Reviews: 2011 Poets Forum

The Academy of American Poets Present the 2011 Poets Forum
By Keith Gaboury

The Academy of American Poets presented the 2011 Poet’s Forum in New York City. On October 21st, the first panel of the day was titled “Vision & Innovation in Contemporary Poetry” with poets Cathy Park Hong, Ilya Kaminsky, and Evie Shockley. Shockley explained her definition of innovative poetry. It’s a deceivingly simple question. Once I contemplated in-an depth manner, I quickly realized how many intricate facets are involved.

When Shockley explained that poetry is constantly re-defining itself to what exactly fits within the genre, I immediately thought of prose poetry. When one considers the long and diverse history of poetry, this subgenre is still incredibly new and raw. It’s a product of the 19th and 20th centuries with Charles Baudelaire and Russell Edson standing as godfathers for their own respectful periods. It is a reaction against the belief that poetry written in form (sonnet, villanelle, etc.) places the poet in a straitjacket through contrived meter and rhyme. Of course it can be musical as in verse but it can also break into prosaic speech at a moment’s notice. It can be anything it wants to be without the ever-present annoyance of line breaks. Therefore, prose poetry is still a baby in the poetry world. While there are still some holdouts, by now it’s been generally accepted. It certainly helped when Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End won the Pulitzer Prize in the early 1990s. So yes, poetry has been re-defined through innovation once again.

Later on in the discussion, Cathy Park Hong talked about the binary divide between verse and performance poetry. How true. While I love Poetry and Ploughshares for example, the work found in these and many other literary magazines are typically not akin to a performance aspect. They simply deserved to be read and appreciated on the page through specific line breaks and white space. On the other end of the spectrum is slam poetry. This must be spoken with strength and power. If you’ve ever gone to a slam poetry contest, you surely know what I mean.

During the Q&A, I asked Ms. Hong if she believed prose poetry could possibly bridge this chasm. She described the prose poem as an “elastic hybrid animal.” That’s beautiful. Within contemporary poetry, a prose poet is on the cusp of what it means to write within this umbrella genre. While slam and verse poets are both in love with words but remain separated by a large void, an animal remains in the middle. We’ve formally inducted a new member into the poetry kingdom.


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