Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Not Being a Winner

Yesterday I received the best possible news about my manuscript The Barons and Other Poems: Omnidawn Publishing has accepted the book for publication and will bring it out in Fall 2014. This is thrilling news for a number of reasons. One is that Omnidawn is one of the most exciting, relevant, and hard-working presses that the contemporary publishing scene has to offer. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan have built an astonishing list in its decade or so of existence: their authors include Cal Bedient, Norma Cole, Gillian Conoley, Richard Greenfield, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Devin Johnston, Myung Mi Kim, Hank Lazer, Laura Moriarty, Craig Santos Perez, Bin Ramke, Aaron Shurin, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and Tyrone Williams, all people whose work I respect and in some cases revere. They have demonstrated a level of commitment to their authors that is unparalleled, working tirelessly and of course without compensation to edit, design, and promote their books. But most of all, I’m excited to be publishing The Barons and Other Poems with Omnidawn because for the first time since my chapbook Hope & AnchorI’ll be working with a publisher directly, without having to win a contest first.

I won’t pretend to be outraged by the contest model that has been so good to me: I’ve won four of ‘em, after all. No one likes to pay reading fees, but for the most part I haven’t minded subsidizing presses whose work I respect. Omnidawn has three poetry contests, without which I’m sure the press would not be able to produce books in anywhere near the same quantity or quality. This time, I neither entered nor won a contest: there will be no prize money, nor can my book be touted as a prize winner. This is a good thing. It means that the person who fell in love with my book, who believes it to be worth devoting a considerable quantity of time, energy, and money, will be devoting herself personally to its success. It’s far better, in my view, than having an outside judge pass along a winning manuscript to an editor who, however dedicated, won’t own the process in the way she would if she had chosen the book herself.

It’s not my intention here to disparage my former editors: far from it. No editor has worked harder on my behalf than Jim Schley at TupeloPress did when he was in charge of shepherding Severance Songs through the publication process: he even functioned, wonder of wonders, as an editor, making suggestions and recommending cuts and rearrangements that helped to make it a better book. That’s shockingly rare in the poetry world; I suspect it’s become rare in the world of fiction and trade books too.  I look forward to a similar back-and-forth with my Omnidawn editors. But I feel somehow that the exchange we have is going to be more profound, more fundamentally collaborative, and cut more closely to the bone of what I’m trying to accomplish with this particular book.

The Barons and Other Poems is my most ambitious book yet, in part because it’s a collection (as the title implies) and not a “concept” book or a “project” in the way of my other books (and of so many other poetry books published today--the vast majority, I'd say). It’s open. I have a longstanding interest in open form in the narrow sense, and you can see evidence of that in almost everything I’ve written, even the sonnets of Severance Songs. But this is the first time that I feel I’ve produced a truly open work in the sense that each poem makes a gesture, hazards something, contradicts itself or what’s gone before, without ever, as Mallarmé said, abolishing chance—the possibility of things going (always already being) disastrously wrong. The fault is in our stars and in ourselves. There’s an intrinsic roughness and shagginess to this work. I feel so lucky to have found a publisher who will respect that, and may seek even to enhance it, and to complete the book’s gesture which I have come to understand can only happen when a book is properly designed AND distributed AND promoted—talked about—believed in—by its publisher.

I am sure there will be disagreements and disappointments, but I am equally sure that this is happening at the right time, with the right publisher, and the right book.

And not least of all with this news comes a sense of liberation: the ability to close the door on one body of work and to open the door onto something unprecedented and unpredictable. Will it look like poetry, or fiction, or something else?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Romanticism

A few posts ago, I defined Romanticism in a rough-and-ready, ahistorical fashion, "as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination." My colleague Bob Archambeau, who is a scholar of Romanticism and far more qualified than I to opine on the subject, asked me rather reasonably what I meant by that. So I will try and explain, in my pragmatically poetics-minded way, what Romanticism means to and for me as a writer in the early 21st century.

The broadest and most persuasive recent definition of Romanticism I know comes from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre's book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity The title efficiently boils down the book's thesis: Romanticism is a broad, multinational weltanschauung that emerges in the late 18th century as a reaction against the Enlightenment, bourgeois capitalism, and industrialization. To paint with an even broader historical brush, I would say that with the emergence of modernity we see the dramatic rise in significance of "the world" and the worldly, in the face of the retreat of the divine as sole arbiter of value. Against forces that assert the primacy of "the world"--of the social, of rational systems--Romanticism rises as a sometimes contradictory wave in support of individuality, which seeks to restore the divine as a counterweight to the social (but in so doing reinforcing and exaggerating the fatal separation between divinity and world: Romantics flee organized religion and toward the cultic, toward individuals and small charismatic groups). Therefore, the 21st-century Romanticism or post-Romanticism that attracts me is a secularized Romanticism, which takes as its territory the wounded dialectic of self and world: wounded because that third thing, the divine, is present only in its absence, conditioning the territories of self and world.

As intellectual history this is pretty sketchy, but it gets across some of my sense of what Romanticism is, or what function it might serve, for our post-Language era of poetry: a reassertion of subjectivity that is not naive or reactionary, that has learned from the efforts of Language poetry to represent and negotiate with larger social systems. But there is another sense of it that I take from Robert Duncan, best encapsulated in Ezra Pound's phrase "the spirit of romance." Pound's book of that title tills the ground of the Troubadours, reaching back for a sense of Romance that is medieval, pre-Renaissance, which locates the ground of reality in myth and dream. In The H.D. Book Duncan writes that "The images of the poem, then, were not impressions translated from the given reality of the poet into words but were evocations of a dream greater than reality, a New World coming into existence in the opus of the poem itself" (97-98). What Duncan calls "the stuff of a poetic reality" is what I think of as the material of the Event: the Event as shaping act of the imagination creates and conjures Truth and the Subject, calling them forward from a background whose tangible immutability no longer goes unquestioned. The divine--the only truth-actor in the pre-modern dispensation--reappears as secular truth-action, materialized in the fidelity of the poet to her materials, which are the unevenly distributed products of her selfhood, of history, of tradition, and of her environment.

For a while now I have been interested in another more specific but related category of the poetic, the visionary. Poetic seeing in the visionary sense is something completely other than mimesis, even the mimesis of imagism: I would go so far as to call it a counter-mimesis, to relate it to the idea of the counter-factual. A poet like Blake creates, via or on the way to achieving fidelity to his (quite literal) visions, a "New World" in his poem. Such new worlds may be seen as offering an escape from what passes for Blake's reality (dark Satanic mills, etc.), but I think that visionary images are always dialectical: like a negative mimesis they comment on the qualities missing from the given world (the way Adorno says all lyric poems do) but they also conjure, in their process or adventure, the spirit of Romance or the spirit of Reality with a capital R: the revolutionary spirit from which all real changes, all real truths, emerge. The visionary poem rehearses creation. And I think the visionary, in that spirit, is what our historical moment may be calling for.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Force Multiplier, or the Subject of Poetry

My thinking about "the multiple" as a category for poetic thought began when I first began reading Alain Badiou back in 2009, then took a detour through Bruno Latour and the fashionable new philosophical field of object-oriented ontology (OOO to its fans), and lately has arrived at a rereading of Hannah Arendt, via Robin Blaser (whose wonderful essays in The Fire I seem at last ready to read and whose care for what he calls "particles" make him an orienting figure in the new poetics I am exploring).

The notion of the multiple grounds Badiou's ontology: there's a pretty decent summary on his Wikipedia page. But what's really interesting and urgent about Badiou's philosophy is the rupture he describes between ontology and subjectivity: the possibility of action or what Badiou calls "the Event." In my reading or misreading of Badiou, we live in a universe of "indifferent multiplicities," one of which might be given a name like "Politics"--precisely because the most authentic political possibilities are what get excluded from (and thus in mathematical terms "dominate") the set "Politics." The person, the subject, is itself multiple, is in fact non-existent, just a vector or trace assigned to multiple multiplicities and mapped or contained in the iron cage of Foucauldian power/knowledge. But crucially, a subject can emerge: one of the indifferent multiplicities of the universe gets named by the subject, who affirms his fidelity in that act of naming: I choose YOU, out of all the others, as my beloved, and so realize myself as a lover, and my relation to all others in the universe and myself is forever changed. What's attractive about this philosophy is the phenomenon of the Event as rupture, as eruption of Truth, and the importance it reassigns to the subject. Through her fidelity to the Event in love, science, politics, or art, the subject creates herself, and recreates the world.

The poems that have meant the most to me, writing or reading them, have been Events: I feel myself addressed, interpolated, on a level other than rational, and become, for a moment, more. And in that moment of departure from my everyday self, I am conscious of that self as multiple, as a constellation of objects that might be given such names as citizen, professor, father, etc. But the poem calls me away from all that, for a moment: I make a choice, I stake myself on the poem, and when the experience of the poem is over I am somewhere different from where I started, called to responsibility in Robert Duncan's sense: "Responsiblity is to keep / the ability to respond." Which response, more often than not, has for me taken the form of a new poem.

Object-oriented ontology seems to be nearly the opposite of Badiou's, for as a form of realism it affirms the reality of objects in the universe irrespective of human perceptions or relations to them. Its strongest move, from a poetic standpoint (and from the standpoint of someone preoccupied in particular with environmental writing and with the scene of negotiation between self and system) is to decenter the human so that ontology is no longer constructed in terms of self-object (i.e., correlationism) but as object-object. At the same time, there is a Badiouan dimension to OOO in its suggestion of the possibility that ALL objects, not only human beings, can create relations with other objects, and therefore all have the potential of being or behaving like subjects. Imagine what it might look like, the fidelity to an Event manifested by a butterfly, a skyscraper, the Rotary Club, or any other object/entity. Now most of the OOO-folks I've read, like Graham Harman, seem more interested in establishing the independence of objects from relation, tout court: that is, they are not simply interested in separating the reality of objects from human perception's distortion effect, but in disintegrating "relation" altogether. Objects exist, without ontological priority from one to the next, and apparently to maintain this thesis one must bracket the possibility of mediation. But I'm more tantalized by this prospect of an unlimited field of Events: a universe of objects (including objects introjected by the self) that might at any moment manifest as subjects through fidelity to an Event, which itself a sort of relationless relation since the Event is fundamentally creative.

This expansive new field of relations has interesting political implications, one major description of which has been offered by Latour in his idea of the "new Constitution" (in Politics of Nature), which will supplant the "modern Constitution" that tried to purify the boundaries between human and non-human but instead results in the proliferation of hybrids and "quasi-objects." In the new Constitution proposed by Latour, the old barriers come down and the discourses of politics and science (human and nonhuman, subjects and objects) become complementary, so that the Collective is not only redefined (as more inclusive) but is subject to constant redefinition (and ever-more inclusive). Put another way, our responsibility under the new Constitution is constantly expanding as we recognize the capacity of others (nonhuman and even conceptual others, as well as human others) to respond to us and to their environments.

I have wandered rather far from poetry. But my evolving sense of the importance of the multiple, of the breakdown in subjectivity which is also paradoxically an expansion of its limits, helps me to understand how poetry might meet the crisis that almost seems to produce poetry now. That is, the crisis of the public sphere (this is where Arendt comes in): the public sphere that poets have abandoned in droves (the abandonment has of course been mutual), cultivating instead a kind of self-conscious pariah discourse, in which both self and other are neutralized as actors, becoming objects that relate to each other un-Event-fully, suspended in a solution of uncrystallized subjectivity (the largely found language of the postmodern poem) that registers an affect of nostalgia or hostility or bemusement.

What's missing in contemporary American poetry is that sense of responsibility to what affects all of us (Duncan insisted, always, on the universality of experience), which is NOT the same as "political" poetry, nor is it achieved through the insertion of political content. The "poetry world" is a pariah world, really a condition of worldlessness. That's inevitable to some degree because poetic discourse will always be anathema to the rational discursivity that cannot help but affirm what exists while denying the possibility of anything truly new. But poetry is or ought to create the conditions under which an Event might occur; ought to address and be addressed by new human and nonhuman others; ought to indicate rather than abdicate the possibility of public speech, that is, of action. Ought to model what becoming a subject is; ought to terrify us, too, with the uncanny possibility of subjectivity's universality (which is anchored, always, in the particular and historical). I is an other, that's just a starting place: the others are all I's.

There is a spirit in all things, for poets to conjure. A conjuring that happens in obedience and in listening, to words, which are also objects, which make silence speak.

Now come, my Ariel! bring a corollary,
Rather than want a spirit: appear and pertly!
No tongue! all eyes! be silent.

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