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.

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