Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Novel History

Another semester has come and gone, and I find myself besieged with projects for the winter break. My third book, Severance Songs, is in press and will be released by Tupelo in March (though I'm hoping to have copies to read from in time for the AWP conference in Washington, DC at the beginning of February). GC and I are making progress with The Arcadia Project: our table-of-contents in progress includes some stunning poems which will form, I believe, a new and necessary constellation. Anthologies don't really create anything new, of course, but they can call new attention to what's already there. I have hopes that we will be directing new readerly and critical attention to the burgeoning intersection of innovative, lyric, and environmental poetries.

Then there's the novel, always the novel, proceeding in fits and starts, at times to my eye an incoherent assemblage of narrative odds and ends, at other times suggesting a pattern, even a depth, trompe l'oeil-style. It takes the form, both narratively and in its writing, of an investigation of the past or pasts. Its key chronotopes include: Paris, 1968; New York City in the early Seventies; upstate New York in the mid-Seventies to early Eighties; Vienna just before and after the Great War; Budapest in the Thirties and Forties; present-day Rome, Trieste, Ljubljana, and Chicago. Right now I am immersing myself in novels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (as magnificent as I'd heard), Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March, Sandor Marai's Embers. The Dual Monarchy is an old fascination of mine: I find its atmosphere of an empire built on liberal values in irreversible decline compelling and all-too-relevant to the situation of contemporary America. It's also a key component of the tragic story of the struggle of European Jews to assimilate into Germanic culture, a struggle whose tragic outcome has had a powerful if oblique impact on my own life as the son of a Jewish mother born in Hungary in 1942, whose own parents survived Auschwitz, who seemed to spend significant stretches of her own life imaginatively reliving the suffering she herself was too young to remember. Now I follow, as if in her footsteps. It's a path I've often followed in my poems; I am trying to see if narrative can get me any closer, any more intimate, with the central mystery of the life I seem compelled, if not condemned, to relive.

Writing history presents many opportunities and traps. In the class I took with him at Naropa this past summer, Laird Hunt called it "the hobnailed boot problem": the details that writers weave into their historical fictions end up calling way too much attention to themselves as desperate or feckless attempts to render the world of the past. This is especially notable in those writers who, however deep their historical research, seem unable to imagine human behavior as being itself profoundly inflected by the otherness of the past. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring is one example of this: in spite of the little homespun details about Griet's manner of dress or the kinds of work she does in the kitchen, the novel's language is the sort of degree-zero plainspeak that marks the book as the movie-in-waiting that it is. A more recent example is Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, a project with some similarity to my own: Orringer imagines the life of her Hungarian-Jewish grandfather when he was a young man, working as an architecture student and graphic designer in the years leading up to and during World War II. Her research is meticulous and she gets many historical details right, yet I never believed for a second that her hero thinks and speaks as a man of his time and place. The problem is exacerbated by her choice of third-person limited narration, putting us close inside Andras' consciousness; that consciousness is so ordinary, so purely reactive to the dire historical events that even a moderately informed reader sees coming from miles away, that it drains away the sense of a living organic world (the goal of mimetic historical writing) and forecloses the possibility of creating the sense of the past as other—another country, as L.P. Hartley (who?) put it.

It's that latter form of historical writing that interests me, and that is both the goal and modus operandi of my own attempt at fiction. The strangeness of the past, and the unknowability of a (m)other's consciousness, met by an urgent need to imagine these things: that's the entire drama of the book. My research is necessarily casual, unmeticulous, intuitive, because I don't pretend to know what can't be known--what it felt like to experience the past, or to be this person--even as I and my narrator(s) are hell-bound to make the attempt. The research I've done is partly factual, but it's more the mood and texture of these vanished worlds that I seek to construct through scraps serendipitously assembled. You could call it a Proustian project, except the Madeleine in question is one I've never tasted; rather, I have to imagine what it is as well as it what it tasted like. Citizen Kane, that greatest of shaggy dog stories, comes to mind: "Rosebud," like Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, explains everything and nothing. It's the pursuit of Rosebud that makes the story, just as every detective story is at its most compelling when the hero is farthest from solving the mystery, but lives immersed in half-fathomed clues, surrounded by witnesses and suspects and femmes fatale, hard up against the limits of his knowledge and of his own character.

For this writer, the pressure of otherness has to manifest through and in language: through the energy of diction, of music, and through the unspooling and hyperextension of syntax. The long, wandering, obsessively cadenced sentences I've been writing do more, I hope, to present that urgent pursuit of history, and the texture of a mind in contact with mystery, than any particular details of tramway stops in turn-of-the century Trieste or the style of whiskers worn by a mid-level official in the service of Franz Joseph ever could.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hunting Is Painting

I am very pleased to announce the official release of the first book by the very first Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer, Jessica Savitz's Hunting Is Painting. Here's what I said about Jessica's work last year:
There were a number of challenging and exciting manuscripts submitted for the first annual Plonsker Fellowship at Lake Forest College, and it wasn’t easy to choose among them. But the manuscript submitted by Jessica Savitz, with its arresting declarative title, Hunting Is Painting, leaped from the pile with its deeply and authoritatively strange configurations of lush lyric language that comes close, often, to the condition of song in its use of refrain and repetition; like Gertrude Stein with a larger vocabulary. The poems follow the rigorous logic of the book’s title, a metaphor or allegory of “gun as microscope,” or as she declares with horrifying and truthful matter-of-factness, “Slaughtering the animal / Was like freeing him with a knife / From a little trap.” The hunter’s attributes of ruthlessness, canniness, and respect for one’s prey, formulate the book’s remarkable aesthetic, which concentrates its attention on facts—of personal biography, of animals and their habitats, of artworks and artists—and bring them suddenly into higher resolutions, new configurations. Some of the poems remind me strongly of Whitman in their readiness to empathize with fellow creatures, human and nonhuman. At the same time there’s a predatory fierceness that startles and clears the eye, so that this poet is one who can recognize that “the dying arrangement is a living being” (“dying and animate / to direct light, or to create privacy”). With sharp, sometimes appealingly goofy wit, the poems confront us with the necessary violence of sensemaking: we kill what we notice, and what we do not. But our gaze preserves the objects of the world even as it pierces them, and they in turn pierce us. I get news from these poems about our condition, and about the price artists are all too willing to pay for a snapshot, a painting, or a poem. They innovate upon their own necessity, and bring us closer to the real.
A year later I can affirm that the book is odder, more beautiful, more whimsical and affecting than I first found it. And it has wider ranging subject matter: one of my favorite sections now has to do with the happily doomed love affair of a couple named Snodgrass and Cleo. It's a treat, any way you slice it.

The book is distributed by Northwestern University Press and it's also available on Amazon. Interested would-be reviewers should backchannel me.

And: this is a fine opportunity to remind writers under forty of fiction and hybrid prose that the 2011 deadline for the fourth Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize is April 1, 2011. The judge will be Kate Bernheimer, prolific author and editor of a remarkable anthology of fractured fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, available now from Penguin Press.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Collaborators with Reality, Part Two

The future, like the past, belongs to poets who perform the self, who metastasize their corporeality, shame, and will-to-power on the page. When younger women do it we call it the Gurlesque. When younger men do it we don't have a name yet, but the men are there: Anthony Madrid's ghazals and now there's Nick Demske by Nick Demske, both of whom foreground their own names as a sort of body to stand outside of, ex-statically. Here's a little video of Madrid performing (as you'll see the word "reading" is just plain wrong) a poem from his manuscript The Getting Rid of What Cannot Be Done Without at Myopic Books:

Put aside the page and close your eyes, Madrid. Bring us into the presence of the oracular, the medium, the stance of he who testifies to something beyond. A stance that's never (only) ironic.


The public has always responded to the writer's personality, or the performance of that personality, and writers have always done a striptease with how much or how little of the "authentic" self and its experience can be located in a given work. The Romantics, broadly speaking (Goethe-Wordsworth-Byron through Dickinson-Whitman) can be defined at least epiphenomenally by the performance of persona, though the grandiosity of the High Romantics has become impossible except ironically. It's Low Romantics like John Clare, combining precision of observation with a performance of abjection and self-consciousness that gets linked, appositively, to the objects of that perception, that offer a way forward now.


I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.


Poets are no longer famous, yet they go on performing personality, just like the ordinary "stars" of reality television. Some of them still lay claim to craft, subject matter, something to say, like the contestants on Top Chef or Project Runway. The purer breeds (Real Housewives, Jersey Shore) stand seemingly naked in "the nothingness of scorn and noise, / Into the living sea of waking dreams" to delight and scandalize us. Poets like poems are disposable (but recyclable) commodities. Poems interrupt the prose of life (as the formatting of poems in The New Yorker has always taught us), indistinguishable from cartoons or advertising.


The difference between poetry and reality television is that reality television is popular.


Warhol's Marilyn Monroe silk screens and his Double Elvis work as metaphors because their images are so common in the culture that they can be used as shorthand, as other generations would have used, say, the sea. Marilyn and Elvis are just as much a part of the natural world as the ocean and a Greek god are.
—David Shields, Reality Hunger #240

But the gods have not returned, as nature has not returned. Celebrities no longer have the iconicity they once had, any more than poets do. (High Romanticism = the Hollywood studio system. Low Romanticism = straight to video.) As Warhol predicted, everyone is equally (un)famous, equally (un)worthy of performance and attention. Romantics of all stripes mine our nostalgia for a glamor, heroism, gods, nature that the individual, even a famous individual, never can possess. (I wish I was Cary Grant, said Cary Grant.) As Schiller says, the sentimentalisch poet always defines himself by self-conscious difference from the naive poet. It doesn't matter whether or not naive poets actually existed. We have had to invent them, as we have invented media to which we deform and conform our lives. Because mimesis, like the sublime and beautiful, is not a quality of objects or artworks. It is a faculty of the self.


When I say "collaborators" I mean the decentering (as opposed to the death) of authorship, the defederalization of the author. But I am also thinking of >épuration légale, of those French women with their heads shaved in 1944, marching in ignominy to social death past jeering crowds, bearers of the shame of collaborating with power, sleeping with the enemy, doing what it took to survive.


I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Collaborators with Reality

It's been a curious sort of October. On the second I quietly turned forty. It wasn't meant to be that quiet - Emily had planned a secret party for me - but I fell ill with a nasty case of strep throat and spent two weeks in bed, hardly able to swallow or speak, watching the first two seasons of The Rockford Files, reading nothing, writing less, teaching not at all. Now I'm recovered and back at work, thinner, taking a look about me, taking stock of various projects.

More and more I'm aware of, without quite succumbing to, the crisis of confidence in literature which has been rumbling under the surface of the culture since at least the NEA's infamous 2004 "Reading at Risk" report, now in full-blown panic mode with the advent of e-books and the rapid decline of models of literary distribution based upon copyright. This past weekend the British magazine Prospect published a think piece by Tom Chatfield, "Do Writers Need Paper?" It's an elegant bit of hand-wringing, notable for how archaic the laments of nominally successful writers quoted in it are; one Lionel Shriver is quoted saying she has "a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines." She worries that should "electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past." Am I crazy for thinking that sort of "professional life" is already in the past? How many literary writers--heck, how many writers of thrillers and potboilers--make a comfortable living from writing alone? The notion of literary writing as a "profession" seems positively quaint, worlds away from the idea of vocation (with its accompanying whiff of monklike devotion to chastity [originality], obedience [aesthetics], and poverty [poverty]) that functions for me as the necessary veil between writing and the grim progressive specialization that alienates every function of life from every other function.

I digress. As many have observed, the old model of authorship is crumbling, and success is no longer measured in sales but in the size and vibrancy of the networks writers and readers are building together, connections counted in terms of page views, Facebook friends, and the size of one's Google (to use the awkward, vaguely phallic noun-phrase adapted by Keith Gessen in his appropriately titled novel All the Sad Young Literary Men). And as Chatfield observes, the waning of literature as we've known it has hardly meant an end to narrative and storytelling; it's just authorship as we've known it that is dying: "Today, in an age of collaborative media, most of our grandest, most popular narratives are the products of team efforts: from sprawling television dramas like The Sopranos to the latest Hollywood movies or hit videogames." Increasingly, according to Chatfield, the long labor of single authors is being supplanted by collaboration. The writer's garret has been supplanted by the more sociable writer's room familiar from TV shows like 30 Rock, not to mention the writer's workshop (though that may, ironically, be where the myth of the lone genius author makes its very last stand).

It is increasingly fashionable to say that even those of us who are not primarily collaborators - the writers of poems, stories, novels, essays - do not work alone. I am reading David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger, a compilation of quotes that makes the implicit argument that to remain relevant, writers must seize the means of appropriation and bring larger and less digested chunks of "reality" into their work, shunning the tired artifices of fiction, whose reality-effects are all worn out. Shields lists an interesting constellation of artworks that suggests the porous boundaries of the new genre or anti-genre that he sees forming (the term he seems happiest with is the "lyric essay" associated with John D'Agata, whose statements are cited liberally throughout Shields' book):
Jeff Crouse's plug-in Delete City. The quasi-home movie Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank's radio show In the Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shelton's unscripted film Humpday ("All the writing takes place in the editing room")..... Curb Your Enthusiasm, which--characteristic of this genre, this ungenre, this antigenre--relies on viewer awareness of the creator's self-consciousness, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona.
You get the idea: these are fundamentally fictions that trespass on the real, that rely for their aesthetic effect on the viewer's consciousness of manipulation (and yet that really was Steve Carrell's chest hair getting ripped out, yowch!). Of course you've noticed that all of Shields' examples thus far come from non-literary media. He gets on shakier ground, in my opinion, when late in this section of the book he finally starts talking about the written equivalent of this sort of reality-performance:
The appeal of Billy Collins is that compared with the frequently hieroglyphic obscurantism of his colleagues, his poems sound like they were tossed off in a couple of hours while he drank scotch and listened to jazz late at night (they weren't; this is an illusion). A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was full of the same self-conscious apparatus that had bored everyone silly until it got tethered to what felt like someone's "real life" (even if the author constantly reminded us how fictionalized that life was). At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are "moments": staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized. I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can't abide the network news--the sound of human voices waking before they drown.
Billy Collins? Really? Is that the best example available of a poet who satisfies the new craving for "reality"? It seems to me a long, long distance between Collins' easy-listening poetic and the highfalutin' T.S. Eliot allusion that Shields ends this passage with. And yet Collins is one of the few genuinely popular poets out there, and Shields' manifesto craves and ratifies, more than reality, what is popular. (He could easily have swapped titles with Steven Johnson, whose book is called Everything Bad Is Good For You.) Collins comes off as only slightly more educated Joe Sixpack in his poems; there's just enough erudition and self-consciousness in there to make his readers feel smart, while at the same time the slapdash quality that makes this reader wince is a pleasing mark of the poet's "authenticity." Shields' attack on fiction (notice the snide implicit assault on the postmodern "self-conscious apparatus" of writing that is untethered to "real life") can sound uncomfortably close to an assault on imagination itself.

Yet the man is on to something. What he calls "reality," to take a cue from Wallace Stevens, is really just another level of imagination, except that what's crucial to this antigenre is its arousal of and dependence on the reader's imaginary participation in the work. It's a kind of bait-and-switch: the overt, self-conscious presence of the meta in these works creates the illusion of something incontrovertible and real that the meta qualities of the work floats intangibly above, as metaphysics presumes physics. These shows and texts pull open, to a greater or lesser degree, the suture between authenticity and artifice and invite their audiences to fill the gap, to take pleasure in a sort of sublime. I say "sublime" because the reality effect Shields is after depends on the indeterminacy of the suture: pure documentary with its adherence to verifiable fact is incapable of arousing this emotion, which as Kant tells us depends on the defeat of the understanding and what he calls "vibration": "a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same object" (Critique of Judgment, Section 27). We feel reality's presence in the work, but that presence is unquantifiable (if quantified and found wanting the resulting disappointment is titanic; c.f. James Frey, who comes up for frequent discussion later in Shields' book).

There is then a connection to be drawn between the devolution of literature as we once understood it, a semi-autonomous realm of authors whose ownership of their work was sufficient guarantee of its authenticity (and look how much aura clings to authorial names like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett), and the rise of the paraliterary antigenre that Shields celebrates. Though his celebration strikes many readers as a capitulation, we must take seriously the nexus that Shields' book unfolds between the transformation of literature on the genre level and the transformation of the field of the literary as such into one more facet of an increasingly level media landscape in which the lines between producer and consumer become ever more blurry. The question for writers now, it seems, is whether to join Shields at the barricades of the lyric essay and memoir; to fight a residual action, harkening back to the heroic artifice of authenticity that bears the name of modernism; to write genre fiction (more popular than ever); or to surf the wave, captured by no single authorial identity, finding opportunity in crisis without yielding too quickly to cynicism, curmudgeonliness, or the reality bandwagon.

My intuition suggests, however, whatever paths open or close to individual writers in the next twenty years, that collaboration - in myriad forms - is here to stay, and will be at the center of art's vitality going forward. For artists themselves now assume the role of the "pieces of reality" that compose what continues to be the most compelling and versatile legacy of the twentieth century: the collage.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Burning Typewriter, or, Elif Batuman Strikes Again

Elif Batuman has amplified her criticism of the discipline of creative writing (which I've written about before) in a review-essay that she, or more likely her editors, snarkily titles "Get a Real Degree" (elsewhere on the LRB site the piece is given another polemical label: "Down with Creative Writing"). The book under review is Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (though because Batuman is writing in the London Review of Books she reviews the British edition, which means she gets to use the effete yet somehow sinister Anglicism "programme"). McGurl, one gathers from the review, has come to praise rather than to bury the creative writing programs that are now at the center of what used to be called "American literature"; Batuman, however, sharpens the critique more or less implicit in her wonderful memoir of book-induced delirium, The Possessed. The review's title says it all: the MFA in creative writing (she and McGurl focus myopically on fiction, sigh) is implicitly less "real" than the PhD in literature that Batuman herself holds. I, of course, a perennial student, hold both; and I often scrutinize the two, wondering which has done more to illuminate, form, and deform my life.

Batuman's piece gets to the heart of the tension between the two modes of approaching literature and the literary: a literary scholar comes to value historicization and contextualization above all else, and when reading a novel tends to focus on the ways it was influenced and generated by other novels. Self-expression is ancillary to the task of scholarly writing, and there's also the assumption that literature, and the criticism of literature, is a collective enterprise, an ongoing conversation. Lit begets lit, as crit begets crit.

Creative writing students, on the other hand, value self-expression, originality, and "creativity" itself, displaying what McGurl calls "not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence." PhD's are sentimental, in Friedrich Schiller's parlance, and MFA's are naive (an idea pithily expressed in the title of D.G. Myers' book on the history of creative writing programs in the U.S.: The Elephants Teach. That's another bit of snark, expressing the notion that having actual writers teach writing is like having elephants teach zoology).

Batuman's problem with this, aside from the anti-intellectualism and puritanism of the position she ascribes to creative writing, is that it leads to mediocre fiction. There are fascinating observations in her piece classifying the major strains of contemporary American fiction, and the ways in which suffering and being an outsider have been made paradoxically central to the task of writing for the "authenticity" they bestow - McGurl is brilliant on this, apparently, turning the workshop bromide "find your voice" into an imperative to "find someone else's voice," with William Styron's ventriloquism of Nat Turner as the paradigmatic example. There's some meaty stuff in the middle of the essay, and no doubt in McGurl's book, that make both worth reading.

But what I found most compelling about her argument is the claim that workshop culture has produced a remarkable improvement in literary technique (which McGurl compares to the strides made in the 20th century by athletes and technology), and yet the books that contain so many brilliant, limpid, and evocative sentences aren't any good. This isn't McGurl's claim: he thinks that fiction-writing in America is now at an unprecedentedly high level, and the problem is the combination of overproduction and a deficit of readerly attention. But I find Batuman's claim much more convincing: there's a void at the center of the MFA program that we might call "content"; its absence turns technique ("craft") into an end in itself, and does nothing to challenge the solipsism that every American takes as his birthright, but which is fatal to the task of producing literature (the term Batuman the PhD emphatically prefers to "fiction"): a profound imaginative investigation into the real conditions of human existence, always historicized (i.e., possessed of the means of tracking origins, changes, and consequences over time) if not necessarily "historical" (c.f. James Wood's attack on "hysterical realism").

This "content" needs other sources than "experience" (with the most "authentic" of such experience being the suffering of the marginalized): it means the disciplined study of history, geography, and other social studies, and it means the full-hearted embrace of great books. There's a keenness, voracity, or desperation in that last which I'm not sure can be taught, but I did find my PhD studies facilitated my overpowering curiosity about books rather more than my MFA workshops did.

Still, I'd like to say at least one word on behalf of the innocence that Batuman so eloquently criticizes. I do think creative writing needs to be taught differently; my own experience has shown me that a creative writing class that incorporates substantial quantities of reading, and which engages specific content (as my Environmental Writing class does) is richer than a course devoted to a particular genre and its techniques. But practicing writers, especially the important group (a minority, surely) who don't teach, ought to have the right to renounce the task of being village explainers. You do need to study, or devour, literature in order to make your own. But you owe it to no one to make articulating your particular practice any sort of priority, though the rewards for doing so are as ample as they are superficial.

I've spent so much energy, much of it on this blog, on sorting and classification, to the point where I can't read a poem without sorting it into its particular literary-historical bin: this is post-Language, this is post-Confessional, that's nth-generation New York School (like Cypher says about the Matrix: "all I see blonde, brunette, redhead"). I'm addicted to tables and graphemes and other means of placing and locating texts. And I've painstakingly acquired the habits of scholarly writing, which insist that you not write on a given poem or author without familiarizing yourself with "the literature" on that subject - "literature" here losing its sublime qualities and taking on nearly the dead sound with which corporations and salesmen employ that word.

On the cusp of forty, I'm losing interest in this mode of approaching literature, though it's become an ingrained and necessary professional habit (I am, after all, a teacher). There's no pathway back to "innocence" for me, and I'm not sure I'd take it if there were. But I do think it's possible for there to be a dialectic between innocence and experience (Blake surely believed this, and there's also Paul Ricoeur's notion of "second naivete" - thanks to Bobby Baird for mentioning him). I must believe that the mediated historico-literary experience I acquired as a PhD student can be overcome and sublated and integrated into that original, word-drunk voracity that no one taught me (my mother taught me), and that it might be possible to say or make something that I can't explain - so deeply rooted must it be in the most comprehensive modes of experience - but which magnetically attracts, above and behind and beside the hard-won tricks of technique, a content imbuing truth, humor, and wisdom.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Something to write and not writing it at the other blog.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Announcement: The 2011 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize

Lake Forest College is pleased to recognize José Perez Beduya as the winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize, now in its third year. He will be in residence on the campus of Lake Forest College from February 1 to March 31, 2011, where he will work to complete his winning manuscript, Throng. He will receive $10,000 and, upon editorial approval, the finished book will be published by the &NOW Books imprint of Lake Forest College Press, with distribution by Northwestern University Press. He will also take part in the Lake Forest Literary Festival and offer a series of public presentations while in residence at the College.

The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize is awarded to an author under forty years old with no major book publication. This year the winner was selected by guest judge and poet Jennifer Moxley from a field of six finalists chosen by the editors of Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. Ms. Moxley’s latest book is Clampdown (Flood Editions, 2009), which has received enthusiastic reviews in such publications as Ploughshares and The Nation.

Born in Manila, Jose Perez Beduya earned his BFA in Painting from the University of the Philippines and his MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University. His work has appeared in High Chair, Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Lana Turner, and Boston Review. A recipient of a Lannan Foundation Scholarship at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Jose resides in Ithaca, New York, where he works as a writing tutor for a community college.

Of the winning manuscript, Jennifer Moxley writes, “Jose Perez Beduya’s manuscript-in-progress Throng intelligently layers literary, political, and spiritual registers into a subtly moving work. Throughout Beduya’s manuscript, a shimmering subjectivity—sometimes singular, more often plural—emits an intermittent signal, coming in and out of view like some mysterious lost 'other' flashing a pocket mirror against the sun in hope of rescue. Historically and geographically displaced, the desiderata of this gentle 'we' yet remains the interconnection between human beings. It is common now in poetry to condemn what’s wrong with the world. This makes sense, since so much is so. Less common are songs of spirit and of the existential urgency that does not fade even when everything else is broken.…. His control of form guides the reader into hearing his music while he carefully unfolds the lyric event of each poem.”

The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize is made possible by a donation from a local philanthropist who was impressed by the College’s recently established publishing enterprise, Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. The previous winners are Jessica Savitz, whose poetry book Hunting Is Painting will be published in October 2010, and Gretchen E. Henderson, whose work of fiction Galerie de Difformité will be published in October 2011. The series editor is Joshua Corey.

Emerging writers interested in applying for the 2012 residency—in prose or mixed cross-genre—should send a curriculum vita, no more than 30 pages of a manuscript in progress with a separate cover page, and a one-page statement of plans for completion to: Plonsker Residency, Department of English, Lake Forest College, Box A16, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. The author’s name should appear only on the cover page of the manuscript sample. Submissions must be postmarked by April 1, 2011 for consideration by editors Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey. The guest judge will be announced in the coming months. Please send direct inquiries to with the subject line: Plonsker Prize.

The 2011 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize Finalists and Semifinalists:

Winner: José Perez Beduya, Ithaca, NY – Throng
First runner-up: Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Southbury, CT – Registers Vanishing
Second runner-up: Mary Hickman, Iowa City, IA – Totem


Geoffrey Babbitt, Findlay, OH – Wind on a Hook
Amaranth Borsuk, Pasadena, CA – Handiwork
Claire Elisabeth Donato, Brooklyn, NY – Off to the Nervous Museum

Julie Phillips Brown , Ithaca, NY – The Adjacent Possible
C.M. Burroughs, Pittsburgh, PA – The Vital System
Ryan Downey, South Bend, IN – MAW MAW
Steffi Drewes , Emeryville, CA – untitled
Katherine E. Factor, Idyllwild, CA – Many Had Parasols
Nina Budabin McQuown , Brooklyn, NY – Cruise Ship
Sara Nicholson, Philadelphia, PA – untitled
Robert Ostrom, Brooklyn, NY – Stands Outside
Catherine Theis , Chicago, IL – The Fraud of Good Sleep

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Postmodern Pastoral: John Cage

"During that opening performance, I had seen and heard more acutely and complexly than ever before during a programmed aesthetic event. Very little of what had taken place was in a descriptive or referential relation to the natural world, but when I thought of how it had engaged my attention I could only liken it to watching ocean waves in infinite variety spuming against rock on the coast of Maine, or sky and water becoming one in the heat and stillness of a South Carolina low-country afternoon, or even moving through the endlessly interesting medias race of humanity in downtown Manhattan."

"Master of Nonintention"

"Cage wanted his art to introduce us to the pleasures of nature and everyday life undistorted by domineering ego. His motive, like John Dewey's, was fundamentally environmental: if creature and environment become separated, both die. Almost all of Cage's work, if actively engaged within the terms its structures suggest, directs audience attention to the ambient context in which it takes its time and place."

Cage: "The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a blundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of 'the right answers.' They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego's own experience...."

—Joan Retallack, introduction to Musicage.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Miramare: the blog

In a misguided effort to make procrastination more efficient, I've launched a second blog devoted entirely to the journey of my novel in progress. Come to Miramare and see the sights.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, photographed in 2008.

I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless there’s a subway handy or a record store or some sign that people do not totally regret life.
–Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”

Scheduled for publication by Ahsahta Press in May 2012, and edited by Joshua Corey & G.C. Waldrep, The Arcadia Project seeks to explore the relationship between the postmodern and the pastoral in contemporary North American poetry.

In the twenty-first century it is only a short leap from civilization and its discontents—from the violent inequities of the “global village”—to the postmodern pastoral. Postmodern and pastoral: two exhausted and empty cultural signifiers recharged and revivified by their apparent antipathy, united by the logic of mutual and nearly assured destruction. With gas and food prices climbing, with the planet’s accelerated warming, with the contraction of our cheap-energy economy and the rapid extinction of plant and animal species, both the flat world of global capitalism and the green world of fond memory are in the process of vanishing before our eyes. As Frederic Jameson once remarked, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” It is to that question of imagination—dystopian and utopian—that this anthology addresses itself.

Any work in English by writers working in North America that addresses the pastoral in a postmodern idiom, vocabulary, or context, or vice versa, is welcome. Please send up to 15 pages of poetry, in standard electronic format (PDF, .doc, .docx, .rtf, .wpd) to Joshua Corey & G.C. Waldrep at Previously published work is acceptable; please provide acknowledgments or a publication history in that case. Deadline: 9/1/10.

Please feel free to forward this call to others, post on your blog, etc. We look forward to reading your work.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On a Sunday

Trained it down to DePaul's Loop campus this morning to take part in a panel, "Why Writers Should Blog," alongside Tony Trigilio (whose surrealist Shimmy's Blog, co-authored by his half-feral cat, is a treat - check out Shimmy's little one-act play in which the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore show debates the hygiene of fired General Stanley McChrystal) and Jac Jemc (whose Rejection Collection humorously congregates and comments upon the rejection letters she's received). Here's an extremely loose paraphrase of my semi-extempore comments:

Blogging Is Dead; Long Live the Blog

Not too long ago, I could think of no good reason that writers shouldn't blog. At least, not writers who were interested in actual contact with their readers and with other writers - who sought many of the most immediate benefits of publication without having to go through the filter of an actual publisher. But earlier this year Harriet, the blog administered by the Poetry Foundation, announced that it was discontinuing its old format--inviting a diverse group of poets on a rotating basis to blog whatever was on their minds--becoming instead a sort of poetry news aggregator, the 1010 WINS of Parnassus. Part of their reasoning behind this move was that all the "action" in poetry commentary was now taking place on Facebook and Twitter. The blog, they strongly implied, was dead.

It's true that nowadays, a lot of the most interesting discussions, provocations, and manifestos that I used to read on poetry blogs now happen on Facebook. Many of my poetry acquaintances have either abandoned their blogs or simply post much less frequently. But there are obvious problems with the Facebook model of social media, particularly as applied to literature and literary community. Facebook is the ultimate gated community, and what gets posted there is visible only to one's friends; at the same time, the very meaning of the word "friend" has been perhaps permanently diluted by the site. This was brought home to me during the conversations around the "Rethinking Poetics" conference held at Columbia University earlier this summer. It stirred up a great deal of conversation and controversy among participants and non-participants alike. But you weren't going to hear some of the most interesting discussion of the conference unless you were on Facebook. It fell to those attendees with blogs, or access to friends' blogs, to take the conversation into the actual public sphere, where it belongs.

Blogs used to be akin to both the front and back yard of one's literary house. In the front yard you'd make statements to the world at large about who you were and what you were about: there you'd display your topiary animals, your pink flamingos, flaunt the lack of a lawnmower, or what have you. The backyard - the emails and comments streams blogs generate - was where you'd host your barbecues and parties, though unfortunately increasing amounts of energy have had to be spent wrestling with or ejecting one's most unruly or obnoxious guests. Now Facebook is the backyard, for invitees only, and the parties are more civilized and sedate. But what's going on in the front yard? Who's sitting on the porch swing? Who's brewing up a pitcher of lemonade or sangria to offer to one's neighbors, or opening their literary house to those necessary strangers of literature, the readers?

As Gertrude Stein once said, "I write for myself and for strangers." And Facebook makes a poor substitute for the salon she and Alice B. Toklas curated together at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Blogs are for the self - and for strangers - in a way that Facebook can't be. Now, I don't blog as much as I used to, largely because of the demands of teaching and parenting. And no form of new social media has replaced, for me, the task of writing poetry and fiction - the old social media by which one communicates with the ultimate strangers, the great dead writers of the past whom one has loved, and readers unknown and unborn. But blogging has come to feel, in the new context created by Facebook and Twitter (both of which I take full advantage of), less ephemeral than it was - somehow closer to print, or at least to newsprint.

Tony's talk stimulated and confirmed some of these ideas: he called his blog a kind of "performative notebook," which I thought an enormously resonant description. From the beginning, of course, this blog has been a notebook, as its tongue-in-cheek title implies. But it's a notebook in public, written "live" in a way that one never writes for print, for an audience of friends and strangers. There's a marvelous tension between the idea of the notebook - such a solitary creature - and that of performance, which always involves bodily display. There's a high-wire quality to it that's scary and attractive. Finally, we hit upon the useful idea of "the bloggy" - which is to say that blogs are a genre unto themselves, a medium with its own possibilities, a material that resists the writer in characteristic and interesting ways. Blogging for me has long ceased to be ancillary to my writing practice, and is instead a practice in its own right, for its own sake. And in that context blogs are still very much alive.


After the panel, I drifted over to the Art Institute, taking full advantage of my faculty discount to make that amazing museum an extension of ordinary life. Yet a visit there can't help being an event. Notes from a visit to the Modern Wing:

"Abstract Painting"'-'Gerard Richter 2000. From Donna & Howard Stone Collection. Totally gray without being pure gray, like strip layered upon strip of duct tape with intervening lighter grays.

Janine Antoni - Amercan b. 1964. "Mortar and Pestle,"'1999. A photo of a tongue licking an open eye. Can't tell the sexes of licker or licked. Humorous homage to Un Chien Andalou.

By same artist: "Caryatid" (2003). Life-sized photo of woman standing on her head with top of head in vaguely Asian blue and gold vase. The vase itself, broken, stands sculpturally beside the photograph.

Photo in light box by Jeff Wall with a name and image straight out of a Tom Waits song: "Rainfilled Suitcase" (2001).

Katharine Fritsch (German, b 1956). "Ghost and Pool of Blood" (1989). Disturbing sculpture of a white-shrouded, not quite human figure standing before a red pool with what looks like a syrupy consistency.

"Sound&Vision"'- exhibition taking its name from the Bowie song.

Sublime, terrifying video installation by a French artist, Pierre Huyghe, "Les grands ensembles" (The Housing Projects) 1994/2001. Two residential towers in a foggy snow-strewn landscape, with bare Beckettian trees, their lights flashing and syncopating in rhythm with a driving electronic beat. (I mis-typed "a driving"'and my phone turned it into "androgynous.") The buildings are models and you can see it's a sort of diorama, particularly when the trees shake in the wind. But it seems to communicate something lonely and apocalyptic and darkly witty. I wish I could write a poem as simple and yet layered, pregnant, haunted.

Pomo pastoral: John Baldessari's "Songs: 1. Sky/Sea/Sand, 2. Sky/Ice Plant/Grass"' (1973). Photos of a red ball tossed in the air, the photos arranged on the wall to become notes of a musical score. The lowest notes show the balls on the sand of a beach; for the highest notes, it's midair.

On my way out up the stairs I pass a very large canvas by Georgia O'Keefe, "Sky Above Clouds IV," inspired by airplane travel. Reminds me of how Gertrude Stein's sense of landscape was inspired by plane trips, looking down at the earth and seeing Cubism. The info card says the painting has often been compared to Monet's water lilies.

The path to Michigan Avenue passes through Impressionism. Bonjour Gauguin, "Why Are You Angry?" Van Gogh's postman with the luxuriant beard. Ongepotchket mix of furniture with the paintings creates the sense that post-Modern Wing the main museum has become an afterthought. There they are, the lilies themselves: Monet's transcendental myth of light. Haystacks, cathedrals, London. Hello Toulouse-Lautrec, how gaudy and interior you are this afternoon. Harald Sohlberg, you Swede, what are you doing here? Your eerie "Fisherman's Cottage" with its dark foreground of trees foreshadows Magritte. Seurat, pass by, you died young. White-skinned bathers. Where have you gone, John Singer Sergeant? You are like Renoir without as many illusions. A Monet seascape dispels the illusion of multiple picture planes. And out to the grand staircase and the muggy street.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


A psychedelic barn-raising.

This past Friday afternoon I got into my car and drove for far too long a time into the middle of pastoral nowhere: the Smith family farm west of Madison, Wisconsin. There I took part in what the organizers, Austin Smith and Mike Theune, call the first annual Arena Wisconsin Poetry Festival. After drinks and food in the house up the hill across the road, we all gathered in the barn for three rounds of poetry readings, featuring Matt Guenette, Chip Corwin, Bri Cavallaro, Meg Johnson, Patrick Moran, Andy Gricevich, Christine Holm, Seth Abramson, Brooks Johnson, and yours truly, as well as others. You'll note that list is awfully short on women, which was the festival's major shortcoming. But aside from that it was a helluva good time.

Austin Smith kicking off the Festival.

Austin is the very young and exceptionally gracious poet who came up with the idea and convinced his parents (his father Daniel is also a poet) to invite several dozen poets from around the upper Midwest to come and read and celebrate. As Mike Theune (the other major organizer) observed, it was a rare opportunity to create a real sense of the local in poetry, while at the same time extending the reach of what "local" means. (Can Chicago be local to Arena, Wisconsin? Apparently it can.)

Mike Theune, the evening's other instigator.

Mike was in rare form that evening (though he did punk out on the small hours hillside campfire that took place afterward - I wish my camera had been capable of capturing the Milky Way stretching overhead). Ubiquitous and gregarious, putting everyone at their ease, he helped make up for Kent Johnson's unfortunate absence by reading a typically scabrous and satirical poem Kent had written about Dean Young and his imitators to us. Later, he and Chip read some hillarious collaborations they'd written together based on the notion of the "purity test" that Tea Partyers supposedly want to administer to Republican candidates.

Austin channeling Robert Bly.

Apparently, Austin had written to Robert Bly (a Wisconsin resident) inviting him to the festival, and had received a nearly illegible but gracious note in reply, along with a poem to be read. Austin did so, in one of Bly's trademark vests. It was one of those moments in which parody and homage blend inseparably together in a kind of Mobius strip.

Andy Gricevich reading.

One of the highlight readings for me came from Andy Gricevich, whose work I hadn't been much familiar with previously but who rocked the house with an understated sort of sound poetry that simulated tuning across radio stations - if those stations were playing a mix of pop music, political theorizing, and existential dread. Other readings that stood out for me were those by Pat Moran (who read from a long sequence that riffs off of the character Harry Lime from The Third Man) and Seth Abramson (I'd never read his poetry, being more familiar with his indefatigable blogging persona, but the poems he read were dark, funny, and disquieting)

Brooks Johnson reading.

I was most startled by Brooks' reading. Brooks happens to be the son of Kent Johnson, and he's a recurring character in Kent's recent poems (see for example Kent's marvelous, unnerving collection Homage to the Last Avant-Garde). He has a goofy and unprepossessing affect when you talk to him, but at the podium he dug down into something fierce, funny, and uncompromising. It turns out he's another Chicago poet, living on the West Side where he helps to run the Mid-Coast Free School, an outfit which offers free classes to the community on subjects as diverse as yoga, "Government Aid and You," and Jacques Lacan.

Austin and Daniel Smith, two of our hosts.

It was a lovely community to suddenly be a part of, if only for a few hours: a genuine Temporary Autonomus Zone or poet-shepherds' pastoral (though there were some unidealizable elements, like the mosquitoes). It renewed my desire to take root more deeply in the Chicago literary community. The upcoming Printers Ball will offer one opportunity for that, but for the most part events like this are rare. It's the steady, slow accretion of connection that counts for the most and lasts the longest. And this was certainly a reminder of the reality of geography, and the almost magical effect of being in a group of others with only night, wind, and cows outside.

Parnassus, the morning after.

The barn by day.

The fields behind the barn.


Fenceline with butterfly.

Your humble blogger. Not shown: 101 mosquito bites.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Believe It

You ask me if I believe it well of course I don't believe it. You ask me if I said it I never said it nor do I believe it nor will anyone believe I could have said such a thing. Even if I said it I said it without subscribing to it which is a form of withdrawing credulousness. Only because you ask me did I say that I might have said it. What you ask me to believe I don't believe and furthermore nobody could believe it and nobody would believe and nobody will believe it you can count on that believe me. Well I have my doubts. Well don't you believe me?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Trial

She tried to forget him. He tried to forget that she was trying. She tried exercising more. He tried drinking less. She tried her friends' patience talking about trying to forget. He tried not talking to his friend about her. His friend tried not to listen while thinking about her in different contexts. First one, then another. She tried adjusting her routine: her path to work, her lunch order, the treadmill at the gym next to the treadmill where his friend works out. He tried not to become alarmed at the thickening texture of his trying. His friend tried to avoid his phone calls. She tried not to feel guilty. He tried to get used to hanging up the phone before voice mail came on. He tried to get used to evenings. He tried not to feel ashamed when he saw his friend holding her hand on the street. They tried not to see him staring. He tried on a pathos. She tried on a remorse. His friend didn't have to try, for he was always successful at anything he did.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From a Notebook (July 2009)

Thought versus the senses. Religion reconciled them, or rather put the senses in service to a prescribed thought. Philosophy versus aesthetics and poetry. Philosophers are perpetually on guard against the seductions of poetry, against metaphor, against taking the world of the senses for the only ground, which obscures truth. Poets are not so guarded but trespass exuberantly, willing to turn any turn of thought or discourse--any language, even and especially philosophical language --into a trope. to aim at truth must poetry then be tropeless--that is, not poetry? It must obey its own law. Yet I'm tantalized by the possibility of a tropeless imagination. Badiou calls it mathematics.

Digression on a (male) fantasy of writing: Betty Blue. In which the animalistic young hero Zorg drives a big machine and has wildly sublime sex with a beautiful young woman while filling an endless series of black notebooks with--what? The muse Betty finds them, types them up, finds a book in them--a novel. And all Zorg has to do to enjoy his success thereafter is smother poor mad one-eyed Betty with a pillow.

The dream there is that writing shall be indistinguishable from life, a life lived abandoned from responsibility to anything but the moment, the sensation. Erotics of the pen, its motion. The labor, the editorial intervention, is given over to a female other, and it drives her mad.

Energy and melancholy. Energy of melancholy. Melancholy as economy: the four humors are systems, an apparatus, for the management of human energy. Melancholy concentrates--the sanguine transmits--the phlegmatic stores up--the choleric broadcasts and scatters. Lisa Robertson: "the little drama of sensitive /expenditure."

Put the question differently. Can poetry be laicized? The fundamental religious impulse is to turn life into allegory: reality is displaced in the name of the divine, the ineffable, the unperceived. Poetry can try and return our attention to matter--to things--yet these things take up numinosity simply by being indicated, as a boat takes on water. But why should poetry be different from other structures of thought and feeling? All the modern languages claim to discover the operations of the not-directly-perceivable. Marx: capital. Freud: the unconscious. Darwin and evolutionary biology: the selfish gene. Badiou suggests that poetry creates a space for choice between and among imperceivables--that is, it creates subjects--through subtraction (Beckett) or multiplication (Pessoa). It's the angle of engagement that matters.

Not then a poetry (or a fiction) that excludes mimesis but which tests it through estrangement (ostranenie), through deliberately "unnatural" (what follows) arrangement, narrative, syntax. Syntax is where the action is--in existential terms, it's where decision happens. The syntax of the novel is called plot. The novel tests representation without abandoning it, though less rigorously perhaps than an Oulipian constraint or procedure would. Ideally I produce something--call it "decisionality"--for the reader without subtracting every readerly pleasure.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Return: Notes from Naropa

Outside the Allen Ginsberg Library at Naropa University.

For one solid week I took leave from my family and from my identity as poet to be a student in Laird Hunt's fiction workshop at Naropa University's Summer Writing Program. I arrived on Sunday afternoon filled with a mixture of excitement and nigh-existential nausea, such as I imagine afflicts secret agents. What would it be like to begin at the beginning--to sit at the seminar table and not be running the seminar--to be an unknown quantity in a tight-knit and storied community--to have so many poetry friends and acquaintances on the faculty while I went as a paying customer?

View of Naropa's front lawn, with a rather splendid tree.

Reader, it was glorious. Having checked my ego at the door, it was delightful to meet my fellow students around the ultramodern, coffin-like table in the shiny new Administration Building, and simply be one of them. I was happy to not be the oldest student in the class; there were quite a few twenty-year olds (a talented, ambitious, articulate lot, I hasten to add--like the best of my own students) but I was not the only one in his thirties and a couple of folks were in their forties. And looking around the room, especially once the class got going, I realized the benefits of taking a creative writing class as a full-fledged adult. I was not there to discover who I was, but what I was capable of doing. There was no vertigo, no posturing--I'm glad to say there was very little of this from my classmates, either. We got right down to business.

Laird Hunt and Julie Carr.

The workshop was excellent, not least for its being a workshop in a truer sense than usual: the emphasis was not on critique, but on producing new work. We read bits of the things we were writing, but the point was not to correct or polish this writing (or to grandstand opinions about it) but simply to hear it--to have a sense of the others were writing, and the immensely varied ways in which we were responding to the prompts and assignments. The title of the course was "Histories"; here's the description as it appears in the catalog:
Historical figures like Herodotus, Hannibal, Jesus of Nazareth, and Calamity Jane have all served as energy nodes around which writers have built significant works of prose. We’ll examine texts like Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn to explore that prose which, if we can kick awake that poor overworked pearl, posits the historical as its grain of sand. Students will produce their own writings for consideration and helpful critique.
I had had a sense, from his fiction and the little I knew of his biography, that Laird Hunt would be the ideal teacher for a poet trying his hand at fiction, and the gamble paid off. He spends a lot of time with poets--he's married to one--and has a deep appreciation for poetry, and seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing and the particular resources I as a poet might bring to writing a novel. My taste in fiction is very compatible with his: I revere Sebald and early Ondaatje, and though I hadn't before encountered the Saterstrom book I was drawn in by its unusual form, or forms.

Brian Kitely introduces the next reader with understated savoir-faire.

"Histories" isn't for me the most compelling title for a fiction course; if I had any doubts about choosing it, it's because I don't think of myself as someone who is particularly interested in historical fiction. I would much rather engage with noir or SF. But the class reinvigorated the genre for me; it was approached in such a thoughtful way, and of course the model texts on offer were incredibly rich: in addition to the titles above we also looked at excerpts from Patrick Ourednik's Europeana, Toni Morrison's Beloved (such a strange book, such an unlikely candidate for mainstreaming, yet there it is, fully canonized), Lorine Niedecker's poem "Lake Superior," and one ringer: Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (a not-bad movie but from the looks of the prose utterly bogus and banal).

Jaime Enrique reads from his forthcoming novel about the life of Cervantes.

One of the most effective exercises Laird gave us was designed to confront us with what he called "the hobnailed boot problem"; that is, the often false-seeming or distracting images and details that writers of historical fiction toss into their writing to create that sense of the past. While we did some freewriting on a scene from the past, Laird intoned a few keywords that we had to wrestle with, though we weren't required to incorporate them into the text: "goblet," "Catherine of Aragon," all that great old Medieval Times-type malarkey. I much approved of his general technique as a teacher, which was to get us writing and then to throw a monkey-wrench into the process designed to momentarily estrange one from the task of assembling a mimesis and be confronted by what we were writing as language, material for working and reworking.

I am increasingly convinced that the most interesting fiction is not that which produces the most vivid representation of reality, but which puts mimesis in tension with words and the systems native to words (sentences, paragraphs). One of the books I devoured when not in class, though Laird didn't assign it, was Ronald Sukenick's Narralogues: a loose, sometimes irritating collection of stories with a provocative thesis: that fiction should not be considered as a mode of mimetic art at all, but rather as rhetoric. The goal of this rhetoric, furthermore, is truth: not Platonic truth (which representation will always fail to produce) but truth nevertheless (Sukenick deliberately allies himself with Plato's old enemies the Sophists). A novel is successful not because it represents reality accurately but because it persuades you, not necessarily to any action but of the truth-content of the novel's form. I find much to recommend this theory; not only does it provide a better or more interesting description of what some of the greatest fictions accomplish (Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Woolf and Kafka come to mind) but it brings fiction closer to poetry.

Jennifer Scappetone introducing her "Pop-Up Opera."

While all this was going on--and while I was discovering that my novel is in many senses historical, from its evocation of May '68 in Paris to its preoccupation with the theater of memory--a ferment of talks and readings, as well as a dozen other workshops were happening. Really, when I was researching the various summer writing workshops out there, there was nothing else to compare in terms of the diversity, rigor, and sheer creativity of the faculty: Charles Alexander, Junior Burke, Julie Carr, Linh Dinh, Steve Evans, Thalia Field, Ross Gay, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, Stephen Graham Jones, Bhanu Kapil, Joanne Kyger, Jaime Manrique, Jennifer Moxley, Jennifer Scappettone, David Trinidad (and that's just for Week One!). Many of the people on this list are acquaintances and friends, and after some momentary hesitation on my part I was glad to find myself included in a number of intensive and convivial gatherings.

A purple pair: Jen Scappetone and the legendary Anne Waldman.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Not Rethinking Poetics

This is a week I've devoted to the possibilities of prose, and I am animated and inspired by a diverse constellation of texts, including:
  • Ronald Sukenick's Narralogues: Truth in Fiction, acquired today, which in its introduction provides the most liberating theoretical approach to fiction that I've ever encountered, and which does a far better job of articulating my discontents and hopes than I have. Briefly, Sukenick argues for fiction as a mode of rhetoric rather than a mode of mimesis, a linguistically self-conscious investigation that seeks to persuade the reader of its truth. It's an inclusive and exciting definition that brings the work of fiction much closer to what I've always thought of as the work of poetry.
  • Jeremy M. Davies' novel Rose Alley. The prose is ferociously funny and alive. Check out this excerpt to see what I mean.
  • Two classic texts on the iPad: Ulysses, natch; in honor of Bloomsday I sat down this morning and reread most of the Lotos Eaters chapter. Charlotte Bronte's Villette has also been giving me a great deal of pleasure. Here's Lucy Snowe, the narrator, reflecting on her mental disposition: "I seemed to hold two lives--the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter." What is a writer but someone who insists on merging those lives?
  • Roberto Bolano's Antwerp. Yes, yes, I know, you've heard enough about Bolano. But this is an extraordinary book, just 78 pages long, the first fiction he ever wrote and therefore very close to poetry. Each chapter is just a page or two in length, consisting of highly paratactic sentences that gradually evolve a sinister narrative or narrative-feeling about sinister goings on at a low-rent resort in Spain. As a back page blurb has it, "Antwerp can be viewed as the Big Bang of Bolano's fictional universe: all the elements are here, highly compressed, at the moment that his talent explodes." Apparently Publisher's Weekly decried the book's publication as opportunistic dregs-digging, but I think it's a minor masterpiece, evocative of dread. In Sukenick's terms, it's a persuasive argument for Bolano's terrifying and elegiac vision of the dream that is literature. "Strange necromantic joys," indeed.
  • Bhanu Kapil's Incubation: A Space for Monsters. I've only just begun this but it looks to be another hallucinatory sui generis narrative that plays, with a high degree of lyric intelligence, with the ideas of the monstrous and the cyborg (a la Harraway) in particular relation to the fate of Laloo, an immigrant from Punjab/London/here/there. I might assign it for my fall Frankenstein course.
Even as I fall happily down the rabbit-hole of prose, finding it at once closer to poetry than I'd hoped and stranger and more diverse than I could have imagined, my attention is diverted by talk about the "Rethinking Poetics" conference just concluded at Columbia University. Much of this talk, alas, is happening on Facebook, which only serves to reinforce the urgency of the central question that the conference seems to have raised among participants and non-participants alike: who is the poetic "we"? (I can't help but be reminded of the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto surrounded by Comanches; the Masked Man says, "Looks like we're in big trouble," and Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?) Put another way, is there a usably coherent "we" that encompasses all the strains of contemporary innovative poetry, academic and non-, regional and conceptual, abstract lyric and flarf?

A number of conference attendees, and quite a few people who didn't attend, have complained about a sense of exclusion; I won't speak to that, since I wasn't there. (For the reports of some people who were there, see Kasey Mohammad's post-conference thoughts and John Keene's beautifully digressive "poem-report." Hopefully a few more reports will emerge from behind the Facebook firewall soon. ADDENDUM: Stephanie Young has posted a lengthy and heartfelt report that, among other things, takes on Facebook directly: REPOPORT.) But I am interested in this question of "we," especially given this week's experimental immersion in a prose reality that has created for me a temporary sense of distance of poetry and my identity as poet. I am here, really, to try and grow that identity, to make it unruly, so that "poet" and "writer" infect and inflect each other.

Sukenick, or one of his characters, makes the following claim:
"There is no outside any more. Electronics have done away with that kind of spatial metaphor, and even temporal conceptions essential to an avant-garde movement have been annulled in the electrosphere. On the Internet it doesn't matter where you are or when you are."
This is a little too simple--as noted, much of the conversation and complaint about the conference is happening on Facebook, within a virtual network that you have to be "inside" to even be aware of. But it does seem highly relevant to the anxiety that some of the conference's critics are expressing. There is still a lot of institutional energy and cultural capital concentrated in what we can't help but continue to call "the School of Quietude," but it's dissipating fast; a stream of that capital flows steadily into "our" coffers, and yet there's a sense many of us have that the whole game is up. Universities may not exist in their present form for much longer, and seem to be shedding their capacity for the accumulation and distribution of capital nearly as quickly as Big Publishing has. Ironically, the more corporate these institutions become, in a series of moves rationalized as essential for their survival, the less influence they have on our attentions and appetites. The "inside," in other words, is as archaic a category as "outside," though individual insiders and outsiders persist.

There is a fellowship of sorts among poets of the former outside (a phrase as empty and redolent as "post-avant), but is it a community? Individual friendships and affiliations are more persistent and powerful, it seems to me, than the "we" at present, and that may not be a bad thing. "We" has been defined, perhaps inadvertantly by the shutdown of the Poetry Foundation's blog, as something that happens on Facebook, where the pronoun becomes as wavery and false as the word "friend" once it's become a verb. I have Facebook "friends" who don't speak to each other, but who might nevertheless catch glimpses of each other's comments and activities through the medium of the virtual "me." This can be awkward at times but it's real as the social is real.

"Demented and sad, but social." The Facebook "We" of poetry is not, thank God, poetry. There are other forms and modes of filiation, and contra Sukenick, place and region are still important and vital. It is incumbent on me, I believe, to build stronger connections with my fellow Chicago poets, even as I remain part of a larger thing (cosa nostra?) without geographic boundaries and, hopefully, with ever-weakening boundaries as defined by class, ethnicity, education, etc. Readings and talks and panels, academic or non, continue to be crucial, though as Thalia Field suggested yesterday the truest companionship is in the work. And I can be friends with poets who don't share my particular poetics (hi, Chris!), and I can be socially awkward with poets I deeply admire. There are multiple strands and crossings, and arguing can or ought to be compatible with liking. Arguing and liking are both life, values, poetics.

Back to prose, for a few more days anyway. Let poetics take care of itself, and let poets take care.

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