Thursday, June 12, 2003

I really ought to be packing, but I wanted to send a beam of empathy in Tim's direction, while also thinking about the Ange MlinkoChris Lott contretemps. My education was very similar to Tim's, except I didn't have a friendly grad student to introduce me to experimental writing in what sounds like a patiently systematic way. Instead it was a gradual process that is still ongoing, because my mind and ear for poetry were permanently wired for sound when I was about 15 with Shakespeare and Bishop and Berryman: I can understand and sympathize with the projects of poets like Dan Davidson but it's hard to imagine ever writing the stuff myself. There were certainly people who introduced me to individual writers, but I went stumbling from OVC Poetry magazine stuff and 70s Deep Imagists to slightly more daring but essentially similar poets like Robert Hass and Jane Miller to hipsters like Joshua Clover and Mark Levine (a teacher of mine) to finally the people that those hipsters had been reading: Creeley and Olson and Duncan, et al. I never had any kind of systematic introduction to the avant garde: they were and continue to be completely off of the radar of most of the otherwise literate people I hang out with here in academia, and so it's difficult for me to get into the headspace that sees Silliman, the Howe sisters, Bruce Andrews, etc., as an establishment that must be overthrown. But poets who had a less mainstream (or should I say less eccentric?) education in poetry than I obviously do feel that way, and probably poets just four or five years younger than me feel very strongly that there's some kind of post-avant mafia running all the cool magazines (a generation that has barely heard of Ploughshares or The Paris Review) which they will either have to join or violently refuse. I'm not sure if I would be considered a made guy in that mafia or if my benediction from Robert Pinsky leaves me uneasily straddling two worlds, like the Irish-Italian Henry Hill played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.

One thing that doesn't get talked about very much in blogland, I've noticed, is the gender-affiliation or genderstyles that post-avant writing seems partly comprised of. For years now I've found that the most interesting experimental writing from my generation is being written by women: pick anybody off of Jim Behrle's latest crush list for an example. I think I have a sense that a) there's something to the idea of écriture feminine and b) the Languagey strategies of Fanny Howe, Katherine Fraser, etc., take on an additional resonance, seem more important, when construed as attempts at non-phallic writing (grandma Stein and "Patriarchal Poetry" stands behind all of this work. A woman has a more intimately political justification for writing which attempts to counter the mainstream tradition than your average heterosexual white male does: he may have to do more theoretical heavy lifting (a la Barrett Watten) or be more consciously immersed in an alternative tradition (Black Mountain, New York School, etc.) to justify writing otherwise to himself and to others. Of course just because you're a woman and you're trying to not write like Sharon Olds or Louise Gluck doesn't make you a radical. The langue feminine strategies of a Stein or a Hejinian can serve as a kind of umbrella for the narrower, more tactical stance of gurlesque, "postfeminist" writers, the ones who are willing to show a little skin to the boys (and girls) while they deconstruct the patriarchy. Hm, maybe I'm talking not so much about gender in post-avant writing as sex itself. Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendys seem a little punchier, a little more urgent, than competing volumes of prose poetry (the tired Edsonesque mistreat-an-animal stuff) because of their mix of humor and libidinousness.

Does all this sound superficial? Is sex the sugar-coating for writing that, if it were more daring and originary, more your father's (mother's?) avant-Oldsmobile, would do more intellectual heavy-lifting? Is sex what crosses the line between avant and post-avant: that which returns the reader to a comfortably titillating telos? Perhaps. But I don't want to sound like I'm condemning this tendency: I still want and need a little eros in my poetry, even if it's only an eros of the ear (only! what else could there be in a poem?). What viscerally sickens me about a lot of OVC writing is what I think are its roots in Eliot at his most thantatoptic. I've always thought of The Waste Land as a kind of song of the death drive, a wish for things to just end that manifests as an insistence that they've already ended. This is Grossman's poetry of closure, or Bloom's belatedness, and it is literally a dead end. For me I guess that's political justification enough for writing in the other tradition, which is not well-described by the term "post-avant." It is a tradition, or an openness to traditions, that is fundamentally Emersonian, that says, Write here! Write now! It's not necessarily "radical." But it taps into the energy of life, while demanding the combination of skepticism and open-heartedness that nerdy academics at their best usually possess.

Writing as reading with a whiff of sex. That's what holds my attention at the moment.

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