Friday, March 09, 2007

Further Thoughts on Affirmation and Estrangement

The furor stirred up by the last post wasn't always edifying, but I think it does point toward the anxiety stirred up by not only by an event such as AWP but also by the very attempt to practice what Seth Abramson calls the sociology of poetry. I try never to draw lines that work to mystify or efface my own involvement in the thing I'm trying to analyze. Let me be clear: I am in no way exempt from the desire, the need, for affirmation as a writer, and neither is anyone else. But I do think it's possible to assume a critical perspective toward the culture, or maybe more usefully the institutional structures, that have been established to meet that need and which, I think, do an at best indifferent job of meeting it. Meantime those who would found alternative institutions or provisional filiations (DIY, the flarflist, etc.) are accused of elitism, of being too cool for school, etc. Because too many people have invested their self-esteem—their natural desire for affirmation—into institutions and frameworks that actually perpetuate the master-slave dialectic we're uncovering here.

Though Joshua argues quite reasonably that it's unreasonable to expect that any social unit embedded in a contradictory and unjust society would somehow itself be exempt from contradiction, I keep looking for alternatives. I think again of the panel on Jewish identity which functioned, I thought, as something of a hinge between the two cultures I describe. Each panelist seemed to me to be negotiating the transformation of his or her problems of identity (as writer, as woman, as immigrant, as mother, as gay man, as Jew) into the terms of an artistic problem, without ever actually losing sight of its social-political provenance. Not coincidental with this was the overall theme of simultaneous embrace and estrangement, of an intense ambivalence that I recognized as my own and as being fully applicable to both my Jewishness and to the larger culture of poetry that I've so recklessly subdivided. In other words, an experience of affirmation derived from being in the presence of the kind of creative-critical process that I turn to writers and writing for.

I'd like to close by excerpting an e-mail that G.C. Waldrep sent me last night. I think it's a remarkably smart and humane document of engagement with the issues described here, and a model of the kind of personal and critical reflection that might actually get us somewhere:
I wanted to address something you said at the end of your precipitating post, i.e. how to bridge these two camps (which are real, just as the two camps Anne proposes are real; this is a multidimensional space we are talking about). As you know, I started writing in a vaccuum--when it comes to an active literary culture--and remained in that vaccuum for a good six years, before circumstances introduced me to Bread Loaf, AWP, the colonies, and finally Iowa. I had been writing and publishing for six years before I ever experienced a poetry workshop, eight before I taught one. Which is only to say that I relate only in part, and even then in odd ways, to the discourse of professionalization, even though I'm now a Ph.D. with a t.t. job in creative writing.

After four years of teaching undergraduates, I'm convinced that one reason they come to c.w. classes--one reason they "want to be writers" (so different from actually wanting to write!)--is a desire for "authenticity." They aren't sure what that is, but they are sure it's a problem in our culture, and they see poetry (rightly or wrongly) as one sphere in which "authenticity" (of a putative self) can be achieved and celebrated. Hence your first camp.

What I have tried to get across to my students, increasingly, is that if authenticity of (a) self can be achieved in language, then craft matters. The host culture has sufficiently colonized our brains with language--we are awash in media--that the seemingly simple act of stripping away cliche from one's writing can take years of self-conscious, often discouraging effort. That through solving problems of craft a writer is not distracting him- or herself from that authenticity, but rather finding ways to deepen that authenticity: of voice, of form, and yes, in the end, of self. I'm one of those characters who doesn't know what he means until he sees what he says, so for me the idea of a self coming into being even as the words unspool is a potent one, at least in theory.

(I was asked this explicitly at my Bucknell interview, by the way, with no prompting from me: "Is it possible to achieve or realize an authentic self in or through language?")

It seems to me that there are two critical problems with the first camp, as you define it. The first is the tendency toward what one of your commenters called "a non-judgmental space," presumably a space in which all writing is validated because it is writing, because an individual wrote it. I understand the history and manifold interfaces of identity politics, and the need to create spaces of safety and nurture, but I have to say I despise this to the extent that it interferes with the sort of critical inquiry we both value. (But then, I started writing not because I wanted to achieve a self or an identity per se, but because I wanted to write good, lasting poems in dialogue with the poems and poets I loved.) The second is that the professional aspect of this affirmative camp circles around Being A Writer, rather than around writing. In other words, it's not enough to write to feel that one "is a writer" in the affirmative or identity-related sense that this matters; one must also be able to make a claim to the mantle, which in this culture involves publishing, credentials, etc. Tell any stranger you are a writer and the first question you'll receive back (in a suspicious tone) is "Oh, have you published anything?"

So it seems to me that the writerly culture of affirmation is caught on two axes of indifference, at least as regards to craft. The first supposes that critical inquiry undermines this search for authenticity, creates a space in which it is unsafe to follow one's muse etc. etc. The second validates the literary enterprise through seemingly every aspect of literary life (degrees, publication, classes, blogs, community membership) except the writing itself.

As it happens, having started to write in a vaccuum, I very much value the community of writers I have come to know since 2001. As it happens, as someone for whom the ongoing conversation that is the public manifestation of literature has real meaning (this is how the living talk to the dead, and vice versa), I am also deeply invested in the act, and dynamics, of publication. And of course I happen to have marked out a social and spiritual space for myself rooted in an identity orthogonal to much of mainstream American culture. I'm not denying that any of these aspects of what it means to "be a writer" is reprehensible. It's just that to the extent any of them preclude a deepening of the writer's experience of self-through-language that craft provides, they are harmful.

I don't know how to address this other than through trying to create a discourse of writerly craft that emphasizes how the authentic (if it exists) is related to, may in fact be beholden to, the act of writing, which automatically includes issues of craft. (My own gut feeling is that "the authentic" comes into existence moment-by-moment *through* craft, through language-in-making, but that is perhaps an aesthetic bias on my part.) One of the reasons I like to use Surrealist parlor games in the classroom (I am particularly enamored of the "What is...?" game) is that they trick students into discovering, or at least suspicioning, that their "authentic" selves lie deeper, and more strangely, than they had hitherto imagined, and that language, if employed within a critically conscious framework, can afford them access to these selves, if they will be adventurous.

(Ha. Now I sound like Breton. I would prefer Cesaire, but what can one do.... At any rate, I do think the commercialization and general diffusion of Surrealist technique has obscured some of the more useful lessons the movement had for all of us who work in the arts.)

I see this problem primarily pedagogical terms because I'm engaged with it on this level from day to day. AWP, as a suprainstititonal phenomenon, is a different sort of venue. But I think the problems you are describing run deeper in the culture, especially when it comes to the culture's contradictory attitudes toward poetry itself: Poetry as an abstraction continues to be held in high esteem--it still evinces significant cultural cachet--even though very few individuals in the culture at large read it.

Yes, it would be nice to have a smaller conference, as at Carrboro. But to create such a smaller conference would to bring principles of exclusion into play. I confess that I felt aesthetically, politically, and personally excluded from the Carrboro festival, which was especially hard on me because I am, in fact, a North Carolina boy, and the idea of participating in such a discourse on home soil was particularly attractive. Leading back to the age-old question, one that lay at the heart of my first nonfiction book: how does one *extend* a sense of community (literary or otherwise) while simultaneously *defending* the space it defines? (I am glad Kasey points out that such a smaller gathering would not replace, or even supplement, AWP, but would in fact be providing an entirely different experience, and bring entirely different criteria to bear.)

No comments:

Popular Posts