Mark Wallace

Q: The In Your Ear and Ruthless Grip reading series have been around for a number of years in DC. What sustains the poetry community there over time, and what do you see as your role in keeping things going? What philosophy do you bring to helping maintain community?

A: I've always been uncomfortable with the word "community" as a way to describe the people gathered around poetry events. It seems too chummy, too in-crowd like to account for the difference, self-interest, and even strife and disagreement that are as much a part of such gatherings as agreement and friendship are. A phrase I've often used, poetry network, highlights more the self-interested and production-oriented elements of such gatherings but seems overdetermined by its business connotations; the world of poetry has its business elements, surely, but it has more than that as well, since it can be a source of real creative sustenance.

That said, I think what has sustained years of poetry series in DC focused around innovative poetry is the interest and commitment of the people who want to be there. Finding such people can be hard, of course, when what is happening goes on more or less completely outside the business and institutional part of the city. For instance, although there are at least five significant graduate programs in literature in the DC area few make any attempt to expose students to anything other than mainstream poetry. Which makes it even more amazing that there are people who have become involved, because they've had to go out on their own, find out what's around and make their own opportunities.

Of course, what also sustains such series is people willing to do the work of running them, and thankfully there have been many such people. During my years in DC, Joe Ross (now moved to San Diego, sadly for us here), Rod Smith, Heather Fuller, Buck Downs, Chris Putnam, Allison Cobb, Jen Coleman, and now Jean Donnelly and Tom Orange have been involved in running reading series not associated with universities and that feature avant garde elements. And such a list doesn't even mention all the other people whose advice and suggestions have been crucial to keeping interest alive, or people like Carolyn Forche, Mark McMorris, Doug Lang, Dan Gutstein and Joan Retallack (who has also now left) who have been able to provide occasional opportunities for innovative poets in the DC area university context.

My role is to work with such people to keep things happening. But I'm also very interested in talking to people who are only starting to understand the world of alternative poetries. If the universities aren't going to tell them, then I feel something of an obligation to do so; luckily the obligation to talk to people about poetry is one I like a lot.

Q: You teach or have taught at a number of DC area universities that don't necessarily support innovative poetries. How does your position as a teacher help/hinder your efforts to sustain and extend innovative poetry practitioners and audiences in DC?

A: In some ways the two roles are pretty separate; at the different English departments where I work, there are a lot of people who don't even know I'm involved in helping to run DC area readings that focus on innovative poetry, nor would they be very interested if they did know. Most of my teaching doesn't involve poetry at all, and the part that does isn't on an advanced level. Every so often I do get to teach a graduate level course in poetry, and my experience there is different, of course. On that level at least some of the students have had training in poetry, although they've never read any contemporary innovative poetry. But at least I can introduce them to some of the questions and problems relative to non-mainstream poetries.

On the other hand, occasionally I have undergraduate students who start coming to readings and getting involved with either my reading series or other aspects of arts in DC, and I'm very pleased about that. However, graduate students from my classes I've often had less success with, because they're often thinking about the centrality of the academic context and don't want to go outside it; they very much want the authority they believe it can confer, so why go off campus for literature at all? And with several significant exceptions, no professor at the universities where I teach has ever come to a reading that I'm running.

Ironically enough, I think the fact that I teach creative writing on the university level sometimes lends legitimacy to the projects I'm involved in outside the university context. I can see people reacting sometimes, "He teaches creative writing at the university, so what's happening here must be legitimate." I say it's ironic, of course, because the link between my not-so-hot university status and the readings I run in DC is more apparent than real. And it's ironic too because I actually greatly distrust the authority-conferring academic environment, especially when it comes to poetry and the arts, so it's odd to see such authority given to me by people who believe in an authority that I don't believe in. Still, that authority becomes real because they believe it's real, even if I protest.

Funny, huh? And something of a problem too, because if there's significance to these events, it's in the poetry and the poets and the people who attend, and not in any kind of institutional status.

Q: But you do note that you occasionally find open-minded students who want to know more. My introduction to innovative poetry came in a similar way -- through a mentor, an individual poet who was willing to open up those avenues for me. Because innovative poetry often doesn't get institutional support, it depends in lots of ways for its continuance on these individual interactions. Yet, not all poets are willing to open the circle in this way and add to the competition for the same slim recognition. You seem to take the opposite tack. Despite the fact that you probably know more than enough poets, you continue to focus on introducing new people to the DC "scene" or "network."

A: Well, maybe I just have a terminal case of social gregariousness; I could take out a want ad saying "Likes to Meet New People." It's not like being socially outgoing is a basic requirement for poets--would it really be surprising to find that a lot of them are more comfortable with books than with strangers?

But I suppose if you're asking me to make a virtue out of my desire to talk about poetry to whoever wants to talk, I would at least go so far as to say that the problem of scene-mongering is real, and turns a lot of would-be poets away from poetry. Certainly there's a model out there that says the way to succeed in the world is to freeze others out, to grab what favors you can from those who have the favors to give. I might argue for an opposite, though equally self-interested approach; the more people you take interest in, the more take interest in you; you know the Beatles line about "the love you take is equal to the love you make"? I make it a habit to try to take interest in other people and in their writing because I believe that creates more potential opportunity for everybody involved, including me. Does it really work that way? I don't know, but until I'm convinced otherwise, acting that way seems to me to make the most sense.

Q: Can you reflect a little on the Fall 1999-Spring 2000 season?

A: What immediately strikes me are the many astonishing differences in the kinds of poets who read in DC in the 99-2000 season. I mean, I don't want to type anybody too much, but there are writers here loosely or closely affiliated with such things as language poetry, New York school poetry, performance poetry, folk poetry, postmodern fiction, visual poetry, MFA writers of personal poetry, and at least several eccentrics who have nothing to do with any of the above.

And then take a look at where people are from: DC, Virginia, New York City, and Philadelphia, of course, but also Seattle, Columbus, L.A., Massachusetts and Canada. And that's just in one season.

My reason for pointing these differences out has to do with the fact that within the university MFA environment, non-mainstream poetry is often understood as homogeneous; we're all language poets (Ron Silliman once defined a language poet as "anybody who's ever been called one") or slam poets or whatever term provides a convenient put-down. I remember the time that NYC poet Leonard Schwartz told me that he'd been called a language poet, and this after publishing many articles entirely (and to my mind, wrongly) critical of language poetry.

So my point is that it's important to understand how many different types of non-mainstream poetry there are and how many different individual approaches in the world exist outside the university MFA environment and publishing network. I mean, that environment often touts the value of the personal voice while greatly restricting the kinds of poems to which students can get access. But there's a wild, anarchic individuality in non-mainstream American poetry that can't be contained by institutional terms; there are all sorts of writers working inside and outside institutions in various ways who are constantly testing the bounds of what's possible in poetry and not giving in either to the marketplace or to mechanisms of institutional advancement, even though they almost all have to work with those contexts in mind, contexts whose pressures are very real.

If you ask me what's significant about this snapshot of the DC scene, I would say it's the way the snapshot highlights all these intense possibilities for creativity, and all these amazing creative minds doing things in ways they're determined to establish for themselves despite powerful pressures to the contrary.

Q: I know exactly what you mean by "wild, anarchic individuality in non-mainstream American poetry" and "amazing creative minds doing things in ways they're determined to establish for themselves." It's kind of a funny picture to think of an actual snapshot of the poets from Ruthless Grip and In Your Ear labeled "wild bunch."

But anyway, I wonder if you'd be interested in talking a little about the physical qualities of the readings -- how the physical location in DC, the public reading spaces, the physical coming together of such a lot of different poets has significance and plays off of one's work.

A: I think it's John Gardner who says somewhere, talking about creative writing classes, that the person in the class who acts most outrageous seldom turns out to be the most interesting writer in the class, or the strangest person; often, he says, the strangest or most original writer in a class can be more concerned with hiding or at least containing their strangeness than in making a display of it. So the question, obviously, is what is meant by "wild" or "individual." Acting crazy on stage while shouting banalities at the audience doesn't seem particularly wild to me, unless, you know, you think David Lee Roth is a rebel because he likes to get drunk, have one-night stands and pass out in bushes. Real poetic wildness, to my mind, involves asking people to reconsider the world and their place in it, maybe even requiring them to, as well as being able to risk your own most cherished assumptions.

Regarding what you say about the physical space of the readings, finding an art gallery in an accessible location and that's willing to hold readings on Saturdays or Sundays (when people can come) in a city like DC isn't easy, and we take what we can get and work from there. Besides, the relative smallness of our venues works, I think, to favor a sense of closeness, of people being involved in something, in a way that larger spaces work against. There's nothing like a podium and a microphone to seal a reader off from listeners.

Our readings tend to break down that separation because we're all thrown in together, sometimes packed in, spilling out into the hallway. To some extent, the very concept of comfort implies a certain kind of passivity, of distance and isolation from others. So we have discomfort sometimes, and people crunched into each other, and sometimes we have acoustics that are less than perfect for everybody. But if it's a choice between that and an auditorium, I'd rather bump elbows any day.

Q: Speaking of elbow bumping, poets of quite different stripes end up bumping elbows at many of the DC readings. The audience includes younger poets, poets who've been in DC since the '70s, MFA grads, poets of a lyric narrative bent and more experimental poets. All this means something, I think, in terms of what gives the DC "scene" its energy. (I saw that Carol Mirakove was described as being from the "red hot DC scene" in a Small Press Traffic reading announcement.) How do you think all this, uh, heterogeneity works to create heat?

A: The "red hot DC scene," huh? Well, I guess it's nice to have that sort of public relations buzz on one's side for once, but I'm not sure how much truth there is to it. I'll leave that to others--if people have a good impression of what's going on in DC, great.

But mainly I experience the issue of audience--or, preferably, let's say readers and listeners--as more of a constant problem than as something to toot our own horns about. I worry about it all the time. First, there's the problem of attrition; we don't have a huge crowd in the first place, and we also regularly lose key people because they move, to NYC or wherever. So there's the general struggle of keeping people in the seats at all. It doesn't ruin things when there's a small crowd, but if it happens too much, the energy for readings can deflate. You've got to have what I think of sometimes as a critical mass; enough people around so that even on off-nights, a decent body of informed people shows up.

Of course, speaking about what it means to be "informed" is tricky; people come to the readings with different types of information. So how does one work with this variability in terms of listeners? P. Inman is one of my favorite language poets; his absolute insistence on non-referentiality and the way that plays out across the patterns of his work seems to me very fine. But maybe half of our usual Saturday night audience wouldn't understand a word of what he does, although hopefully they at least get the message that there's something to understand and so might reach out to it.

So, and this is true for all of us, there's a learning element. We're trying to expose some people to things they may not have been exposed to before and we're trying to provide good and surprising poems for people who know the world of poetry because those people need to be challenged too. The balance can be delicate, especially since the goal of the work we present is by no means necessarily to be "accessible." The notion of accessibility implies that there are some things that people automatically understand, and that's what they should be given. But crucial to innovative poetry (although by no means its only goal) and indeed much other poetry is the desire to challenge the idea that understanding is transparent and automatic, that it requires no effort. I remember Dan Gutstein telling me a story about someone who had complained that he "didn't understand poetry," to which Dan's response was to point to a street corner and say, "Yeah, but do you understand that either?"

I have no idea whether this kind of heterogeneity of audience "works." I think the poems we present intrigue some people and drive other people away. But I guess it's worked well enough, at least in the sense that there do seem to be more and more people who decide to come back.