Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The State of Poetry Lists in 2016, with Special Reference to Small Presses

This is not a “best of” list since the very idea of ranking books fetishizes the new and builds obnoxious hierarchies; it also reinforces spurious notions of critical omniscience. Most year-end Best Of lists ignore the vibrant word of small press poetry publishing. They’re less about critical acumen than the dominant market forces of Big Publishing and the ways in which the circulation of the eternal same flourishes thanks to the alliance between publishers and the press.

It depresses me when I read a review of the same middlebrow lackluster poetry book (Sharon Olds, anyone? Merwin? Rita Dove? ) over and over and over in The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NYRB, LRB, etc., when there's no mention of two of our greatest poets: Peter Gizzi and Michael Palmer, each of whom brought out works of astonishing beauty this year. This is why a review publication like Rain Taxi is invaluable for its devoted attention to the small press scene, where so much vital literature is being published. The public relations machine of Big Pub exists to produce a monotonous conformity of taste and a banal chorus of critical yea-sayers who seem incapable of or unwilling to consider books not published by the major houses.

So “best” poetry is perhaps a meaningless category, finally, when so many reviewers, from David Orr to Dan Chaisson, seem to write in an echo chamber. The fact is, as Steph Burt noted a few years back, there’s too much poetry appearing in any given year for any critic to take in and far too little of it that comes my way. I wish, for instance, I’d read Daniel Borzutsky or Monica Youn, or David Lau, or Ocean Vuoung, or Don Mee Choi – but my time and money are limited. I can’t pretend to have been aware of more than a very small percentage of the work circulating through this year’s poetry sphere. This list simply represents books (many of them, I confess, sent to me by the authors themselves) which I found brilliant; works that challenged the boundaries of what poetry can be. And nearly all of them were published in the invisible world of the small press.

Probably the most diverse and intriguing list I've so seen far appeared in Entropy Mag. It's populated with poets whose work I admire and a great many younger ones I'd like to check out. Almost all of them were published by small presses so at least someone out there is paying attention.

N.B. Of the 21 published titles here, only two appeared from major houses -- FSG and Norton -- (unless you count New Directions, which makes three). Three of the publishers have brought out books of my own: Pressed Wafer, Spuyten Duyvil, and Talisman, though that didn’t influence my choice in any way.

Lists, as Don DeLillo once remarked, are signs of "cultural hysteria." He is not wrong. Nevertheless, they're rather fun to write.

The Ratio of Reason to Magic | Norman Finkelstein | Dos Madres Press
Archeophonics | Peter Gizzi | Wesleyan UP
Of Beings Alone (complete) | Lissa Wolsak | Tinfish
Day for Night | Richard Deming | Shearsman
Falling Awake | Alice Oswald | Norton
Poesis | Rachel Blau DuPlessis | Textile Series
Lay Ghost | Nathaniel Mackey | Black Ocean
The Laughter of the Sphinx | Michael Palmer | New Directions
Poems Hidden in Plain Sight | Hank Lazer | PURH (France)
Exile’s Recital | Andrew Mossin | Spuyten Duyvil
Spool | Matthew Cooperman | Parlor Press
The Sampo | Peter O’Leary | The Culture Society
Ask Anyone | Ruth Lepson | Pressed Wafer
Memory Cards: Thomas Traherne Series | Susan M. Schultz | Talisman House
I Rode with the Cossacks | Bill Corbett | Granary Books
Fugue Meadow | Keith Jones | Ricochet
Self-Portrait as Joseph Cornell | Ken Taylor | Pressed Wafer
Dianoia | Michael Heller | Nightboat Books
Sowing the Wind | Ed Foster | Marsh Hawk Press
House of Lords and Commons | Ishion Hutchinson | FSG
Gap Gardening | Rosmarie Waldrop | New Directions
You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior | Carolina Ebeid | Noemi
Ravenna Diagram | Henry Gould | Lulu Press
Song of the Systole | Matthew Gagnon (ms.)