Thursday, June 02, 2005

I'd like to invite you all to check out and ponder and submit to Little Emerson, a new blogzine devoted to the perhaps impossible agreement of its innumerable editors, presided over by Alberto Romero Bermo. It's an interesting project devoted not least to line-crossing. Laurel Snyder wrote to me yesterday asking about crossing and drwaing lines—not just in the poetry world but in yourself. Here's what I said in reply:
I try never to write "strictly as" anything. When I first started grad school at Montana, I wasn't even really "a poet" yet, though I badly wanted to be one. Then I became interested, to my astonishment, in theory and scholarship and hard stuff like that. For a long time I thought I would keep the two things separate: I planned to model my career on Berryman's (minus the alcoholism, womanizing, and suicide)—a teacher of literature, especially Shakespeare, who also happened to write poems. After the Stanford interlude, where I found I missed the rigors of literary study, I came to Cornell, where I gradually came to realize that my interests as a poet and my interests as a scholar/critic were not separable, just as my interests as a (political, economic, sexual, you name it) human being were not separable from my poetry. So now I find that whatever I'm doing—blogging, writing the diss, writing a poem, talking with my girlfriend—always points back to the embarassingly old-fashioned fundamental questions: What is truth? What is the good life? Why do I write? and so on.

Right now under the influence of Zizek I think that "lines" are not so much a myth--though they can easily become so--as a counter-myth, an attempt to seize the moving finger that having writ will move on and leave us in the dust. I want to be the primary agent, the prime mover, in my own life—I can never fully escape the determinations of circumstance (my sex, race, class, etc.) or the consequences of old decisions (though I think of myself as a sojourner at Cornell I know I'll always be associated with it, for better and for worse), but I can work to create the conditions by which I, and the poets I most care about, can be read—and maybe more fundamentally, can go on writing. To paraphrase Dickinson, My Business is Survival. So I keep a blog, and urge negative capability on my students (when I happen to have some), and write reviews, and talk to people at the bookstore, etc., etc.

The lines are real: it's their positioning, what they include or exclude, that is constantly changing. There's a lot of energy to be generated in the struggle to see more and see differently; there's also the possibility of stagnation and blind camp-following. But what I most dread is a premature end to the struggle—in this context, "Can't we all just get along" surrenders meaningful difference and leaves whoever happens to be on top at the moment we call "Time!" still on top. It's best to keep moving.
And then Aaron Tieger had more to say:
On a personal level I agree with you on sorting/being sorted. It's incredibly important to me to figure out where I stand (perhaps irrelevantly, I'm reminded of Rorschach telling the other inmates that he's not locked up with them - they're locked up with him). [A reference to Alan Moore's Watchmen if you were wondering--Ed.]

But I guess I worry when the necessary self-orientation becomes a premise for something more public (& thus "official"). As I said - what happens to a Ronald Johnson, Fanny Howe, or Brenda Iijima when the established classifications can't contain them?

It also occurs to me that over-reliance on labels & lines & stuff is potentially alienating for the non-initiated. That is, when my mom (for example) says "What kind of stuff does X write" I have to be able not to say "Well, it's sort of Black Mountainy" but rather "Well, it does this and that." I think viewing things in terms of schools and isms can contribute to the ridiculously common "I don't know anything about poetry" argument/position.

& I'm not so sure hegemony can't be ignored; it seems to me the best way to disarm a system is to ignore it. Democracy thrives on hegemony ("meet the new boss/same as the old boss"); I'm trying to think about this like an anarchist.
Yes, but. "Thinking like an anarchist" necessarily entails acting like an anarchist—that is, taking direct action. And I think Aaron does this to some degree by editing CARVE and doing it all on his lonesome with no outside funding, by curating SOON, by publishing mostly outside the mainstream, not being an academic, etc. None of this adds up to ignoring hegemony, though that stance might be useful to Aaron; I see it as a more or less concerted effort to subvert the existing hegemony and to replace it with a conception of poetry as a DIY-community of mutual aid. You can't get rid of hegemony, which is an empty signifier; you can only occupy it with a less-obnoxious hegemony. After all, if academic and insitutional support for poetry were to disappear overnight, an awful lot of poets and critics who have made their peace with the system would be disenfranchised. You can relish the thought of such a revolution, or you can deplore its violence, but I think it's false to believe that working outside the system somehow completely disengages you from it—you are in fact more actively engaged with it than its participants are, albeit in a negative way that can be intensely liberatory and productive.

I guess what I'm talking about is the problem of power—the "official." This is a question I struggle with continuously, and why I'm turning more and more toward political theory these days. It's too simple to walk away from power, to disavow your need for it just because those who currently have power have done terrible things with it. It's a mistake, I think, to conflate power with evil, but it's an easy mistake to make. I often think of the history of my people, the Jews, in the twentieth century. For centuries we were essentially powerless, in but not of the Christian world where real power resided: we were outside history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jews began to enter history in a big way, to experiment with translating wealth (the Rothschilds, etc.) and ideas (Marx is the towering figure here) into political power. But it was only after the Shoah and the founding of Israel that Jews acquired real power and entered history for the first time as one nation among many. Now, for those of us on the left, the spectacle of Israel behaving just like any other state—that is, exerting sovereignty through violence—is a very painful one, especially if you have a sense, as I do, that Jews bear the burden of a profound ethics. But the solution is not, as "Philip Roth" half-seriously proposes in Operation Shylock: A Confession the dismantling of Israel and the return to the Diaspora—to bail out of history. We're in it now and we face the same hard slog for justice as every other nation. We cannot renounce the power we need to live; we should renounce injustice.

All of which makes the battle for poetry seem like small potatoes. But the dream life of language is crucial to the health of the imagination, out of which new things like justice might arise. So I believe that, for me at least, the path of renouncing all claims to power—the power of publication, the power of critical thought, the power to be heard—is a false one. My task instead is to acquire power in a just way and to use what power I have as justly and fairly as I can, always alert to the possibility—indeed, the probability—of corruption and a fall. So I draw lines, and redraw them, and search for a way to open the crisscrossed field to those who "don't know anything about poetry," who literally don't know what they're missing.

Before I go, a big shout-out of thanks to David Brazil of the Ithaca Free School: gentleman, scholar, and candidate for sainthood. A bookseller, David's always giving me free things: today when I stopped by he gave me a beautiful Scribner's edition of selections from Johnson's Dictionary, plus two Robert Kelly books: Spiritual Exercises and A Strange Market (very apropos, that). Most extraordinary, he gave me a copy of the rare Ronald Johnson broadside Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid. I'm getting it framed.

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