Gina Franco, over at her pad, wrote something very useful that got me thinking about the current conversation in what I think is a new and useful light. First I'll share her comment, and then how it relates to the title of this post, and then how it relates to the conversation at hand---and me.
"[...] It's a collective interest rather than a mere interest in holding up the work of a few talented individuals [...]"
Twenty years after I first came into contact with them, AK and RP continue to hold sway in how I view the poetry world. They both embody models I have emulated and worked against, and I don't mean their work (though they've both been models for that, too)
I imagine (I know for sure in the case of one) that they both have very little use for each other's work. And I would also be hard pressed to think of two poets who inhabit the poetry world in a more diametrically opposed way. And yet I learned an immense amount from them both and consider them both mentors. AK is a friend. RP is an acquaintance.
RP, in a letter he wrote to me shortly after he made the move from UC Berkeley to Boston University in the late 80s, admitted that he loved interacting with graduate students whose only focus was reading and writing poetry. Such a notion would make AK puke. He has little use for the kind of mentoring that RP thrives on.
In this sense, then, at the risk of trying to transpose Gina's comment in a simplistic way, one might say that RP embodied more this notion of the "collective interest" while AK was very very picky about who he would give the time of day to and so be more inclined "to hold up the work of a few talented individuals"---if any. AK would be more inclined to try and talk a young poet OUT of pursuing the art.
I have come to this conclusion about AK after knowing him for over twenty years and hours and hours of conversation and one-on-one basketball. And yet, I remember sitting on his sofa in the Haight in San Francisco in, oh, 1985 with a glass of wine and hearing him casually tell me that every single poem I'd mailed him was pretty much useless, but that if I "did my homework" and "took my vitamins" I might write a poem one day. Might. What ensued was the most indelible poetry apprenticeship I've experienced. I never had a workshop with him. I read his poems and would read his work in manuscript in Spain when he sent me new work. On trips home I'd trek over to his house for a visit and usually a game of one-on-one basketball at Corona Heights. In the meantime, I'd send him two or three poems a year, and he'd occasionally like one---in places. Then on one occasion, he liked one enough to pass on to Wendy Lesser at The Threepenny Review, which got rejected, of course. In short, he saw something in me worth encouraging, but in very deliberate doses. This wasn't a free ride. And thanks to him I got to know the work, for example, of Basil Bunting, James Schuyler, Christopher Middleton, Charles Reznikoff, Hilda Morley, and John Tranter, among many others: in the winter of 1989, I house and cat sat for him while he was in New Jersey and so got to dip into his very idionsyncratic library.
RP, on the other hand, was a more conventional mentor. I took a workshop with him, went to his office hours, read his books. I also sent him poems from Spain, and there were times that he'd have something very useful to say when AK had nothing to say. Pinksy introduced me to the work of Frank Bidart, CK Williams, the early Jorie Grahm, James McMichael, Louise Gluck, Alan Williamson, among others.
And yet: neither RP nor AK shared an enthusiasm for Robert Duncan.
For my love of Duncan I have Thom Gunn to thank---the third crucial mentor during my years in Berkeley.
By now, the pattern should be clear: these three mentors were each providing different types of nourishment. Sometimes their mentoring overlapped. More often than not it didn't.
As the years went by, though, I began to notice a few things. I noticed that RP had what I'll call his "chosen." These were poets---male and female---who, for whatever reason, he chose to help in more substantial ways, ways that often led to publication. But here's the thing: the poets he chose to support more fully were, in my view, a mixed bag. Some were very good indeed. Others, in my view, wrote and published work I didn't think much of. In the beginning, when I didn't know any better, I sort of looked upon this practice of RP's with disdain.
Here's how AK set me straight:
There was this one poet, an African American female, whose work AK didn't like (She's awful). I read a book by this poet to see for myself. Although I didn't share AK's view, I wasn't enthusiastic about the work. A while later, this same poet won a General Electric Award for younger poets, which was a big deal. I was playing basketball with AK and made this very dismissive remark about the poet in question winning the GE award. AK surprised me by gently chastising my ungenerous remark and said something like, "Now now, the people on the jury committee felt differently." I didn't know it at the time, but he seemed to be implicitlyly saying: "Just because I don't like someone's work, that doesn't mean other people won't find something in it of value."
Important poetry lesson number 1: There is this thing called taste and subjectivity. What one person---August Kleinzahler, Robert Pinsky, me---may think as "strong" work, another poet---Thom Gunn, Robert Pinksy, me---may not. This comes with the territory.
As the years passed and I continued to more or less observe how RP promoted (blurbed), perhaps even sat on juries or made phone calls (Many of his "chosen" got published with University of Chicago and/or won Whiting Awards), I began to see RP in a new light. His particular brand of generosity ceased to bother me. On the contrary: I began to view his generosity as a model I might emulate one day. I began to think this, knowing full well that AK would probably snicker at such a path, but not begrudge my decision to go my own way.
In fact, I began to observe how AK, whenever I visited him, usually had nothing good to say about anyone's work. And yet, he continued to encourage me. The years passed. I founded Momotombo Press in 2001 while at UC Davis. I came to Notre Dame to the Institute for Latino Studies and the rest, as they say, is history.
But Gina's comment made me realize that Robert Pinsky and August Kleinzahler had in fact been two possible role models if I were ever in a position to possibly make a difference in the lives of other poets. As I look back on the work I've done these last few years, it's clear that---consciously or not---I guess perhaps I have emulated (on a much more modest scale of course) Robert Pinksy. And I decided not to emulate August Kleinzahler.
Important poetry lesson number 2: Different strokes for different folks. It's not in my nature to be like August Kleinzahler. Do I begrudge him for being something of a crank. Not at all. He's writing and publishing great poetry and mentoring generations of poets with his work.
Do I begrudge Robert Pinksy for promoting and helping a few poets whose work I don't particularly like? Not at all. Poetry is too personal and too idiosyncratic and too vibrant and too various an art to think that a poet he has promoted must not be "good" or "strong" because I think so.
Does this mean that I am going to champion a poet whose work I honestly believe has nothing to offer? Of course not. Does this mean that I admire with equal vigor all the poets whose work I want to support? Of course not. If there is one result of my years in Berkeley and the San Francisco/Bay Area, it is that my tastes in poetry are very ecclectic. Is this my crime, perhaps?
Example: I love D.A. Powell's work. I have two very close poet/friends who don't. I've met D.A. Powell and invited him once to read at Notre Dame. When I read out in San Francisco a few years ago, he came to my reading, and he, Scott Inguito and I went out for drinks afterwards.
My two poet friends who don't like his work would never equate that scenario with: "He tends to focus more on connections than strong work." What does that mean, exactly? This is related to the vision I hold for Latino poetry which Gina, I think, articulates: that Latino poetry is rich and various and has a gradation of intensities. And within these gradations, people are going to have their preferences. This is part of being human, and it is part of engaging with art.
How boring our poetry would be if we all had to only support the work that one individual deemed "good" or "strong".
I received an e-mail from a Latino/a poet who confided in me that he/she disliked a book by a poet on the list I posted yesterday. If that poet is reading this, I'd like that poet to consider writing a thoughtful review of this book outlining why he/she thinks it falls short.
Finally, and with this I'll close: I want to thank, honestly, the individual who made the comment that got this conversation going. The comment in question led to Gina's comment, which led to this reflection---which has led me to reaffirm what I do and what I have done, among them: creating the Prize that resulted in this poet's first book getting into print.