Dan: What does it tell us about Carrboro as a community that the town has a poet laureate?
Patrick: It's not Bush country. As a community we like the arts here in Carrboro so much that we appreciate them. We support the arts and look to artists for new ways of looking at things and for adding new dimensions to our lives, whether those dimensions are decorative, intellectual, or emotional. You can't throw a rock in this town without hitting any number of people who are at the very least skilled at playing a musical instrument, for example.
Dan: More specifically, is there something unique about the interface of politics and culture in Carrboro?
Patrick: It's definitely not Bush country.
That is to say, it's less hostile of an environment for poetry than, well, just about anywhere else in this country, except for, maybe New York City or Philadelphia. That hostility I sense everywhere, even some that's close to home, is certainly tied to politics, particularly the sorts of hostility reflected in anti-intellectualism, homophobia, xenophobia, fear of what's different.
The cultural values of the community translate into politics. People here are enfranchised in community politics. Politics in Carrboro is not dominated by the 'haves,' those who form perhaps part of Bush's "base" or those making more than $100,000 a year looking for tax breaks rather than better public education. Politics in Carrboro is instead a rather open & participatory enterprise. We're welcome to participate and are encouraged to do so. The "tyranny of the majority" in Carrboro is made up of interests that are of the American minority: progressives, African Americans, intellectuals, Latinos, GLBTs, artists, environmentalists, activists and so on.
Dan: How have you been received as poet laureate?
Patrick: People have been very kind & supportive just about everywhere. The Carrboro Poetry Festival this past June was warmly received, and many hands pitched in to pull off the event. Mostly the laureateship is a quiet position. I have given some public readings & have a poem on a public mural.
Dan: Other than organizing the next festival, what are your goals as PL?
Patrick: To find a replacement! In all seriousness. The festival is a huge piece I've cut out for myself. I would like to do more as laureate, but there are only so many hours in a day. I am likely to stick with running the festival after I cease to be Laureate. It will be the job of the next Laureates to discover and make their own unique contributions to the community.
Dan: What do you see as the main challenges faced by poets today in connecting to a contemporary audience?
Patrick: Bush country.
There are so many directions I could head in approaching the question. We might examine how we might pull an audience to poetry, which necessitates both improving the literacy of all people as well as pushing a bit of pro-poetry marketing. Alternately, we might take a look at how poets might move towards an audience in their writings and readings, but it is almost a truism that many poets fear aesthetic compromise and acceptance; the phrase "sell out" is sadly abused in poetry, but when you think about it, the phrase has little real sense in the context. We might also consider putting the audience and the poets together in a room to see what happens. The MO here is: don't force any sorts of intellectual or artistic compromises; just put the people in physical proximity to one another, and give them ample opportunity to interact.
This latter approach was exactly how I approached the Carrboro Poetry Festival. The audience by and large had few if any expectations about the poetry slated for the event. There was an absence of any sense of burden. It was a free event and a short stroll from Weaver Street Market and restaurants downtown. It required very little effort for many to attend, and sure enough people came.
I can't say enough about how pleasantly surprised I was and am by the turnout. Many people I meet will say things along the lines of, "I really need to read more poetry," which seems to imply poetry is obligatory, a homework assignment. People who attended the festival were unfamiliar with most of the poets, and the work was different from poet to poet. So there were no expectations from the audience and there were no compromises needed from the poets. And it worked out marvelously.
Forgive the abstraction, but our culture is quite strange when it comes to poetry, at least in comparison to other cultures. First of all, our defining cultural medium seems to be the image rather than the word. We might look across the oceans to Europe or Asia, where entire histories are captured in verse. Americans seem to navigate the imaginary world primarily through pictures, not language. Unsurprisingly, much contemporary American poetry tries to compete with film and photography; perhaps the defining movement of twentieth century poetry was imagism--conveying a precise visual image with words. (No wonder that as a culture we choose a leader by how he looks rather than how he acts or speaks--a Marlboro Man archetype with the morals of a lycanthrope and the literacy of someone suffering the misfortune of an aphasia.) Secondly, for every one person who reads poetry there are probably ten who write it. Look at poetry.com for example, and then look at book sales for poetry.
I believe the latter--the proliferation of poets rather than poetry--is indicative of two things: the influence of the business of creative writing programs, and an overall declining literacy as a result of the systematic destruction of the public school system by the misanthropic right (the less literate write poetry more and more, and the more literate, afraid to be associated with the less fortunate, try hard to separate themselves with writing to which only other poets may relate). Creative writing education depends on a uniquely American tenet, one that breaks with a long-standing tradition of poetry, in favor of something very commercial: every person has an inner poet, and the job is to find one's "voice." "If you pay me $20k a year, I'll tell you how to free your inner poet and find your voice." As a result, it's hard to find appealing poetry, as there's a very low signal-to-noise ratio. Lots of it pumping out, but so little of it is truly stirring, and culturally it's competing with film, and failing.
Poetry works when it gives something to people that is not competing with the image: when it attempts to do things that only language can do. The image is of course a phenomenon only of sight, so as the product of the sensory it is immediate; the associative levels of image come later. Poetry affords abstractions and relations the opportunity to be intimately related with the nearly-immediate; it relies heavily on memory and a sense of the other, often in an immediate way. Poetry also plays with language and often folds upon itself in ways that the moving image cannot do. Film is in some sense the very opposite: voyeuristic. Pictures versus sentences aren't completely different--for example, I think both are inherently musical. Language being born of melody and image, of harmony. I love both and wish they could be brought together, as they sometimes are, but they are fundamentally different media.
Another problem with poetry: failure to communicate. So much poetry produced today is in dialogue with other poetries, frequently to the exclusion of all other content. Some of that content that is often neglected consists in issues of immediate concern. We might have plenty, too many, 9/11 poems perhaps. So much else is happening that has a poetic dimension. Some poetry does communicate in fresh ways. For example, there's a lot of poetry that plays with the language of the internet, that mucks around with chatroom and email discussion and blog and spam and web page texts, often to hilarious or disturbing effect. Here's something that is immediately relevant, that delves into something much more in the domain of poetry rather than in other domains of art. Poets like can write in a way that both interacts with the austere concerns of other poets and speaks to the hearts and minds of a broader audience. No compromises necessary.