Saturday, August 30, 2008

Writers and conceptions of audience (part one)

When it comes to the issue of what kind of readers various writers wish to reach, one might start by defining three (inevitably fluid) categories:

1) Popularists
Those who wish their writing to be read by many people.

2) Groupists
Sometimes called tribailists, groupists imagine their work as part of a specific social group, a minority in Deleuze’s sense, that defines itself as different both in circumstances and values from the larger society of which it is a part. Groupists want to participate in a specific minority literary tradition and to have their work read by others who identify themselves as part of that group or are otherwise invested in the creations of that group. If one defines the avant garde or experimental impulse, for instance, as residing primarily in a history of techniques and the groups that have used those techniques, and if one wishes to be identified as avant garde on the basis of participating in those techniques and groups, then one can be said to be groupist.

3) Individualists
Individualists insist that the value of a work of art is found primarily in its aesthetic and cultural autonomy, and that the best written works will in great measure resist and defy, perhaps even entirely ignore, accepted conventions of writing, even the anti-conventional conventions of the avant garde. The issue of readers is secondary at best to individualists, who might in the most extreme sorts of cases see the lack of an audience as a function of the work’s integrity. More often, individualists are interested less in groups of readers than in individual readers. As Ben Friedlander has pointed out, in the short run one or two readers may be all a writer needs to ultimately be read by many others.

The question of the readers one wishes to reach is bound up with the question of the production methods that allow one to reach readers. The mass market repetitions of the popularist, the defined field of the groupist, the almost total lack of official options for the individualist. Popularists and groupists must contend with the publication mechanics of their context, and to some degree conform to them, whether on the level of principle or practical opportunity. Individualists must always struggle against easy moralism, the quick insistence that their work can’t be published because it’s wonderfully unique. Because it’s such an easy temptation to fall for, moralism about the inherent greatness of work that’s so non-conforming that it can’t be published seems unlikely to reflect actual greatness, however greatness might be defined.

Still, desire is related to productive practice in complicated ways. One can wish to be a popular writer, for instance, without automatically being willing to give in to writing work with the characteristics of the mass market literature that at this time reaches large audiences. Some writers probably feel combinations of all three urges at various times, and struggle with the unavoidable distinctions between working with the mechanisms that support each kind of urge.

I sometimes wish I could believe that writing that resists the literary conventions of its time and the social forces that control them is automatically better writing or even the only interesting writing. But as much as I would like at times to believe it, I don’t. Acting on any of the three urges above, and involving oneself in the production mechanisms that came along with them, can result in writing that’s worth reading.

Consider a genre market writer like Phillip Dick. Published originally in the cheapest kinds of science fiction paperbacks. Politics, language, identity, the self, and the struggle for the control of the nature of time are explored, as often is trumpeted, in ways as complicated as the work of Borges, to whom he is often compared.

The danger of popuarlism: sensational and uncritical writing that reflects, both in content and structurally, the corrupt values of a corrupt society.

The danger of groupism: smug restatement of already agreed-upon in-group values.

The danger of individualism: the smug comfort of being crankily contrary.

The communities (or lack of one, in the case of the individualist) that support any of these positions all have measures of quality built into them at the same time that these measures of quality are acknowledged as faulty even by many members of those communities.

The measure of quality in popularism is sales, that is, the approval of the audience. Yet few participants in the mass market, whether artists, publishers, or readers, are likely to believe in any absolute way that strong sales figures are the equivalent of quality. However, sales are undoubtedly the marker of the popularist writer’s future publishing possibilities.

The measure of quality in groupism is references to the work by other members of the group, that is, the approval of the group, which in this case is the same thing as the audience. Groupists are likely to see these references as indications of genuine quality while at the same time some groupists might recognize why such references cannot be a final indication of quality.

The measure of quality for an individualist often may be no more than internal conviction that the writer is producing quality work despite the fact that no one else thinks so, or that no more than one or two other people think so. Yet a conviction of quality is hardly an assurance of quality.

Ideas about quality are thus defined by the mass audience, the in-crowd, or internal conviction at the same time that quality cannot be determined in any absolute way by any of those things.

Still, it’s easier to say that quality remains undefinable than it is to do away with the concept. Whatever measures are used to define it, no matter how inappropriate, many writers still believe in the importance of writing well.

There’s no need to worry that poor writing will overwhelm the significance of good writing. One, because it always has overwhelmed it, although that doesn’t prove that it always will. Two, because good writing always emerges anyway, if only in a few instances here or there, and however it’s defined. And that’s true even when good writing remains undefined, and even when one lives in a society whose values seem opposed to writing well.

Is it possible that a society can become so coercive that all possibility for good literature could be eliminated? In Stalinist Russia, some poets carried copies of their own poems, or of the poems of writers like Mandelstam, in bits of paper they kept in their clothes or otherwise hid away, sometimes for decades.

Still, if the urge for literary creation can be said to be so powerful that it will continue to exist as long as even a few people have a capacity for thought and writing, that tells us nothing about what a society would look like if it placed significant value on literary creation regardless of its economic effect. As long as we live in a society which values money above all else, the chances of encountering powerful writing remain much rarer than they might be, and have much less social effect than they could.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Sunday Night of the Sunday Night of the Year

Back from Vancouver. A great time, about which there's much to say but not enough time to say it. Mainly because the fall semester starts tomorrow and I'll be on campus from eight in the morning until eight at night.

Which means here it is, the Sunday night of the Sunday night of the year. And this untitled poem of mine (double spaced here so the line breaks will work, sort of, with any short bits simply parts of the previous line) seems to match, if not exactly to mirror, what I think about that.

Stop moving for an hour, and the hollowness you hear

will be your own mind, its equations, beliefs,

the finer points of political hectoring, all strung up

along a line that comes from far down

and ends in a hook. It’s the silence you’ve earned,

your prisoners, and not much more than a day

with traffic dead stopped at the corner. I listened

to things like that for years, wrapped it up with a little TV,

a federal investigation, some sense of starting over.

But there isn’t much of anywhere to go. A guy in a van

with a rusted roof opens and closes his door, looks at the street,

decides against it. And sometimes it is a decision.

It’s like the story of the duck and dog, how they were friends.

That’s the kind of thing to want, not some pointless assertion.

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.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Poetry The Way They Teach It at Iowa

As many readers of this blog probably know, the University of Iowa MFA Program is considered by many people, for better or worse, as the premiere creative writing program in the United States. But what exactly would you learn as a student at Iowa?

In his August 8th post, Johannes Goransson discusses what he learned at Iowa as a student there a few years ago, and it's fascinating. For better or worse.

What do you think about it all? Leave a comment on his blog or one on mine.

Welcome To Your Own History: Brief Thoughts on Writing Doldrums

(The following is a rewrite of a letter to Elisa Gabbert, whose excellent recent book co-authored with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, has been out for a few months now, and is reviewed here.)

Hi Elisa:

Your comments on your writing slump made me think of a few things. I don't know if they'll be helpful or not, but they're things I consider whenever I feel like I’m in a slump.

I commonly go through periodic writing doldrums, although the good thing for me is that I've been at this long enough that I always have something unfinished I can turn to when new writing feels impossible. I also think (and please don't take this wrong, because I'm the old old person here and always will be, compared to you) that it comes from being a little older and a little farther along in your own development as a writer. It does get difficult to maintain enthusiasm at times, especially as life becomes, if not more complicated, more requiring of a consistent daily effort to maintain jobs, love relationships, families, friendships, social or political commitments and so on. I think there's a lot of thrill that comes from those first few years of writing and publishing success: "I can really do this, I 'm really good at this, other people think so too," and all that goes along with that feeling. But then, for the first time, you get to a point where you have to do it all again. You're always starting over but it doesn't feel like a start because it feels like you've started before, and how is it fair to always have to be starting again? A great Elvis Costello line: "I had 20 years to make my first album and six months to make the second." From your letter it almost sounds like that's where you are, at the start of the second (major) push. I know we have many phases and many pushes, but it's probably true that you've never been at the point where you've been a successful writer before (chapbooks, the collaborative book, so on) and now have to try to be a successful writer again. Congratulations: you've reached that great moment when you have a public writing history and it has the chance to burden you.

If you're at all like me in this regard, adrenalin is important when it’s time to write. Feeling and trusting the energy is important. But how to get to that energy when it seems like other things are taking it away? I don't even have a good answer for myself, but asking yourself that might come next. It's weird what things will work for me: somebody gives me a writing assignment, or I pick up a wave of energy from something I haven't finished, and that speeds me into something new. Those are the good ways. Sometimes I’ll get a surge of energy from internet annoyance that’ll pick up my pace. Anything to avoid the leadenness, the feeling that I just don’t give a damn about my writing or anybody else’s. It may be that some writers can work within that leadenness, but I can’t, at least not often or well. I need to believe that I care about what I’m saying and might say, and it can be hard to convince myself of that.

My guess is that it’s not so much about revising your current manuscript, although I know you have some issues about it that feel unresolved, but how to take the next steps in becoming the writer that you already are. Your life is probably different than it was, your concerns are different, and that means that the likelihood is that your tone as a writer is going through changes too. So it sounds like maybe you might want to think about new ways to give yourself the energy you need. I don’t have a suggestion for that, except to ask when you might find half an hour, or an hour, in a day, maybe only a couple of times a week, and find ways to create energy for yourself. Who knows what it takes? I wrote almost all the Felonies of Illusion poems while reading Clark Coolidge’s book The Rova Improvisations and watching re-runs of the sitcom Friends simultaneously. Or not quite simultaneously. I’d read a poem on the commercials and write my poem when the show came back on. I could bounce off the language differences between the two in a way that made it possible for me to write words down on a piece of paper. So any weird habit will do (and mine are very weird) if it gets you where you’re trying to go.

I hope this doesn’t sound too much like advice. It’s not so much that as yeah, I think I know what you’re feeling and here’s how I’ve tried to think about it. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that you’ll be writing again soon enough. Easy for someone else to say though, huh? The writer herself or himself is the one who has to get geared up again to go.



Any thoughts on how to get past the writing doldrums, yours or anybody else"s? I'd love to hear about that or anything else having to do with the issue.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Technology: From Worst to First

Most technology is ambiguous in its effects, creating or furthering both opportunities and problems. As Raymond Williams pointed out a long time ago, I believe in The Politics of Modernism although I could use help on that, technology itself causes no necessary effect. The question is how it’s deployed, although of course how it is made depends greatly on what its makers imagine its deployment might be. Of course we’re living in an era (and have been for awhile) when the overwhelming presence of technology leads to perhaps ever greater levels of problems as well as fascinating new options for problems.

I’m nowhere near any final conclusions just yet, so I hope you’ll check in with your own thoughts. I’m listing here what constitute to my mind major technological developments, mainly in the 20th century but a few from earlier. I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive and would welcome additions. I’m concentrating on widely available technologies though and not, say, developments in fields like medical technology that are used only by a specialized group of people or affect only a small group of people.

What I’ve done is listed these technologies from worst to first: from most purely harmful to those that seem, on balance, most helpful and least harmful. None is without negative effects. A few seem without positive ones. I know the idea of lists is always partially absurd, but the list is helping me compare effects across different kinds of objects. I’m most uncertain about the ones in the middle of the list and how they compare to each other.

Since my thinking about this is only beginning, you’re extremely welcome to critique my order here. Even better would be if you’d supply your own list. My point scale for five most harmful technologies will be 20 points for a first place vote, 10, for second, 5 for third, 3 for fourth, and 1 for fifth. If I get enough people to make a list, I’ll call a “winner.”

For now I’m not going to give my explanations of why I’ve ranked them this way. Except perhaps for one, just so you can see how I’m going about this. I’m ranking machine guns as more purely harmful than nuclear weapons. It’s at least possible to say that nuclear weaponry has had some effect in deterring the kinds of large scale destructive warfare that existed before them, even while they’ve caused mass death and have enabled new forms of warfare. It’s not an argument I would make, but I can see how it could be made. On the other hand I can’t think of any even remotely positive argument that anybody make about machine guns (and other rapid, multiple round guns) except that they kill more people more rapidly than earlier guns could do. And in fact, am I right that machine guns have killed many more people than nuclear weapons? I’m not sure, but I think so.

Machine guns (and other rapid, multiple round guns)
Nuclear weapons
Home Phones
Cell phones
The Internet

Friday, August 1, 2008

Where I'll Be This Weekend

Saturday, I'm headed to L.A., for a reading at 7 p.m. at Betalevel (pictured above) featuring Michelle Detorie, K. Lorraine Graham, Amanda Ackerman, Vanessa Place, and Carribean Fragoza. That's quite a lineup. If you're in L.A. you should go.

Click here for directions and more details.

I hope to see you there, but if not I hope you're doing something equally enjoyable.