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Melee – January 2007

Driving on an Oakland freeway not long ago, a recent Iowa MFA graduate defined contemporary poetry as something that was less of a craft, than a handicraft: after adamantly denying my knowledge of the various journals where she had published, she described a world of self-made chapbooks distributed solely among “friends.” There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this, until one remembers that she and her “friends” have been granted inroads into the poetic establishment, its scarce jobs and grant monies.

Driving on an Oakland freeway not long ago, a recent Iowa MFA graduate defined contemporary poetry as something that was less of a craft, than a handicraft: after adamantly denying my knowledge of the various journals where she had published, she described a world of self-made chapbooks distributed solely among “friends.” There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this, until one remembers that she and her “friends” have been granted inroads into the poetic establishment, its scarce jobs and grant monies. It’s only one step removed from what happened at a recent San Francisco literary reading, when Iowa MFA schoolmaster Dean Young, whose poems I previously believed to crackle with wit and fervor, dismissed a heckler with the robotic rejoinder: “Is that a graduate of our program?” Snobbery may be endemic in contemporary poetry. Still, I was distressed that Young, whose reading had been subpar on all counts, was unable to more succinctly and suavely deflate the tension at hand. Isn’t poetry supposed to serve as the most palpable textual window into the human psyche? Or at least appear distressed at its failure to do so?

Sadly, neither of these are the case, and the result is new journals like Melee. This journal’s cover features a Bald Eagle sitting atop a wire-mesh fence, beside what appears to be a tarmac. Paired with its foldout, newspaperish format, this journal’s stark, politically-charged content is no surprise. Envisioning itself as one more voice in the struggle against “corporate poetry,” it conceives its medium as less of a country club than an AA club – i.e., you’re a poet when you say you are, not by talking your way inside. The poems here are unembellished by critical commentary or even biographical notes. Some of the names are already familiar: Lyn Lifshin (contributor to other self-conscious venues such as Presa Press’s recent anthology) and Amiri Baraka are the most obvious. The poems are distinctly anti-intellectual without collapsing into bland sentiment or abandoning a sense of craft; they tackle current events, most particularly Hurricane Katrina.

Ironically, Melee’s seems at its best not in practice, but theory; Richard Kostelanetz’s essay, “Advice to the Young Poet,” provides itemized plan of action in which grant-grabbing, rump-kissing and vicious cronyism may translate into a distinguished career for poetic hopefuls despite their never having written a single poem anyone has ever enjoyed. Apparently the essay was previously rejected by one popular magazine because its editor considered it to be satirical. Melee does not find it satirical, and, increasingly, neither do others. A little rough around the edges, this journal may be starting something important. But that remains to be seen.
[www.poetrymelee.com/]

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