Slow Poetry: An Introduction

Edited by Dale Smith



"Look, man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?"—David Foster Wallace. "The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace's struggle to surpass 'Infinite Jest.' D. T. Max. The New Yorker. March 9, 2009.

Substitute "fiction" above with "poetry," or, more broadly, with "art," and we begin to realize the turn toward meaningful descriptions of the world that Slow Poetry values. That these are "dark and stupid" times goes without question. How we respond to that, of course, remains open, though I tend to agree with Wallace: "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." And "all the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit, it's got to be for hers."


Last summer when I began writing about Slow Poetry, I wondered if poetry that dramatized the dark and stupid could matter much longer. So I began framing raw questions that might help myself and others respond meaningfully to these dark and stupid times. I wondered how I could make sense of what's happening around us through poetry, through art? Perhaps Slow Poetry could be a way to help orient attention again in art to the world. I liked the term, too—Slow Poetry—because it associates with Slow Food and that now-global movement's linking of pleasure for food with a commitment to community and the environment. If we can enjoy poetry—itself an essential form of nourishment—why not also take into account the contexts of its making and reception?

These questions led me to make claims, particularly as more and more people asked what I meant by "Slow Poetry." My thinking at first was prompted by an unlikely source. Systems strategist, John Robb, who has written about his concepts of "global guerrillas" and "resilient communities" in great detail, attracted me by the active and dynamic terms he used to talk about such communities. He described networks of people affiliated by interests of family, kinship, geography, and available resources. His accuracy of description for weakened nation-states in which people re-assembled life at all levels of sustainability suggested a model for how poets might address their roles in a cultural and social moment where once-vital institutions—everything from publication to conventional farming practices—have been losing claims of legitimacy for several decades. Although Robb looks at military strategies and open source counter insurgencies by groups like The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), I wanted to apply some of his observations to our situation in North America in order to see how it might be possible to re-imagine poetry and art as powerful resources for communication in a period facing increasing social change. Along these lines, last summer, I wrote:

We must recognize key contexts where poetry can be applied to shift perspectives via reflection on the complex social and political forces that interact and claim certain points of reference in our lives. If MEND can disrupt oil production in the Niger Delta, drastically affecting the quality of "life" here—communicating through global markets an extreme disaffection with the Nigerian government—poetry, on a smaller scale, might mimic such explosive acts of communion. Instead of disrupting global market platforms, however, a poem does something else in the lives of its readers. It's like opening a sliding-glass door, stepping outside, for a moment, and rubbing one's eyes in the sunlight of what's real.

Suddenly, in that final sentence, I felt as though I'd moved into a place proper to the goals of Slow Poetry. It's a place familiar to readers of Charles Olson, who said, "Whatever you have to say, leave the roots on, let them dangle, And the dirt, Just to make clear where they come from." Regardless of what we face individually or communally or collectively, my sense was—and still is—that by our affection and affinity for disclosure of what is so often barely perceptible—life raw and undefined—we might advance a little toward better understanding what's happening to us. And through this knowledge we may be able to help each other, with greater resilience, adapt and respond to the changes we may face.

But what can poetry possibly do to strengthen networks of people involved in the ongoing complexity of their lives? Well, for one, Slow Poetry values communication between author and reader. Its strong preference for the local, the personal, the hand-made, and the accessible invite broad participation in the ideas and potential exchanges art can foster. Slow Poetry values tradition, too, as a way of understanding the past and our familial histories. By tradition I don't mean that we must abide by canonical texts established by literary "authority." Tradition is nothing more than a contested history of the uses of books and objects that have produced active conversations and responses for particular people who question their identification with the world around them. As we discover our affinities for particular books or people, we must remain open to challenge by others for whom other possibilities remain of value. If we are in a period of great resource contraction, we'll begin to get to know again local ways, and the familial roots that sustain life in more or less permanent locations. Of course, the Internet, perhaps for a time, or indefinitely, will help keep us in touch over greater distances. But the work begins at home, in the particular exchanges of a daily practice that ensures goodness remains active and alive in these dark and stupid times. And even if Wall Street magically recovers, and the global economy somehow defies nature and manages to once again extend capital's model of growth-at-all-costs, it is the position of Slow Poetry that we must learn to once again inhabit the local, and to abide by its claims, if we are to avert catastrophe.


There are never enough poets, but we're saturated with poems. We are over-stocked with too much of everything, little of it of any value. We are over-fed and under-nourished, as a friend reminds me. We have access to anything, and yet we are empty.

We should not stop writing and publishing, of course, but diversify our interests by applying poetic energy to other pursuits, too. This means that many Slow Poets may go unrecognized by global communities, but as the local takes on greater importance in our lives we will be gratified by the labor given for the sake of local needs and concerns. Meaning is productive. Our engagement with daily life produces valuable knowledge through experiences that can benefit the poet and the local community, and occasionally, this can move beyond.

These assumptions are shared in many ways with the Slow Food movement. Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world who link the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment. Slow Poetry, likewise, has in common with the other "slow" movements a commitment to understanding the means of production and distribution of written, performed, and plastic works. Although some may claim that Slow Poetry and other Slow Movements are yuppie fads designed by people with adequate wealth to fund such endeavors, those of us practicing a slow poetics are not necessarily wealthy, nor, especially, do we share the ideological commitments of the contracting influence of the urban bourgeoisie. Simply put, no alternative makes sense, at this moment, for conducting our labor. Around the globe, people are asked now to reconsider relationships to immediate environments. What can these places adequately sustain? What practices need to stop, which ones must be more carefully supported?


The poets and essayists gathered here do not possess representative styles or procedures in the art, or prescribe formal methods that define Slow Poetic practice. Instead, though I can't speak for everyone represented here, I believe their contributions reveal a genuine trust in our efforts to open conversations and possibilities in writing and the other arts. The generosity and encouragement from a few trusted friends over Slow Poetry's social and communal aims has broadened to include the work here. I'm honored that anyone would respond so favorably to my call, and I hope that this initiates further dialogues and exchanges about how we move forward as artists and people; as public citizens and private folk; as activists attentive to relations between the local and global as well as laborers in study, and in the investigations of the world.

Luminaries such as Robert Bertholf, Tom Clark, and Jerome Rothenberg offer perspectives and poems that extend the concerns across generational lines. Kristin Prevallet, Joe Safdie, Tom Orange, and Jonathan Skinner open each gallery with commentary on what Slow Poetry means to them. Stacy Szymaszek, Richard Owens, Stacy Blint, Julian Brolaski, Susan Briante, and others then follow each section with poems.

While Slow Poetry values openness and the freedom of exchange, it also promotes a sense of intolerance to unproductive practices, disingenuous conversations, and systems of reciprocity. It is leveraged against any attempt to tightly shutter the world and our cultural possibilities in it by ignoring the constraints and demands of reality. Between an author and a reader, between the world, and ourselves exist words and images—the imagination of how we may live in the present and honor the past in us. There's a lot of work to do, however, in terms of realizing the situations we face—particularly as they are not the same ones confronted by previous generations. New strategies are needed to move us along.


Navigation Note:
Each Gallery will open in a seperate PDF file.
Highlighted contributor names will take you to the bio page only.


Note Put in a Bottle in 1983 and Committed to the Literary Flood

"Notation and the Art of Reading" by Karl Young

Gallery 1: Looking Around

"Practicing Slow Poetry" by Kristin Prevallet

"Clay Nation" by Alicia Askenase

Poems by Stacy Szymaszek

"Retinal Discontent" by Randy Prus

“the alibi was my bar,” “I know you when the floorboards creak,” “my highschool art teacher,” “dirty death poem,” “flash flood of nectarine,” “Dear Mr. Ghost,” “a midwestern water park in winter,” and “(bad math)” by Stacy Blint

"New World," "A Meditation Outside the Fertile Grounds Café," and "Toribio" by Tom Clark


Gallery 2: Slow History, Slow Context

"Empiricism and Slow Poetry" by Joe Safdie

"Love Song," "Arcadian Eclipse," and "Wayfaring Stranger" by Richard Owens

"WE Talk of Having a Baby," "Poem," "My Awareness Heightened," "July 18," and "Poem" by Farid Matuk

"Leap Day Notes (2008)," "Put Put the Car," "Mountain Gorillas," "You Can Ride," "Bonanza," and "Exercise #3 from Colloquial Vietnamese" by Hoa Nguyen

"Coyote America Action Block" by Bill Dunlap

A letter to Dale Smith by Marina Lazzara

Poems by Brooks Johnson


Gallery 3: The "Long Now" Here To Stay

"Thoughts on Poetries of the Long Now" by Tom Orange

Two poems by Julian T. Brolaski

"I Favor Being Encouraged" and "State Park" by Jared Stanley

from Spleen by David Hadbawnik

"Hardpan" and "Sublimated Mayhem" by Ann Elliott Sherman

from Book 2 by Michael Boughn

"Organic Manifesto" by Paul Nelson

from The Moleskine Notebook by Kim Dorman

"Against Romanticism" by Joe Safdie


Gallery 4: Compost

"Compostible Notes, Slowed Down, and Some Quotes" by Jared Stanley

"Edward Dorn Inside-Out: Elements of Laughter and 'Grotesque Time' in Gunslinger" by David Hadbawnik

"From A Third Book of Concealments: Three Poems" by Jerome Rothenberg

"Plants" and "Days" by James Sanders

"[from this captivity]", "[the same burial]" and "[to give]" by Craig Perez

"STUFFING #006229319-1" AND "Ars Poetica of a New Millennium" by Jared Schickling

"Radius," "Albany," "There is no Abstract" by Sam Truitt

"Goodbye Twentieth Century" and other poems by Susan Briante


"Quickly: The Slow Poem" by Jonathan Skinner

"The Vocabulary of Taste: Carlo Petrini and the Poetics of Slow Poetry" by Robert Bertholf


The collages which accompany these galleries are by Brooks Johnson