Dear Dispatches:

Your response to Bill Freind and the larger situation is exhaustive.  You make valid observations.  This war has been going on since the 1980s when I was an MFA student, though now more race-focused.  I am in a strange position vis a vis all this, because I have had a long career founding and directing MFA programs, but they have an alternative thrust, e.g., the bilingual one, and now experimenting with virtual reality, and us teaching colonial and contemporary history alongside technique, as well as discouraging any official style, not having proteges, and my students are almost all working people, and we have a strong intellectual bent, and now political, bent, student-driven.  So, I am not known by many of these official-verse people, and have not benefited in any way from their largesse, rather I am a working stiff, and by temperament I will admit I have general contempt for the narcissism of poets and other writers in their circles, and the longer I’m in this game, I’m more profoundly uninterested in, and not envious of, their many prizes and sometimes sinecures.  I simply find them intellectually boring, and often stylistically humdrum and generic, though not all of them.  It’s not a monolith.  My relative indifference has had great advantages for me in terms of my own writing.

But I do wonder how important these wars are and am skeptical of ad hominem discourse.  Few people read poetry, so really it seems less about the writing and more about the material benefits around it.  Do they often even read each other’s work?  In our program we teach literary citizenship, which means what kind of republic of letters do you want to be in, and what are you going to do about it?

I don’t teach politics directly, but spontaneously, for every good reason, the students themselves are suddenly bursting with politics, and my job is to help them say what they have to say, without me injecting my politics–and they do say it.  Admittedly, I do question their normative statements, and weak and illogical justifications of identity politics, which I have no patience for, as they have become an insufferable cliché.  The real struggle for the soul of America is not happening at AWP.  It’s happening out of doors, and the other often just has to do with personalities and getting the chance to feed at the trough.  But outside of these circles, our country remains chilly and illiterate.

I challenge you to write an article not as focused on specific people, but rather a definition of “official verse culture.”  What are the poetic examples–the work, not the “offenders.”  I honestly don’t know fully what it is, in terms of an aggregation of writing.  Marjorie Perloff introduced me to the Language poets when they first were getting started.  I even hired one of their spawn out of Buffalo later, who down the road participated in a coup to dislodge me from my chair position, with prejudice, but I strangely bear her and her bitchy side no ill will.  I do think some amazing poetry came out of those early, heady days.  Like most such groups, it became a mafia.  So, “radical” style doesn’t preclude human fallibility.

Writing from the self-cultivated (or externally forced) fringe gives you a welcome, yet possibly partial view.  No matter how many Timothy Yus and Claudia Rankines you take out, new ones will come in, and the vogue changes over time.  I feel the conversation ultimately must take place at a deeper level.  Having existed, amazingly, within MFA-ville yet outside all these mafias, partly by stubborn choice, I am strangely unaffected by their doings, though as I said, I do admit contempt toward their self-seeking ways.

Your argument about race stands.  Though the variety there is welcome, it has not changed the paradigm at all, and for me it comes down to individual cases.  One of my favorite books is Tyehimba Jess’smuch-laureled  Olio.  Many poets in America and elsewhere are doing the Lord’s work (Lord Byron?  Lord of the Rings?  Lord and Taylor?), and most of them unsung.  Perhaps my optimistic nature predisposes me to focus more on that than on the gatekeepers, eternally passing the torch of pitch.

— Johnny Payne