Across the Pond

Eva Salzman recently spent time in New York after living in the UK for many years. What is it about the poetry scene "over there" that's different from "over here"?



After over fifteen years among the British, American poetry venues seem strangely egalitarian, as in: readers don't get paid as much, and anyone can - and does - do it. I guess if anyone can do it, no one should get paid too much.

Anyway, everybody knows that a newly-minted poet, armed with their Writing MFA degree - a Master of Fine Arts, which is more specialised than an MA - is supposed to go out there and get a real job, go to work properly: that is, minting more poets, at other MFA writing programs.


I was paid $100 by the Walt Whitman Birthplace on Huntington, Long Island; not that I wasn't honoured to read there. That fee worked out at $25 per head - and they were all my family's heads. (Apparently, they'd scheduled me to clash with the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey; well, that was the story anyway.)


The Unterberg Centre at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, is one of the Blue Chip venues, where you are most likely to find the International league. The Poetry Society of America, at a prestigious Gramercy Park address, is at the other end of the spectrum from more "underground" venues - like KGB - where you could take a more accurate pulse of the Scene.


These venues seem to have proliferated in the past fifteen years, to Soho and East Village coffee houses, and even to Queens and Brooklyn, for heaven's sake. In London, only a couple come to mind outside of the Poetry Society: the Troubadour and Old Operating Theatre, and these carry on thanks to people like Marietta Ryan who do such things for no reason and no money.


One of the biggest NYC venues is the St. Mark's Project, which featured Grace Paley on the night I went, and another more "performance" - I use the word advisedly - poet. The place was packed, and there was nothing hushed and reverential about the audience. In keeping with the American propensity for creating its own version of a class system ("All poets, good and bad, are created equal" or something like that) Wednesday nights are reserved for the Names, while Monday is for the obscure and climbing.


The Nuyorican (New York + Puerto Rican = Nuyorican) Café is the cradle of the Slam Poetry phenomenon, a less successful version of which has appeared in Britain. (It's just not the same, but hush my mouth for saying so.) If you like to Salsa after poetry - and I do - this is the place for you. (Salsa is another New York City concoction, according to many.)


I thought I'd made a terrible mistake, submitting my page poems to an audience who would score me Olympic-style on content and delivery. But I was the hors d'oeuvre, served respectfully during the earlier more sober part of the evening which was attended by thankfully non-interactive graduate students. (Incidentally, they didn't flinch once at words like "washing powder" or "lorry", or my learned mis-pronunciation of more authentically Elizabethan English as spoken by my compatriots.)


My NYC poet mole Karin Randolph ran a small unfunded magazine Mind the Gap, which tried to do just that, by publishing poets from both sides of the Atlantic. Such publications inevitably last the duration of their editor's fast-diminishing volunteer energy. The well-attended reading she organised was at Galapagos in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, which is the latest cheap neighbourhood for garret poets trying to not get a job teaching.


During my Columbia MFA days, the UK poetry scene was represented to me as quaint, but backward. I was warned about the sort of writer I might become. They needn't have worried. More than one British editor has called my work "too American". Visiting American writers like Billy Collins and Sharon Olds do get lionised during the their short stint "over here" - maybe because they are short stints.


Not that British writers don't honour dead Americans; even Oxford University Press continues to publish these. (A protest / memorial benefit reading featured most of the dismissed and living poets, who read on behalf of the absent or dead Americans; oddly enough, the only two present and living American poets, Michael Donaghy and I, sat in the audience - mute and supportive, if uninvited; aye, there's the rub).


At my rate of production, even for my highest paid reading in Britain, I would hazard a guess I'm in negative figures per word, per line, per poem. They say something is worth doing for any two of the following three "K"s: Kicks, Kudos or C/Kash. Right now, there's been a downturn on the Kash and Kudos, so the question is: do I go for the Kicks? Of course I'm biased when I say there seem to be more of these "over there", or "over here" - depending on your perspective.

Poetry News, Spring 2001