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Poetry Is Difficult

There is a scene near the end of The Fabulous Baker Boys, when the little and elder brothers, long-time, sophisticated, professional piano players for hotel lounges, end up playing a third-rate telethon, for "Channel 71", to raise money for "basketballs". The TV host calls them the "Barker Boys" and interrupts their act unceremoniously. A fight breaks out. There is only so much small-minded, contemptuous indifference these diligent, talented, but ultimately anonymous men can take. Then heart break.

Working as a poet is a lot like being a Fabulous Baker Boy. Some days (and this is one of them) the modest pleasure of craft and art, the challenge of doing what's best, what's most difficult, is outweighed by the sheer lousy nonsense of the world and its celebrity playboys.

For the record, I have been working as a poet, poetry organizer, and editor / anthologist since 87/88 - about 20 years. My first anthology was published just as I turned 21. I'm 41 now. Every day, every week, every month, is a slog. Recently, I appeared in Montreal, to launch my latest collection, Winter Tennis. The event was well attended; earlier in the week, I had read with John Burnside, Erin Moure, Dennis Lee (big names, talented poets). Something called "Book TV" was in the room for my launch, and the small press publisher's PR assistant managed to call the camera and TV person over, to get me my fifteen seconds. The first thing she did was ask me why my "unusual name" was "Winter". She thought my name was "Winter Tennis" and the title of the book was Todd Swift.

Small indignity, you might say - move on, mate. But it is vastly symptomatic of a profound truth. Poets, editors, poetry activists like myself make great personal and financial sacrifices, for (literally) decades, to be simply ignored or, worse, misnamed, at the end of it all. This wouldn't be so bad, if the media was as grossly clumsy with our prose peers - but, like parents who favour one sibling over another to an outrageous extent, novelists are showered with praise, attention, and - yes, this does matter - support - financial, logistical, cultural and otherwise. This magnitude of difference, in terms of public reception and recognition, between the poet and novelist, is so vast, as to beggar belief. It is made worse by prizes, which accentuate the have and have not poets. The greater public has near-zero tolerance for poets, but can muster a minimal shrug of spasmodic interest in a prize-winner. Ask the public to name poems they really love, then why. They really can't.

I have long argued for, and tried, in my own small ways, to promote, poetry's greater cultural relevance. I still believe poetry is the highest art form, maybe even the finest intellectual, if not spiritual, pursuit, alongside philosophy. I am no longer sure poetry is widely sustainable, unless the mainstream public, the media, and the poetry world itself, try harder to work together. There needs to be a moving away from marketing, from reducing everything to sound-bites. The attempt to sell poetry as a "story" the media can "use" means its truer values have been distorted, and the public no longer understands or cares about the art's richer, subtler worth.

While the public at large is indifferent, I yearn for a welcoming hand, comrades and good fellows, for those who seek to open and share, not close and horde.

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