Part 3 of 3
What was the world of poetry like before most Americans gained access to the Internet? For one thing, fewer poets were published. In order to get into a print magazine, your work was vetted by an editor.
Universities controlled most public readings. In one sense, you had to be known to the ‘knowns’ in order to climb the ladder of publication and rewards. Although much has changed since that time, much remains the same.
Powerful work usually makes its way into the hearts of readers. I still remember the first time I read Jennifer Reeser’s poem “Miscarriage.” That poem ripped me completely from my tasks at hand and stays with me still. Some poets might struggle with that topic, but not Reeser. As a poet and writer, she may well be able to palpably feel loss, but once pen is in hand, she leaps into the art rather than emotion. The poem begins:
“Fold this, our daughter’s grave,
and seal it with your kiss.
For all the love I gave,
you owe me this.”
When you reach the final lines in that powerful work of art, you may react as I did. I simply sat there for a long time, still hearing the poem even after I’d finished reading it. The pleasure was much like you experience after hearing a favorite song—it stays with you.
That’s the wonder of the Web. In times past, you’d need to have a poet’s book, a print magazine with her work, or go to the library. Now, if you’re published on the Web, new readers can find you every single day.
Reeser, like many other accomplished writers, is largely positive about the impact of online workshops and the robust world of creative writing programs. I can’t remember where I first experienced her work, although I do know it was because of two different workshops I participated in. As I’ve written previously, Able Muse was one of the most beneficial workshops I ever participated in years ago. The devil, as they often say, is in the details, though. Not every workshop is beneficial.
Reeser said, “Good or great online workshops can be tremendously helpful.” She said she did learn a lot in the early years of the Internet, and her location had something to do with that:
“I was living an isolated—though not reclusive—life here among the bayous, where participation in a classroom setting, beyond my time at college, was impossible.”
One big benefit involved perspectives:
“Due to the ‘big tent’ nature of the Internet, I also had feedback from all walks of life, such as I never could have gotten in college. The rich. The poor. The old. The young. People using their libraries’ or work computers, who could not afford service providers. People of such means, they literally had nothing else to do in life but read Internet poetry boards. So I was enormously blessed to learn all sorts of perspectives.”
For Reeser, the anonymity critics often adopt can be a benefit—in some cases, she said, it “translates to greater honesty.”
There’s always a flip side though. Reeser noted, “Online workshops are double-edged swords.”
Maybe it’s the herd mentality. One critic speaks and others latch onto his or her opinion without thinking objecitvely about what was said:
“Amateur and bad criticism can often do a tremendous amount of harm, for example, to a poet’s voice. It is very common for amateurs to single out the very thing which makes a writer unique or memorable, and belittle or underplay that strength. Also, there is the personal abuse which can happen in badly moderated areas. Add to that professional jealousy, competition among writers, sheer mindless malice…”
Reeser offers her own perspective on the negative aspects:
“I wish all the uninitiated could keep their wits about them, and refuse to be greatly impressed with much. Skeptical, but diligent. Mob mentalities abound, where, after reading the input of the first critic, echoes will sound from subsequent reader-critics, which may not really be all that true or relevant.”
It’s a good idea to heed what Reeser is saying. I’ve often witnessed what amounted to poetry wars among competing scholars, and if you think politics can get dicey, go hang out with some serious poets. In years past, scandals erupted over matters like poetry contests, with sites like Foetry taking on some very lauded and often overrated scholars. I recall reading a novel about the poetry profession years ago, Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. I found that novel amazing in part because I had personally witnessed the interplay of teaching assistants and poets and even at times wondered if some assistants should share a byline with certain poets.
There has also been a tendency to dismiss accessible poets, but I think that’s long been the case. My favorite take on the clash of poetry titans was penned by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins with his remarkable poem The Country. I imagined Collins laughing at his naysayers, and he had the right. The first time I interviewed him, I went to his reading at a Florida university and there were more than 800 people bearing armloads of his books that he patiently signed.
Do MFA programs really even matter? Are they a bit like academic poetry mills? That’s too simple a take. Reeser sums it up:
“Education in any area is usually a good thing, and while I have seen much criticism of the MFA-produced poetry, overall, I would approve of writing programs. Piano lessons are good. Math lessons are good. Likewise music lessons. All of these may produce sub-par practitioners of those arts and disciplines, but the solution surely isn’t to stop teaching them.”
Gatekeepers are important, in a sense. Reeser said, “What we need, primarily, are good and great editors who can recognize good literature. I do feel there is a glut of poor-to-bad poetry, and that it impacts the whole scene negatively. When bad poetry prevails, it invariably becomes a ‘model’ which in turn leads to imitations of more bad poetry. When we don’t have enough good editors and good readers, our publications start to look like copies of copies of copies, gradually getting worse. Also we need good critics to whom popularity is not paramount.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Internet, when assessed as a resource for scholarship, is accessibility of material. Asked what impact Reeser believes the Web in general has had, she responded positively:
“Several years ago at a poets’ conference, I listened as the keynote speaker announced, ‘I hate the Internet.’ I cannot share this feeling at all. To me the World Wide Web is wonderful. We as writers have the library at Alexandria, in a device no larger than a pack of cards. We have all nations, tribes, and tongues in the span of one hand, with whom to communicate, in an instant. Miraculous. Also terrifying—that is to say, a thrill as well.”
Reeser’s latest book, Indigenous, is working its way through the publication process. That can be tedious, but her previous books and anthologies containing her work are easily obtained. Reeser is a master of formal poetry, and she is a scholar. But even if you aren’t aware you’re reading a form few can write in or even if you aren’t aware of a historic link, the poems speak for themselves, as any good work should. Poems like “Compass Rose”, for instance, can be appreciated by any reader, with opening lines like this evoking common emotions linked to separation:
“I’d buy you a Babushka doll, my heart,
And brush your ash-blonde hair until it gleams,
were Russia and our land not laid apart
by ocean so much deeper than it seems.”
Reeser isn’t just a master of forms, or a gifted writer. Reeser has mastered the human condition, journeyed into the dark heart of mankind, and somehow returned with the treasures of wisdom and empathy. Every time I see her name, I think of that poem I read awhile back, “Miscarriage” [linked above], and the final lines that land like a punch in the gut:
“but leaving like you did,
when only I could feel
the biding, body, bid
of what was real,
she’s put out with the cur,
the garbage, heartache, cat.
Promise you’ll sing to her.
You owe me that.”
With a nod to Emily Dickinson, that is why I love poetry like I love music. When I feel like the top of my head is coming off, I know I’ve read a great work. I’ve felt that many times enjoying the incredible world of words Jennifer Reeser has constructed and will continue to construct as long as she walks this earth.
Frankly, I think Jennifer Reeser would be a sensational US poet laureate.
(Kay B. Day/Nov. 1, 2018)