slipped out with no purchase."

Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. "Essentially, I make them eat their words," Wilkins said. "We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books."

And if his customers think they can avoid all this by simply not coming to the shop, Wilkins has a little news flash for them. "I know where they live and I have a van," he said, touting the advantages of an up-to-date mailing list. "We go to their houses just like Amazon does and make them buy books, but with the added incentive of actually being there in person so they have to look us in the eye to say no rather than simply moving a cursor over to a toolbar and switching to the Desperate Housewives website."

For booksellers considering this approach, Wilkins cautioned that the most important step is game preparation and execution--the Xs and Os. "You must have your head in the contest at all times," he advised, "looking for weaknesses, ready to adjust to the flow and not get caught by surprise. So many things can happen during a sales transaction, but a gifted smashmouth bookseller will always be ready to move and hit, move and hit, reacting again and again to the changing momentum of a confrontation with an underachieving opponent . . . um, customer."

I was fortunate enough to be in his bookstore during one of these smashmouth handselling sessions recently. A customer entered, and instead of the traditional greeting ("Good morning; may I help?"), Wilkins moved aggressively from behind the counter and rushed the newcomer with an all-out blitz, reaching his foe as the customer plucked a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk from a Staff Picks display.

"You don't deserve that book!" Wilkins screamed, snatching it away.

"Why not?" the customer asked timidly, looking for an escape route. But Wilkins had him cornered.

"You aren't smart enough, pal."

"Sure I am."

"Yeah? Prove it! What was the best translation of a Pamuk novel before this one?"

"Um, Black Book?"

"Wrroonngg!" (Wilkins imitated the sound of a harsh buzzer)

"Oh, My Name Is Red?"

"Too late."

"But I want to read this book. I do!"

Now that Wilkins had his opponent caught up in the game, he went for the literary kill. Holding Snow just beyond the customer's reach, he said, "If you want to read this, you're going to have to buy five books by midlist authors, too."


"Because I said so and because if you're smart enough to read Pamuk, you're too smart to ignore these other books. Deal?"

"Deal." There was surrender in the customer's eyes, but also, oddly, pleasure. Was that the thrill of defeat?

Wilkins observed that while bookstore sales have slumped nationwide during the recession, his have actually held steady. Not one to be complacent, however, he recently sent out a threatening e-mail newsletter warning that if he doesn't see an uptick of at least 10% by the end of April, he will be making more house calls.

I asked Wilkins if he had any words of wisdom for prospective smashmouth booksellers, and he shared his basic, primal philosophy: "Your opponents read their books one page at a time just like you do. The best narrative defense is a good narrative offense. Our backs are to the shelf. We have to take this one book at a time. Reading isn't everything; it's the only thing."


Handling Bad Times in BookWorld

As a relatively innocent victim of St. Patrick's Day inspiration, I was compelled last week to lobby for Brian Moore's mostly OP novels. By the way, for those who asked, Catholics (Loyola Press, $12.95, 9780829423334/0829423338) and The Black Robe (Plume, $15, 9780452278653/0452278651) are still available.

But this walkabout did leave some unfinished business regarding our earlier discussion on just how much indie booksellers should tell customers about bad times in BookWorld.

In response to the first column in that series, in which I shared Linda Ramsdell's letter to her customers about controlling inventory during the slower winter season, Diane Van Tassel, owner of Bay Books, Concord and San Ramon, Calif, observed that this made her consider "how my customers think about these expensive books. For many readers, the latest book by a favorite author is such a wonderful treat, but they complain that the book is too heavy (tough when it falls on you when you fall asleep in bed) and that it costs too much, especially if they inhale it in one day. So even though there are a few people who will brave the cost of the hardcover, most will wait until it comes out in paperback.

"So wouldn't it be a good idea to have one or two copies of the latest hardcover, but mainly have a huge selection of great paperback titles that they would be tempted by instead? And, of course, the knowledge of other alternatives. Basically what I am saying is that customers want the latest Janet Evanovich, at a whopping $25 plus, but can often be just as tempted by a new paperback Sarah Strohmeyer or Nancy Bartholomew which are similar in tone. So the bookstore didn't sell the expensive hardcover but the customer, if they love the series, will come back and buy the whole series--at the $8-$10 range, which will actually bring in more money in the long run because you have given them a new author to collect. This takes homework and study by the bookseller, but the customer is turned on to another author and is thankful that the bookstore is so helpful and friendly."

And Tordis Isselhardt of Images From the Past suggested that "the public doesn't understand what's involved in being an independent publisher any better than it understands what's involved in being an independent bookseller: the choices we make, the choices that aren't ours to make, the risks and the rewards, the cash (and inventory) flow and so much more. Like [booksellers] we deal in ideas rather than packages, and delight as much in sharing the process of bringing an author's story to life and to its readers, as [booksellers] do in expanding and enriching readers' lives with books!"

David Henkes of University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash., responded to my wondering what we tell the indie customer who also loves her Kindle: "We need to thank her first and foremost for embracing the written word. We are still facilitators of everything book related. Whether that book is physical, digital, or audio, we are responsible for selling the idea of a story. I have been browbeating friends and family every time they tell me about a book they just read, and loved, and then proceed to tell me that they purchased on Amazon. I cringe, beat my chest, count to ten, and then discuss the book with them and not dwell on how they obtained it. My personal belief in the its-already-here look at the future of the digital application of books is that it will be another means for a book to live on. The Kindle is a difficult thing to hug, to embrace as words pour forth and envelope you. Yet, it is a means to an end--reading.

"My response might sound rather philosophical as opposed to a concrete sales pitch to win over a client," he continued. "If I focus too much on the business side, I lose sight of why I'm 'in' books in the first place--to facilitate the written word."

Perhaps we'll end by accentuating the positive. Susan Weis of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., happily responded to the big question--"Is 'Doing Great!' the wrong thing to say right now?"--by noting that shortly before reading that column, she had sent her e-mail newsletter, telling "over 4,000 people on my list that we are doing great! And, of course, thanking them. I've heard from a few people who told me they are so happy the store is doing well--relieved really. I think it shows them that they are giving their money to a viable store. Makes them feel good about supporting breathe books."