Sunday, February 06, 2011

Excitable Retrospect: AWP 2011

Back this afternoon from a condensed experience of DC, since I wasn't able to get there until Thursday night, like many many others affected by the snow. I've been going to this thing for the better part of a decade, now, but I'm still often surprised by how energized I feel afterward (and exhausted). Part of that is social: connecting with old dear friends whom I see infrequently enough that to encounter them is to reflect intensely on what you've been doing and who you've become since you saw them last. In my case that meant the usual suspects, Brian Teare and Richard Greenfield, who are beginning to enjoy a smidgen of the success they deserve (you owe it to yourself to click away right now and purchase a copy of Brian's rendingly beautiful new book Pleasure). But I also connected with older friends, from Montana days and even quite a bit earlier (weirdly, Marie Gauthier, the director of publicity for Tupleo Press, remembers meeting me when we were both in high school). And on my first night there I had a long chat with Evan Lavender-Smith that was the beginning of the weekend's personal theme: reconnecting and reintegrating old interests, selves, and projects. It's all of a piece: the poems, the criticism, the anxiety, the curiosity, the fiction. Which is another way of saying that I'm beginning to accept that I'm not getting any younger and the ride, though one-way, is radically cumulative. Nothing is lost, only discarded, and not even then.

Looking now at a bigger stack of books acquired at the book fair than I'd planned on acquiring; it's all the fault of Coffee House Press, which had a Crazy Eddie moment on Saturday and offered up everything at the table for $5/copy. Wishing it were as cheap and easy to buy time to read them all in. Another highlight include the "Leaping Prose" panel put on by Peter Grandbois, Carol Moldaw, Kazim Ali, and the grande dame of paratactic fiction, Carole Maso. The conceit of the panel was taken from Robert Bly's 1975 book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (a book I remember taking from my mother's bookshelf, very much part of my inheritance from her). It's not always easy for me to take Bly seriously; I've never thought there was much bottom to the "Deep Image" movement, and even the subtitle is cloying, shirking the real work of building a theoretical argument (and this is leaving out the whole unfortunate Iron John business). But Grandbois and the others did a good job of adapting Bly's "idea" about associative leaps in poetry as a technique fully adaptable to the task of narrative. There were moments when I thought I detected a tone of--well, not sanctimony exactly, but a little bit of eat-your-vegetables from Grandbois' part of the presentation. When avant-gardistes attack the "flow" of the "fictive dream" of conventional fiction as requiring the reader to take a passive, consumerist stance toward what they read, wanting to "escape" and be "swept away" (and I'll admit I've used this rhetoric myself in the past), there's often a degree of implicit Puritanism. As I grumpily Tweeted at one moment, "I don't want to read paratactic writing because it's good for me. It must offer pleasures as acute, if less voluptuous, than hypotaxis." Certainly it's clear to any reader of this blog that I take pleasure in writing hypotactic prose, and that I love an elaborate sentence, sometimes to the point of straining punctuation and syntax. At any rate, I seem to be at a point conducive to the questioning of pieties and bonnes pensées. The convert's fervor that I felt ten years ago when I was discovering the New Americans and Language poetry and cultural materialism for the first time is beginning to fade.

Grandbois did make some casually provocative assertions: he said that modernist fiction was preoccupied with epistemology--how we know our own lives--whereas the leaping prose he wanted to sponsor is ontologically oriented. Shit happens, and the reader is left to orient herself in relation to the narrated events or elements; literature becomes a mode then of object-oriented ontology. That's all familiar enough for me to question it, less from the point of view of logic than from my own attractions and compulsions. I've been reading more and more Robert Duncan, and am becoming fascinated with his arguments on behalf of rhetoric--the ways in which he complicates a legacy of modernist poetry that, it seems to me, is precisely opposed to Grandbois' claims about modernist fiction. Pound, the Objectivists, et al. Their preoccupation with clear hard images, aversion to "dim lands of peace," and so on, assert an ontological desire, a notion that a poem like The Cantos can somehow accumulate enough significantly arranged details to spontaneously combust into a new metaphysics. Duncan's ontological yearnings are grounded in something no less wacky, but harder for we postmoderns to swallow: myth and the esoteric. Rhetoric, though: I'm interested in it, I'm less persuaded than I've been in the past about modernist insistences on poems as objects and things and machines made of words. I had gone so far in the other direction that for years I've been reading poems without any concern for their meaning or message at all; pure intoxication of sound and association was what did it for me. There may have been, probably was/is a secret kernel of meaning, but intuiting its presence was enough; I felt no desire to crack the code or plant the seed. That's changing. The poetry I desire now has a relation to rhetoric and argument, albeit a fractured or tortured one. That's why Jennifer Moxley and Alice Notley are rising stars in my personal firmament. And there's some other connection between rhetoric and myth that my re-immersion in Duncan and Olson is teaching me. Olson's word muthologos--"what is said about what is said"--captures this not-quite-concept perfectly.

Back to the panel. My qualms about the possible Puritanism of parataxis were largely assuaged as the panel's real subject and motive became clear: bringing poetic strategies and stances to fiction writing--a subject near to my heart. (Carole Maso has an essay whose title says it all: "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose" and which includes what is for me an aspirational phrase for my own fiction: "a necklace of luminous moments strung together.") Carol Moldaw talked about her book The Widening, which dislocates temporality and pronoun reference so as to meditate on the adventure of a teenage girl's sexual awakening. The frighteningly prolific Kazim Ali spoke of approaches to prose that dislocate the framework of expectation that we bring to it, citing as examples Gertrude Stein (yes of course) and Willa Cather (more surprising) and John Steinbeck (!) as writers who have only just begun to be read, because we are only just beginning to break out of the "read" we have on them. (That quick labeling and pseudo-interpretation that's really a dismissal, a put-down: oh we know all about that, no need to actually read it.)

Maso's talk was the most lyrical, as you might expect: she spoke of her desire (this is a close paraphrase) to honor what's illegible, what passes through us without a code. (Aside: isn't that pure Platonism? Romantic idealism? Experience, consciousness, being, whatever you want to call the "subject" of writing: doesn't a statement like Maso's turn that subject into something inaccessibly a priori, noumenal, an at-best absent presence? Why has it taken so long for me to figure these things out? Olson: "I have had to learn the simplest things / last. Which made for difficulties.") Another nice line of hers: "In novels, anything can happen. Even things that have already happened." A pledge of the novel as a space for maximal freedom, with the aspiration "to traverse the abyss of time, to undo damage." (That notion of damage, trauma, again, seems weirdly Platonist: a trauma is an experience that has happened without happening, trapped in the past, an underwater rock diverting and contorting what flows around it; and the only way to undo trauma is to (re)live it, through fiction or dreamwork [Traumwerk].)

Another peak AWP experience was hearing the Chilean dissident poet Raúl Zurita, with his translator Daniel Borzutzky (and publisher Joyelle McSweeney, and respondent Monica de la Torre) read from his searing book Song for His Disappeared Love. As organizer Johannes Göransson inimitably put it, “This is like getting Neruda to the fucking AWP. This guy spent 6 weeks in a shed being tortured following the Pinochet coup.” The poem takes the reader to that shed, in wrenching rhythmical verses that seem flung up against a witnessing landscape of sand and sea and mountains. Zurita's body is shrunken and twisted by illness, which only seemed to enhance the prophetic power of his voice, like smoke with lightning forking through it. A reminder, if reminder were needed, that poetry for much of the world is a precious and depletable imaginative resource and not just an ornament for overeducated hipsters. Zurita, though known as an experimentalist, is very much a Romantic: twice he referred to his belief that there are experiences of pain and suffering that cannot be put into words, and that this is the Inferno of literature; that there are experiences of happiness and ecstasy that similarly resist language, and these are its Paradiso; and writing itself is a Purgatorio, betwixt and between these inexpressible zones of experience. It's a beautiful and again weirdly Platonic thought.

These thoughts are barely formed, but there are even more cloudy and ineffable ones coming--having to do with narrative, and the visionary, and the "beyond" of poetry. I think Oren Izenberg's new book is going to be important, and also Cary Wolfe's What Is Posthumanism? Will report as things move, and change.

1 comment:

Edmond Caldwell said...

The assertion that modernist prose is "preoccupied with epistemology" goes back at least to Brian McHale's book, Postmodernist Fiction, published in 1987. McHale argues that the structural "dominant" in modernist texts is epistemological doubt, which he distinguishes from postmodernist prose, where ontological doubt is the dominant. Or something like that, anyway. Grandbois may have been referencing these arguments (I wasn't at the AWP); McHale's is a pretty good book, if memory serves.

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