KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community edited by Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax
(Saturnalia Books, 2008)
When I first heard about Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Part of me wondered if there could possibly be anything new to say about poetics and politics, in this day of blogs and tweets and multiplying media outlets. But in this book, the process is just as intriguing as the end product, and it leads to some interesting outcomes.
Editors Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax asked pairs of poets to write letters to each other over the space of a year. Letter writing could be done by e-mail, but each letter had to be at 2-4 pages long. Instead of forcing less-established writers to be the supplicant approaching the more famous poets, the editors chose the established poets and let them be the ones to choose the emerging poets or the established poet could choose to let the editors pair them with a poet. The goal was for each poet to write at least three letters.
In the introduction, the editors say “ . . . we hoped to develop a project that wasn’t altogether familiar to readers, that wasn’t another anthology of poetry or poetics” (ii). In this, they have been successful. I haven’t seen another book quite like this one.
My favorite format for discussion of poetics has been the interview. But in the interview, we often don’t learn much about the interviewer. With this book of letter exchanges, we find out much about both poets. Some themes emerge as we read: poets are concerned about making a living, about race and gender, about the relationship of poets to the academy, and of course, about how to create the best poems.
As letter after letter addresses these concerns, I found myself feeling better about my own anxieties. If even the most established poets wrestle with these issues, then I find it a comfort. Even poetry fame doesn’t solve these thorny issues.
I also find some good advice tucked into these letters. Eileen Myles advises Jennifer Firestone to give less to her students; she says, “It’s hard for young teachers to do this, but especially for young female teachers” (105). I remember when I first started teaching, I spent almost an hour grading each paper. Students spent as much time reading those comments as they do reading the comments that I produce much more quickly now. I’ve come to realize that I’m not really the important part of the process; the writing of the paper is what’s important, less so the comments on it.
Jill Magi writes to Cecilia Vicuna, “Life speaks in us, the Upanishads say. To ‘recognize’ that language, the way it sepaks in you, to discover where it is in you, is what matters, to find the source of delight that opens all doors: being in poetry” (171). The book brims over with this kind of advice and inspiration.
It’s wonderful to hear that the human condition affects us all; no one escapes entirely. Claire Braz-Valentine writes, “The truth is that we all are uncomfortable in our own body, our own life. We want so terribly to get it right. We look to others and think, if only I could have done it that way, looked that way, written that way. We are a constant whip on our own back. We never let go. We need to breathe, relax into that person we were born into, be her. Let her think, create, love, and rest” (306). She writes that she’s getting closer to being the person she always wanted to be. What a hopeful message.
We even get the occasional poem. I found Karen Weiser’s project that involved John Audubon’s life fascinating, and I was happy that she included a poem with haunting lines like “O, to be a strippling world / with a certain thrown-her-glove-in sense of possibility” and “On the Mississippi Audubon killed the birds then drew them.” But don’t buy this book if you’re hungry for poems. The poets spend far more time discussing approaches to writing and revising poems than including those poems in their letters to each other.
Many people are out there, talking about their writing processes and their political views and their personal issues, in endless blog posts and tweets. But a series of letters provides a depth and an intimacy that most writers rarely achieve on their own. What a gift to have the art of letter writing preserved into our current century. I’m still fond of the letters of John Keats, but they don’t have the kind of immediacy and relevance to my present life I find in the letters in Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. In 2009, she was invited to read as part of the noon reading series at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Assistant Chair of the General Education department. Her website, which has connections to the blogs that she keeps, is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.