Monday, December 17, 2007

Work Worth Doing

What's worth doing, in the poetry biz, or in my career more generally?

My friend Mark has just published an honest-to-God literary biography: that one to the right of the screen, The Poem of a Life: a Biography of Louis Zukofksy. Now friends, that's work worth doing: a project you can hang your hat on, as some bad country song might say. Here's what Mark wrote for the jacket copy, "Zukofsky was a protégé of Ezra Pound's, an artistic collaborator and close friend of William Carlos Williams's, and the leader of a whole school of 1930s avant-garde poets, the Objectivists. Later in life he was close friends with such younger writers as Robert Creeley, Paul Metcalf, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and Guy Davenport. His work spans the divide from modernism to postmodernism, and his later writings have proved an inspiration to whole new generations of innovative poets."

All true--but just as important, Zukofsky is one of those poets who has needed a level-headed, articulate, and whip-smart advocate, someone to make the case for him to readers who're not already convinced of his worth. In Mark, he has one: a blessing for the both of them. I've needed this book for a decade, and now I have it; Zukofsky is about to enter the building, or at least my syllabi.

Watching Mark write this, though, I've often stopped to wonder: what the hell am I up to? Where's my Louis Zukofsky, my Tenzing Norgay, my John Wayne, my prairie son? Where's the poet, the poem, the project worth doing for me?

Years ago I wrote academic essays, a lot of them, published in scholarly journals. Contemporary Literature, Postmodern Culture, Arizona Quarterly: I had my venues, and I had my reasons, most of them strictly professional. (If I had to write an essay for a graduate class, why not get it published? Efficient use of time, good for my CV, maybe help me get a job or, later, tenure.) I stand behind a handful of those pieces. Others, frankly, embarrass me. I'll leave it to you to guess which.

After that I started writing for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. The brilliant editor there, Herb Leibowitz, taught me how to write lively prose again, after graduate school. More important, he gave me the chance to write about a crazy range of topics: Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, Hayden Carruth, Performance Poets, Muriel Rukeyser, most recently a big overview of Chicano, Nuyorican, and other Latino poetries. (Next up, Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmood Darwish!) I worked harder on any one of those pieces than I did on any one of my peer-reviewed essays, and I'm proud of all of them--but none has led yet to a book, and they don't really add up to one, either.

When I hit 35, I took a self-imposed five year break from writing. Instead, I decided to work directly with teachers of poetry. Four grants from the NEH so far: three to lead summer seminars, and one for a year-long series of workshops. A joy to teach, every one of them--but looking back? Strangely unsatisfying. I know, on an intellectual level, that each of those teachers does a better job with poetry now than he or she did before working with me. That makes, what, 60 teachers, times 30 students a year...1800 K-12 students every year who are getting a better poetry education thanks to me. But only a handful of those teachers stays in touch with me, and I don't see that benefit myself, can't spot it on my shelf or in another author's notes. As I career deeper into my 40s--45 is heading for me at an alarming clip!--I want something more. Not to leave the teachers behind, but to write again, too.

Since coming off that hiatus, I've published two pieces in Parnassus: one on Muriel Rukeyser and one on novels about poets. I could start a book on either, but neither grabs me as the project to carry me into my fifties. The big Latino poetry piece and the Muhammad Ali / Darwish work in progress? Essays, the both of them, that only work as essays, trials and tests, exploratory work. I don't have the chops, or the ganas, to pull off either at any greater length.

Lawrence Joseph? A piece underway on his work, which I've known rather casually since my days in Detroit, back in high school. The more I read it, the more I like it--but for a book? Jewish poets or poetics? Last fall I finished a 38 page piece on Jewish argument poems, or argument poems by Jews; the section on Norman Finkelstein (the poet, not the political scientist, late of DePaul) was a joy to write, as was the short review I did of some essays by Michael Heller. A book in there, somewhere? A follow-up to the edited collection on Ron Johnson (at the indexer, wrapping up, due out this spring I hope)?

My heart, these days, is with romance fiction--or, at least, it's torn between poetry and golden-tongued romance, with (or without) her serene lute. If I throw myself into romance work entirely, though, what will happen to my poetry scholarship, and my work with teachers? I don't want to give up either, which means I need to come up with new projects on both fronts. Yes, yes, I have some lined up--but again, just essays. I need to think bigger, and not just for the NEH this time. I need a course of study, a specialty, a poet or topic or period that I can call my own. I used to be eclectic; now I'm just aimless.

Help me, somebody! What's worth doing, that I might want to do?


Mike Hopkins said...

To tag onto your John Wayne reference. . .As a teacher who is close to the sunset of my career, I have been given a fresh horse, a supply of ammo, and an envigorating challenge. All because of my participation in last summer's NEH seminar. Poetry has sparked many of my reluctant readers. Poetry has enriched the literary awareness and passion of my AP students. Poetry through the Poetry Out Loud experience has taken root in each of my five classes, and my students have a fresh understanding of the integral connection of analysis and delivery.

In my completely biased and humble opinion, with your scholarship in the world of poetry and your passion for and understanding of the teacher and the classroom, you could leave Wormser and Capella in the dust. You have an enriched and accessible research base in the participants of your NEH seminars. By visiting their classrooms, you could witness poetry and its application--kids and poetry uniting. While it may not be a treatise on Zukofsky, it could reveal the discussion and analysis of a Zukofsky poem in the minds and world of a group of students: the rich arena of the poet , the poem, and the reader. An arena that has been nudged with more force than you might guess by your NEH seminars, your scholarship, and your vision. It's there for the taking.

All my best,
Mike Hopkins

E. M. Selinger said...

Thank you, Mike. That means a lot to me. I don't know what I'll do next, exactly, but I don't plan to leave the NEH seminars behind--and hearing from you reminds me why I chose to take that road in the first place. Stay in touch, & keep your powder dry--


Mark Scroggins said...

Gee, Eric old bean, innit funny how the mid-life mid-career crisis hits us both at once. Don't falter now, bro' -- after all, you're the chap I modeled my prose on! (See similar kvetching on Culture Industry earlier tonight...)

My vote's still for the AS Byatt book, as I've been reading Angels & Insects the last few days & am as usually enraptured. & teaching The Biographer's Tale in my grad seminar this spring.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Hi Eric! I just posted a comment at Mark's blog addressed to both of you, so please check it out. Nothing too profound, but worth considering, I hope.

Happy New Year and much love,


Don Share said...

In my line of work, I've found that it's really hard to get good reviewers and essayists who can write well about poetry, so my vote is... do more, please!!