Friday, March 30, 2007

Light Switches

The first Interplay session with Prof. Matthew Belmonte and myself on Wednesday evening was quite fun—more like a conversation than a reading/lecture. I did my best to draw a connection between poetry and autism with a reading of my homophonic translation of Paul Celan's "Psalm" (it's the first poem in Selah), hypothesizing that the act of homophonic translation depended on a fixation of the surface features of language that possibly resembled an autistic relation to language. (This was partially confirmed by Matthew later on when he told us about how one autistic man uses slogans he's heard on television in an attempt to communicate—slogans whose relevance to the situation are rarely immediately apparent to his listeners.) My "reading" of Celan finds peculiar English analogues to the sounds of the German (a language I didn't know at all at the time the poem was written; I can now read it with a dictionary and lots of effort) so as to transplant, in a way, his first-order experience of trauma into my second-generation experience as the child of successful assimilated Jews (on my father's side) and of Holocaust survivors (my mother and her parents). Here's Celan's German:

Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm,
niemand bespricht unsern Staub.

Gelobt seist du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
wir blühn.

Ein Nichts
waren wir, sind wir, werden
wir bleiben, blühend:
die Nichts-, die

Mit dem Griffel seelenhell,
dem Staubfaden himmelswüst,
der Krone rot
vom Purpurwort, das wir sangen
über, o über
dem Dorn.
Just typing this out, I see how my translation was really more sight than ear-driven, since I didn't realize that the German W is pronounced with a V-sound. But choosing ignorance is part of homophonic translation, and in this case was meant in part to convey the literal and metaphorical darkness in which Celan's experience, and my own family's, lay. Anyway, here's Michael Hamburger's translation, followed by my own:

No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the
no one's rose.

With our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.


Neiman Marcus knits a leader out of earth and lime.
Neiman be-shops a western stab.

Galloped apts do, Neiman.
Dear zoo leads woolens
to veer bloomers.

Nine naughts:
where we're singed, we're wared,
we're weary bluehound.
Deathnaut dreading
kneed man's rose.

den grin seals in hell
dem stable-faded him's liverwurst,
dares crone's rot.
Vow the pupa's word. Dazzled weresong.
Or bear, O you bar
the door.
I just noticed there's no period at the end in Selah; that's a typo. Ah, well. The whole poem is a travesty, deliberately so, indexical of the impossible relationship of my personal (American) history with capital-H History. The poem is a little pile of the wrecked language that Benjamin's Angel cannot set right, a little rhythmic rocking in the face of the improbability of my own existence.

Matthew's presentation was fascinating. He used a remark of mine about some new poems I read ("I didn't know I could say these things until I said them") as a jumping off point to talk about how normal people tend to peel past the "shallow" surface features of language so as to abstract a "deeper" meaning from them: we do violence to the percept so as to get at the concept. Autistic people do not have this means to control "the continuous flow of happenings," so they devise more primitive rituals to create a sense of safety and predictability—like flicking a light switch on and off for hours, secure in the knowledge of the perfect repeatability of their action. He shared with us a remarkable poem by a fourteen year-old autistic boy named Tito Mukhopadhyay:
Men and women are puzzled by everything I do
Doctors use different terminologies to describe me
I just wonder
The thoughts are bigger than I can express
Every move that I make shows how trapped I feel
Under the continuous flow of happenings
The effect of a cause becomes the cause of another effect
And I wonder
I think about the times when I change the environment around me
With the help of my imagination
I can go places that do not exist
And they are like beautiful dreams.
But it is a world full of improbabilities
Racing towards uncertainty.
It's a remarkably clear expression, I think, of the impulse behind writing, or any sort of creative activity, which attempts to master "a world full of improbabilities / Racing towards uncertainty." Matthew also showed us some paintings by autistic artists (high-function autistics tend to be either verbally or visually oriented), many of which were nearly photorealistic except for certain peculiarities—the color scheme was often tuned toward the highest possible contrast, creating a psychedelic feel. In a remarkable painting of Times Square—done from memory, Matthew believes—the cars are lovingly detailed, right down to every reflection and gleam of metal, but there are no people and no drivers.

Matthew used the wonderful phrase "a Cartesian cinema" by which to imagine autistic experience: one is watching a film with an incompetent projector, so that there's a picture but no sound, or vice-versa, or only a tiny portion of the screen is visible; so you go upstairs and ask the projectionist to run the film again, and again. It doesn't change the flaw in the information, but you scrutinize that flawed information over and over, hoping to master the hidden whole. It's not hard to see that these descriptions of autistic experience are like heightened expressions of everyone's experience—indeed, Matthew was quick to draw a comparison between postmodernity as described in literature (he cited Gravity's Rainbow) and autistic art. Ultimately, Matthew believes, it comes down to The Denial of Death—a book by Ernest Becker that he recommends for its insight into the need to hold back chaos, and our simultaneous resistance to the structures that we set up to protect ourselves from chaos. The autistic painter, losing herself in the details, or the autistic boy rocking and rocking, or flipping the light switch over and over, haunts us as an image of imprisonment in our own armor—an armor which will ultimately and after all, not protect us in the end.

Shifting gears, I'm looking forward to a conference being hosted at Cornell this weekend, "Between Primitive Accumulation and the New Enclosures." Unfortunately I'm going to miss the opening session this afternoon, but the readings for the conference (available here) are fascinating and will, I think, contribute a lot to my evolving understanding of the particular exigencies and necessity of utopian thought in the face of what Iain Boals calls in a wonderful interview the false Malthusian logic of neoliberalism.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's Hard to Resist the Title Field

For a long time I've blogged mostly without titling my posts—it seemed to me that titles went against the informal spirit of blogging. (In that same spirit I'm extremely reluctant to revise a post once it's been posted.) The presence of the title field is something I've generally ignored except when I'm posting something that feels more like an essay than a blog post. But most bloggers do title everything, just as e-mail caused everyone to start thinking in terms of re: lines, introducing a formal element of the business memorandum into what has actually become, in my experience, an informal and intimate descendant of the personal letter. Now I'm feeling a new pressure from the medium to title my posts because I see that Google provides the title of a post when you search for one, which gives the entry the title's attached to just a little more weight and significance. I can't decide if this is part of what makes blogging a new medium, or if it's actually a pendulum-swing back toward print modes like the newspaper column or feuilleton.

Anyway, I've returned from a week of family visits with the in-laws (in Palm Beach—a very surreal place, like Vegas with the volume turned down) and surprising my sister and grandmother for their respective birthdays in Chicago. Now I'm back it's time to stop kidding around and get that dissertation finished. I am at the halfway point in my Ronald Johnson chapter, talking about him as a concrete poet: ARK will be next, perhaps via a detour through The Book of the Green Man as an example of a somewhat more conventional mode of pastoral that Johnson had to travel through on his way to the constructivism of ARK. I'm also beginning to look ahead to the book the dissertation will eventually become. The long poem seminar I'm auditing has shown me that there are at least two more canonical modernists whose work is fundamental to my conception of pastoral as a constructivist mode. Stein's Stanzas in Meditation is one of the purest examples I've found of abstract language used to approach the condition of a reciprocal accommodation to nature; I would also bring her Geographical History of America into my discussion because the dialectic she sets up between "human mind" and "human nature" also speaks to this question. And for today's seminar I'm hurrying through WCW's Paterson for the second time, and finding it stranger, more delightful, and more intensely self-critical than I'd remembered. Really it would be strange for me to write a book about modernist pastoral without discussing Williams; yet I've held off because I somehow needed to travel through more ostensibly difficult texts ("A", The Cantos) to arrive at my theory of pastoral. Those texts seemed to present more starkly the opposition between nature and history that constructivist pastoral dialecticizes. But now that I've passed through those texts I'm prepared to approach others whose renditions of that dichotomy seem either more crude (Williams) or oversubtle (Stein). Finally, having just taken Rachel Zucker's advice and downloaded James Schuyler's "Hymn to Life" from PENNSound, I am more than ever persuaded that I should write about the New York School as pastoralists, focusing particularly on Schuyler and O'Hara. It's exciting and a bit relieving to think of this project's life beyond the dissertation: exciting because I see I'm nowhere near done with this topic after five years of working on it, and relieving because I see how I can let the dissertation be a good dissertation (that is, a done dissertation) and reserve my perfectionist tendencies for life after the degree.

To conclude miscellaneously: if you're in the Ithaca area you might want to check out a new reading/talk series that the Cornell English department is starting called Interplay. It's meant to start interdisciplinary conversations: tomorrow night at 6:30 PM I'll be reading some of my poetry, then Professor Matthew Belmonte, who's an autism researcher, will give a paper, and then we'll see what common ground can be found. My first thought is that autism, as far as my limited understanding of it goes, requires the rational deciphering of social contexts and cues from those afflicted with it, a deciphering that non-autistic people perform intuitively and without much effort. Some poets, you might say, assumes a deliberately "autistic" attitude toward language and discourse, problematizing what ordinary language users take for granted. Of course I'm on dangerous ground with these speculations: it's just a few steps from here to the romanticization of illness as an opportunity for performance (Rain Man, anyone?). I look forward to a fuller conversation on the subject.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Rigor of Poetry and the Pleasures of Theory

There's been a lot of discussion recently of creative writing pedagogy, an extension of sorts of the conversation I began on the two cultures of AWP. Kasey Mohammed's incisive "Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier" has been followed up by Reginald Shepherd's "More on Creative Writing Pedagogy" and "A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom." [CORRECTION, 3/25/07: The original post on this topic was from Reginald: "What Is Creative Writing For?" Kasey's post, and mine, followed from that.] I think it's worth recapitulating here the four "minimal requisites" that Kasey proposed for a creative writing program that would not "perpetuate the whole predatory pedagogical system":
1. Some degree of grounding in various historical and intellectual contexts for the production and reception of poetry
2. Some degree of immersion in contemporary poetic theory, as well as relevant political and philosophical studies
3. Some degree of engagement with the social and communal aspects of the poetic life, especially insofar as this involves stepping out of the institutional framework and looking critically at what it means to be within it in the first place, and what it means for other writers to be outside it
4. Some degree of consideration of what lies beyond "craft" as defined above: under what conditions might vagueness be considered a "style" worth taking seriously? when do the protocols of "precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché" fall short, and what might be the value of deliberate unwieldiness, ugliness, or banality in certain contexts? and what else is out there?
Kasey's ginger touch with the word "craft" (note the scare quotes) points to the history of that word's being used as an ideological bludgeon, and I think his stipulations in general reframe the conflict that Reginald's first post puts in professional terms (scholar-academics vs. poet-academics) as "craft" vs. "theory." It ought to be obvious what a false distinction this is, and yet the two words are routinely used to represent opposed positions that grind exceeding small back and forth, giving and losing meager amounts of ground, flung like mortar shells into the trenches and foxholes of English departments all over this land. The participants in this battle get the mud of pettiness and spleen all over themselves and their positions, though very occasionally it is transported to a more elevated plane: I'm thinking here of the famous confrontation between Robert Duncan (here standing for "craft" in its most occult aspects) and Barrett Watten (ditto for "theory") at a memorial for Louis Zukofsky at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978. (You can find an account of the conflict by Nils Ya here; scroll almost all the way to the bottom.) Duncan, aggrieved enough to respond aggressively to Watten's aggressively cerebral approach to Zukofsky, is supposed to have said at one point, "Can't we just have fun?" To which Watten replied, "But Robert, this is how some of us get our fun." At which point the debate collapses into de gustibus non disputandum—and yet I am amazed how often those who turn "craft" into an ideological position attack scholars and theoretically minded writers for being puritan killjoys blind, deaf, and dumb to the pleasures of the text. The possibility of taking intense pleasure in reflective and critical activity doesn't seem to occur to them—more pernicious still is the belief that taking pleasure in critical thought somehow dulls one's senses to the kinetic and lingual pleasures of poetry.

There's no craft, or any practice of any art, without theory: the only question is whether or not one is conscious of the theory of poetry that you've adopted, or that's adopted you. Reginald's second post is an account of the difficulties of getting beginning writing students to accept even the most basic theory of creative writing: namely, that one has an audience in mind. The students come to a creative writing class with a romantic theory of spontaneous self-expression that must be gruelingly unlearned for them to get at the next level of sophistication, the theory of craft. The strength and weakness of this theory lies in its vagueness: the impoverished critical vocabulary of the "earned" ending, the image that "works," etc., can force the more persistent and inspired student into inventing his or her own critical idiom. At best, it steers the student clear of overdetermining vocabularies; at worst it itself overdetermines a complacent response to aesthetic givens. The theory of craft can be reified into an ideology with a Procrustean tendency to fit poems into whatever categories are most fashionable in a given academic community; without active and adventurous questioning on the part of the instructor or students, poems end up being measured against an imaginary normative given, and get either stretched or chopped so they fit.

A theory of craft is essential to any poet: it's the cognitive leap from a belief in one's own natural expertise to a respect for language as a material that offers up considerable resistance to expression. The next step—and this I think is what Kasey's program tries to address, since even most graduate programs don't address this level of thinking—is the crafting of theory, the cultivation of the skills necessary to articulate one's own poetics and place them in some kind of active relation with the numerous other poetics that are out there. Among other things this requires a sense of history, which means doing a lot more reading and a lot more work. It requires, above all, an instructor who is thinking and working on this level—but there are still many creative writing teachers out there, some of them in prestigious programs, who reject the very idea of theory, and instead instill a more-or-less rigid ideology of craft in their students. Of course the smartest or most stubborn students will react appropriately to this dogmatism, but if one of the goals of creative writing instruction is the promotion of critical and imaginative skills—if we believe that the study of creative writing should be an asset to the majority of students who will not go on to become professional writers—then we have to work to promote this more critical-theoretical model of pedagogy, and fight against the laziness and anti-intellectualism that characterizes so much of our culture, inside the academy and out.

It seems to me that the best teachers (and students) approach craft seriously and simultaneously with questions that belong properly to the realm of theory: what are different sorts of poems for, what effects are possible, what histories of poetic discourse are we bearing in mind, how can language be made responsive to identity and vice-versa. At the same time, I think the ideal poet's education would include megadoses of the canon (or canons—I certainly wish my own education had required me to study the poetry of another language, for example), the study and practice of traditional-closed and experimental-open prosodies, study of the history and practice of poetic distribution (small presses, little magazines), and the encouragement to follow an ultimately self-directed path through the contemporary scene. This poet's education can and does work in harmony with what I'd term an intellectual's education, defining as "intellectual" the preoccupation with analysis of the given (in literature, in politics, etc.). Although potentially synergistic, they are two very different practices: as practitioners of poiesis—as makers—poets challenge the given with very different tools than intellectuals. They stand somehow between the philosopher who seeks to understand the world and the activist who seeks to change it.

It is not truly necessary for a poet to be an intellectual, but I have a strong inclination toward those who embrace the "and" of my title, though they might emphasize one more than the other at times. The antagonism between the two falls away, I think, if one embraces the real rigor of poetry and turns away from the thoughtless model that equates poetry with pleasurable spontaneity and intellectualism with puritan drudgery. Which is not to say the conflict can be totally wished away, especially when it's internal. As someone who participates in any number of awkward hyphenates (MFA-PhD, poet-scholar, writer-critic) I sometimes myself am caught up in the trap of participating in a restricted economy in which the resources allocated to one dimension of work are stolen from the other. For most of my experience, though, they've actually enlarged each other. When I was at the University of Montana some of my fellow students in the MFA program bemoaned its rather minimal academic requirements: "I just want time to write!" they said. Meanwhile, I was finding that the literature seminars to be as stimulating as the workshops, sometimes more so. There was a real synergy between the two kinds of thinking, the two strategies of knowing: making and analysis, craft and theory. It's still true for me now, though the intellectual labor of a PhD program demands considerably more of my energy and time, and I do find myself wishing for pure "time to write."

Well, I see I've lapsed into personal anecdote and I don't expect such to be especially persuasive to anyone not similarly inclined. But I do believe in the rigor of poetry and the dignity and pleasure to be taken in intellectual work, and I think they ought to be put in productive relationships with each other. I believe in a limitless general economy of thought, and I would like to share that sense of abundance and possibility with my students, however I can.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Outstanding SOON reading this past Saturday with University of Denver alums Robert Strong (Robert was supposed to come last month, but there were seven feet of snow in his way), Karla Kelsey, and Karla's husband Peter Yumi, who for the last part of the reading collaborated with her by performing electronic music (which included in its many voices a riff from Celia Zukofsky's music for "A"-24) to accompany an excerpt from her remarkable new manuscript Iteration Nets, a sequence of sonnets that expand into prose poems in the second section which are then put under erasure in the third. Robert began the reading with his prose poem Brethren: Order of the Seasons, which had for the occasion taken the form of a sensuously beautiful chapbook published by Karla and Peter's Imprint Press. The poem follows the laboring lives of members of an intentional religious community; that plus Robert's having edited an anthology of spiritual poetry (from which he read selections by Emily Dickinson, Alan Dugan, and others) and having written a book of poems titled Puritan Spectacle has caused him to be asked in interviews, "What it's like, what are the challenges, in being a writer of faith?" Which as he wryly remarked, made him wonder what sorts of questions were asked of scholars and poets whose subject matter was drawn from study of the Third Reich. He and Karla complement each other wonderfully as readers: their charisma, which is considerable, comes from opposite valences—Robert comes out to meet you, Karla draws you in. Karla read some new work as well as the selection from Iteration Nets and from her mysterious and luminous meditation on Platonic epistemology, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary. Hers is a fierce, flickery talent. It was a pleasure to hear them and to host them and to have breakfast with them.

If by chance you'll be in NYC next week on March 22 (my sister's birthday!), you should check out the reading that's being put on in honor of Robert's anthology, Joyful Noise, at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 7 PM. Sadly, I will not be there (I'll be spending spring break with family), but it's your chance to hear some of the book's most kick-ass living contributors (Kazim Ali, Frances Richard, Timothy Donnelly, Catherine Barnett, Karla Kelsey, Richard Greenfield, Jennifer Murphy, Joshua Moses, Leonard Gontareck, Danielle Dutton, Tara Moyle, and Nicole Collen) read their work.

And as long as I'm announcing things, Susan Tichy has asked me to spread the word about a course she's teaching through George Mason University, PoetryScotland, which entails writing and studying poetry all over Scotland. I'm tempted to do it myself, especially since a visit to Little Sparta is part of it.

ADDENDUM (3/14): Betsy Wheeler, the editor of Pilot, has alerted me to a Kelsey-Yumi collaboration that can be seen and heard on her site by clicking here.

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.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Post-AWP, my panel-mate Kasey has expressed the wish "that there were a smaller annual conference dedicated entirely to poetry, minus all the content oriented around professionalization." This is a fine idea, but I wonder if it would really address what I perceive to be the clash of cultures that takes place at AWP and in writing programs more generally. The first is what I think of as the culture of affirmation; the other is the culture of solving artistic problems. The former, larger group consists of people who are most urgently concerned with confirming their identities as writers; the panels they assemble and attend are overwhelmingly concerned with publication, professionalization, and a more or less romanticized vision of "the writer's life." Most of the ads I see for MFA programs in Poets & Writers or elsewhere appeal to this mindset, as does Richard Hugo's famous maxim, ""A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." The second, smaller culture consists of people who, though hardly free of the anxiety and desire for affirmation that constitutes the affect of the first, are primarily concerned with questions about what they'd like to accomplish as writers and how they should go about doing it. The panels these writers set up and attend are devoted to the theory of writing (not necessarily in the sense of literary theory, but it does seem to be the case that this culture is much friendlier to theory than the culture of affirmation is; the former, not without justification, sees theory as a barbed wire fence intended to keep them out of the garden). Put simplistically, the first culture concerns itself with becoming, while the second assumes its being so as to get on with questions of doing.

The tension between these cultures is palpable, and it's intensified by the fact that almost every member of the second culture was at one time a member of the first. Almost no one feels entitled to the role of artist in American society: without some persistent culture of affirmation (be it the encouragement of parents and teachers, the assembly of a clique or movement, or one's cohort at an MFA program), very few of us would have the strength to go on writing poetry in the face of the world's colossal indifference. (Even the solitaries, I would argue, take strength from the imaginary community of affirmation they assemble from the books and writers that they arrange about them in an imaginary conjuring circle.) But as we become more secure in our identities, there is a natural tendency to want to distance oneself from that older, now disavowed self—the self which desperately sought affirmation from sources high and low to confirm his or her identity as poet. It takes a lot of compassion and self-forgiveness, I believe, for members of the second culture not to treat the first with condescension, scorn, or the desire to haze its members the way they themselves were hazed.

As a writer, as a teacher, as a human being, I'd like to find some way to bridge the gap between these cultures. Personally, I feel that engaging with artistic problems is more personally empowering and more likely to establish that necessary bedrock of writerly identity than the more touchy-feely stuff—so maybe the best that can be hoped for is to speed the transition from one culture to the other, while having the wisdom and courage to recognize that the desire for affirmation never really goes away, and the contempt I might feel for someone's naked desperation or emotional neediness or obsessive logrolling has its origins in the wince of self-recognition. We could all stand to show a little more compassion, of course. But what I'm wondering is if there's something that could be accomplished on a structural basis to facilitate the education of writers without so much tension and bad feeling between what are the fully legitimate needs of the two camps.

Monday, March 05, 2007

So Nu at AWP

Came back from Atlanta yesterday afternoon, utterly exhausted by the exigencies of modern air travel. Thursday was a nightmare, and to be unable to reach the conference in time to present the paper I've been working on was quite painful. Fortunately, it and the other "Strategies of Excess" presentations will be published next month in Action, Yes so it will have an afterlife, and those who have expressed curiosity about it will be able to read it there.

Arriving late Friday afternoon to a conference that began on Wednesday is a recipe for anticlimax. I did attend exactly one panel with the rather dreadful title "Nu? What's New about Jewish Poetry?" featuring Arielle Greenberg, Rachel Zucker, Jehanne Dubrow, Jason Schneiderman, and Ilya Kaminsky (Erika Meitner was unable to attend). At first I was irritated with what I took for the panelists' devotion to a Jewish identity heavily invested in a kind of perverse (but all too common) nostalgia for the immigrant experience and even the Holocaust. Since for me what's most difficult and alienating about my Jewishness has to do with the disintegration of the legacy of the Jewish left—the fact that names like Emma Goldman and Walter Benjamin have been succeeded by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Ariel Sharon—I was impatient with what seemed to be their preoccupation with the past. What about empire, I wanted to shout, what about the widespread participation of Jews in imperial projects and the rampant disavowal of same?

But gradually I began to recognize that all of the panelists were talking about degrees of self-estrangement. Ilya is after all a first-generation immigrant, who as he said, experienced anti-Semitism directly and forcefully. Rachel Zucker read a long poem or lyric essay—it was hard to determine which—titled "O Where Have You Gone, Allen Ginsberg, and What Would You Think of My Drugs?" about being the mother of two sons (with one more on the way), dealing with depression and anxiety through medication, and living with her "country club Jewish" husband—intimate elements of her own life that seem to possess her more than she possesses them. Jehanne Dubrow's parents were diplomats who raised her in Poland, of all places, which she said has become for her a kind of triggering town (to use Richard Hugo's phrase), and now she lives in Nebraska where there are no Jews to speak of. Arielle Greenberg's experience was one of resisting her parents' resistance to assimilation: raised modern Orthodox and unable to reconcile that with the second-wave feminism of her mother, she fled from Jewishness as an adult, only to find that her first book, which she had thought of as un-Jewish, was largel preoccupied with genocide. Finally Jason Schneiderman talked about being raised an Army brat ("Christianity was in the air we breathed, so were taught not to breathe too deeply") and his deep estrangement from Judaism as a gay man—as he said, while there were others who fought for acceptance and tolerance from the religious community, he was simply too angry to do even that much. He was very fast and funny, and finished by reading some very moving and powerful poems from his book Sublimation Point, which I'll now be looking for.

By panel's end, I was actually feeling surprisingly warm and fuzzy about the panel and my Jewishness, because we are all united in complex layers of self-estrangement and attachment. One of the panelists, I can't remember who, used the example of the Jewish mother who embraces and criticizes at the same time. I did ask a less angry version of my question and got some good answers—Ilya's was brief and to the point: "I choose diaspora, a new diaspora," and I think that comes close to expressing my own position vis-a-vis my Jewishness. One is never entirely unconscious of difference, and there is a special difference in the difference you feel from your fellow Jews—a difference that unites us in quarrelsomeness and humor and sensitivity to language (most of the panelists spoke of how Jewishness and Judaism instill that critical approach to how things are said as being central to their sense of themselves as writers, something I too feel strongly), not to mention ethical imperatives which have, alas, manifested today most visibly as neoconservatism, but which still have the potential, I believe, to manifest justice and compassion.

The rest of the conference was devoted to seeing friends. I missed, for example, the poetry and politics panel, which was apparently tumultuous, and included a talk by Joshua Clover (he's sent me the text) on political content in poetry (really, in poets), which renews the debate he and I and others were having last fall about the efficacy or self-delusion or what have you about voting Democratic. Joshua's argument, put more cogently I feel in the paper than it was in the heat of the moment, is that voting nowadays is a merely formal gesture—as he puts it, "The content of the Democratic platform can shift endlessly to the right, can in fact be absolutely anything, and as long as the Republican platform seems one jot less appealing, the so-called 'decision' is already made. It's content-free." One's politics therefore resides, or ought to reside, not in one's attitude toward this system which only ever reinforces the regime of neo-liberalism, but in what one actually believes in and stands for. And if you believe in, for example, fair trade and workers' rights, then you find ways of fighting for them exclusive of voting for a content-free system. And actually, it's less radical than that: really, Joshua isn't against voting for Democratic candidates (well, he personally is, because he can find no candidates that support the rights of "people who don't look like me"—his example is a young Mexican woman south of Juarez), provided that they are truly dedicated to the issues that constitute your own political content. But he is against voting Democratic for the sake of accruing power to an entity as utterly in thrall to neo-liberalism (albeit more cuddly, less obviously insane) as the Republicans. I find this argument, phrased as it now is, unimpeachable, and if I'd been at the panel I might have stood up to say so (but unfortunately I was asleep in my raggedy hotel room trying to recover from the tender mercies of Northwest Airlines). Its greatest value is that it returns the listener again and agan to the question, "What's your political content?" What do you actually believe in, what do you want to bring about? And then you have to take a long hard look at the candidates available to you to see if they share your position. And if they don't (and of course even if they do), you must find some way to act consistent with what you believe your content is to be. Or you must wrestle with the contradiction that tends to arise between what you think your content is and what it may actually be.

That, more or less, was my AWP—plus a few books bought (many fewer than usual), a few drinks hoisted, and some good conversations with friends old and new. Now it's back to teaching and dissertating, though if given the option, I'd rather sleep until June.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Beautiful Detroit

My connecting flight to Atlanta was canceled due to mechanical problems and I'm thirty-something on the standby list for the last flight of the day—which also apparently has mechanical problems. It looks like I'm not going to make my panel tomorrow, which I very much regret. If that turns out to be the case, I'll post the text of the paper I was going to give here.

If you're already in Atlanta, good for you, and buy a book or two at the bookfair for me.
En route this morning from beautiful Elmira, New York to the conference in Atlanta, already in progress. We'll see if I have any time to blog from the source.

Popular Posts