OCD Crow has been writing and publishing and touring and running reading series and doing reviews and so forth in the Canadian poetry world for over 15 years now. In that time, she has witnessed certain stagnations, lacunas,
and problems with how we create and disseminate poems in this country. Here is a list (o how she loves lists) of a range of issues to consider altering if poetry is to attain a renewed level of aliveness:
1/Poets need to break free of just touring for a book. Not that the book shouldn’t be paramount, but as process, not product. If the poet enjoys performing, but doesn’t want to undertake slams or otherwise meld into the spoken word scene, there are dismal options for obtaining grants to tour, with or without accompanying musicians. Poetry is an oral art form first and this should be recognized without devaluing the sensory presence of the poem on the page. Ideal: to recite or sing from whatever I’ve written/published without the pressure of trying to sell one particular book for a limited time.
2/Poets need to stop doing university writing degrees as a singular mode of professionalizing their existence. By all means, get degrees. But a much better foundation for a poet is almost anything else than a creative writing degree. These programs emphasize writing to the exclusion of scholarship, reading at depth and cross-disciplinarity, Multi-media work is also not part of the curriculum nor, rarely, a broad study of form. Ironically, many of the poets hired by these departments don’t possess these degrees; some not even high school diplomas. What should matter is the writing, the commitment to the life of being a poet. This path can and should often be dark, not lit by the fluorescence of incessant workshopping of prompts and other writing exercises. Ideal: poets come from a wide range of professions, trades and otherwise. There is no system in place where poets feel compelled to become teachers to the exclusion of other options because the university is the only place we imagine we will be understood or accepted. Often not the case anyway.
3/ Poets should not have to be subjected to awful open mics at every reading series. The democratization of poetry, an illusion anyway as most poetry readers are not “the people,” has gone so far that there rarely seems to be any distinction made between Bobby who has just started writing poetry and is sharing his feelings in poor verse and George who has been writing for fifty years and has countless books published. Putting the open mic first is frankly insulting to the feature readers. At least if the open mic is last or interpersed throughout the evening then the open mic readers, who should be interested in learning from poets who have been creating the art for a much longer time or are more talented, can hear them first. Then the features can choose to leave if they so desire. They have paid their dues and supporting those who are just starting out, who are not their students, as is so often the case, should be optional. Ideal: open mics are limited to a few readers each reading 3 minutes and the audience or host should be invited to comment on the poems with a view to improving their abilities. Or else the open mics take place separately from the feature readings. And open mic readers buy books and respond to the features!
4/Poets should not be assessed on whether they produce a book each year or a book every twenty years. Instead their work should be critiqued for the independent creation it is. A book every other year can be honed and full of variety; a book each decade could be slip-shod and dull. Everyone’s brain processes the world differently and has diverse sources to draw from. Some brains work quickly and feed on multiple stimuli; others are slower or are involved in professions that prevent them from writing regularly or have only one or two muses that stimulate their desire to write. Ideal: Every book is received not as a product but as a creation and the author is not viewed as lesser or excessive because capable of making poems at a more bountiful rate. Critics and readers look at the art first. And not, furthermore, value the book based on whether or not it won an award, as such processes are subjective and minimal in their power to assess the importance of the majority of the books of poetry published in Canada.
5/Poets need critics! Real critics. And that doesn’t mean lambasters or denigrators. Neither does it mean coddlers or sap-suckers. Less and less room is given to poetry in our magazines and nearly none in our newspapers. The reviews that are printed are mainly “overviews” or glorified blurbs. There is much fear of expressing one’s studied opinion of poetry. Ideal: Every poet reviews, whether on their blog or in a magazine. All periodicals, to receive funding, must print reviews. Reviews are works of engaged art in and of themselves with their aim to introduce the book by wrangling with it at a non-superficial level, placing it in its history, influences, resonances, identifying its prosody and just generally, respecting the book and the poet in the process.
6/Poets buy books. No one has so little an income that they can’t purchase books of poems. I have never understood how poets can even write and publish poetry if they don’t read and purchase it. Sure, get books from the library. But not exclusively. If every poet in this country bought books of poems we would actually have a thriving scene. Bookstores would stock poetry. Even chapbooks if this was seen as a viable source. Ideal: each poet sets aside annual funds to purchase books of poems. And maybe even to produce their own chapbooks and distribute them. We can’t complain the public doesn’t want to read and buy poetry when we poets seem to not want to!
7/Poets need publisher accountability. There are so many things I could say on this topic and I may in a future volume of essays. Essentially it boils down to – no publishers should get block grants in this country unless they can prove that they provide contracts, they support author tours and most importantly, they distribute the books they publish. There are too many publishers receiving funds without undertaking any of the paperwork, without possessing any of the passion. Thus, they only do the bare minimum to ensure continued funding and not only poets suffer, but readers, trees and the health of the written word in this vast land. Ideal: No publishers exist in Canada who can’t prove they follow the essential, respectful practices necessary to not only produce books but to value the author and distribute what they have spent years creating. Support is provided to those presses who have proved themselves to truly market their books effectively and far beyond the season of their publication so the book can continue to thrive in the years to come.