I once had a brilliant idea for a long poem: an autobiography that was not so much narrative as collage, less monologue than catalog, and “open” enough that – in a sense – it could be anyone’s biography, or better yet, everyone’s. The working title was “Auto-Bio,” and I had scratched out maybe half a dozen pages of this masterpiece when, thanks to the internet, I discovered that Lyn Hejinian had already written it… twenty some years earlier.
Not only had I never read My Life, I had never even heard of Lyn Hejinian. That’s not to be wondered at, really. Prior to everyone and everything being available electronically, it was not only possible but – perhaps – probable that a young writer could go through years of college and graduate school, spend uncountable hours at bookstores, coffee shops, and bars in the company of other writers, and never hear about half of what was going on, or had already gone on, out there in The Divided States of Poetry, regardless of what that other half was.
Departments have their faculties, faculties have their bents, and no reading list – however long – is truly exhaustive. (I sometimes wonder if the 20-somethings earning MFA’s in certain more “avant” programs ever read Billy Collins. Not that they’re missing much. Just curious.) The program I attended from ’91 to ’95 could be called traditional. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it was time well spent. But my desire to “make it new” often struggled against a felt need to make it fit, and I left with a manuscript that – while partly published – was schizophrenic at best.
I left the country.
Few things will sponge your chalkboard faster than relocating to a country where you can’t read a map. For me that country was Japan, where the street signs might as well have been hieroglyphs, and nearly everything I had assumed about language – and what can and can’t be done with it – went bye-bye. I spent several months filling (their vastly superior) notebooks with false starts and some wide-eyed-gaijin type stuff and learning how to read their menus. Eventually I found my way to the English language section of a large bookstore chain, and that’s where chapter two of my education in American poetry began.
I was surprised at how large the selection of American poetry and prose about poetry was. I was even more surprised to find I didn’t recognize even half of the writers represented. Who the hell is Hank Lazer? Marjorie Perloff? Charles Bernstein? Another sponge to the chalkboard: what part of your country’s literature another country puts on its shelves. I walked out with Lazer’s Opposing Poetries, Bernstein’s A Poetics, and a copy of a journal called boundary 2, in which someone named David Antin called T.S. Eliot’s work “the snobbery of a butler.”
I didn’t know you could print that.
In the interest of keeping this introduction short, I began writing poems I actually liked (and that had not already been written by Lyn Hejinian), returned home, and the rest is briefly summarized on the About page. This blog, in part, commences Chapter 3. Feel free to comment, and thanks for reading.