Poetry contests are a racket. Meaning, they are the best, and maybe the only, way for literary journals and independent publishers to make money in the non-profit (black hole deficit!) Po Biz. They also offer guest judges (those who have Made It), a little extra money and advertising, and kind of can’t be turned down (full disclosure: I judged one poem contest for a university lit mag, though didn’t get paid). (Another full disclosure: when I was assistant editor of the Red Cedar Review out of Michigan State University, way back, we had a poetry contest, made a lot of money, and published the winners along with much better poems from the regular slush pile.)
Poetry contests are like the ‘pay to play’ racket that clubs in LA (and elsewhere) have for bands, except worse, because most poets who enter a contest don’t even get to play: It’s a winner take all society, and economy. I understand your wanting to enter a book in a contest, to test yourself, and thinking you are a great poet who deserves recognition, and I don’t even begrudge you that. If you want to pay someone $25 (or more!) to supposedly read your book or poem with fairness and interest along with the hundreds of other entries, there’s a whole list over on the ENTROPY “Where To Publish” tab if you want. But you won’t win.
All of which is to say how angry I am that a poet as good as Alicia Jo Rabins has to even enter a fucking contest to get her book Divinity School published. It’s not like she doesn’t have the proper credentials, with published poems in APR and Ploughshares, and public acclaim for her one-person show/musical A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. Although getting published in APR might probably better your chances for winning the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Maybe not, though if I got published in APR, who knows? I might enter too. But shit, in a sane world, getting published in APR should get one a book deal with an indie publisher anyways. Alas, this is the Po Biz…
I haven’t read anything like Rabins poetry since Sharon Olds’ Satan Says days. There’s a darkness, and a playing with the Abrahamic mythologies. Demons appear, and floods, and Dead Sea Scrolls, and the old-school scary Old Testament/Talmud God. And the speakers in/of the poems, while not embracing the dark side, kind of make their peaces/pieces with it, like in “Birth”:
I found myself in a dark room
pregnant, and alone.
No midwife, no telephone.
Then the demons found me.
They crowded round and crowed.
Sweet demons, fuck you all,
I said as I stretched and pushed and kicked.
What else could I say?
They flooded the dark red walls.
I asked them to help.
What else could I do?
And one by one,
they placed their hands on my belly
and began to chant.
And so it was that you were born,
little monster with my face.
I swear the demons cried
as they held you up
to the light.
This is the kind of poem that makes you go, “Oh wow, I hope this is a fictionalized speaker and that this is not literally how Rabins feels about her own child.” And yet, the power of this ‘fable’ may be (is?) true, in that, don’t we all have demons? And don’t we all, if lucky, make our peace with them because they’re damn sure not going away?
The value of the shock in both image and language here remind me of another poet, one of my favorites, Kim Addonizio, whose poems can be the equivalent of a slap, though more of the wake-up kind. As the title of Rabins’ book suggests, her language is a bit more formal and spiritual and controlled, f-bombs aside, whereas Addonizio tends to go for more energy, longer lines, chanting verging on the out-of-control, like Anne Waldman, though all of the poets I’m mentioning here, maybe especially Rabins, are indebted to Anne Sexton, who in my humble opinion was the first poet to really combine the sacred (poetry) with the profane (common american language). An excerpt from the title poem of Rabins’ collection:
I kept thinking about suffering
and how until I look at it there is no movement.
Wanting to be better than you, and all that.
I thought the monastery would save me
from myself, but the timpani beat there
in my stone room,
the flutes performed their demonic runs
and at night, I felt women’s fingers crawling
beneath my robes.
So I moved to this cabin.
I live alone with a bed,
some clothes, and the demons who know me best.
I knit hats for us all.
This is spoken language, slang, while not being some kinds of phrases that might sound dated in ten (or a hundred) years. The ‘and all that’ works well there, conjuring our own demons associated with the idea of ‘wanting to be better than’ our own you’s.
One senses that, while Rabins isn’t the literal speaker in these poems, that Divinity School as a collection is a parable, or a story-by-collage about Rabin’s, and ours, and everybody’s, failure to graduate our respective lives’ divinity schools. That is, we’re all failures, haunted by our demons. We are not divine, as least not by the Abrahamic religions’ standards. And yet, a different kind of divinity might be found, on our own terms, perhaps helped by a little bit of humor, and the ability to knit hats with holes for horns. In return, they might even help us when we need help the most: Our demons become our strengths. Spiritual, not religious. Is that not divine?