Poetry & Community

I was reading the editorial by Dorothea Lasky over at The Millions and although it starts off about the idea of “projects” in poetry, toward the end she talks about community, and it got me thinking about my own definitions of “community” and alternately: “scene.” As a child I spent many years in an ashram, and as a teenager I was very involved in various hardcore, activist and anarcho-punk scenes/communities. As an adult, I have valued the notion of community in poetry and I strive to cultivate that with Black Ocean. Given my personal history and passion for community, it’s probably high-time I defined it for myself. By that same token: as a figurehead in the Black Ocean community and as someone who hopes to contribute to the poetry community at large, I thought it incumbent on me to share these thoughts with the authors, editors and readers I work with and depend upon on a daily basis.

While I don’t intend this to be a response to Lasky, I think it’s important to mention that the real prompt for this meditation began with her query about the difference between community and scene. This struck a chord with me instantly, and as I’ve sat with it I realized it’s because I have existed in both scenes and communities that have used those exact words to define themselves, and my experiences within those respective social systems has been very different. At the same time, I don’t think these systems are mutually exclusive and there is undoubtedly overlap between scene and community, as communities exist within a larger scene. But here I’m getting ahead of myself...

I see a scene as a subculture of people connected to each other through a mutual interest, which may or may not involve a proscribed set of actions and code of conduct. This interest could be aesthetic (as in a poetry scene or a punk scene), and it could also be ideological (as in a religious or political scene)—and no doubt ideology and aesthetics also often mirror each other. Although they may share certain interests or beliefs, the people within a scene do not necessarily share common goals. We like the aspects of the scene we’re in, and within it we work towards our own individual ends. Because of this, a scene contains both negative and positive potential. Individuals within a scene are not working together; they are working for themselves. While this is not inherently bad, it entails a certain attitude of self-absorption—whether explicit or implied. Being in a scene is “cool,” and that coolness is granted by an aloof manner towards one’s peers and society as whole.

A community on the other hand, is a group of people sharing a common goal which is not necessarily aesthetic or even ideological (though, perhaps tangentially so). A community of people can come from a diversity of aesthetic and ideological positions, but their unified goal is to uplift the community itself, along with all its members. This can be achieved through communication, mutual support and even cooperative living. The idea of the community is that together we are moving toward some unnamed improvement, sometimes qualified only by a simple sense of fulfillment. Whatever form this communal fulfillment takes obviates (or at least mitigates) the desire for individual achievement; at the very least it supersedes it to some degree. In a word: sacrifice.

Now, I don’t intend to paint a stark picture of “scene” while making “community” seem all rosy and dew-eyed. Just as there are positive trends within a scene there are also necessary moments of ugliness in a community. It is not necessarily the means which differentiates the two, but the desired end results.

To bring this back to poetry...

At the end of her editorial, Lasky took issue with the cavalier use of the word “community” in regards to poetry. While I agree with her that the term is overused to the point of virtual impotency (to borrow from her example: a listserve is not a de facto community), I do believe it is possible for a group of people within a scene to act as a community without the proximal opportunities that cooperative (or even regional) living provides. In fact, working within the loose definitions I outlined above, I have experienced it firsthand, and on multiple levels. I have a tight-knit group of poets and writers who I turn to, almost daily, for moral and emotional support. These are friends. On a national level, I have met numerous community-minded individuals who I believe are working towards a greater, collective betterment of the poetry scene (Matthew Zapruder and Brandon Shimoda of Wave Books; Clayton Banes of Small Press Distribution; Shanna Compton of Soft Skull and the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative, Matthew & Katie Henriksen of Cannibal / Typo; Matvei Yankelvich of Ugly Duckling Presse; the list goes on and on...). In fact, I was probably initially exposed to the work of two Black Ocean authors, Zachary Schomburg and Johannes Goransson, in-part through the respective work they’ve done with Octopus Magazine and Action, Yes for the greater discussion of poetry.

In short: I see many people working in community-minded ways, of varying scale. In retrospect, this is probably what sparked the drama with Michael Dickman on this blog a few weeks ago. My issue with him and his brother, Matthew Dickman, was that by all reports (from others but more importantly in their own words in interviews), they come across as scenesters—two guys who are operating within a scene for themselves, totally absorbed in their individual ascent; pulling themselves upwards with both hands. For this reason I know more than a few people who found it ironic that they were asked to be on a panel about "poetry & community" at Sarah Lawrence this past weekend. At the same time I am not pretending they are villains (I like villains). No doubt we are all guilty of acting out of a strict self-interest at one time or another (even as I type this I’ve neglected what I consider my communal duties this month in order to focus on my own NaPoMo poem-a-day agenda). However, I believe we are most successful when we are striking a balance between our personal goals and the encouragement of our peers. While we cannot become martyrs for our communities, we must also ‘be the change we want to see.’ We must operate on a level of respect and wisdom that allows us to act on behalf of our communities, regardless of inevitable doubts and fears, while being able to admit when we make mistakes.

Although I recognize the altruistic tones in what I’m saying, I’d like to stress I’m not advocating an inherently wholesome approach. Sacrifice does not mean passivity; rather it requires an active ability to let go of something we value in order to achieve something else of even greater importance. Additionally this may (and often does) require us to act aggressively and without guilt or remorse. This is what is required of members in a community; whether we give up our comfort, our financial security, our personal time or even our personal safety for the common advancement of the group we hold with regard outside of ourselves. I’m not so disillusioned to think that everyone within my community acts with this in mind—nor am I saying that it is even possible to feel fulfilled by acting this way without a kind of existential narcissism. What I am saying is that communities are real, regardless of spatial distance, and that when we discover ways to help others while helping ourselves we are discovering new ways to create and maintain the communities we live in.