Monday, February 20, 2006

A tremendous time was had by all at the SOON reading on Saturday, in spite of a fairly serious technical glitch at the start: we couldn't unlock the doors to the gallery! But thanks to some quick thinking and the kindness of the folks at Autumn Leaves Used Books and the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition we had an alternate space within minutes and were able to hold the reading there. Jonathan Skinner of ecopoetics read first. His poems, which work at the intersection of natural and political history, describes birds and cacti and ecosystems with something of the glancing and playful yet acute attention that Gertrude Stein gives to domestic objects and situations. The result is a sense of uncanny intimacy with landscapes as dialogued with, neither symbolized nor mastered. His ear is tuned to what words warble of themselves even as they refer to warblers. He read some of his Political Cactus Poems, but the bulk of the reading was devoted to wetlands and their slow, exorable enclosure, concluding with a long and long-lined tour-de-force, "The Natural History of Levies," a painful history of the ongoing disaster in New Orleans (never mentioning the city or any of the more culpable personages by name, speaking from an undefined "we") brought about in large part from the devastation of the wetlands and tidewaters that once guarded the city from hurricanes, as well as of course serving as vital ecosystems in their own right. Natural history plus the history of development in the Gulf plus a little old-fashioned rabble-rousing: "The same government that rushed back to the capital to save a brain-dead woman's life stayed home"; "The war on misery has not yet been declared"; "None of us were willing to acknowledge how little we'd learned about wetlands." Except we in the audience had learned quite a bit. Jonathan Skinner is a poet of considerable information, and learning about the present-tense world is one of the pleasures of hearing him.

Jonathan Monroe followed up with considerable information of his own. Although he's done important scholarship on contemporary innovative poetry, he's not very well known as a poet. This should change, because the work is witty, surprising, and intensely engaged with the relation between language and networks—a crucial insight because networks, as Alexander Galloway here points out (via wood s lot) are no longer the models of utopian resistance to centralized autority that thinkers such as Hakim Bey and Deleuze & Guattari once thought they were:
The powers-that-be have developed a new awareness and are adopting flexible, network structures at very core levels. They are adopting flexible network structures not as an apology or concession, not as a sacrifice, but as essential techniques for the very processes of sovereignty, control, and organization. In other words, distributed networks have ceased being a threat to control and have become the model for control. What was once the problem is now the solution. Today, this is one of the core challenges for imagining a life after capitalism: one can no longer rely on networks as a site for imaginative desire.
This is an insight with long-ranging implications for politically engaged poetry, proving, if proof were needed at this point, that textual disjunction may merely be mimetic of the habits of power rather than posing any intrinsic resistance to them. Jonathan Monroe's poetry seems at the least highly aware of this difficulty. Many of the poems he read were reflexively about reading and writing—appropriately enough, as his main job at Cornell is director of the undergraduate writing program—and tweaked some of the pieties that come with that terrritory: "Clarity takes the horn by its bull"; "Clarity, mother of inhibitions"; "Clarity: no samba, no flair"; "Conjugation not narration turned out to be destiny." The overall impression was that of a Dadaized intensification of the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, if Schoolhouse Rock were reimagined as an attempt to track the sheer voracious energy of capitalism on the make. "Something may happen but generally not"; "Not wanting to belong to any club that would have us dismembered"; "No syntax is free if you do a good job"; "In the language of surfing, no surplus" (that last makes for an interesting comment on Google-poetry). Like the Jonathan before him, Jonathan Monroe ended with a long poem that told us an awful lot about the now: he says it's largely a transcription of a conversation he overheard at a restaurant in Trinidad, where he was doing research for a course focusing on the work of Aime Cesaire, Derek Walcott, Edouard Glissant, and Kamau Brathwaite. It takes the form of a hysterical monologue addressed by a white man to a black man in which he elaborates a scheme for transforming Trinidad into a global hotspot for medical tourism—a place for rich people to visit, get plastic surgery, lie on the beach for a couple of weeks, and leave. The importance of a "brand-name" medical institution like Johns Hopkins, the simplicity of luring surgeons there for a couple of years by offering to double their salaries, tax free. It was a little like David Mamet only the obscenity was all in the context; it was also very funny, even as it terrified the listener through the sheer verbal spectacle of globalization in action. Great stuff, important stuff.

Acquired a couple of chapbooks from the Palm Press stash Jonathan Skinner brought with him: Mairead Byrne's An Educated Heart, which I'm looking forward to, and Mark Nowak's ¡Workers of the Word, Unite and Fight!, which largely consists of two provocative essays: a lacerating critique of the corporate facade and heart of the new Open Book literary center in Minneapolis and a longer essay, "Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry," which actually spends less time attacking the latter than it does on providing a blueprint for unionizing and/or fucking with chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The last section is a poem with a fairly explanatory title: "Better Dead Than Bound to Be Read (Bookselling in America at the Millennial Turn)." Provocative stuff: it's hard to argue with this description of the American MFA industry (Nowak always italicizes it), which cuts to the heart of the justifiable resentment that has mostly found misdirected outlets like Foetry:
The relations of production within the American MFA industry, as well as the larger neoliberal language industry outlined above, replicate the sharp divisions and stratifications present in the relations of production in the global economy. An elite and highly paid miniority who control the practices and processes of the industry reap the bulk of the economic (and socio-cultural) benefits while a vast popular- or working-class majority struggles on temporary (part-time, adjunct, or annual) service contracts, substandard wages or graduate "stipends," unavailable or unaffordable healthcare, and related symptoms common to the larger processes and practices of neoliberalization.
And then there's this bit:
As a consequence of the industry's overproduction of graduates, an advertisement for a single one of these [tenure-track teaching] positions will regularly elicit hundreds of applicants. Likewise, many publishers now regularly fund books and journals through contests that charge exorbitant "service fees" for merely reading (aka, "servicing") a submission. Largely non-unionized service workers at Kinki's, OfficeMax, and Staples assist largely non-unionized creative writers in the preparation of these job applications and manuscript submissions.
Nowak's answer to this unten(ur)able situation is not to attack individual writers but rather to advocate for collective action: for workshops outside the university situation (and where possible directly attached to unionization drives both inside and out of the language/culture industry), and by implication, reading and publishing collectives. "One question at hand is whether the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer. If it is not (as I am arguing here), then delinking the writers' workshop from its academic institutional framework becomes a more imperative cultural adjustment than attempts to reform the industry from within its academic institutional framework." Revolution trumps reform. But it's not that simple, is it? After all, as the other quotations from the essay imply, most participants in the American MFA industry are workers, not capitalists, even if they are struggling to become capitalists; they teach comp, pay the exorbitant entry fees, go into debt, and occasionally come together for collective action within and without the workshop. The problem—and the most brilliant thing about Nowak's analysis is the continuity he observes between the micro-literary political economy and the macro one—may largely be one of self-identification and class consciousness. It's hard to think of oneself as a cultural worker within the university environment, especially an elite university environment as found here at Cornell. But that doesn't mean that isn't precisely one's role, or that one can't reach out to others in the same situation and find ways large and small to challenge the neoliberal assumptions that undergird the academic institution one is a more or less alienated part of. Still, most of us want to identify with the bosses and the haves. It seems supremely difficult to be what one is: to acknowledge how small a part we have as individuals in a destiny conceived of individualistically. There is no strong tradition of collective action for the grassroots of my generation to grow out of. Yet I have a growing sense of the intensifying desire for such action and such consciousness on the part of myself and my peers. Nowak quotes Adrienne Rich:
I want to read, and make, poems that are out there on the edge of meaning yet can mean something to the collective. I don't believe it's only the isolated visionary who goes to the edge of meaning; I think the collective needs to go there too...

9 comments:

A. D. said...

a very interesting post today. thanks.

Simon said...

Without wanting to minimize the problem of unionization for the service industry, is the solution to the wretched job prospects for poets as poets to develop new structures within which they are paid to write?

How possible is it for more than a tiny handful of writers to get jobs on the basis of their writing? And does it even happen now at all, given that poets are generally rewarded for their ability as teachers?

I think Nowak has a good idea, and I would love to see more extra-institutional collectives, but perhaps it is his place in the academy that leads him to phrase it in terms of unionization and resistance to the boss -- when to me it seems that there really is none to begin with? The "American MFA Industry", unlike the American daycare industry, doesn't actually need to exist.

A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said...

Thanks for sharing this; I've been waiting for someone to touch upon this subject as thoroughly as Nowak has.

Perhaps I missed your mention of this, but where did you find this essay? And how can I get my hands on a copy? Feel free to shoot me an e-mail about that, if it's convenient; if not, no biggie. Thanks!

Janet said...

Nice post, Josh. The ideas kind of kick back to what Sugarhigh was saying regarding the need to support national health care--surely one of the reasons people seek secure (i.e., tenured) jobs in academe. Most of us could keep a roof over our heads doing virtually any other kind of work, if that was all there was to it.

Josh said...

Pretty sure Nowak isn't an academic, Simon, though he does say he's involved with creating an alternative high school in that interview I linked to. He has a highly antagonistic relationship to the academy, as far as I can see. His orientation is more toward the world of bookselling—the bulk of his MFA-industry essay is actually devoted to bookseller agitation.

Patrick, the book can be purchased from Palm Press here. They also have a nifty subscription package: you get all five books published in 2005 for $40, which includes shipping. Subscriptions for 2006 are also available and will include everything they publish this year.

Simon said...

Ah, sorry, yes, mixing him up with Monroe above. Bookselling could use more radicals like him, because there's in a sense no way around the need to distribute work.

But here's a question: what would life be like if you could only read the poetry you got for free -- on the web, from journal exchanges, etc.. Would things be much worse? My guess is yes, and not only because you would miss out on the Collecteds and so forth: you are paying for editorial control.

The problem is then perhaps that we don't trust each other as editors as much as we might, and end up delegating a lot of the editorial work to people we feel OK with because we pay them.

Anyway, just a few cents on your newly commentful blog.

A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said...

Thanks, Josh. That's a good deal.

Curt Stump said...

I don't think you'll be disappointed with Mairead Byrne's chapbook. I've heard her read several times - she's an incredible reader. Hearing her really adds to the understanding of her poetry.

I wrote a short review of one of her poems last week on my blog The Stone and Plank. If you are interested, search for her poem titled "Baghdad," which is the lead poem in An Educated Heart.

patrick star said...

"There is no strong tradition of collective action" he says on the blog (whew!)

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