Editorial: Archipelagos and MFAs by Robert Archambeau
In the gratifyingly large stack of correspondence generated by the first issue of Samizdat was the following letter, worth printing not only because it was written by a poet and editor of distinction, but because it addresses a number of important issues. The letter reads, in part:
What does this word mean when there are no ‘samizdat’ conditions?…With Sulfur ready to cease in 2000 I worry about vitality in the literary magazine world.
I deal with poetry publishing in From Scratch, not as manifesto, but as absolute hilarity, the only way I know to engage it without screaming in rage.
Shapiro is wrong: there are no longer two or even four camps. More like an archipelago of sites. The problematic core is the degree granting programs.
Eshleman refers to a passage from Alan Shapiro’s introduction to James McMichael’s The World at Large that I quoted in Samizdat #1, in which Shapiro says that the debate about American poetry divides into two camps, “one based in the lyric of subjective life, the other in the skepticism of the intellect.” While I still think Shapiro is right about the way American poetry tends to be discussed, Eshleman makes exactly the right point: we don’t have a center and a margin so much as we have an archipelago of islands, albeit one where some islands are much larger and more visible than others.
The current issue doesn’t directly address any of the questions raised by the archipelago theory (what does this situation mean for poetry’s audience? can there be a meaningful dialogue between different poetries?), but Masha Zavialova’s essay on last fall’s poetry festivals in Moscow and St. Petersburg shows us that stylistic diversity and the social fragmentation of poetry are not parochial issues relevant only within our own borders. Russian poetry has often been characterized in terms of a binary opposition between Moscow, (seen as the home of sophisticated, avant-garde work) and St. Petersburg, (seen as the bedrock of poetic traditionalism). Zavialova’s essay reveals that the Russian scene has become as diverse as the American archipelago, with poets working in idioms that range across the full spectrum, from traditional form to the poetics of zaum.
As to Eshleman’s point about the degree-granting programs making up the “problematic core” of the current poetry scene, I don’t suppose anyone who has witnessed the back-slapping, glad-handing and hail-fellow-well-met atmosphere of an AWP convention can really argue with this. And the quasi-confessional, free verse lyric known as the workshop poem remains an all too common sight, written and published again and again by writing school students and alumni.
I believe the contents of the current issue show that writing programs need not be breeding grounds of mediocrity, although I think that this issue also makes it clear that such programs are most effective when they are least typical. Each of the poets published in the current issue is associated (as either a graduate or a teacher) with one of two writing programs, those at the University of Illinois–Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Michael Anania is the principle professor of poetry at UIC, and directed the work done there by UIC graduates Michael Barrett, Orlando Ricardo Menes, and Catherine Kasper. John Matthias plays a similar role at Notre Dame, where he supervised the work of graduates Jeffrey Roessner and Joe Frances Doerr (as well as that of this editor).
All of these poets are far more conscious of mythopoesis, history, intertextual play, and the possibilities of linguistic adventure than the writers of workshop poetry, and the programs they are associated with stress a much more scholarly program of literary study than is typical (UIC offers a Ph.D. rather than an M.F.A. in creative writing, most of Notre Dame’s recent M.F.A. graduates in poetry have studied concurrently for doctorates in literature). I do not think this is merely coincidental. In the murky Sargasso Sea of writing programs these universities seem to me to be bright islands of literacy and linguistic energy.
Finally, what does “Samizdat” mean when there are no samizdat conditions? The Russian word translates literally as “self-published,” an appropriate title, I hope, for a broadsheet that neither seeks nor accepts institutional support.