Tuesday, February 16, 2010
James Sherry on Environmental Poetics (interview by Stan Apps)
I was intrigued to read this interview, up at Jacket, of James Sherry by Stan Apps on the subject of Environmental Poetics.
Some brief thoughts on a few complexities it raises:
I was pleased to see Sherry try to avoid the politics of guilt-tripping and blame laying. Plenty of blame lies all over the place, as he points out, but guilt is rarely effective as a large scale political tool because of its tendency to lead to resentment and (often passive) resistance. The issue according to Sherry is not to tell people how bad they are and make them say “Sorry” but to make them clearer about ways in which environmental consciousness is in their interest (although only by shifting the nature of what is meant by self-interest).
It’s fascinating to see the way that terms that to some extent I associate with corporate capitalism, like “risk management,” come into play in the interview. Admittedly, poetry and environmentalism are more closely related to businesses than many people are comfortable acknowledging, and certainly part of Sherry’s point is that conventional leftist oppositional language isn’t sufficient for the task at hand. But will such terminology really help more conventional environmental practices become more effective or might it not instead co-opt and ultimately misuse them? Still, Sherry definitely acknowledges this risk. He’s careful to insist that predicting what will happen is difficult.
Sherry also makes the point that significant change in environmental practices on a large social is unlikely to come until people really find themselves in disastrous circumstances. While suggesting the importance of an environmental poetics, he’s also a bit of a fatalist (or at least skeptical) regarding its ultimate use value. But like him, I like the idea of making the attempt anyway, despite necessary skepticism.
How Sherry connects environmental issues with aesthetic practice seems to me more tenuous. He tends to assert a fairly well-known lineage of consciously avant garde writers as figures helping lead towards his ideas, but I’m not sure how the details regarding these writers’ work really supports his position.
I note for instance that the contemporary writers he mentions are heavily weighted towards contemporary poetry in New York City, with an emphasis on Roof Books authors. That doesn’t surprise me, given where he lives and his role as the publisher of Roof, but it doesn’t seem to me necessarily the best way to develop a list of writers whose aesthetic practices support the kind of philosophy of environmental poetics that Sherry is urging.
Where for instance are the west coast poets, in Canada or the U.S., who have specifically engaged with Pacific Rim cultural development issues? What about poetic practices beyond the U.S.? In the case of the poets he mentions, Sherry seems to be falling back more on the writers he specifically promotes and lives near than he is making an entirely convincing case for where his kind of environmental poetics might be found among writers. That’s interesting given his remarks about how easy it is to fall back into individualized self-promotion even when one is highly aware the problems of such self-promotion (and I have no intention of playing holier than thou relative to this).
With all due respect to my flarf and conceptual writing friends, I didn’t see how his repeated mentioning of them was really tying into his argument. He is making the case that it’s not subject matter, but structural developments in poetics, that most closely tie into his concept of environmental poetics. Citing Kenny Goldsmith as an instance environmental poetics struck me as off, especially given some of Goldsmith’s takes regarding poetry and politics, and I didn’t see the specifics to back it up: does it come from the way Goldsmith recycles text, rather than attempting to create new works of individual human genius to clog up our air? That seems a stretch to me, a metaphorical resonance perhaps but not much more. And while I think I can see a connection between environmentalism and some of Nada Gordon’s work, I’m not sure exactly how to tie most of the other writers of flarf into this situation, except again along the rather tenuous line of re-use of materials.
Minor note: I wonder if my friend Cathy Eisenhower will like her appearance in this essay as an example of a new generation of language poet.
Sherry himself says that he doesn’t wish to unsettle too far the relevance of earlier generations of writers relevant to “avant garde” practice, a term he uses only once though he insists on its significance, which I actually appreciate while seeing the pitfalls. He wants to rock the poetic boat but not to rock it too much, and he’s probably overly cautious here and ends up dishing out a few extra kudos to the usual suspects.
Lastly, I wondered about the degree to which Sherry insists on the rejection of most emotional, affective practices re the environment, that is, those practices that draw on emotional human responses. Sherry definitely does not favor the “we need to feel sad/mad about the dying animals” approach; he just isn’t sentimental about penguins. He notes, rightly I think, that putting individual human emotion and experience at the center of all things is part of why human beings find themselves in such a physically endangered world.
Yet the degree to which Sherry resists any return to a language involving emotion (so much so that he deconstructs Apps’ questions when Apps tries to draw him out on this and related subjects like that of individual responses) strikes me as overkill, simply too much careful theoretical and managerial distance. His attempt to refuse the value of emotion is something of a return to the blame-laying Sherry wishes to avoid, as if emotion’s frequent refusal to understand structural conditions is in fact still too much to blame for environmental problems. I’d suggest that we need a rethinking of how to consider emotion and structural understanding in relation to each other without rejecting emotional response so thoroughly.
These are very off-the-cuff (and quickly typed) thoughts, not all final versions of what I ultimately might think about all this.