Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Museum of American Poetics: An Appreciation

Re-printed from Home Planet News

I came upon the Museum of American Poetics, an e-village of many mansions celebrating Beat-influenced culture—with poems, stories, memoirs, reviews, videos, films, audio, art collections and more under one website—through the recommendation of another writer. In December of 2011, I interviewed visual poet/fiction writer/jazz bassist Vernon Frazer for Giant Steps Press Blog. In 2004 Frazer had gone to China to read from his essay, “Extending the Age of Spontaneity to a New Era: Post-Beat Poets in America,” which appeared in Selected Poems of Post-Beat Poets (Shanghai: People’s Publishing House, Horizon Media Co., Ltd., 2008), an anthology he edited for Chinese readers with translations by Professor Zhang Ziqing.  It turns out that Boulder poet/scholar Jim Cohn had also been in touch with Ziqing on an appreciation of the beat legacy in China. So Frazer suggested I read Cohn’s essay, “Postbeat Poets.”

Cohn’s wide, majestic sweep of the myriad influences of the Beat Generation east and west, high culture and low, then and now, oral and writ, re-connected me most powerfully to my own tradition. I returned again and again to the points of contact Cohn had mapped out in what he called the New Demotics of postbeat poetics. Quoting Randy Roark’s responses to Ginsberg’s “Eight Pillars of Poetics” and Steve Silberman’s interview on the centrality of meditation in the Naropa poets, Cohn also included a compendium of postbeat literary sources and revealed to me a living lineage of poetic inspiration that went back to Whitman and embraced compassion and insight as the modes of poetic discourse. In short, his essay invited me back home.

Where had I been? Perhaps like many who had studied with Allen Ginsberg or who had gone to Naropa University or who celebrated meditation in their work or who blended music and spoken word, I had experienced an unexpected postbeat backlash in the Eighties and Nineties. Indeed there seemed to be few jobs in the po racket for writers advancing the New American Poetics as Don Allen called the post-’45 avant-garde. I found more work in ghostwriting where none of my business clients asked me about my writerly origins. However, I kept scribing, publishing and performing work. One day in 2003, deep in my own sense of isolation, my girlfriend suggested I stop complaining and start reviewing spoken word CDs whose excellence could help bury the cliché of oral poets dominating the band and blowing over the chord changes. So by the time I checked out MAP in January of 2012, I felt that I had “covered the waterfront” of spoken word-music collabs. However, I was not nearly as thorough as I had thought!

Located alongside Cohn’s essay and his follow-up, “A Postbeat Poets Chronology 1962-2010,” in a back garden of the website called “Postbeat Poets Activist Scholarship Project” was a wider range of music and oral poetic experimentation that I knew little about. For a couple of weeks I spent hours every day reading through these eighty essays. The Beat thing was bigger and stranger and more influential and more substantial and more “wild daughter” than I had imagined---and I hadn’t yet clicked on any other mansions. I discovered next the parent mansion to the postbeat appreciations, “Legacy Transmissions,” forty essays which brought me back in touch with the generation of the New American Poetics. 

Cohn had really done his homework. The lines from Pound and Williams resonated through these many practitioners of open forms and spontaneous expression. For the first time, American verse did not look like an either/or event of hip versus square, or this school over that school. Like so much of the vision that undoubtedly made MAP, I saw our lit and music traditions as united under Papa Walt’s Democratic Vista. Working without any academic hierarchical canonization authority complex, Cohn is linking together an entire world of poets invisible at the institutional po’ sites, highlighting common traditions in a collaborative spirit with poets in communities too various to ever be otherwise related.

I looked more closely at what Cohn calls “Exhibits” and I saw the larger picture in his MO. In the international section, “Old Globe Masterminds,” for example, Cohn has compiled work starting with cave paintings and the discovery of writing and then winding through ancient Greece, Rome, China and India and into Arabia and Scandinavia, and finally France, Italy, Spain up to the 19th century AD. His idea of “curating” poetry is an old tradition going back to Chinese-Japanese painting, and in “Diversity Exhibits” guest curators cover topics like Gertrude Stein, troubadours, African-American poetry, Middle Eastern Americans, sexual poets and the like. His “Audio Exhibit” is a marvel of scholarship and “Hydrogen Jukebox” connections. Then there is Napalm Health Spa archives, an online literary journal he started in 1990. All 26 issues are there for the clicking! To see how he erases the separation between business and pleasure, go to a mansion called “Store.” Audacious as its title, the Museum of American Poetics is a global poetry village for the digital age.

By February of 2012, I got the chance to interview Cohn at Giant Steps Press blog on his MAP website, his own work and his postbeat scholarship in books like Bardos and Sutras (2011). He followed that up with an invitation for postbeat essays which we also ran at the blog. When he discovered I had written reviews on jazz, poetry, spoken word and fiction, he invited me to send them to him. He bundled them by group and they never made more sense than in the context he created for them. I felt most humbled to see my praises of excellent work at such an inclusive website, one whose celebration of our literature transcends the small-minded marketing mentality that has characterized the pub industry.

In that interview Cohn told me that he started MAP after he had a dream on April 5, 1997, the night that Allen Ginsberg died at home. At first, this struck me as scary---as if Ginsberg were speaking to him out of time, much like William Blake had done to AG in Harlem. Now that I have spent so much wonderful time at MAP, I have come to see how sensible both his dream and his website are. 

Learn more about Jim Cohn here.

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