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Innovative Northwest Poets

(Written for Rattapallax Magazine feature)

When I was asked by Rattapallax editor Flavia Rocha to curate a selection of West Coast poets, there were several facets of this project that I considered a given. First, I wanted to limit the poets to the Northwest, a region with which I am more familiar than parts south. While Flavia mentioned a desire for recordings of the poets reading their own work, I knew that I would also want to conduct interviews with them, as I had missed participation in that art form, something I had extensive experience with during my 26 years in radio. I also knew that I would be interested in innovative poets. William Carlos Williams dictum “No poetry of distinction without formal invention” applies in the realm that most concerns me. Although the term “innovative” can be interpreted in several ways, I wanted to showcase poets who were not afraid to let a little weirdness into their work, a little bit of the imagination. Negative Capability might be a hackneyed phrase in some circles, but it remains quite accurate and is, I believe, a tremendously critical concept in our ever-present industry-generated-culture. I was given a limit of ten poets and, that’s what I have presented here. My own work was included at the suggestion of the magazine’s editors.

Often the problem with regional features like this is who to leave out. Certainly there are innovators in the region who are well-known, with careers amply documented Charles Potts, Sam Hamill, Judith Roche, David Abel and Nico Vassilakis are among them, not to mention many Canadian poets, who deserve their own feature, especially Lissa Wolsak, whose own long-awaited collection is about to be published by Station Hill. The Subtext Collective, of which Vassilakis was a major part, has been documented as well by Lou Rowan’s magnificent Golden Handcuffs Review and by a Floating Bridge Press feature. So the bulk of the poets presented here are, in the words of Downbeat Magazine, deserving of wider recognition. Some may argue about John Olson and Dan Raphael, but their work is so energetic and original, I included them because I feel they have not yet gotten their due, however that is interpreted.

And from the phantasmagorical flow of Raphael which sends out shoots and tendrils in any direction from which light emanates, to the extraordinary word play and invention of John Olson, to the surprise mind of Emily Kendal Frey, the remarkable dream life of Mary Sherwin (complete with Bush-era-style redactions for spots where recall falls short), and wild juxtapositions, stepping-razor humor and wicked cultural critique of Maged Zaher, you’ll find that there are a couple of basic strategies to allow the imagination into the work of the poets represented here. Collage is one method, as used strikingly by Erin Malone in her Sonnet Destroyed by Crows a poem I first heard read at Seattle Art Museum, and which she discusses in the interview we conducted. Collage is also a strategy employed by Roberta Olson, using a Melville text, among other sources.

Jack Spicer’s notion of the act of composition being a transmission from outer-space may not have resonated completely with other poets represented here, but the concept of the Practice of Outside as Spicer and his friend and colleague Robin Blaser does seem to ring true with many. The source may be Mars, the rich fields left here by previous generations, or even a certain rock’s “thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people” as Chief Seattle once suggested. Dictation or reception has been a strategy in English poetry going back to its beginnings and seems to have proponents in every generation (see Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and Projective Verse II, Robert Duncan’s correspondence with Denise Levertov, her Notes on Organic Form and many of my essays collected in Organic Poetry: North American Field Poetics, among others). So the imagination, from these poets is enabled most often by variations of these two methods. Carletta Carrington Wilson goes as far as to say she’s tapping into someone else’s voice for her two poems featured here and in her interview, her reading of them did have a spooky and powerful otherworldliness to it. If you think Duende is an important attribute for poetry, you’ll find it in this work of hers, in abundance. Language poetry has had its influence as well, especially in the work of Sarah Mangold and the Olsons.

In articulating a West Coast poetics, there is not a lot of common ground aside from the two strategies outlined above, reception/transcription and collage. I feel that, as Kenneth Rexroth pointed out, as artists on the West Coast, we have more in common with Asia than Europe. While there is a Buddhist sensibility reflected in some of the work here, C.E. Putnam especially, perhaps the notion of the serial poem as practiced by Spicer, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Nathaniel Mackey and other legendary West Coast poets is somewhere under the surface, though the submissions by Putnam and Roberta Olson were part of longer pieces that have taken several years to create. The Hua-yen Buddhist notion of interdependent origination would apply to those writing serial poems and even more so to those poets employing a projective or organic method, which does seem to resonate to different degrees with many of the poets represented here. Raphael specifically mentions the Black Mountain School as an early influence and I have written extensively on the Organic.

Poets in the Northwest have so much more access to wilderness than East Coast and Midwest poets. There are volcanoes, glaciers and ancient forests literally in our backyard here. Yet I feel the energy from that landscape has not yet been fully reflected in the work of innovative poets in this region as say, the painters of the Northwest School from half a century ago, Tobey, Rothko and Graves, specifically. That is an interesting aspect to this project and to my own investigation. I asked about this to a few of the poets and certainly the rain/gloominess is a factor. But with Zaher and Mangold especially, the work is not as connected to place as you might imagine. My feeling is that this remains an area where innovative poets, by and large, continue to lag behind the painters and other artists of the region. Examining the work of Salish visual artists such as Susan Point, Marvin Oliver, or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, you see how a vibrant culture and sense of place benefits the artist working in the Northwest. Theirs is a remarkable artistic achievement. Alas, many of the poets in this series had a sense that the local literary culture is just beginning to mature, which may or may not be a bad thing. After all, the culture is here for poets and other artists to shape. The poets presented here are among those at the frontier of the most recent efforts.

1:57P – 8.13.10

by Michael Brophy