Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Interview with Joan Houlihan: Founder of the Concord Poetry Center.

Joan Houlihan is a poet and critic, and founder of the “Concord Poetry Center” ( ) located at the Emerson Umbrella building in Concord, Mass. The center was a joint inspiration of Houlihan and Richard Fahlander, program director of the arts organization “Emerson Umbrella.” The program has become quickly popular with area residents and beyond. The center offers poetry courses, workshops, seminars, publication consultation, readings and performances, as well as a physical center and poetry resources.
Houlihan is a poet and editor in her own right. She is the author of “Hand Held Executions: Poems and Essays,” is the editor-and-chief of the poetry magazine “Perihelion,” and is poetry editor for the “Del Sol Press.” I talked with Houlihan on my Somerville Community Access TV show ’Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: There are many venues that offer poetry readings, instruction, etc... in the area. What gave you the impetus to start yet another in Concord?
Joan Houlihan: There is no one poetry center that is dedicated to all things poetical. We are not just about readings; not just about workshops, not just about consultations. We are also about community building. It is not a place where you go to an event and go home; you make connections with other poets. We have a poetry room with a library. It’s modeled on the old community center model. We are up to 52 members. Most of them are engaged in real life; they have jobs. For the most part they are not students, not academics, but are serious about poetry. My impetus for the center was twofold. I was not satisfied with what has been offered in the area. I wanted to build something that was personally meaningful to me, and in doing this I found my personal vision was personally meaningful to a lot of people. This all came about naturally and organically. I noticed there was a lot of interest in this in the ‘burbs where people aren’t thought to be thinking about cultural things. The literary tradition is great in Concord.
DH: How hard is it to start a non-profit?
JH: I haven’t applied for 501 3C status. We are taken care of under the “Emerson Umbrella.” They provide an infrastructure. It’s easy for me to handle things this way. Maybe next year I will apply for non-profit status.
DH: How will you define success for your center? What do you want it too ultimately to become?
JH: On the far end I want it like the “Poets House” in New York City. That’s a goal to aim towards. The thing I don’t want to lose is the grassroots appeal of it. I want it totally accessible to anyone. I am trying to wed the academic and the general poetry community. For instance we had a tribute to Donald Justice that brought in 80 people. You would never expect this, but there was a lot of interest in this poet who many people didn’t know about. People were thrilled to learn about him. We also have workshops like “Seeds for New Writing,” that are more personally-based. They are on the other side of academic.
DH: You have written a number of essays lamenting about the lack of accessibility in poetry today. Do you think this is a major problem?
JH: Oh yes. It’s a scary trend from my point of view. I like eclecticism in poetry. But the whole school that started the “Deconstruction” and the “Language” poets in the 70’s, has evolved into a favorite mode of younger poets. I find it moving away from what I find valuable about poetry: meaning, humanity, and enlarging your sense of being in the world. There seems to be a huge intolerance from the “post-avant” community. It’s almost fanaticism. It has a political ethic to it. I’ve been called right wing because I don’t believe in that kind of poetry.
DH: In another essay you characterize the new avant-garde as the “new senility” trend in poetry.
JH: A lot of my essays have humor. This is tinged with some humor of course. To be honest, a lot of members of that school were upset with my use of the words dementia and senility. The major offense for these people was around me calling them on their lack of a “there,” there. A lot of people went after me in a strange way. The people at “Fence” magazine were quite incensed. I don’t attack poets, but I do attack poems. There is a distinction. They attacked me personally. They literally called me an idiot. Anyone who put my name in Google two years ago would come up with: “Joan Houlihan is an idiot.” I started to think this was a scary movement in poetry.
DH: In several of your poems that I read in the “Boston Review” and “Verse Daily,” there seems to be a theme of acceptance of decline; change. You don’t so much rage against the dying of the light, but appreciate it--sort of nod to it.
JH: I talk about my philosophy of poetry in my essays. My poetry definitely has to do with recognizing hard truths, inevitable decline, and finding a larger purpose in that.
DH: Does poetry bring meaning to a meaningless world?
JH: Poetry can’t do that. It allows you access to a place in your being which is the most important part of being human. I feel blessed that I am able to do this. Most people miss this in life.
Doug Holder

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