Thursday, February 21, 2008


Once again I shall shamelessly piggyback on Bob's blog to point at his post of praise for Robyn Schiff, who kicked a lot of butt reading here at Lake Forest yesterday (and also proved a charmingly formidable presence in my poetry writing class that morning).

And here's a picture of Sadie with her Grammy Ellayn, who was visiting with us (and being unbelievably helpful) last week and the week before:

That's all I got.

Friday, February 15, 2008

New Web Ventures of Note

- Feminist poetics makes a big fat splash at Delirious Hem, featuring critical writing from Esther Belin, Susan Briante, David Buuck, CAConrad, Michelle Detorie, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley, Rachel Levitsky, Joyelle McSweeney, Sina Queyras, Linda Russo, Sandra Simonds, Carmen Giménez Smith, Elizabeth Treadwell, Catherine Wagner, and Christine Wertheim.

- UpRightDown modestly describes itself as "a game," which asked of its players to all write pieces based on the same scenario:
THE PLOT: In a bistro in Paris a young woman (A) tells her three girlfriends (B, C, and D) about the affair she had with an American tourist, who returned home promising to write, and hasn’t. It’s been over two weeks; something must have happened to him. (She has just learned she is carrying his child, but she doesn’t tell her friends.) B tells her to call him; C to e-mail him; D to forget all about him. Enter a fat American couple; each of them has a different speech impediment. They order food. The man chokes. A performs the Heimlich maneuver on him, and saves his life.
The bait has been taken by poets, fiction writers, and other weirdos worth your while.

I had hoped to be at the reading in the city featuring Gabe Gudding, Kent Johnson, and Tawrin Baker this evening, but the lure of new fatherhood was too strong. Can you blame me?

A rather dramatically lit photo that Emily took. Clearly we have a future dancer or conductor on our hands....

I may have more to say about the subject of the last post; I may not. But for now I direct you to my colleague Bob Archambeau's trenchant assessment of the post-avant brouhaha, inspired in part by the generational musings of Ray Bianchi, who succeeds in making me ever more eager to read this.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Okay, first of all: the obligatory adorableness:


Now that we've got that out of the way: on his blog, Paul Hoover recently sought to engage my July post about New American Writing, the magazine he edits with his wife Maxine Chernoff, in which I made the claim that the writing published there represents the "postmodern establishment." To quote myself, "Hoover and Chernoff's magazine constitutes an establishment insofar as it palpably conserves the tradition of postmodern lyric that occupies, I think, the capacious middle ground between the austerities of Language poetry and the ironic "personal" characteristic of the New York School(s)." Paul's response to my post basically agrees with that statement, and raises the question of what it might mean to pursue avant-garde strategies in the wake of the collapse of the distinction between the "inside" and "outside" of American poetry: the strong antagonism between an academic inside (master signifier: the AWP) and an anti-academic outside (the New Americans, the Langpos) has collapsed almost entirely in just the ten years or so that I've been a publishing poet.

Over at the Poetry Foundation, Reginald Shepherd has raised a remarkable storm of controversy in his efforts to define the bogeyman of the "post-avant," a specter that has long haunted the blogosphere and a term that, depending on who you talk to, originated either in the spirit of parody from the poison pen of Joan Houlihan, or the spirit of sober earnestness from the stone tablets of Ron Silliman. The subsequent dispute between Reginald and his interlocutors (Ange Mlinko bringing the sharpest edge, in every sense, to her comments) seems to be between a view of the post-avant as a "third way" between avant-garde and mainstream, and a view of it merely as a style of our period, with all the flexibilities and fetishizations attributable to a style. I agree with Ange when she argues that to be avant-garde is a political position before it is an aesthetic one: that it assumes a negative, outsider's stance toward aesthetic establishments and institutions. If, as she goes on to claim, there is no longer any meaningful "outside" in American poetry, the avant-garde is emptied of its content and becomes a style at best and a pose at worst: one more chip to be played in the increasingly disorganized game of Texas hold 'em that is our boundaryless poetry present.

So [to paraphrase Ms. Jane Dark] the notion of the post-avant as a "third way" is indeed subject to the same criticism that the political Third Way is open to: that it's really just the "first way" (i.e., hegemony) with an updated sales pitch, Quietude with a human face. Yet from my perspective, the crisis we're a part of now has less to do with the disappearance of the outside than it does with the disappearance of the inside. That is, literary culture (not just poetry!) no longer has a meaningful relation with our culture-in-general, which in itself no longer seems to serve the function of legitimizing political power that it used to do (but it may still have a role in legitimizing markets). Put another way and more locally, many poets associated with the "post-avant" now have tenure track academic jobs; but I would argue such positions no longer constitute a meaningful "inside" because neither American culture nor American poetry center on academia any more, and haven't for quite some time. An endowed chair at Harvard or Penn just ain't what it used to be: the cultural capital accruing to a Bob Perelman or a Jorie Graham is microscopic in comparison with the capital enjoyed by previous generations of poets and profs from Mark Van Doren to Lionel Trilling, or even to Perelman (still "outside") and Graham (very much "inside") as recently as the 1980s. The flip side of this is a tremendous democratization: it's harder than ever to write a book of poems that will make any sort of splash in the larger culture, but it's easier than ever for talented poets, academic and non-academic, to find an audience (if not the audience) via chapbooks, small presses, and the Web.

So it seems to me that poets of every aesthetic stripe save perhaps the most conservative (the ones approved of by Adam Kirsch, say, or the ranks of the poets-laureate) are best described as post-mainstream, because the center of the cultural margin is still the margin. Almost any sort of poetry writing or poetry life counts as countercultural in a manifestly postliterate society. But that doesn't mean we get to reclaim avant-garde status because a literary avant-garde has to attack the literary establishment, and the latter simply doesn't exist any more, at least not in the sense that "establishment" ought to have (i.e., bearing some intrinsic relation to power). This doesn't mean that poets have stopped competing for status and recognition; nor have I resolved, or adequately raised, the question of literary culture's relationship to the marketplace. But it seems clear that the game has changed, and more radically than we've realized, in just the past decade or so; and I'm not at all convinced that what will take the old culture's place will much resemble the field we're all still half-heartedly running up in down in, with the avant-garde guarding one goalpost and the reactionaries guarding the other (while proclaiming loudly that there is, in fact, no game taking place).

What we're left with is style: mere aesthetics. And that's not such a terrible thing, if only because of the enormous freedom it offers poets and readers; and because it throws us back upon what Ron recently said in his response to a Poetry Foundation questionnaire (the simple fact of which tells us that the Foundation can't be what we once thought of as an establishment, nor can Ron be what we once thought of as avant-garde): "Whether you are a new formalist or a slam poet, a visual poet or a language writer, the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and of the graphic letter, is the one secret shared by all poets to which nonreaders of poetry seem literally clueless." Ours is a language art, and whatever else we are likely to become as a species, it seems unlikely that we'll become post-language. So there's room for the new—and perhaps, an outside—after all.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

"...of the life, or of the work..."

For the first time in many years AWP is happening without me, but I don't miss it much. Sadie Gray is the new magnet to align my filings; she's worth all the schmoozing in the world, and much more besides. This morning I said to Emily, "I'll never write a greater poem than her," and that seems self-evidently true. Baby, remember my name indeed: if only she'll remember, what else could I require of fortune and men's eyes? A great reorganization is taking place.

In my younger and more vulnerable years I saw my life as grist for writing, as redeemable only by writing, sometimes in the most literal terms: every day I produced pages was a day I had earned the subsidiary right to exist. I drifted along like a wilted balloon, barely touching the ground, unbearably light: Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad. Gradually I began to take on ballast: institutional support, awakening of intellectual desire, passionate friendships, love, marriage. Now a child completes my awakening to the earth and it's more clear to me than ever that my work and writing exist to serve my life and not the other way around.

Perhaps that bars the door to greatness? Or to unfold the full quotation from Yeats: "The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work, and if it take the second must refuse a heavenly mansion, raging in the dark." Not quite so clear as it appears at first glance: the intellect must choose, not the heart or soul; one foregoes a heavenly mansion, not an earthly one. And I think of another Irishman's rueful (or was it triumphant?) claim: "I have put my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works." More practically, of course "getting a life" means less time to write; but the real damage, if there is any, is inflicted by the middle path of bourgeois family life, which necessarily restrains you from pursuing the more glamorous extremes (though if the sleep deprivation an infant puts you through doesn't count as a systematic derangement of the senses, I don't know what does). Or most simply, the intense and necessary selfishness of the devoted artist is thwarted by the radical decentering family life requires. Put in evolutionary terms, my species-being now asserts itself over any notions of individuality I may have had: I exist as a vessel for my genes which I must now safeguard in the person of a single nine-pound person. Sadie Gray comes first in all my thinking now--no, that's not accurate--she's prior to thinking, she's a transcendental condition of my most ordinary acts, and my writing consciousness as well. I come toward or go away from her, like the sun, like gravity, whatever else may preoccupy my mind.

Of course the pursuit of immortality, or greatness, or what have you, has always been a mug's game, and all the more so in the field of literature. It seems clearer than ever that the love of books has become an eccentricity, and that literary fiction is now nearly as far from the center of cultural gravity as poetry is. If I were setting out now to forge the uncreated conscience of my race I'd create a series for HBO. But from another perspective the death of the Author (some salt-and-pepper eminence being quizzed by Dick Cavett) is really only the death of certain apparatus of canonicity and distribution: the big publishing houses are now nearly as irrelevant to cultural activity as the record companies have become to music. It's easier than ever to find readers and harder than ever to assign some kind of exchange-value for that readership; and so we write for the thing itself, to be read. Which is as much to say that writing, cultural labor, now exists as a means toward living (not making a living)--and so I have the perhaps inaccurate sense of living a post-literary life in time with my post-literate culture. Post-literary: the death of literature as means to something else. Are new possibilities, new purities of expression now possible?

I kid, of course; or I push it, or exaggerate. The game is still the game, as Daniel Plainview's descendent Marlo says on The Wire (glory of 19th-century television, though a diminished thing this season). People are still scrambling for cultural capital: academia remains the major preserve in which writing serves as a form of accumulation, convertible into prestige which translates directly into dollars (if only it translated into euros!); someone reading this now still dreams of making a splash with the Great American Novel, if not the Great Postmodernist Poem. And there remains the question of who reads us, and how many: does it matter if most of my readers are themselves poets? Is it so inglorious a thing to perhaps occupy the position of the band that launches other bands? So many of us writers keep going because we have this crazy faith in the possibility of being the butterfly in Bali that starts the hurricane in Florida. And so many of us are also teachers who come to work each day hoping to meet the student who will in some way carry our literary passions beyond our own necessary obsolescence.

Which brings me back to my little girl, my throw of the dice that will never abolish oblivion but stands for possibility all the same, and whose relationship with my writing is yet to be discovered, though it's already taking place.

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