Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vancouver and the Positions Colloquium: Where I’ll Be And Why

My last blog post for a bit as I get ready to head for eight days nights in Vancouver, five of which will be spent at the Positions Colloquium, a schedule for which I’ve linked to here. I won’t be back until the Sunday night of the Sunday night of the year, with classes starting the next day.

A month or so ago, Ron Silliman blogged about the many literary conferences and festivals happening this summer, and how he saw in them some basic blueprint about the main current directions in alternative poetries (not so interested in a nomenclature debate right now, thanks). His schematic for looking at the conferences was full of generalizations (some at least partly illuminating), as perhaps is befitting of the Gateway Drug aspects that his blog often takes on, but he also raised the worthwhile question of exactly what the point of these conferences is and why they take what shape they take.

Of course, trying to define what actually happens at a conference by some definition found in poetics or other theories is bound to generalize. Even talk about “a community of interests” is too general and on some level an obfuscation. Conferences happen because particular people make the effort to make them happen, and because those people are able to access resources that can help such events happen (and the degree of available resources certainly varies). Then (in most cases) they have to issue invitations or calls for proposals, and writers have to decide whether they can accept those invitations or come up with a proposal. Then, when decisions about participants have been made, schedules of events and writers are published. Following that, others who have not been invited, but who may feel interested in the writers or events, make plans to attend also. Those others may wish that they had been invited (feelings on the subject can be complicated, to put it mildly) or just feel interested in being there to see what’s going to happen. All these decisions are certainly based in standards of ideology and taste but don’t necessarily result from those standards in any one-dimensional way, and what actually happens when the conference gets going certainly doesn’t. The unexpected and the random remain features of every conference. Of course, the more narrowly defined the subject matter of a conference is, the more narrowly defined the potential participants are. This summer’s flarf festival, for instance, implied by its title a fairly definite sense of potential participants. Not so the conceptual poetry conference though, despite what might seem at a quick glance a similarly narrow focus, because what the idea of conceptual poetry includes turns out to be much broader and more debatable.

All that said, for me the Positions Colloquium expresses as significant a sense of the writers to whom my own work is most immediately connected as I could probably imagine. There are many writers to whose work I feel a close connection who won’t be there, of course, just as there are many other kinds of writers whose work I like who won’t be there either. But those kinds of limitations seem to me only obvious even as the specifics of some of them are always likely to be vexed. Still, who actually will be there is a set of people that it makes me happy to be part of.

The actual work of the writers in question varies quite widely. What I think is shared is not so much answers as issues and questions. Finding the right balance of similarity and difference of concerns at a conference can be tricky. Invite a wildly divergent set of people and they may find it difficult to be able to talk to each other about any issue in any depth, although the advantage is that people will learn at least a bit about things they didn’t already know. Invite a more close knit group and the already developed conversation between them will certainly be more in-depth, at the same time that differing perspectives might be overly neglected.

Here are some of the issues that I think connect the Position Colloquium writers.

One is the interrelation between aesthetics and culture. Aesthetic decisions always take place in culturally specific contexts, and use culturally specific techniques. But culture is not simply the ground for aesthetics, because aesthetics themselves are crucial to what culture is. But that’s only a bare starting point for the issues in question. How is one’s literary aesthetics interrelated with the culture(s) one is part of?

Another issue that connects most of these writers is some concern with globalist political and economic issues. Along with the local specificity of aesthetic and cultural forms and contents comes the issue of how these specifics relate to overarching world scale concerns with capitalism, war, poverty, nationalism, The Spectacle. The Local Picture and The Global Picture and the connections and tensions between them.

In relation to these questions, the status of poetry as a political act related to other political acts will certainly be an issue. Some writers at the conference are likely to think of their work, in writing and otherwise, as direct political engagement. Others will be more concerned with exploring theories of politics or of working with ambiguities and complexities whose elaboration may involve attempts at understanding only tenuously tied to specific immediate action.

Also, identity. The identity that is imposed on one from without which one decides to take on, or not, in various degrees. Not only essentialist identities or constructed identities or fragmented identities but identities that are always in play in the act of working with anyone. Identities as an example of specific negotiation with others. The value of groups and the limits of groups.

Also, issues of transparency and mediation, the visceral and the theoretical. Writing about how one feels or thinks while being aware that feelings and thoughts themselves are always partly social constructs. Maybe I really can say what I mean, but maybe what I mean is caught up in a history of learning to mean and what it means to learn to mean. Are emotional power and honesty in one’s writing and a complex understanding of emotion necessarily opposites? What if at their best they go hand in hand?

Skepticism and awareness of limitations. The recognition that everything is not possible. A concern about the value of the simple righteous statement, or perhaps the sense that the simple righteous statement may be the right thing to do sometimes. More importantly though, an awareness of contextual limits, of thinking through what is or is not possible to do and where and why.

Humor, playfulness, pleasure, parody, satire. Are these the opposite of serious literary work or an often essential feature of it? To what extent is laughter a necessity? If literature is a kind of game, aren’t parts of it fun? Aren’t fun and pleasure also social concepts that need considering?

These issues, and many others, not to mention performances, visual poems, casual conversations, friendship and a good old time, are some of the reasons I’m pleased to be part of these events.

Any thoughts on what you go to conferences for, or what you like or dislike about them? I’ll be on e-mail only intermittently (at best) until August 25 but I’ll put your comments through just as soon as I get them.

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