The Poetry Market

Walk into any bookstore in the United States and you will find rows upon rows upon rows of shelves dedicated to the various and nuanced genres and subgenres of prose. Along a back wall, there will be perhaps a shelf or two (or in the case of my local Barnes and Noble, half a shelf) dedicated to poetry. You may be able to find a couple of anthologies or the newest work of prolific poets – or famous people attempting to brand themselves as artistic. You may find the complete works of Maya Angelou, a copy of Beowulf, or a coffee table book of poetry from Instagram. You will watch the bookstore patrons stroll curiously by the shelf but not stop. No one is buying the poetry. This is true even in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, a university town with a thriving local bookstore market. The following question is asked almost daily in my graduate department: Why poetry? What can poetry do that other mediums cannot?

From an analytic angle, it seems the answer is not much. According to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, two of the top-ten bestselling books of poetry in 2016 were The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. The fact that books like The Odyssey or Beowulf are bestsellers really reflects the idea that poetry is staid and passé. Even among my more well-read friends, most of them do not buy books of poetry. I decided to ask some of them why they did not seek out poetry. One friend of mine explained her apprehension towards the genre: “While I enjoy poetry, the part of literature that has always moved me the most is story and narrative.” Although poetry has some story elements, she felt that “often the purpose behind poetry is completely different than that of prose.” I recognize that I read more poetry than the average reader; I am literally branded with the language of American poet, Wendell Berry … via a tattoo. But even I at times feel frustration with the poets for binding their meaning in expressive language like a process of rime mummification. In the United States, most people are only exposed to poetry in high school or in university during literature classes; the focus remains heavily on canonized works, such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman. Readers are asked to analyze and discuss the seemingly archaic language, much of which has since fallen into the realm of cliché. For most people, reading poetry is associated with having to do the hard work to interpret it. Poetry demands much from its reader; it is asking us to dwell in a land of metaphor and language and of subtext and sounds, which is not easy to grapple with. Another of my friends noted she did not like poetry, feeling it was dense, perhaps too metaphorical, and often “went over her head.” This perception that poetry is something created for esoteric artistic minds and not for everyday people permeates the potential market.

Additionally, the age of internet has made accessibility to individual works extremely easy. Archives made of html code easily can replace tomes of poetry. If one wants to read “The Day Lady Died” without having the context of the rest of Lunch Poems, it is a singularly easy endeavor. It becomes a matter of whether or not paying 15 dollars for a slim volume of poetry is cost effective, which some did not find it to be, when a free copy of a singular poem is a click away.

That being said, I found that when discussing the value of poetry, the art itself becomes extremely individualized. I would argue that poetry, more than fiction, is intensely personal. Fiction is often an exercise in empathy, while poetry is the act of meditation, recreated word by word. While only one of my friends actually bought poetry, every single one could easily name a poem that they cherished and why they chose that poem. For some, it was nostalgia reflected by poetry from their youth: one spoke of a book of children’s poems handed down from a beloved cousin; another remembered how his father would repeat “If” by Rudyard Kipling as a way to encourage him during adolescence. For others, the poetry that spoke to them reflected their passions and vocations. One friend, a social worker, named a poem using language taken from letters written by sexual assault victims. Another, a historical reenactor and librarian, praised the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A third, who has spent years dedicated to the study of the first and second World Wars, loved “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen, saying “It shows the great divide between an old and new world, the disillusionment of millions that dragged the world into the modern era. Plus, the sound of the poem itself spits out gunfire and artillery shells and immerses you in an extremely emotional way.” Still others loved the language for language’s sake and stood in meditation of its beauty; two friends and myself loved poetry about the grace of nature. Because of this, we recognize that the art stands on its own to each reader, who may draw from it whenever they wish.

So I pose the question again: why poetry? Why would one read, for example, Notes of a Return to the Native Land when one could look at an encyclopedic entry about Aimé Césaire or a long form essay about the colonization and decolonization of Martinique? Because even those who do not actively seek out poetry, poetry still speaks to them and expresses the often inexpressible. In times of wonder or anger, in moments where malicious forces raise or where we are safe and at peace, poetry gives credence to our experiences through artistry. The language lingers in the body and mind, clinging to every cavity that it can, remaining with the reader. One friend pointed out that she seeks out poetry “during bursts of inspiration or times of needed reflection.” Poetry gives us that experience, and as readers, we must be willing to navigate the possibility of medium and seek new poetry.

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Kayla Chenault is an African American who resides in the northern Midwest region of the United States. She was published in childhood starting from age 7. She is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.

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The Black Voice on Being a Public Text

I had the opportunity to attend a reading done by Roxanne Gay for her new memoir, Hunger. She began with this explanation of the book’s origin: “When you are fat, especially when you are fat and black, your body becomes a public text.” It resonated with me, as I was steeped in my own otherness at all times, held up to a harsh light and appraised from every angle through a loupe. The black writer knows that our otherness defines us, and that otherness creates our public text persona. The way we might talk about a new film with friends and strangers alike, the way we might have a roundtable discussion about a classic work of literature or a salient opinion piece, the black body must survive in that space. We are personified in all forms of media, and yet our own selves remain a mystery. It is tenuous place between the realm of being unknown and being constantly seen; a driving force in much of African American literature is the liminality of this running commentary. I would like to examine two poetry texts that really dig into this notion, but I would argue many texts talk about the running commentary of the white imagination placed upon African Americans, works as diverse as Kevin Young’s essay “Blacker than Thou,” the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and even the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The anxieties and pressure of being a public text are found within these texts, but by focusing on Citizen by Claudia Rankine and There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, I hope to illuminate how the African American writer uses their work to reconstruct life underneath this microscope. Read More

Trope or Cliché

Courtesy of Literaryterms.net

Who here knows what a trope is?

How about a cliché?

How about the difference between the two?

Did the last question leave you stumpped? Me too! So I went on a digital spelunking quest into the unknown. I also looked into other vintage sources like a dictonary or two, and do you want to know what I found out? Well… No one really knows, it’s kind of vague.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is a trope? How do you pronounce it [troup]? Heck, I’ve been pronouncing it [troupy] because that’s how I learned it, the thing is, outside of literature university courses, you won’t hear many people speak it out loud, and if they do… case in point. It’s a little like genre, I honestly thought it was pronounced [genier] when I read it in articles until I realized genre was what I’d heard fancy people refer to as belonging to a style, or category = [jánre]
  2. What is a cliché?
  3. Which one is bigger? I ask this because it seems like cliché fits into the great encompassing shadow of the mighty trope. Trope, such a grand word, in the same category as genre, canon and the like. But, cliché just sounds right out bad.

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Opinion: To Hell and Back… the Direction of U.S. Literary Fiction

Courtesy of Worthy of EleganceOriginally I planned to start the article talking about ebooks.  Talking about the Internet.  I was going to quote Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  I was going to say that more people are reading on screens than ever before, and that bloated, antiquated conceptions about “the novel” would have to change to meet the new ways in which we read.  This isn’t that article.  That one is still rattling around in my head somewhere, and I think it would’ve turned out pretty alright in the end.  But that’s not the article I’m writing right now.

This is going to be something else entirely, because, as of this writing, Donald Trump has been President Elect of the United States of America for five days.  In the first 72 hours alone there have been an alarming spike in incidents of hate across the U.S.  Protesters pour into the streets.  The tension is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’m watching at a distance, seeing it all unfold from an ocean away.  It’s got me scared.  It’s got me angry.  And it’s got me—once I finally managed to shut the news and close Facebook and sat down to write this article—thinking about how truly irrelevant literary fiction has become in American culture at large. Read More

Opinion: Black Friday in Brazil… What a Bad Idea

Courtesy of blackfridayworld.comInflated black balloons drift inside shopping venues!  Black signs hang in department store windows! Marketing firms and modeling agencies post Gisele Bündchen hopefuls at traffic lights.  They’ll smile while handing out black fliers announcing grandiose discounts and sales.  The catchphrase is repeated on national TV, in public squares, shopping malls.  Expectations have been nurtured to go through the roof.  Welcome to Black Friday in Brazil!

The scourge of American-branded commercialism reverberates well into the tropics.  Over the past decade it has turned Brazil into Black Friday spectacle.  It started with images from the heartland of unabated consumerism—shoppers of all stripes pitching tents in front of chain stores, staying awake throughout the night, not as a vigil to bring awareness to any social malfeasance, but to stampede into those stores at dawn, pushing, shoving, and brawling their way to discounted merchandise.  It’s as if securing a half-priced cellphone, laced with tungsten, tantalum, and other minerals extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo will halt a seventeen-year-long conflict that has taken the lives of over five million people.  Maybe purchasing a clothing item on sale will magically force U.S. owned companies to improve working conditions in their outsourced sweatshops in India, Indoenisa, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.  That such zeal and vigor is expended on a day of frivolous, erratic shopping is yet another indicator of the bankrupt moral coffers of a society reared to value material possessions more than anything else.

No matter the ironies of a day like Black Friday, the frantic images of a chance to scoop a hot deal proved irresistible in Brazil.  A meaningless hodgepodge of consumerist fervor now drapes over a nation that, in 2013, had to implement Mais Médicos (More Medics), a health care program that imported 4,000 Cuban doctors to work in impoverished and remote areas.

It’s been disappointing, to say the least, to witness the ease with which Black Friday has taken hold in Brazil.  America’s mass consumerist ideals and its media influence abroad are no joke.

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photo_jun-colaJun Cola is a translator based in Brazil, who has translated everything from Marvel Comics to academic papers, travel & tourism magazines to fiction, real estate contracts to poetry, and then some.  Jun is working on bringing Brazilian voices to the world stage.

Opinion: On Slovak Literature

flag_of_slovakia-svgWhen I first moved to the Netherlands I would be cross-examined by my new acquaintances regarding this mysterious, unheard-of and potentially lethal country called Slovakia.  On one of the occasions, after having established the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and explaining that yes, we do have internet over there, and no, we don’t usually torture and/or slaughter tourists as seen in the movie Hostel, I got pinned by another inquiry from my friend Edmond: “Are there any famous Slovak writers?  Is it possible I have read some of them?”  Oh, my.  I don’t even know why I took a second to think about it, since the answers were obviously: “No;” and “hell no;” respectively.

I always feel uneasy when discussing my national literature with foreigners.  We don’t have a Tolstoy, Faulkner or Austen.  We don’t even have an E. L. James.  There are no writers, no artists among the big names of Slovak literature.  Mostly, they were just people of various professions who merely happened to write something from time to time about a cause they cared about; like national liberation, women rights, or how socialism might not be the greatest idea ever.  But aside from that, they were… peasants, I guess.  And I mean it in the best possible salt-of-the-earth, more-than-meets-the-eye way.  Didn’t care for art, fame or money.  Just said what they had to say, when they had something to say.  However, in the past twenty-five years or so, there’s been a shift on the Slovak literary scene. Read More

Opinion: The Age of Simulated Reality

Photo_Virtual realityVideo games appeared as an entertainment medium that caught our attention back in the 80’s.  In our childhood, many of us were fixated on our television screens while Mario jumped through walls and pipes, or while we were trying to shoot a duck with a Nintendo zapper.  Since then, games have evolved to a virtual realm—a simulation of reality.  The child’s play of the past has been transformed into a visual cinematic medium, which offers something more than cinema—interaction.  Video games can be considered as an interactive storyteller.  The question then is: why is this important?

 

There are different answers, but the concept of reality is a keyword here.  The notion of reality has been one of the subjects that preoccupied mankind.  From Aristotle to Hegel, great thinkers of humanity have asked the question “what is real?” and they have struggled to find an answer.  So, the simulation—the replica of reality—has become a subject of interest, sometimes even more appealing than reality itself.  We can think of fiction novels or stories as the first version of reality simulations.  Even just by reading, without any visual stimulus, an alternate form of reality can be experienced.  Our mind creates the images through words.

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Opinion: The Donald Dump

Republicans are running around with their hair on fire trying to figure out how to salvage their very existence as a party with what will surely be an up- and down-ticket disaster in November.  Pundits on both sides of the aisle are breathlessly trying to out-analyze each other, each diving deeper into the polling data and umpteen different ways Trump is destroying the conservative brand.

Donald_TrumpBut what about the damage Donald has done to the TRUMP brand?  After all, that’s all the TRUMP name is at this point ­– a brand. Wherever you see TRUMP plastered 10-feet high on the side of a hotel, casino, resort or airplane (or in smaller print on the logo of a wine bottle, shrink-wrapped steak or worthless “university” diploma), what it usually means is that he has licensed his name to that particular business and has little or no participation in the actual management of said enterprise.

Yes, he won nearly 14 million votes during the primaries on his way to becoming the nominee of the Republican party, but I wonder: How many of those 14 million could afford even one night in a TRUMP HOTEL or one round of golf at a TRUMP RESORT?  How many of them look longingly at a bottle of TRUMP WINE, thinking to themselves “one day I’ll drink that wine from a shiny gold goblet,” only to sigh dejectedly and buy the carton of Annie Green Springs instead? Read More