It Gets Verse
Why Does Seattle Promote Dumb, Bad Poetry?
Did you know that Seattle has an official Poet Populist, elected by internet vote? Did you know that Seattle's newly crowned Poet Populist, and the ninth person to be elected to the role, is named Mike Hickey? Now that you know, do you care?
Here is the mission statement for the program:
The goal of the Poet Populist program is to promote the practice of Art and Democracy, and to promote the literary arts and local arts organizations to a general audience citywide.
On Friday, November 14, about 40 people gathered at Richard Hugo House to watch the closing ceremonies of this year's Poet Populist competition, in which the top four vote getters read their work. Hickey received a $500 check and read several celebratory poems, including one about a door that doesn't close properly (the introduction to the poem was longer than the poem itself) and a prose poem about Sarah Palin winning the presidency and becoming stricken with tarantism, a disease caused by spider bite whose primary symptom is a compulsion to dance.
I know mocking someone who reads poetry aloud is rather like actively searching for someone with a weird sexual fetish—the ardent desire to dress up like a pony, say, and then be groomed by a member of the opposite sex—and then publicly mocking that person for trying to fulfill his or her desire in a discreet fashion. Poetry readers generally keep their compulsion to read poetry to the safe confines of poetry readings, and to seek them out and poke fun at them would be the most shameful kind of heartlessness.
But the Poet Populist program actively involves us all in this very quest. Besides the fact that Hickey will be reading at events around town this year as the voice of the people, the competition inspires poets to carpet bomb their friends, and complete strangers, with pleading e-mails for their vote. The following excerpt from a self-promoting e-mail, which everyone at The Stranger received from poet-in-the-running Arne Pihl on the morning of November 4, when we all had a very different election in mind, is an example of the delusion the Poet Populist competition inspires:
I'm pissed off. I want my language back. I want the letters R-E-D to contain ripe fruit, blood and sunsets, and blue to make me think of certain skies, the sea, remember the eyes of a bartender who used to work in Wallingford, instead of signifying divisive bullshit... I want freedom to be more than an obscure sound bite. I want it to pour from lips until all of us, every one of us, is really, truly free. Poetry. It's our most beautiful weapon.
Listen: I don't doubt that Nick Licata and Bob Redmond, the masterminds behind the Poet Populist competition, have the best interests of Seattle poetry at heart. Redmond programs the literary events at Bumbershoot, bringing authors to town who would never ordinarily get here. And thanks to Licata, every Seattle City Council meeting now begins with the reading of a poem, which is a beautiful and thoughtful gesture, a bow to the ornate and functionally useless before the work of practicality begins. Having a strong poetry scene in Seattle is, to my mind, valuable, and lord knows I haven't done enough to support Seattle poetry in the pages of this paper.
But here's the thing: Public poetry is almost always very bad. Think of Poetry on Buses, a program that consistently produces the worst poetry any of us have ever read. Consider "Held," by Ray Baldwin: "Biscuit, my duckling. Lamb/whose wooly coat I comb./My own. Nubbin,/button, seed of my leaving, you shine/pinkly, meant for my hand to cup./Clean-licked foal, tadpole,/a push against my pull/and still/I try to spread my fingers wide/enough to let you go." The tiny amount of space permitted each poem, and the bland quality of the work that is invariably chosen, leads to a kind of tragic visual chatter that local poet and novelist Doug Nufer describes as "snatches from one loud side of a cell-phone conversation you can't escape, or a bit of some headline you misread over the shoulder of someone sitting a few rows in front of you."
Probably a part of the reason why so many people believe they are good poets and deserving of public attention has to do with the fact that they mostly deal in spoken-word poetry, which is a medium that forgives shallow work. Very few spoken-word pieces are anything more than a succession of images: One line, which might have some sort of clever wordplay, has very little to do with the line before it or the line after. No ideas are developed; nothing's earned. Karen Finneyfrock is a rare example of a slam poet who writes excellent poetry; for every one of her, there are a thousand people who should be ashamed to share their work with others.
At the Poet Populist reading, Elizabeth Austen read a short poem about a relationship that was gorgeous and complete: "I reach for my yellow sweater/It bursts into flame," she read at the beginning of the poem, and the imagery paid out winningly with the last line, "All the old imperatives curl in the lingering heat." But the second-place winner of the competition, Ananda Selah Osel, destroyed all the good will Austen earned by reading exactly the sort of drivel that keeps people away from poetry. His poem "Black Overcoat One-Way People," about how men and women who work in offices downtown are conformists ("Time wasters... the paper-faced horde... most people you pass on the street have nothing to do with the truth... man has become what man is never meant to be..."), is the kind of self-entitled Henry Rollins fuck-the-system bullshit that automatically makes everyone tired of angry young men and their viciously thin poetry. And his second-place finish—over Elizabeth Austen!—means his dreadful work has an implicit endorsement from the city.
These two Seattle programs, which are intended to bring poetry to the people, are conceptually flawed. Poetry, by its very definition, is a difficult thing to write and to comprehend. You're not intended to whistle through a book of poetry as though it were a paperback mystery novel; you're supposed to take your time with it. Both the Poetry on Buses and Poet Populist programs are founded in a noble idea: Everyone in this city would be a little bit improved by having regular contact with poetry.
That's only true if the work is good. The money for both of Seattle's poetry programs would be much better spent by actually distributing good poetry throughout the city. Imagine metal plaques at bus stops and on the backs of seats on public transit with full-length poems by Nufer and Finneyfrock and Austen—or by better-known Seattle poets, like Heather McHugh and Sherman Alexie—inscribed on them. Imagine the city buying ad space in local publications to publish poems written by the dozens of residents of Seattle who are actively producing good work.
Redmond, in his introduction to the reading, said, "Our artists should be beholden to their audiences." That is not true. We are all of us—artists and audiences alike—beholden to good work. Nobody wins when your goal is to simply support poetry as a medium. The point of any city program shouldn't be to hold a popularity contest or celebrate mediocrity simply because it exists. The idea should be to hold up the best Seattle has to offer and let us all admire it, let us step back and say, "How about that?"