Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Still searching for my rhythm as a new prof, which has meant that blogging has dropped near to the bottom of my list of priorities, which nowadays looks something like this:

1) Prep for classes.
2) Grade.
3) Spend as much time as possible with Emily, and the Noodle in her belly, and the idea of the Noodle, and the idea of fatherhood, and the terrors and pleasures anticipatory hitherto these states of being/becoming.
4) More grading.
5) Fret unproductively about my spring syllabi.
6) Fret unproductively about my unfiled dissertation.
7) Fret unproductively about grading.
8) Write no poems.
9) Read no poems.
10) Blog.

All of which means I have precious little time to fulfill my role as patriarchal commissariat of the avant-garde. In her most recent post at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog, Ange Mlinko identifies me as belonging to a coterie of male poet-bloggers who have arrogated to themselves the privilege of deciding "what innovative is." It's interesting to be interpolated as a member of the patriarchy: it feels, and probably is, impersonal to who I actually am and what my real opinions might be (about feminism, for instance). That is, I doubt Ange intends any personal malice. But whether or not I fit the powdered wig she's placing on me, I have no doubt but that she's addressing a real and serious problem of underepresentation of women in a community with supposed egalitarian commitments.

The global frustration expressed by Ange (and by Julianna Spahr and Stephanie Young and others involved in the debate centering on the most recent issue of The Chicago Review) is one I've heard expressed locally by some of the women (and a few of the men) at the few poetry-related gatherings I've attended so far here in Chicago. That is, as far as the poetry scene here goes, it's a boys' town. I see no reason to doubt this assertion. Women are visible here, but the men are more so: a glance at The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, as good an index of the State of the Post-Avant in the City of the Big Shoulders as any, shows me 21 women contributors out of 52 total, or 40 percent. Not exactly parity, is it? A similar, slightly wider disparity manifests when I compare how many of the poets included self-identify as editors, curators, or otherwise having a public platform that goes beyond just writing and teaching: 10 women to 16 men.

It seems self-evident to me that the work of feminism is far from over in any public sphere you'd care to name, including poetry; it's also clear that the avant-garde scene is no better (or worse) than the mainstream one when it comes to the patriarchal structure of power that is the default mode for all of our institutions. I'm talking about the real world relationships between people and the means of production, now—I am persuaded that the actual writing produced by the avant-garde has a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling than the mainstream epiphanic lyric does. But that only seems to apply to poems—the discourse around poetry, particularly in the reviled comments streams (mine are less populated than some but the number of female commenters seems much smaller than the male population), is masculinist by default when it isn't patently chauvinistic or violent (there's nasty stuff slung in Ron Silliman's comment fields almost every time a female poet is his subject).

As someone with a public voice, however small and tinny, I therefore accept responsibility for doing my part to achieve greater gender parity in the poetry scenes I'm a part of. I can do this without compromising because I'm already invested in the notion that the best poems come embedded in a palpable historical and bodily context. And insofar as I'm interested in the Frankfurt School vein of modern poetry, I'm strongly drawn toward work where the biopolitical situation of the author is part of the work's complex of intention and effects: that's why I've been so enthusiastic about such texts as Ariana Reines' The Cow, Shanxing Wang's Mad Science in Imperial City (there's a wonderful interview with Wang here at Jacket), and Alice Notley's Grave of Light. When some younger male poets employ some of the tricks of polyglot indeterminacy, I suspect them of just trying to be hip; that's rarely the case when I'm reading the work of a poet who's speaking from a situation of otherness to the white patriarchal mainstream. As entranced as I can be by mere formalism and its potential for negativity, I find biopolitically motivated formalism more compelling, more answerable to the cry of its occasion.

To be a reader of use to myself and others, I have to remain answerable, first of all, to my own inclinations and whims. But that doesn't mean I can't sometimes assume a critical stance toward my own desideratum: if my writing is androcentric that's worth noting, and I've been wondering lately how to take better account of race in my work. Otherwise, the autonomy I strive for (see preceding post) isn't generative or disinterested; it's just position-taking and brinksmanship, shuffling pieces around a board, mere assertion and bloviating. I aspire to something more than that.

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