Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Poets and Lived Experience

When I was working as a poetry editor for Cimarron Review, I solicited work from Phil Miller and Adrian Louis. Phil Miller, before he retired from college teaching and left the Kansas City area for Pennsylvania, was a local poet who I got to know when I was teaching in Kansas City after finishing my MA. He overcame the problem of not writing regularly and avoided approaching the page without any preconceived ideas by treating the same subject in a whole series of poems. He addresses subjects like martial strife, drunkenness, ghosts, and death. Many of his poems are quite strong. Nationally, Phil Miller is underappreciated and only a few of his books can be found outside of the Kansas City area, such as the chapbook Father’s Day and Branches Snapping, a full-length collection published in 2003.

When I asked Phil to submit poems, he sent me ones that he had written after having had heart surgery. I accepted two of them, “God” and “When I Wake Up.” Mark Cox, the senior editor at the time, disagreed with my choices and opted for a single poem. I still think that the ones I selected are stronger.

I had interviewed Adrian Louis when I was writing a seminar paper in a graduate level history course devoted to Native Americans. A couple of years later, when I asked him to submit poems, I don’t think he remembered talking to me on the phone. He sent about five poems. The three that I selected probably would have been published if Adrian hadn’t tired of the acceptance process, which included submitting a form signed by a notary public, possibly to ensure that the work submitted was one’s own. “To Jim in Sawyer, Minnesota,” “It Has Come to This,” and “To Bill in Minneota, Minnesota” later appeared in his collection Ceremonies of the Damned (1997). Cimarron Review could have counted coup if it had published Adrian Louis.

Mark Cox at that time was requiring that his creative writing students read the anthology New American Poets of the ‘90s. The great majority of the poems in that anthology sound the same. One exception is the work of Adrian Louis. I used to often turn to “Couch Fantasy,” a poem of his that appeared in Fire Water World (1989). Adrian’s voice was iconoclastic and idiosyncratic, a welcome change from the poems that my graduate school professors found so fascinating.

I was also lucky to discover poems by Paul Zimmer when I was flipping through the stack of submissions that I brought up to my office one Friday afternoon. I usually reserved my office hour on Friday to read manuscripts. I later wrote him a personal note, telling him of my acceptances. He was kind enough to write me back, too. I don’t know whether those poems of Zimmer’s, that is, “Saint Wanda,” “Saint Cecil,” and “Saint Lester,” ever appeared in Cimarron Review. I left Oklahoma State soon after, and Lisa Lewis took over as senior editor of the journal. She prided herself on accepting almost nothing and typically only accepted work from friends of hers and other editors as well, usually ones who would repay the favor and accept her poems.

When reading poems, I often find pleasure in a strong sense of place. This sense of place is what drew me to the South Dakota poems of Kathleen Norris in The Middle of the World, a collection of hers that was published in 1981. A sense of place is present as well in the work of Jonathan Holden—the New Jersey of his boyhood and the Kansas of his adulthood. Adrian Louis maintains a sense of place in his poems, too, mostly Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

Having taught composition for nearly twenty years now, I am not enamored with generalizations and abstractions in either essays or poems, unless, of course, when the generalizations have been earned. My concern for the concrete and lived experience surfaces in my preferences for the work of Jonathan Holden, Adrian Louis, Sharon Olds, Phil Miller, and the Vietnam poems of Yusef Komunyakaa and Kevin Bowen. It’s probably this concern for lived experience that separates me from what is currently fashionable.