On June 19, 2015, Matthew D. Kulisch and I, as BACKWORDS Press, had the pleasure of attending our first Poetry Press Week (PPW) show, evening one of two, for their fourth season. We arrived at Disjecta the nonprofit contemporary art venue, and took our seats in the press & publisher section of the audience.
Poetry Press Week is the brainchild of co-founders Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti, and is produced with the help of Heather Brown (publicity director), and Chelsea Carpenter (events director). Using Fashion Week as a model:
“Poetry Press Week aims to radically change the way poetry is published, publicized, presented, and perceived. In the early days of Fashion Week, members of the press were invited to attend, observe, and comment on the trends they saw emerging season by season. As a result, the fashion industry and those who write about it wield enormous influence, and designs that appear on Fashion Week runways have untold impact at every cultural level. Poetry Press Week now invites the American and international literary press to attend our runway show for poetry (arguably the haute couture of language), either in person or via our live stream, and to comment thoughtfully and critically on what is presented there, to draw interdisciplinary analogies, forecast emerging trends of form, content, and presentation, and situate poetry firmly within the broader popular and cultural conversation.”
Since BACKWORDS Press is also in the business of reinventing the way people encounter poems and prose by printing original work on the backs of t-shirts, we have immense respect for PPW’s ingenious platform to bring poems to the stage.
The evening’s playbill featured: poet Carl Adamshick’s poems performed by two actors who read his pieces like lines from a script on the intimate prop of a couch; poet Zachary Cosby’s poem “a bird flies into a pane of glass again and again and again” was piped through the speakers, read over a moody electronic loop, while a disjointed, flickering video of quickly changing frames and close-ups of faces and branches played on; Tyler Brewington’s piece “I’m Working” was a humorous spliced-together short film where different people read different lines, each recorded separately, unpolished, by their camera-phones; Alicia Jo Rabins’s poem “Fruit Geode” was performed under spotlight by Kate Sanderson Holly who bared her pregnant belly, while an unnamed woman applied jelly and an ultrasound to her stomach, the fetus' heart beat hypnotic and intimately primal; finishing off, Drew Scott Swenhaugen’s piece “distance is the same as time” was an audio and visual experience, that escalated like a traffic jam, until all you could feel was the white noise that comes from a city that moves all at once.
The event attracted, I suspect, mostly writer types, but I can see PPW’s potential in drawing in a wide-range of admirers from other artistic forms including contemporary, visual, and performance. PPW's poets lend their words to artist(s)--sometimes entirely outside of their own medium--for interpretation, offering a diversified poetic experience that crosses artistic audiences beyond the literary community.
PPW’s work is important, and timely.
In the prevailing belief held by poets and the public alike, demonstrated by a recent article grimly titled “Poetry Is Going Extinct, Government Data Show” from the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham reports alarming statistics: “In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Twenty years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.” As poets lose readers, PPW counteracts this erosion in readership by providing a new platform for poets to present their work while helping to attract new audiences.
Poetry’s dipping popularity is a hard truth for those of us that love poetry. It’s no doubt we surround ourselves with like-minded and hopeful voices that tout poetry’s resiliency, such as Kate Angus’s article “Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books”. The article was published in The Millions a year before Ingraham’s Washington Post article. Angus rejects the notion that poetry is dying, and mentions a smattering of incredible work that is happening around the country on behalf of poetry. She still finds, “Although the audience for poetry is vast, despite the very hard and creative work being done by publishers, this wider audience hasn’t yet crossed the bridge from reading poetry into buying poetry books.”
I have a theory on why this is, and it has something to do with the practice of getting poetry and poetry events for free. If your favorite indie publisher and your favorite local poet are giving their books away for free as casually as a bunch of tri-fold pamphlets, then why would you ever pay for it? Exposure for exposure’s sake just erodes value. In a capitalistic society, as much as we don’t want to admit to it, our value systems are inherently tied to what we’re willing to pay for.
Poetry Press Week is addressing these issues by trying to convince society and contemporary culture that the poet, who is a socially sensitive and culturally thoughtful creature, is relevant; to make poets more competitive in a publishing market that pays little attention to their poems or books. PPW joins the ranks of other projects around the nation such as Poetry in Motion, Poem-A-Day, Favorite Poem Project, Poetry Out Loud, among many others, including BACKWORDS Press, who are entering the conversation on behalf of poetry’s relevance by changing the way you experience it. Whether all of these projects are helping to tip the scales is questionable, but what it does prove is that the poetically-inclined are a creative and ingenious bunch.
We refuse to give up.
Collectively, we can change the way poetic work is read, performed, heard, and experienced, by transforming the poem into something that is to be watched.