Good Poetry Is Like Good Food: How to Find It ... and Savor It

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Patrick Jones


This is the fourth in a five-part series about the value of verse in the 21st century. Read the first three installments here, here, and here.

In my last post, I looked at how "flarf" might help provide us with a new model of poetic "accessibility" for the 21st century. I'll now turn to another model: Slow Poetry. Slow Poetry will refer less to any specific group of poets or kind of poem than to a different way of framing reading (read: consumption) practices. In the age of monocultural food production* (+ the age of growing awareness about the need for local, diversified food production)...how can poetry help us transition away from monocultural reading habits?

Slow Poetry; or, The Opposite of Airline Reading

Imagine: you've just gotten a job, and you're required, by this new job, to fly places. In your rush to pack clothes and make sure you have the right-sized toothpaste container, you forget your in-flight entertainment. So you stop in one of the airport stands, and purchase a book. And a banana.

Now, besides the fact that you're emitting a little bit of carbon into the atmosphere on this trip, who cares?

Well, a poet out there cares. You know—every family has one—a brother, or a cousin, or an aunt, or an in-law, or a friend—who is a poet. And you've just insulted them by buying Dan Brown's latest super-best-seller, instead of reading their obscure, high-brow lit. But you don't have time, and you like Dan Brown, and you hate know-it-alls telling you what you should be reading.

Okay. But then, sometimes, you actually want to read those other books. You're interested, maybe, but they're not getting sold at the airport...

It's in this context that poet and critic Dale Smith's provisional term Slow Poetry is useful.** Slow Poetry does not describe a school of poetry or even a kind of poem, but rather a new kind of attention to our reading practices. It takes its cue from the Slow Food movement—which as Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver have eloquently written, is not a matter of swallowing the bitter pill, but rather a restorative, pleasure-driven awakening. Yum.

Small Presses and "Chapbooks"

In the world of literary culture, the small press is probably the closest equivalent to your local farmer's market. (The carrots might look funnier, but, after you're used to it, they taste about five times better.) There are tons of small presses, spread out over the country, and they're often run at either no-profit or a loss. These are labors of love—not engaged in the production of commodities for consumption, but something closer to Lewis Hyde's notion of "the gift." Hand-sewn chapbooks take time to make, the poems in them take time to read, and the poets (most likely) took a lot of time to write them. Their production occurs on a smaller (and less grandiose) scale, and like the Slow Food and broader Slow Culture movement, they want to restore to us a sense of time that our current world system strips away from us. Perhaps they wouldn't want to be in the airports, even if we let them. But they can, like the local food economy (which is growing at a spectacular rate, nationally), become viable alternatives with our support.

Here's a list of some of my favorite small presses, and links to their websites.

Ahsahta Press

Belladonna Books

Edge Books

Fence Books

Flim Forum Press

Flood Editions

Nightboat Books

Palm Press

The Song Cave

Ugly Duckling Presse

Feel free to weigh in on the comments section with more! And check out SPD (Small Press Distribution), where a lot of these (and a whole lot more) can be ordered.


* Patrick Jones writes, in his "Freedragging Manifesto": The arts of industrial civilisation are intrinsically linked to industrial agriculture—that what industrial agriculture does to our bodies (and to the landbase), industrial culture does to our minds. Fairly consistently the resultant pathology is a kind of intellectual diabetes that derives from the over refinement and over processing of materials. Where the seduction of the reader/spectator is paramount, the common understanding is that as long as there is food preserved by synthetics and refrigerants, we can afford to indulge ourselves in transcendental medias.

** Browse, also, Smith's introductory anthology to Slow Poetry here.

This Reading Is Free And Open To The Public

Slow Poetry doesn't, however, mean surrendering your cultural production to a cadre of dedicated, wacky Brooklynites (unless, maybe, you live in Brooklyn). Instead, slow poetry looks to replace elitist modes of production and passive modes of consumption (cultural production controlled by the few) with more active and regional forms of cultural participation. Where does this start? With you.

Go out and discover what's near you.*** Support your local poets—readings are almost always free. Find out where they're happening, attend one (every once in awhile, when you feel like it), or, if you're feeling more ambitious, organize your own house reading (poets love that). Also, and most importantly, don't think of yourself as not a poet. Write things! Read things! Organize a writing night or book group, based on the needs and interests of your community. A crucial component of slow poetry would have to be all of us connecting to our own creative impulses and potential—that's a movement that has many different roles.

To see a list of readings and other poetry resources in your area, check out Poetry.org's National Poetry Map and Event Calendar.

The Prius and The Bicycle (Not Nature Poetry, but Eaarth Poetry)

With Slow Poetry in mind, it might be necessary to say that it's not enough, anymore, for a poem to be "about nature" for it to be properly ecological. Like "accessibility," "nature poetry" is in need of an update. Jonathan Skinner's journal ecopoetics and Brenda Ijima's anthology eco language reader are two resources that do wonders towards helping move this discussion along. The basic argument goes something like this: the "nature poem" of old--insofar as it holds the "natural" and "human" apart as separate categories, repressing social and political context--risks reducing nature to a kind of territory for human epiphany, engaging in a kind ecological orientalism. Says Skinner: "Juliana Spahr, a poet in the Bay Area, put it brilliantly...the nature poet focuses on the bird and the bird's nest, but doesn't turn around to confront the bulldozer ... Ecopoetry expands the frame to include the bulldozer." With climate change deniers becoming increasingly important players on our national stage, this inclusion seems crucial. An ecopoetics would, rather than simply fetishizing the natural world, strive to become accountable-as-human-language to the role we are playing in ecosystems.****

For some examples of what these "ecopoetic" poems might look like (and where they might be found), check out free PDFs of ecopoetics back issues downloadable here, the web magazine How2's ecopoetics feature, Spahr's Gentle Now, Don't Add to the Heartbreak at Tarpaulin Sky, and Patrick Jones' "slow-text mesostic" at Permapoesis.

Which brings us to the Prius. "Slow Poetry" and "Ecopoetics" can't simply be relegated to the leisure sphere; rather, both are about transforming human nature—at the level of politics and at the level of culture—in a century that will pose new, unique challenges (see Bill McKibben's crucial manual, Eaarth). In this sense, the role of poetry is not meek quietist or luxury item, but instigator; not hybrid car (which, though an improvement on the emissions front, makes no challenge to the underlying infrastructure), but bicycle, or human body—as the latter has (throughout history) stood up to political and state apparatuses. As we get more and more fed up with a world of big banks, disposable commodities, and the alienated cultural production that accompany them, maybe poems—dormant in the American cultural imagination for awhile, now—are actually in a good position to become relevant in the 2010's and 2020's. Poetry as inspirer (breath), and beat-setter (rhythm). It won't be the revolution—or slow-moving democratic change—if we can't dance to it.

Weigh in with what you think in the comments section; in the next (and final) section, I'll take you through some of my favorite books of poems.

Next week: Adam discusses his favorite poems.


*** If, on the one hand, Slow Poetry represents the injunction to "act locally," it also represents the other half of that mantra: think globally. Dale Smith writes: "While Slow Poetry investigates the possibilities that exist for local engagements, one goal behind it is to share ideas, arguments, art, etc, cross culturally." See Mark Nowak's journal Cross Cultural Poetics as a home for this kind of thinking.

**** This is endlessly fraught! and thus something the speculative and tactile thinking of a poem can help with.

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Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. More

Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He encourages you to check out 350 Poems, part of 350.org's 2009 day of climate action. More of his writing can be found online at The Beagle, The Bee, And The Sea.
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