Sunday, February 12, 2006

The spa was sinfully luxurious: my favorite part came on the first night, when we arrived exhausted and immediately went to the outdoor hot tub. There's something magical about simmering oneself in hot water while snow falls around and on you. Had a massage, finished the second George R.R. Martin book. I'm well and truly hooked now. Plotting is not a skill to be scorned, and Martin is an expert at moving many pieces around on his chessboard so that they collide in satisfying and sometimes surprising ways. Plot was my greatest weakness when I was trying to write fiction, and many avant-garde fictionists don't seem to be particularly interested in it. Is there something about a complex and interesting plot that's extrinsic to the strongest writing? Martin's sentences are certainly nothing to write home about: he happily resorts to cliches. The other thing he's good at, which is the most crucial element of a successful fantasy/speculative fiction novel, is assembling the details of his world. For much of the first volume I felt like he'd just emptied a bargain bin filled with the detritus of Arthurian legend, LeGuin's Earthsea novels, Robert Silverberg's novels, Dune (what are maesters but mentats? And it turns out there's an ecological note to Martin's world after all: the lost Children of the Forest and the godswoods in which the trees have eyes, destroyed by imperialism), and of course more than a sprinkling of Tolkien. But gradually his world has filled out and come to seem real, and I'm invested in the fate of the various characters, however archetypal they may be. Plus it has the vividness of melodrama: the villains are truly villainous, while the heroes are noble but sometimes uncertain of what the right thing may be in an increasingly dark and treacherous world.

On the poetry front I've been reading Joshua Marie Wilkinson's fantasia on the life of Egon Schiele, Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms, and Karla Kelsey's brand-new first book which just arrived from Ahsahta Press, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary. Very beautiful writing in both books, though not very similar in style: Wilkinson assembles a kind of travelogue in which the paths of himself, Schiele, Wittgenstein, and others criss-cross Europe; Kelsey is a practitioner of the high lyric abstract which I find so very seductive. Still, at the momentt I'm still preoccupied with the place of beauty in poetry, particularly my own, and the desire to mess it up a little bit, to attack its narcotic properties. I've been following the back and forth about flarf with this in mind: I'm no flarfist, but I admire the subversive energy of the project, the daring of setting out to write deliberately bad poetry so as to put our received ideas of "the poetic" into question. It's become a genuine movement, and the evidence of this is that critics (like Dan Hoy and Jane) and assorted flarfists are now struggling to control its reception. This is the final gesture by which a movement or poet or technique becomes canonical, I think: after this it's all consolidation and textbooks. Which does not necessarily negate flarf's subversive potential; but I think the energy behind flarf, the desire to upset the apple-cart, is bound to move on toward something else now. May already have moved on to something I'm not yet aware of. In the meantime a slightly more conservative poet like myself is still trying to discover in what ways I've been impacted by the flarf carnival and whether I too might not want someday to be King of the Beans.

A last thought on Legitimate Dangers: to me it raises the question of the necessity of discovering one's own poetics. To join an anthology like this is to permit one's own poetic to be overlapped by the editors' conception of their own project, however well or badly that project is articulated. Of course an anthology is only a snapshot of a moment that's over long before that anthology hits the bookstores, much less lands in a student's hands; a poet's poetics can't be separated from the slow or rapid unfurling of his or her career, which is why it means something to talk about "early Olson" or "late Ashbery." At the same time, I suspect many poets find the imperative to construct a poetics to be oppressive, while those in contact with one or more aesthetically cohesive communities often succumb to consensus and groupthink and team-choosing. When I become a teacher to poets, as I probably eventually will, how will I approach this? With a couple of exceptions, my academic poetry education utterly neglected this question, but instead tried to absorb me and my fellow students into its un- or underspoken hegemon. I've often thought the best way to be a good teacher is to have strong opinions oneself: to unapologetically present one's own views as openly and fully as possible, so as to provide your students a firm point of orientation from which they can plot their own necessary deviations. But now I'm starting to think that's demanding too great a sacrifice from me as a poet: my poetics too are in constant flux, though there are certain constancies and convictions of long standing. The only solution may be de-hierarchizing the workshop I lead as much as possible, and presenting myself as another learner, albeit one with more experience. Fathers are depressing, Gertrude Stein said. I'd rather not be anyone's Nobadaddy.

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