"This work is unlike any other, in its range of rich, conjuring imagery and its dexterity, its smart voice. Carroll-Hackett doesn’t spare us—but doesn’t save us—she draws a blueprint of power and class with her unflinching pivot: matter-of-fact and tender." —Jan Beatty

Posts tagged ‘Is-poetry-dead?’

First Interstellar Poetry House Concert Rocks! (Or Hey—You See That $20 Bill Over There On The Ground?)

Yesterday we had the first house concert reading in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a blast! 🙂 My wonderful hosts, MeLaina and Frank (and Maddie and LeiLani and Lorenzo 🙂 ) had prepped everything, and I’m so grateful to them for opening their home and their hearts to me and this new adventure.


the beautiful poet and my host MeLaina Ramos

I was sooo nervous. Excited. But nervous. In a way that’s different than before other experiences. I’ve given readings. Not tons and tons, but a respectable number, and I’m always a little pace-y, a little twitchy. But this was different. More.


Maybe because it was so unknown. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blabbing and blogging this idea, this new-again salon, this house concert reading model, and so if it fell apart around me, it was gonna be in a big ol’ public way. 🙂 But yeah, I’ve had that happen before, time and again over my life—set off on some crazy idea I have only to have the timing or the powers that be or the universe slam a big old brick wall down in front of me to run face-first into in the same grand tradition from my childhood of that coyote chasing that roadrunner.

Wile E Coyote hits rock bottom



But I really think a large part of the nervousness was how badly I want this to work, not just for me, but for poetry and poets in general. I don’t want to feel at the mercy of someone or something else when it comes to controlling my creative life or defining my success. And in ways that matter to me more than I can express, I don’t want my students to feel that kind of helplessness. I want them to stay excited about the work and the business of being an artist. I want them feel empowered and hopeful about sharing their work with the world.

But to do that, I have to be honest, with myself, and with them, about the state of being a poet these days. And we have to be honest about why we’re doing this in the first place:

I want to be read.


I’ve heard all kinds of reasons artists give for making their art, for living the writer’s life. And I’m not trying in any way to diminish what any writer says he or she wants from the creative life they’re living or making. But I would challenge any writer to deny that at the heart of what we do burns the desire to be read.

And if we want to be read, we have to make art, but we also have to sell art. We have to be business savvy.

business-needs-more-art1We have to learn to be as creative and fearless in the getting-art-out-there part as we are in getting the words on the page.

I tell my students a story I heard years ago, not even sure where I heard it now, about a study done by a psychology department on luck. I would cite the source if I could remember it, but it went something like this: A large group of test subjects were asked if they believed in luck, if they thought they were lucky or not. The group was split between those who did believe in luck, and a smaller break out between whose who didn’t believe they personally were lucky, and those who didn’t believe in luck at all. Belief parameters established, they walked the test subjects through an area in which they had planted ten, twenty, and fifty dollar bills. At a rate of more than eight to one (those are the numbers I remember from my first hearing anyway….), the people who believed they were lucky spotted the planted money.


Where this study actually took place, or when, or whether the numbers are right or not (I can’t even recall the teacher who told it to me), the point, I believe, is how much our perception feeds and manifests our passions into reality. What we call luck, I believe, is something we have way more control over than we generally believe, particularly if we’re willing to take risks and get creative, in both how we define our success and how we pursue it—and more importantly, I think, in how we perceive ourselves.

Yes, I’m an artist. But I also have to be a business person, in the business of promoting my art, both my own individually, and that of others in my field. In my case, that means writers. For me personally, it especially means promoting poetry. Or what many call the Po-Biz.

What is the Po-Biz? It is networking, submitting, editing; revising, getting rejected, submitting again, doing anything you need to do to get your poems out into the hands of the readers.

You know, in journals, online, at conferences. Out there. In the world. In the poetry world.


Which we’ve been told repeatedly is dead.

So maybe it’s time to rethink what this Po-Biz is.

“In a crisis, creativity is more important than ever,” says Jerry Wind, a marketing expert and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Companies fail when they stagnate and become complacent.”

And if we’re gauging on book sales, poetry is arguably in crisis. Maybe it’s time to pay a little more attention to Biz part of all this.

Poetry publishers do the best they can on their end, most of them taking on the whole task as a labor of love, putting their own resources and energy into the creation of the very books we as writers covet having with our names on the front. So how are we,  as individual artists, doing our part?


I love what Michael La Ronn says about this in his blog The Business of Poetry,“In the digital age, each of us is responsible for our own destiny. A successful career means approaching the industry like an entrepreneur—or a poetrypreneur, if you will. The poetrypreneur lives at the intersection between art and commerce.”

Commerce—that’s the part we don’t want to think, or talk about. But we have to, don’t we?

We live in a culture of commodification, and as much as we sooooo don’t want to think of or talk about our beloved poetry as a commodity, we do, in the face of this crisis, have to think and talk about value.

Not just the intrinsic value we know poetry to have, both for the individual and the culture as a whole, the beauty and solace it can bring to our lives, but value in the commerce-based culture in which we’re creating it.

How are we, as the makers, defining that value? Or are we letting others define it for us, while we stand by and mourn their (whoever they are—publishers, critics…) decisions?

And how do we bring what we do back into a place where it’s valued in our culture?

No one’s writing a never-ending eulogy for indie music; so why poetry? I think it has to do, at least partly, with the message we ourselves are sending.

Musicians don’t play only for other musicians. Nor do painters or photographers or illustrators only promote their work to other visual artists.

terryetherton_galleryshow cdconcert3

Our brothers and sisters in the other areas of the arts are out in the world, not just the arts world, but the world at large. They’re out there getting their hustle on, chasing down commissions and gigs, and more, for the most part—at least way more often than we are–they’re negotiating payment. They expect to be paid. Sure, everyone starts out paying some dues and rolling some freebies for exposure, but as the hard work and the training and the artistic maturity progresses, artists in other disciplines do something that I don’t think we, as poets, always do:

They send a clear message that the work they do has value.

Even buskers throw open the guitar case for monetary donations, sending that same message: If you like what I do, here’s how you express your appreciation for its value.

http://www.ashevillestreetmusic.com/  Carolina Catskins with Washboard Sadie busking Asheville Street Music  Asheville, NC Check out their video here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0mxherHpxo

Carolina Catskins with Washboard Sadie busking Asheville Street Music
Asheville, NC
Check out their video here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0mxherHpxo

One of the best discussions I’ve seen about artists taking responsibility and control of defining the value of what we do is Molly Priesmeyer’s article for the StarTribune from October 2014, its straight-forward title exactly embodying one of the central challenges I think we face: “Artists: Quit Givng Your Work Away For Free.”

She writes, and I agree, that “artists have a real role in how they define the value of their own work. Years ago, there was a magazine here in town that claimed the main “payment” for its writers was prestige and exposure. Meanwhile, the magazine sold the other side of those written “prestige” pages for big ad dollars. Someone was making money, and it certainly wasn’t the writers. The new writers may have longed for the exposure, but by donating work to a for-profit magazine, they only served to devalue the work of all writers everywhere.”

She goes on  to conclude that “by continuing to give it away for virtually free, we only serve to give more value to the things that don’t matter. And we help reinforce the wrongheaded idea that art and creativity are hobbies, not something that has real value to our communities.”

Yes, not everything can be commodified. And yes, we don’t go into poetry for the money. But we do, as writers, complain a lot about the fact that it isn’t valued in the larger market, without, I believe, thinking through and getting really honest about what that word value really means in all its permutations.

The word 'Worth' highlighted in green, under the heading 'Value'

Yesterday’s first poetry house concert embodied all my own personal beliefs of the value of poetry as a whole.

Shared emotional communication of the kind only poetry can do.

Community. Celebration. Conversation. And real-by-gawd-book-buying Readers.

In a perfect Mother’s Day weekend atmosphere of celebration, complete with my host’s beautiful babies scampering through the flowers and snitching peanut butter cookies from the refreshment table, around twenty people came together among the brilliant blaze of azalea and rhododendron to get this crazy tour started.

Some of the guests I knew, former students. Several brought their own moms, an added delight to an already beautiful day. Others were friends of my host, and neighbors, and coworkers, new friends to me now, and new or back-again readers of contemporary poetry.

Each attendee made a donation as they entered MeLaina’s gorgeous Birdhouse back yard, willing and happy they told me over the day, to support a local artist, to have the experience of sharing that time and space together.


We shared food, time, such good talk, and poetry, not just the work I read, but in the one on one conversations after, as I inscribed twenty copies of The Night I Heard Everything, I heard stories of the poetry and poets they remembered from childhood, the memories of middle school teachers who read poetry to their classes.  One beautiful elder told me in the softest voice about the reading of Sonnets From the Portuguese 43 at her wedding sixty years ago.


Leah, a bubbly middle school teacher, told me how she had gone to readings while she was in college, and how much she missed gatherings like the laughter-filled crowd we stood in at that moment. She made me promise that if I had another book come out, I’d come back and do it all again.

Ain’t gonna lie 🙂 If you know what a moosh I am, I couldn’t anyway. I got a little weepy signing some of those books, so grateful for their generosity, so grateful for the moment, so grateful for poetry being in my life.

Fifteen copies of the book accompanied the day’s donations. Another five or so people who came had already bought copies of the book online and brought those copies with them for me to sign.

Twenty new readers 🙂

And I made a couple hundred dollars. Um, on poetry 🙂

And given the questions I was asked about what other poets I love and would suggest, perhaps one of the benefits of this was also a new group of people who before might not have checked out the poetry shelves at a bookstore, but who now just might.

poetry shelves

The readers are out there. But we have to change how we find them and put poetry directly into their hands.

One of the moments that reassured me that this crazy idea just might fly, happened when one of the people there at the reading, a beautiful young woman, one of my alums with a growing body of publications herself, talked to me about maybe beginning to put her own first book together. I told her I’d help her any way I can. She glanced around where we sat at the people laughing and talking, each of them holding a copy of my new book in their hands, and she said, “If I get a book, maybe I could do this kind of reading too?”

I grinned, feeling my heart fill up, and patted her hand, saying, “Yep, sure could, couldn’t you?”

So…how’d the first poetry house concert work out?

After all these years of elbowing my students about that proverbial $20 on the ground they might be missing, of telling them not to be afraid to create their own opportunities, to promote their passions, to dare to trust their art and their hearts, I’d say it all turned out just as wonderful as I had hoped 🙂

Can’t wait for the next one! May 23rd, Raleigh, NC 🙂 Have poetry! Will travel!

BookTour-2-web (1)

Love and good words, y’all ❤



Links to Cool People and Reads Mentioned Here ❤

MeLaina Ramos rockin over at PostPartum Poet: https://postpartumpoet.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/staying-afloat/?fb_action_ids=10100624553890867&fb_action_types=news.publishes&fb_ref=pub-standard





Looking For My Parents (or What To Do About the Washington Post’s Claim That Poetry Is Dead?)

One of my earliest memories is of my mama mopping, in that little single-wide trailer that was my childhood home in North Carolina. The trailer had no carpet, just that late 60’s speckled vinyl flooring, and she mopped every inch of it, keeping it spotless down to each corner, as they say, “clean enough to eat off of.”:-) What’s striking about these recollections, though, is not the mopping itself, although that little tiny woman cleaned those floors with a ferocity that still cracks me up. What I love the most about these mopping-memories is the poetry she recited as she mopped.


Thin curtains lifted by a stray breeze through the rolled out windows, lemon-colored sunshine floating with dust striping a ladder of light across the battered couch and damp linoleum floors, my mama’s pretty little doll-sized bare feet, and that mop. In the sharpest memory, she’s reciting Rudyard Kipling at the top of her lungs 🙂 the British turn of word melding perfectly with her lilting Appalachian accent, the cadence of her recitation keeping perfect time with the swish-swish-swoop of that raggedy string mop:

And it was Din! Din! Din!

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,

By the livin’ Gawd that made you,

You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

gunga din

Poe’s Annabelle Lee, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Whitcomb Riley’s The Raggedy Man, Longfellow’s Paul Revere, Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis, Edgar Guest”s Home:

 Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute; 

Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ living in it.

Edgar Guest showed up, too, when I doubted myself, was afraid to do something, try something new:

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,

There are thousands to prophesy failure,

There are thousands to point out to you one by one,

The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,

Just take off your coat and go to it;

Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing

That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


My daddy, too, reciting Shakespeare and Yeats, the hazel wood and stolen child, and always—always—he and Mama both returning to Whitman, Mama reciting whole long sections from Song of Myself–Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul—Daddy delivering O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells! in his persistent Brooklyn accent. I still have the beaten thin first copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass they gave me as a gift when I was barely ten.

whitman leaves of grass my book

Why does this matter to the book tour I’m building? Because more memories than I can tell you about my parents have them surrounded by books, and neither of my parents were academics. In fact, until I was sixteen, neither of my parents were college educated. Dad had started in seminary in New York, but left without finishing to marry my mama. Mama went to community college to finally get her nursing degree when I was fourteen, proudly finishing her associate’s as a registered nurse when I was sixteen. These two people, far from those insulated academic halls, could, at any given second, recite from memory more poetry, more passages from all the great books, than nearly all of the literati—academics or writers—I’ve met in the more than twenty years I’ve spent in the university community.

I had the privilege for more than a few years to chair the Dos Passos Prize for Literature at the university where I work, an award I’m fond of as its purpose is to recognize under-appreciated writers, particularly those at mid-career. The last time I stood on the stage to open the prize ceremony, I was ecstatic to be introducing the novelist Robert Bausch, one of my favorite writers and people. Bobby is heartbreakingly talented, relentlessly forthright, both in his art and in person, and brilliant—in the same ways my parents were brilliant. I remember wishing time and again that my mama especially could have met Bobby. She would have loved his work, if not his politics 😉 but man, would they have had a blast matching minds and wits!

That night, I looked out over the crowd in the auditorium on Longwood’s campus, seats filled with students, some of them willingly, others there for the promise of extra-credit from their teachers, faculty, present and retired, and a handful of local people who support our small campus events. I studied that crowd, glanced over at where Bobby sat waiting for his introduction, and suddenly, I thought:

Where were my parents?

Not literally. Both my parents had walked on by the night this event took place, but I wondered where the people like my parents were, why they weren’t there with us. My parents couldn’t be the only ones, people who weren’t academics who loved good literature, who loved poetry, right? In fact, I know they weren’t—and aren’t. I have friends, people both older and younger than me, who are not academics, without college degrees, all who read voraciously, who read everything from the canon to comic books, who can hold forth the same way my parents did, reciting and commenting on everything they’ve read with perspective and insight equal to any PhD, and from whom I learn from in every conversation. 

**The young man who works as a highway surveyor, with his dreadlocks and rugged work boots, who grows his own food determined to move toward self-sufficiency, plays guitar to his beloved dog, and can sit with you by a fire he’s built for conversations on everything from conservation theory to recited verses from the I Ching to statistics and details recalled from stacks and stacks of books on Appalachian history.

**The communications engineer whose work specializes in systems associated with nuclear power plants, an absolutely brilliant autodidact, self-taught in more areas than I could even list here, who draws up effortlessly snippets from Thoreau or Dawkins or Ovid or a whole Shakespearean sonnet delivered in his deep Carolina drawl.

**The soldier who has seen and survived four deployments, two to Iraq, two to Afghanistan, who has read literally hundreds of titles across genres since he began his career in the Army almost two decades ago at eighteen.

**The postmaster in the tiny tiny post office where I live, who has not only read as much as my parents, but who—I swear—seems to have read everything ever listed in the NYT and who also reads all of the critical reviews of the novels he loves as well. I make notes while we talk through the window, taking his reading suggestions tucked into my pocket when I leave.

**The woman who works at the gas station where I stop, who always asks what I’m reading as she rings up my purchases, and pulls out a piece of blank receipt paper so she can jot down titles I suggest, especially poetry, so she can take it when she goes once a week to our small local library. She smiles, sighs wistfully, and says. “I love poetry.”

An article in The Washington Post the other day announced yet again that poetry was dead, this time complete with the bar graphs and charts that I guess are supposed to make it inarguable. Yes, I’m another voice that, if I looked around at my own immediate world, would want to disagree. My day to day life is filled with poets, and writers, and readers, and I see events and initiatives and young slam poets and performance artists and other people doing amazing things like the Miami Poetry Festival to fill the world with beautiful words all the time. But….

but I can’t discount the article as much as I might want to, no matter how it hurts my poet’s heart. I can’t disagree because I’m still looking out at those audiences, in bookstores and university auditoriums, and not finding my parents, or my non-academic friends.

My dear-beautiful-sister-in-the-word, the crazy-talented poet Amy Tudor, in a conversation we had about the academic hostage-taking of poetry, astutely called it “the Echo Chamber Effect,” saying, “Being only able to publish in (and write for) academia is doing a lot of damage. People already think poetry’s elitist and “gated,” and that’s not helping.”

So, I guess I’m asking—Did the audience leave poetry? Or did we leave them?

Did we leave our audience—locking ourselves and the art away inside that academic Echo Chamber, away from the very people who taught their children to value it, to love it, like my parents?

And what can we do about it? As a teacher of young writers, in that very same insulated academic arena, this bothers me on more levels than anything having to do with my own work. When that twenty-year old poet flops in the chair in my office, excited to talk about revision of his latest work, more excited to begin planning for grad school applications, what do I tell him about the future of this art we both love so much? I know one teacher who openly discourages students from pursuing graduate work for a number of reasons; by his own admission, though, his main reason is the horrible employment market for academics. I understand that he’s trying to, as he puts it, be realistic with them, but isn’t he just furthering the insulation by assuming the only future is academic?

How do I respond to the parade of students I engage with daily who soooo love the literature, and who soooo want to write? I’ve always been what some would call brutally honest with my students—about revision, about the difficult odds of getting published, about the changing nature of publishing, dashing those romanticized notions they have of the glamorous writer’s life they imagine. They call it my Random-House-Is-Not-Looking-For-You speech. But do I tell them, as my colleague does, to give it up?

The word I’ve found myself using more and more often over the last ten years has been: Adapt.

plan b

More and more of the readership is to be found online, no matter how much we love the smell of a newly printed page. More and more it’s on us to go chase that readership down. More and more we have to imagine and create our own opportunities. More and more it’s on us, as artists, to quit, as another astute friend said to me in a conversation about all of this, “quit taking comfort in our martyrdom,” and take responsibility for our own creative lives, not just the making, not just the writing, but the getting-out-there-and-selling part too. Adapt or die—isn’t that the old adage?

This house-concert book tour is, for right now anyway, my attempt to practice what I preach.

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

But he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one

Wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.~Edgar Guest

Or maybe I’m just hitting the road with this box of books, because I really miss my literature-loving parents. Yeah, maybe that’s it too.


Links to cool people mentioned here ❤

The inimitable Robert Bausch! Check out his latest book: Far As the Eye Can See!   http://www.robertbausch.org/

Some of Any Tudor’s amazing work: http://www.connotationpress.com/a-poetry-congeries-with-john-hoppenthaler/2011/april-2011/812-amy-tudor-poetry

Miami Poetry Festival: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”~Walt Whitman http://www.omiami.org/festival


Next up: Do we dare….talk about value? 

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