The Lisa Robertson post at the Poetry Foundation in which she announces her preference for friendship over community feels to me like it's predicated on a category mistake. In terms of poetry (and probably in other terms as well), friendship is not an alternative to community. Friendship is what develops out of community if you're lucky. Community is what you need at base and without it you're screwed.
Friendship is a situation within which feelings like desire and animosity and warmth and pain dictate the "rules." I like you, you're my friend; you hurt me, you're not my friend anymore. Community, on the other hand, operates more or less independently of these individual considerations, or at least their effect on it is so distantly causal that they lose their initial specificity and function only as remote influences on small sectors of a large field.
Friends are a personal, erotic happiness. Community is a pact that ensures the discrete structure of a hive.
Sure, I'll take friendship over community. Who wouldn't--as an individual? But as a poet, do I really have such a choice? Or rather, is that relevant to any actual choice I must ever make?
I feel fortunate that many of my best friends are also members of my poetic community. Or maybe there's a conceptual error even there: do I "have" a poetic community that is notably different from everyone else's? How many poetic communities are there? How should they be distinguished? Are they regional? Certainly it is meaningful and often useful to speak of the "Bay Area poetry community" or the "North Carolina poetry community," etc. Or should the determining factor instead be aesthetic approach: the "post-avant community" as opposed to the "new formalist community" or the "Iowa workshop community," and so forth? The problems in maintaining these distinctions are almost immediately apparent, but here again the imperfect designations point to valid conceptual differences among groups of poets.
Nevertheless, I would hold that neither regional nor aesthetic concerns are what really define poetic community in the larger sense. If anything, they are sub-communities, or more accurately still, tendential formations within community. What then is poetic community per se? And why do we need it? And why is it not something we can simply opt to choose friendship "over"?
What defines the broadly articulated set of relationships within poetry as community for me is almost entirely structural--it has little to do with style or place or institutional affiliation (or non-affiliation) or any such particularities. Poetry itself is all about "particularities" (I can't help but hear Creeley saying that word every time I use it), but poetic community in its true sense cannot admit them or it stops being community. One way of making the point I want to make here is ask what it means for a poet to be outside the community. Quite simply, this would mean that she has no communication with other poets, living and/or dead. She does not have access to contexts. She has no way of knowing the (multiple) conditions in which the art finds itself at any given time. Every time she writes a poem, it comes out of a narrow awareness of the art and it goes into an obscure space of non-reception.
We can imagine degrees of transition from non-community into community. Indeed, we have all experienced them. A group of three or four high school students enthusiastically sharing texts by Sylvia Plath and Gregory Corso is on the threshold of community: they are in the doorway of a huge warehouse full of tall shadowy shelves. Most of them will remain in that doorway or back away from it entirely after a quick peek at those daunting corridors.
Another big transitional moment occurs when one first speaks or corresponds with other poets. Email and the web have obviously done a lot for this process. As soon as one is aware that one is a poet among other poets, that one's work is not an isolated and unique phenomenon, one must readjust one's entire idea of the art. An anxiety often voiced among beginning students is that exposure to other models will compromise their own originality, will "ruin" their own distinctive voices. One of the hardest things for a teacher to do is to demonstrate the fallacy of this notion, to show that in fact, until one has developed a feel for the diverse range of historical and contemporary poetic production, one usually does not really have one's own "voice"; instead, one typically is confined to the generically bland voice of cliche and reportage, and, worse, is led to think of that voice as original, for lack of evidence to the contrary.
This problem is not limited to beginners, of course.
Exposure to literature is the first step toward community. The next, as I've said, is interaction with other poets: any interaction, any poets. In some cases, the earliest interactions can be counterproductive. For example, I took a workshop my junior year in college that almost turned me away from poetry altogether because the instructor shot me down for being interested in Language Poetry. Since I didn't know of anyone else to share my interest with, I figured it was some remote, inaccessible cultish thing I had better just forget about. I can easily imagine a comparable situation, of course, in which a student interested in historical meters or identity-based confessional forms might be discouraged by a workshop in which all the emphasis was on hardcore aleatory proceduralism or something. I can imagine it; I'm not sure how often such a thing really happens. Anyway, these formative moments depend on a certain open-mindedness and generosity on the part of those who are already ensconced in community. It should never be the function of community to impose standards of craft, theoretical positions, and so on. That must happen on the local level of subcommunity or individual inclination.
The ideal function of community is simply to exist--to be in place like a big hotel full of different suites and meeting halls. This metaphor automatically suggests the undesirable tenor of an institution, but I am not arguing for an institutional (i.e., academic or otherwise "official") model of community. I'm not arguing against it either. Community is just whatever structure allows poets to operate in some kind of cooperative sphere of mutual knowledge. Within such structures, there will always emerge sectors of privilege and influence, which should be vigorously questioned and resisted. The hotel should never have one despotic concierge. It should not be owned by a corporate chain. It should really be an ex-hotel, an old building with its hotel layout intact, but occupied by squatters who manage to make that layout work for them as a community. Some of them won't get along with each other; this is to be expected. What they have to do is manage to share space in the ex-hotel without either killing each other or making it unliveable for the other tenants. They must also air their differences: that's what the meeting halls are for. None of this negotiation and wrangling should be thought of as something that results in a final, "correct" protocol for writing poetry; it's just a way of maintaining the structure of the community so that poetry doesn't disappear entirely.
I think there's a false notion circulating out there among some people that community is the, or a, primary good of poetry--that it's what you come to poetry for. (This position is assumed, when it is assumed, both by those who embrace and those who oppose the notion of poetic community.) Churches or unions are much better if that's what you're looking for, though even here, the same problems apply. For one thing, it's bound to lead to disappointment. The poetry community, as many have pointed out, is fractious, hierarchizing, nepotistic, vain, incoherent. You have a much better chance of finding friendship through poetry, and that is a good thing wherever you find it. But neither community nor friendship is a good reason to go to poetry in the first place if poetry itself isn't your main priority.
The thing about community is that no one should expect to enjoy it. As inadequate as it is, it is simply something without which poetry or any other social mode of being could not function. Or, without it, poetry would only be an option for a very few privileged practitioners, as has frequently been the case in many historical moments in many cultures. Again, I appeal to the union analogy. No one joins a union because it sounds like fun. It's a way to build structures of mutual support between multiple parties. It's work. It's just plain necessary.
I'm not sure if this is what Lisa Robertson meant, but I think the real problem occurs when people confuse community with friendship, or otherwise romanticize community as an erotic set of relations rather than a pragmatic one.
I'm not sure what it would mean to be "kicked out" of the poetic community, as Guillermo Parra says might be the case with, for example, Frank Lima (I have no idea what the specifics of that case are, by the way). Certainly the community can fail a poet. Or, more accurately, a poet can fail to benefit from the community for both avoidable and unavoidable reasons. Other members of the community can speak out against or ignore individuals within the community. If no one is interested in what an individual poet writes, no amount of community will change this.
Part of the problem is that it's not entirely clear what the poetic community is. What exactly does it do?
Discrete instances of community are always imperfect and even imperceptible. Note here that I'm not talking about "communities" in the sense of the particular group of poets who circulate around, say, the St. Mark's poetry scene in the Village--though of course these poets do point to a larger concept of community with St. Mark's as a central reference point. In fact, "scene" and "community" might be distinguished by just such a contrast. A scene is a particular group or formation and the aesthetic or aesthetics that attend it. Community is the greater complex of social relations that enables the existence of the scene in the first place.
Some manifestations of community:
literary history and criticism
the publishing industry, both large and small
outlets for public readings
creative writing as a discipline
grants and other sources of funding, both public and private
gossip and slander
electronic communication media such as email and blogs
contests and awards, and the recognition that ensues or doesn't
All of these manifestations are most meaningful in terms of community when they are conceived in the abstract. Any individual act of publication, endowment, pedagogy, etc., is just as likely to be counterproductive or disillusioning as it is to result in cohesion.
As Anne comments, community is not something we can choose to have or not have (except, naturally, by not being a poet at all). The moment one poet interacts with another poet, community is formed, for better or worse. The best we can do is recognize community as an inevitable function of there being more than one poet in the world, and try to make it work for as many of us as possible.