Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Most of the great poets today are women.”

In response to a Harriet post by Craig Santos Perez, who is responding to a blog post by Jessica Smth (both pictured above).

Dear Jessica and Craig:

Thanks for raising this issue, one that comes up every so often in poetics.

I always find myself fascinated when I hear the claim “Most of the great (or best) poets writing today are women,” but also startled.

The first thing that startles me about such a claim is its use of quantifying logic. In order to know what most of any group is doing, one needs to have looked at all (or at least a sample large enough to imply all) of the group. The statement contains the implication that the person making it has read so much of the world’s poetry that the total quantity of good poets is apparent. Yet unless the person is truly encyclopedic, it’s likely that the person means “most of the poets among the group of poets I read,” a smaller group from which to take the sample, at which point it’s important to wonder how the sample was selected.

The second thing that startles me is the claim to objectivity. “Great” and “best” means not simply the poets I like, or the poets whose ideology I prefer, but the poets that are superior according to objective standards that should be clear to all who have good sense and reason.

Surely many people know by now that terms like “great” and “best” often come from personal standards, or cultural ones, or ideological ones, and that rarely if ever is there a ground of objective superiority against which people can make no reasonable objections.

I myself then see the claim “Most of the great/best poets writing today are women” as an ideological claim rather than objective or quantifiable. I’m not saying that one could counter the point with some more objective claim, but rather that we’re talking about an ideological question here rather than a factual one.

I don’t say all this to suggest that either of you do not mean the point sincerely. I’m not doubting for a second that you believe what you believe. But it’s out of the sincerity of competing claims that many ideological struggles (especially those regarding art) develop.

Whenever claims regarding gender and “best” poets come up, I look for how they function relative to ideology and power, that is, how they become power moves in a field of power, even when meant sincerely. And here’s a basic ideological map of how I often see that working.

1) A man says, “The best poets writing today are men.” Or, more likely, a man says, “The claim that the best poets writing today are women is ridiculous.” Here, a man defends the value of the writing of men or attacks the value of the writing of women. A significant number of male writers will side with him, and these men will often gather ranks against what they perceive as an unfair assault. Not all male writers however will side with them, and the man who makes such a statement is likely to find very few women writer allies, although he may discover some among those women writers who dislike feminism.

2) A man says, “The best poets writing today are women.” This man is ideologically siding with women, and is likely to receive positive feedback from women writers. He will seem to be allying himself with an understanding of women’s social conditions and an awareness of male oppression. But his statement also has an effect on men. It puts him in a position of critical superiority to the writing of other men; he has seen through its weakness and has in effect become master of it. He thus manages to present himself simultaneously as a successful male judge of men and a supporter of women. This will anger the men fond of statement 1, but will make him allies not only among women writers but also among male writers who believe that there are advantages to being aligned with a similar position.

3) A woman says, “The best poets writing today are women.” She will be seen as supporting and understanding the cause of women, and will have many women writers as allies as a result. Some women writers (I can’t begin to say how many) may be skeptical of the quantifying and objective nature of the claim and may think it’s not be the best way to approach the problem, while simultaneously appreciating and sympathizing with the goals of the claim, that is, with the attempt to create more and better attention to women’s writing. And obviously, men of group one will refuse the claim, while men of group two will side with it.

4) A woman says, “The best poets writing today are men.” I imagine women writers believing such a claim would be very few, if they exist at all. Such a claim certainly can’t help women’s writing in any broad way. Even women who are anti-feminists may not be likely to say such a thing. It would be seen favorably by some men, and so a woman making such a claim may receive more positive attention from those men, but those men would be the ones (in various degrees) least likely to be understanding or supportive of women’s writing (that is, men of group 1). And obviously such a claim would be highly unpopular with other women writers, although I can’t rule out that one or two might grant the woman making such a claim a degree of courage or iconoclasm.

I’m sure it will be taken by some that in saying all this, I am slyly siding with group 1, but I myself don’t see it that way. For me, the flaws regarding quantifiability and supposed objectivity mean that I believe that there are other more preferable ways of approaching gender problems than through assertions of whose writing is “great” or “best.”

It’s arguable I suppose that given the situation of the world, women writers and writers from cultural contexts who have historically had less power to control others through claims about an objective and quantifiable “best” need to seize such terminology for themselves, to take the rights that come from quantifying and objectifying and make them their own. That reminds me though of the infamous Ron Silliman claim, so given who I am, I think such a claim should come from others. But I think also that self-awareness about what’s involved in that power move would be crucial.

Finally, the other argument you make, that it’s “experience” that leads to the best writing, seems uncertain to me. The history of writing contains writers with all sorts of relationships to their own experiences. I think it’s likely that readers will often (though not always) gravitate towards writers whose understanding of experience they share and whose relation to the world feels more powerful and convincing to them, although I have to admit that I’m one of those readers who often likes reading work from or about people very much not like me. I fully believe in and would support your ideological position regarding what writers you like and why. I just wonder whether using terms like “great” or “best” actually causes more difficulties than it solves.

Sorry for the longwindedness. I had to say the whole thing or not at all.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jeff Hansen interviews writers of new fiction

Over at his blog Experimental Fiction/Poetry, my longtime friend, poet and fiction writer Jeff Hansen (author most recently of the novel ...and Beefheart Saved Craig) is beginning a new group of interviews with some of the fiction writers who appeared in the 2009 issue of Big Bridge.

Up so far is his interview with me about my forthcoming novel The Quarry and The Lot, as well as an interview with Stephen-Paul Martin, author of many collections of stories including The Possibility of Music.

Experimental Fiction/Poetry is an excellent resource for reviews, commentary, and interviews on both contemporary literature and music. If you haven’t checked it out already, I hope you will.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Noticed a Lot of Facebook Posts from People Claiming They Can't Sleep

And I thought of this unpublished section of my probably now likely to remain unfinished novel Bug/Man, which is only the first half of this particular section (part two perhaps to follow):

Except when there were angry controversies, which happened often enough, the low point of nights at the Globe came for Richard when it was time to go. Especially if he wasn’t drunk enough, which he rarely was anymore. Not that the gatherings themselves couldn’t be unsatisfying in their own right, one more evening of talking nonsense as a barrier against the abyss. But to walk out of the tavern alone, or to part with people at the front door and plunge into the city night, was like holding his nose and diving directly into the atmosphere he had been avoiding. Of course he wasn’t really avoiding it. He was just building up to the right moment of misery. Just drunk enough to be blurry and slow without any exhilaration. His friends were already gone. “Good night, good night,” he said, but he was talking only to the streets.

Although the city nights were certainly an abyss, they were hardly empty. Other people out there were falling into it with him. The homeless had already fallen. A few roving groups of weeknight revelers, mainly men, who didn’t want to go home or back to their hotels. A few staggering drunks who didn’t even know where their homes were. And then those who, like him, were headed home not because they wanted to but because they had no other choice. It was a question of where you were when realized you had nowhere else to go. It had to do with the kind of society you were living in and what your place in that society was. “Where’s my society?” Richard said loudly on a street corner when it seemed nobody could be listening. He was one of those people whose place was still off the street, who used the street as a conduit from place to place instead of the place where they spent their lives. As Nancy said, that meant he was lucky. He had somewhere to go, if only to his own apartment where nothing much was. He wasn’t stuck out here limping, insane, or thrown away by everyone. But on nights like this, he could feel himself pressing a little closer to that boundary, the dividing line between people whose society used the streets and the people whose society was the streets. He could feel—or told himself he thought he could feel—what it was like to tip over. Not that he was so deluded that he believed he knew what life on the streets was like. He knew he didn’t. But as he’d told everyone earlier, he wasn’t sure he had the will anymore to hold his life together. It was probably romantic nonsense. He knew that. Then again he wasn’t sure what he knew.

“A little disintegration won’t really hurt me, will it?” he asked the humid air. It was a hot night, although a few days earlier there had been the first cool suggestion of fall. That suggestion was gone now. The air was smoggy and dead. No wind anywhere to carry off the heavy unpleasant odors: garbage, the metallic grease of fast food shops still heavy long after they had closed, a festering odor stew that should have been hauled off. It was one of those nights when he constantly had to blink to keep things out of his eyes. The air was no more than a jumble of splintered filth.

What always amazed him about the smell of the city on a hot night, and the lives stuck down on the street among it, was that they had no correlation to what the city looked like. Rows of office buildings rising squarely into the sky with a forbidding distance that seemed to have nothing to do with poverty, confusion, homelessness or stink. Likewise with the apartment buildings, no less functional and dull than the offices except for patches of plants arrayed around their lighted front entrances in pretense of welcome. He had been to cities where the decay in people’s lives seemed reflected in the architecture, and cities which retained a sense of liveliness through the night. In DC though the buildings were closed off, dead. The life that moved outside their walls was as firmly separated from what went on inside as if the buildings had stood behind fences. Finally, it was that separation that most appalled him. A city built on separation, and for it, dividing him and everybody else up at all times. Dividing him from others but also from himself, like he was looking through the building walls at an image of himself resting comfortably inside.

He was thoroughly depressed by the time he reached his building. Not that he hadn’t been depressed all evening. But now that he thought about it, even his theory of the city streets as a contemporary hell contained a perverse kind of apocalyptic excitement. Just so much literary playtime. He came into his apartment, sat on the couch for a moment, cooled off in the air-conditioning. There was nothing apocalyptic about his actual condition. What a comfort if there had been. Redundance had no heroic quality, none of the romance of existential emptiness. He was a semi-employed, thirty-eight year old man who lived alone. His last girlfriend had left him and he had left the one before that. It didn’t matter so much anymore who left who. It was part of a routine that by now was too choreographed, as if the moment he met a woman he was interested in he already knew how the situation would play out. He had aging parents living in the suburbs and a brother who was an accountant who he liked well enough as long as they didn’t spend time together and who, feeling the same way, invited Richard out to his own family’s house maybe once or twice a year in a necessary show of family solidarity. He had published four books of poems which had been reviewed a few times, more or less positively, but the world of poetry he knew was a self-contained network that had close to no reverberations in the world outside its own contexts. He liked poets on the whole, although many he didn’t; as a group he liked them more than other groups but not by much. But he didn’t believe in the world of literature. Not that he had ever really expected that it would gain him much, but what had his commitment done? He taught a few classes at local universities as one of the marginal intellectual castoffs paid a few dollars for his time. He did occasional piecemeal editorial work in different offices. Sooner or later the situation would become untenable. The part-time work would dry up and he would enter some dead end office job on a low rung, doing work he couldn’t tolerate and didn’t believe in, that is if he hadn’t killed himself in the meantime, on purpose or accidentally.

No one could say he hadn’t worked hard, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t worked wisely. He hadn’t devoted his life to a process of professional advancement that increasingly squeezed all other types of intellectual life out of existence. He couldn’t tolerate the day to day falseness, the world of lies that passed as good sense. And even if he had tried to, the people of that world saw through him, for some reason he could never discern. It had to be something about his face, something in his expression that blatantly said, “I don’t believe you.” So maybe, as Nancy had said, he was Bartleby, but he hadn’t even been that on purpose. He had tried over the years to participate. He hadn’t refused. He had been refused. The difference was crucial, even if his own behavior had played a role in the refusal. For reasons that were partly mysterious, partly obvious, the contemporary world had no use for him and no interest. He wasn’t even old-fashioned. His redundance was absolutely a function of the same world that had rejected him. He wasn’t an outsider to that world. He was its product. Wriggle as he would, assert again and again that he had the power to change things and to change himself, that everyone could struggle against the position in which they found themselves—and even in the face of evidence that other people had done just that—for some reason, he hadn’t. Here he was, still wriggling, a little less vigorously now, and with even less hope of success, but still with an overwhelming desire to protect himself and his illusions. As he sat there, he could see that even these fits of melodramatic despair were themselves a kind of protection. Melodrama was preferable to truth. And the truth was? That it didn’t really much matter, except to him, whether he continued to struggle, and he wasn’t convinced it even mattered to him.

These weren’t the sorts of thoughts helpful for sleep. His sleeping patterns had been disordered for awhile and played a role in his recent exhaustion. Many nights he didn’t sleep much, although every now and then he slept through a night so obliviously that he woke up stunned, sluggish, his head a blur. A more common pattern was flailing around, unable to sleep, for most of the night, passing out just long enough so that when the alarm woke him he felt too heavy to move. To be awake when he needed to sleep and asleep when he needed to wake up. His best chances to sleep came if he went to bed in an unworried state of mind, but that didn’t happen often. When he was overtly worried, he couldn’t sleep at all. But worst was when he was worried in a way he had partly repressed. He would go to sleep for a bit then at some point wake up, staring, startled, afraid, his mind spiraling downward into ever greater degrees of paranoia: why had so and so said what they’d said, was he going to be out of work starting tomorrow, did he have some kind of disease. The repressed worry was the worst way to go to bed because during the brief time he was asleep, the strict mental protection he erected around himself while awake vanished. When he woke up, dangers flew at him from every direction and his mind could do nothing to stop it.

Finally in bed, he couldn’t get to sleep at all and tonight it had something to do with the temperature. One minute he was hot and threw off all the covers, leaving his skin open against the manufactured air-conditioned air that felt like it had lost all coolness. Then he was cold, pulling several blankets over him and wrapping in a ball, shivering. Hot, cold, hot, cold. How long could it go on? What was the point of even trying to sleep? It was exhausting. He had no job, women knew he was a creep, his poetry was worthless pretentious rambling, and his heart was pounding because he had undiagnosed high blood pressure and was due for a stroke any moment. Was that a fire alarm in the distance? In his building, or the next one over, was somebody being murdered right that instant?

“Goddamnit, no,” he shouted, threw the covers off and sat up. “Anything’s better than this. Maybe I’ll try to read.” He got out of bed, went into the living room and sat on the couch. He felt unable to turn on the light.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Purpose of Book Reviews

Probably most people reading poetry blogs already know, but just in case some don’t, over at the Lemon Hound blog, a number of writers have been responding to a series of questions Lemon Hound has asked regarding their ideas about book reviewing.

I agree with some of the responses more than others, but all are worth reading.

The list of writers who are responding is quite impressive. Lemon Hound manages, as usual, to be one of the few bloggers who can reach across many of the most well-worn dividing lines among contemporary poets.

My own response went up on Saturday, January 9.

Many of my first published pieces of writing were reviews. My first reviews were music reviews, written for college newspapers and then for some other small publications around Washington, DC. In graduate school I eventually began reviewing books. Reading books of contemporary poetry with an eye towards reviewing them really helped me at the time to learn about what was out there, and I still think reviewing books is an excellent way to become involved in the world of literature. But rather than talk more about book reviews here, I’ll just stop here and encourage you to go read what’s over there.