Carrie Etter on the need to create poetry communities

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Our guest blogger, poet Carrie Etter, started her writing career through communities of poets in her native USA. What does she expect to find on her visit to Scotland?

Over the years, I’ve been a member of a number of poetry communities, but for the sake of space I’ll just talk about my first few. Growing up in Normal, Illinois, I found my first such community when at the local university I took an adult education class, ‘Women Writing Women’s Lives’. I was fifteen and the youngest present by ten years. Eight from the class, including myself, stayed together for several years, continuing to workshop fiction, poetry, and memoir, and giving readings as a group around Illinois; we called ourselves Womanwriter.

As few in the group were avidly pursuing poetry, I think it was that much more important I found another community through the literary magazines I discovered in the university library. I started noticing recurring names and turning directly to poets I particularly liked, and when I began publishing my own poems, I felt increasingly part of a community of the page and periodical and think that’s partly why I have such a great affection for “little” magazines.

Moving to Los Angeles at 19, I found a vast community of poets that roved from reading to reading across the city—indeed, across several counties! Soon I learned that one could go to a reading every night of the week, and to try to bring it all together in those pre-internet days, I founded Out Loud: The Monthly of Los Angeles Area Poetry Events, a newsletter that began with 200 photocopies and myself the only person involved, and ended five years later with 3000 printed copies a month and a volunteer staff of 18. Financially I was barely getting by, but I had the best of times.

In Venice, California, on the western edge of L.A., Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center continues to thrive, and those involved in its full, varied schedule include many I knew twenty years ago. Fortunately Facebook helps me keep in touch with some of them, and I hope someday to return and read there, a homecoming I’ve fantasized about perhaps once too often.

Coming to StAnza for the first time, I’ve been curious about the Scottish poetry community, so I wrote to some Scottish poets I know for insight. Scotland’s answer to Beyond Baroque appears to be the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. As J.L. Williams remarks, “The SPL is an amazing resource in so many ways - the collection, the people who work there, the events they put on.  It's really a hub for poetry in Edinburgh, and feels so vibrant and alive.” Poetry series also provide a useful meeting place as well as the opportunity to hear a mix of local and visiting writers; Poetry At… and Shore Poets in Edinburgh and St Mungo’s Mirrorball in Glasgow were recommended by a number of poets for their welcoming and supportive atmosphere.

Those surveyed pointed out two main weaknesses in the Scottish poetry community. One lies with publishing, in terms of few poetry presses and lack of attention to poetry by Scottish newspapers. As Robert Crawford writes, “Scotland has no big poetry publisher, and the poetry 'infrastructure' of London probably has a scale and range that's not really matched here.” On the matter of range, the second weakness is the lack of support for “other” or “experimental” poetries; there’s no Scottish magazine that publishes it to any extent, no reading series devoted to it. Sadly, one established “experimental” poet felt there was no place for his work in Scotland. I hope, though, that this is beginning to change. Rob A. Mackenzie, organizer of the Poetry At… series, is becoming known for a catholic taste and hosting an interesting range of poets, and I was heartened when StAnza welcomed my giving a talk on American “experimental” poet Barbara Guest.

I am eagerly looking forward to my time at StAnza and am grateful to its organizers for the opportunity to become acquainted firsthand with the Scottish poetry community. I’d be glad for others’ thoughts, in person at the festival and here online, to improve my knowledge and understanding of it.

Carrie's talk on Barbara Guest is at the Town Hall on Saturday 19th at 2.15pm. She will be reading at St John's Undercroft on Sunday 20th at 11.30am. Details at www.stanzapoetry.org

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