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.


meika said...

Friends don't let friends use facebook.

Name: Matthew Guenette said...


Matt Guenette here, from the AWP,F. Just wanted to say it was great meeting you. Wished I'd been able to stick around and talk more. Maybe next time...

I linked to your AWP,F blog-post from my website ( Thanks for making the drive up to Arena. And thanks for keeping up this very smart, very energetic blog.

Ron said...

I love that big O'Keefe at the Art Institute.

Kent Johnson said...

Josh, I hope you won't mind this longish comment. But regarding the drift of poetry discussion to Facebook and how that medium's functions can be used to "gatekeep" exchange and debate, I thought I'd share this:

A couple weeks ago I wrote one of the presenters from the "Rethinking Poetics" conference (a prominent and smart man with whom I've had some public disagreement in the past), telling him that I was very interested in seeing his much-referenced essay from the gathering, that I had, as he knew, a keen interest in a-g theory and its applications to the state of current post-avant poetry, etc. I explained to him that I did not have a Facebook page (nor had any desire for one) and thus was unable to access the text of his presentation. Would he be so kind as to send it to me in a file so I might consider his argument?

He wrote back that No, he would rather not do so, as he was convinced that any "Bordeauvian" [sic] like me "who took Distinction seriously would never find much of interest in it."

I wrote back expressing my surprise at such response, saying,

"Says who? In any case, Bourdieu's cultural field theory is what's most interesting to me. Not that he would countenance such a "distinction"... But you know, the heuristic usefulness of historical materialism, for example, isn't necessarily contingent on the labor theory of value."

That was probably a little hermetic on my part, but truly, I was in a state of real bemusement!

He then wrote back right away, saying that I had indeed endorsed PB's Distinction "about a thousand times, en route to dismissing any number of serious (and not so serious) left positions as mere position taking." No, he continued, he *knew* his Rethinking Poetics paper would be of no use to me, "except as a launch pad to grind a paper axe."

I SWEAR I am not making up the above. The point, you see, is that this well-known poet-critic was more or less sarcastically telling me--I think fair to conclude--that even if I *were* on Facebook I'd be excluded from the ongoing conversation around his paper, since a hopeless "Bordeauvian" like me, as he termed it, would never be given status as a "friend" of his to discuss it!

All situational humor aside, it seems to me such exclusionist disposition is most unfortunate. Some would say, in fact, the general disposition seems increasingly prevalent in our avant neck of the woods, even if it's usually expressed in more subtle forms and flows than the weird and vulgar instance from my anecdote. A number of others, I believe, have pointed to the organizational dynamics of the "Rethinking Poetics" conference itself as suggestive of this. Though not that exclusivity and supervision are anything new in the poetic field, of course...

Now, I realize, in regards to the Facebook matter, that someone might say: "Look, the same thing can happen on a blog; the blog owner can prevent you from commenting, etc."

True enough. But at least there is no way the blog owner can keep me from reading and considering his or her writing or from perhaps offering my views on it in another venue if the topic seems important enough.

So this paper you are referring to above, Josh (I suspect it's the same one), well, I for one have never seen it. And one of the reasons I haven't is that its author has conveniently used Facebook's gatekeeping functions to keep me from seeing it (and thus potentially commenting on it).

So I guess all this is by way of saying, with some sadness and nostalgia for the good old days of the free and open forum: Hurrah for those antique journals and those fading blogs!


Kent Johnson said...

I wrote:

>its author has conveniently used Facebook's gatekeeping functions to keep me from seeing it (and thus potentially commenting on it)...

I could have put that better. I certainly don't mean that the author in question had ME in mind in using Facebook(!), rather that the use of Facebook seems to have become, in part, a kind of convenient cordon sanitaire for the regulation of debate and discourse.

Desmond Swords said...

The one identical principle across the board on the many poetry boards I have written on, is a sort of unspoken understanding, or shared belief by the members, that their little corner of Cyberville, is where 'the best' most 'real' human-poets gather. This is an exaggeration of course, but the point it makes is that wherever you go, there are mores and modes particular to the individual boards.

From the Sphere and Sonnet Central, across to the mistitled (UK) Poets on Fire gaffe, BritPo and Poetryetc jiscmail lists, Guardian books blog, Poetry Foundation of America's Harriet (before it shut down), London's Magma, and most other places with serious poetic pretentions [including most poets' blogs, which have Comment Moderation turned on, except (tellingly) - George Szirtes]: there's no tolerance of the 'other's poetic; usually by subtle strategies of a collective mocking of the Avants (as at Poets on Fire) or the Straights (as at jiscmail poetryetc & britpo), the boards become little hermetically sealed countries, like N Korea, that resist and censor by non-admittance, opinions and realities outside their own narrow world-view, which eventually lead to the poetic stagnation that occurs when everyone is in agreement with how fabtastic we are - bcuz there's no one around to speak differently, bcuz the 'other's have all been demonized and not let in, or slung off with a theatrical flourish, for the same old bollocks of 'not respecting' the admin's 'authority', as a dreamer practicing in the realm of fantasy. Absurd and wholly comedic. The one thing a poet must posses to write anything of themself and original, is a healthy disrespect for the poetic 'authorities', the majority of whom, would not piss on us if we were on fire.

It's usually insidious, the owning entity will put themself up - with no qualification other than a desire to own and control a chat-gaffe - as the last word on democratic adminstration, inflating ourselves as keepers of the peace and in the process, slowly strangle all poetic views that do not reflect our own (as Jane Holland, Pepple, Nichols and Halley at Harriet and the jiscmail poetryetc owners did), which leads to a state of affairs where people do not speak contrary, for fear of getting banned, from a fucking chat gaffe in cyberspace!! Proving only how bourgeois and socially homogenizing the activity of online poetry writing, can be.

That's why there should always be opposing voices in the one space, because once we start trimming out the ones we do not agree with, it leads to what there is now at all these gaffes. Zero chat, even tho the cohorts there are most of those in po-biz who have an online presence.

hema said...


Popular Posts