Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A few additions to the blogroll: Mark Scroggins, America's premier Zukofsky scholar, has a new blog called Culture Industry. Be curious to see what he does with it. Also appearing are the amazingly popular blog of Michael Bérubé (that's the last time I'll take the trouble to get his accents right) and the Samizdat Blog of Robert Archambeau. Robert, who for some reason spells "Zukofsky" as "Zukovsky," is continuing the work of the late great Samizdat, which as I understand it approached the question of avant-garde poetry from both a Constructivist angle and in the sense of samizdat: the underground mimeographed magazines that kept literary culture alive in the Soviet Union. There's an interesting tension there since the early Russian avant-garde saw itself as being in service to the Revolution while the samizdat writers were opposing it or at least the regime of its implementation. A samizdat publication is ipso facto avant-garde, though under Soviet conditions I imagine it would have been less interested in attacking the institution of art than in asserting artistic autonomy in opposition to the totalitarian state. Archambeau reminds us that "samizdat" means merely "self-published" at the end of an editorial he wrote in the magazine's early days. Self-publishing was and continues to be a way of challenging the frames and filters around cultural production today, but it's too broad a category to be even a medium in my view, and thus it can't carry much of a message. It's only perhaps when self-publishing deliberately avoids the imitation of "real" publishing (check out this story about Oprah stickers) that it carries a dissonant charge. My own blog started out in service to my "real" publications but it's become something more: an interface with other writers, a means of positioning myself in the constantly shifting cultural landscape, and a laboratory for literary creation. I don't think though that it manifests a genuine "do-it-yourself" production ethic; those projects require collaboration of some kind, even if it's only the pseudo-hierarchical collaboration of editors with writers. Right now Soon and the Aubergine chapbook are the only DIY projects I've taken an active hand in creating, but I'm interested in doing more of them. Or I will be when my dissertation is finished.

In that editorial I mentioned, Archambeau writes about the current poetry world as being spatialized more along the lines of an archipelago than a margin and mainstream. Against the view of creative writing programs as the source of conformist malaise he asserts the potential of programs with a scholarly bent like that of the University of Illinois at Chicago: "In the murky Sargasso Sea of writing programs these universities seem to me to be bright islands of literacy and linguistic energy." Now this of course corresponds with my own preferences and prejudices, but it was not always so. I remember paging through the AWP's phone-book sized tome of creative writing programs back in 1996 looking at their breakdown of each program's particular orientation: "studio," "studio/acadmic," and "academic" (or maybe it was "scholarly"). The programs I considered were all "studio" or "studio/academic" because I was at the time most concerned, as I think many people still are, with "time to write." "Studio" programs are almost wholly concerned with writing with few if any non-workshop requirements; "academic" programs tended to offer MA degrees plus workshops; your typical MFA program falls in the middle. The program I eventually chose at The University of Montana was typical in that respect. No one was more surpised than I when I became interested in studying literary theory and Renaissance literature, and I was a little astonished to find myself working on MA and MFA degrees simultaneously, producing in two years a thesis on Christopher Marlowe and a "thesis" of poems (some of which did end up in Selah). For me, at least, the two disciplines feed each other (they "synergize," if you will) and that continues to be the case; I don't think I've slacked off my poetry production in any discernible way in the past four years at Cornell. Of course, immediately after Montana I got a taste of a pure "studio" program: the Stegner Fellowship. It was very, very nice to be able to structure my days entirely around my own writing and reading, so much so that the two workshops a week we were required to attend quickly began to seem like a nuisance. (I think they've scaled it back to once a week, now.) I got plenty of work done: I wrote Fourier Series at Stanford. But I found I missed the discipline of literary study; I missed reading with an eye to writing and thinking. Perhaps the biggest problem with "studio" MFA programs is that "creative writing" is not a coherent discipline in the sense I'm using it here. In an English department, it adapts itself as negative space to what everyone else is doing: creative writing is everything that isn't scholarship. If you're doing both, creative writing comes as a welcome release from the rules of academic discourse. The trouble is that creative writing as such has come to have its own rules of discourse, ones which tend to remain invisible to its participants and which are only occasionally concretized by critics. The term "McPoem" is one of these occasions, through which we recognize the impact of consensus—a social demand reified by the workshop structure—on poems idealized as means of personal expression. A workshop that actually attempted to produce poetry on a consensus basis, on the other hand, might be an interesting DIY experiment. I'm not suggesting that I want creative writing to become a discipline in a prescriptive sense—what a nightmare for those who think MFA programs are already the source of all literary evil!—only that discipline in the broader sense has to come from somewhere. More "advanced" writers bring that to the table themselves; I suppose that's why there's no degree for the Stanford program, which describes itself as being for "working artists" rather than students. But what about those who are still feeling their way, the ones most likely to sign up for an MFA? Education is really such a fragile, contingent creature; I think the best education is that which creates a framework for understanding one's cultural moment and then sends you on your way to fill in the details—it makes committed autodidacts out of its students.

I continue to be attracted to the framework offered by English PhD study because it feels flexible enough to encompass my interests yet firm enough to provide the benefits of concentrated work. Maybe what we need are more joint degree programs, but in an interdisciplinary context with something for everybody: MFA/PhDs with PhDs offered in anthropology, philosophy, art history, what have you; and MFA/JDs, MFA/MDs, even MFA/MBAs. About as realistic as combining all U.S. intelligence under a single person, but maybe more desirable.

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