Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry

Here’s an excerpt from my essay in this recently released collection:
What to make of the fact that some crucial early practitioners of prose poems, Baudelaire and Rimbaud especially, are obsessed with death and decay? The link isn’t accidental. Of course the connection between a subject matter that defies bourgeois norms and a form that challenges conventional literary distinctions has often been discussed relative to the prose poem’s creation. It comes into being at the axis of writing about things powerful people don’t want to hear in a way they don’t want to understand. But its social and political condition also connects to my sense of the crampedness of the prose poem and its proximity to originary divisions. If for human beings the most crucial division may be between life and death, and the original genre division is that between poetry and prose, then matters of life and death must lie very near to what makes the prose poem. Anyone taking up the violation of the prose poem comes quickly upon the materiality of the body and peoples’ ability to destroy each other and everything else. The prose poem sits close to the rot.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry contains short essays about prose poetry by 34 writers along with some examples of prose poetry by those same writers. It’s quite a different group of writers than I usually find my work in the company of, and I’m glad to be featured in it.

For more details and more excerpts, check out their webpage on the Rose Metal Press website.

Although unfortunately I won’t be able to be there, upcoming launch parties for the book are taking place in Kalamazoo, Portland, and Chicago:

Tuesday, May 4
Nancy Eimers, Gary L. McDowell, Kathleen McGookey, William Olsen, and F. Daniel Rzicznek reading from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry at Kalamazoo Books, Kalamazoo, MI, 6:30 pm.
Free and open to the public.
Kalamazoo Books
2413 Parkview
Kalamazoo, MI 49008

Sunday, May 23
Andrew Michael Roberts and Carol Guess reading from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry at Powell’s Books, Portland, OR, at 4:00 pm
Free and open to the public.
Powell’s Books
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214

Thursday, May 27
Launch Party for The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry at The Book Cellar, Chicago, IL, at 7:00 pm
Featuring Joe Bonomo, John Bradley, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, David Lazar, Gary L. McDowell, Amy Newman, F. Daniel Rzicznek, Michael Robins, and Kathleen Rooney
Free and open to the public.
The Book Cellar
4736 North Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry:
Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice
Edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek
April 2010
ISBN 978-0-9789848-8-5
224 pages

Nin Andrews • Joe Bonomo • John Bradley • Brigitte Byrd • Maxine Chernoff • David Daniel • Denise Duhamel • Nancy Eimers • Beckian Fritz Goldberg • Ray Gonzalez • Arielle Greenberg • Kevin Griffith • Carol Guess • Maurice Kilwein Guevara • James Harms • Bob Hicok • Tung-Hui Hu • Christopher Kennedy • David Keplinger • Gerry LaFemina • David Lazar • Alexander Long • Kathleen McGookey • Robert Miltner • Amy Newman • William Olsen • Andrew Michael Roberts • Michael Robins • Mary Ann Samyn • Maureen Seaton • David Shumate • Jeffrey Skinner • Mark Wallace • Gary Young

A wide-ranging gathering of 34 brief essays and 66 prose poems by distinguished practitioners, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry is as personal and provocative, accessible and idiosyncratic as the genre itself. The essayists discuss their craft, influences, and experiences, all while pondering larger questions: What is prose poetry? Why write prose poems? With its pioneering introduction, this collection provides a history of the development of the prose poem up to its current widespread appeal. Half critical study and half anthology, The Field Guide to Prose Poetry is a not-to-be-missed companion for readers and writers of poetry, as well as students and teachers of creative writing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

See you this weekend at Postmoot?

Here's the schedule.

And if you want to see a set of photos from the first Postmoot, in 2006, go here.

The photo above is from my performance of "The Poetry of the Noble Voice" from the first Postmoot.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Against Unity conclusion (part three)

(Part One and Part Two)

In various essays and reviews, Michael Theune has been tracing the problems in Shepherd’s and related notions of third way poetics. As just one example, Theune notes that some of the selections in Shepherd’s anthologies reflect personal aesthetic preferences that have little to do with the dividing line between mainstream and experimental practices. Classical references, and their predominance among the poems Shepherd chooses, seem to have little to do with the issues at stake, unless we imagine that a love of classical gardens is the thing that, before now, most U.S. poets were afraid to recognize that they all shared. And as Johannes Gorannson pointed out in his review of the The American Hybrid, to make the case that the anthology is creating a middle ground between two long warring camps, the editors “caricature a multiplicity of styles as two extremes.” More successful is American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, which selects work by and about a small group of women writers whose approaches might seem on the surface opposed to each other. But that anthology makes no claim to find similarity across the total ground of contemporary U.S. poetry, although Spahr’s introduction addresses problems with seeing “lyric” and “language” as synonyms for two warring groups.

I think it’s safe to say therefore that anthologies attempting to establish middle ground between various U.S. poetry practices have not done so, and certainly could not do so by attempting to create a new middle of American poetry based on combining or overcoming the limitations of what is supposedly only two prior camps.

There have been now about fifteen years of claims that the distinction between so-called “mainstream” and “avant garde” literatures are increasingly irrelevant and/or old-fashioned. And in fact the contemporary poetic landscape shows that to be true. But that’s not because poetry exists in any greater state of unity than before. Just the opposite: probably we have more differing claims than ever regarding the value of contemporary poetry. The American Hybrid and Shepherd’s anthologies represent not a new middle ground but instead posit specific schools of thought that oppose themselves to other schools of thought.

In fact, schools of thought may now appear and disappear more rapidly than ever. The appearance of anthologies supporting the apparent growth of the concepts of third-way poetics and American Hybrid may in fact signal that those concepts have already peaked and may quickly become relics (perhaps even abandoned relics) of a now gone era. I also wonder whether new approaches can genuinely be created by editors. I think terminologies have more staying power when writers self-identify as a group. Nada Gordon for instance considers herself an ongoing member of the flarf group, yet I doubt that Rae Armantrout considers herself a poet of a Hybrid School. Quite literally, there is no such school, although I doubt that Armantrout would consider herself a member of it if it did exist.

U.S. poetry in almost all recent anthologies and in much poetry criticism and discussion still seems based on differing, often competing groups, with various terminologies defining publications, blogs, and websites, although most groups highlight the multiplicity of approaches that can be harbored safely within them. There are now flarf and gurlesque anthologies. The development of the Plumbline School, a poetics of moderation and balance recently named by Henry Gould and compatriots, will despite Gould’s constant mockery of the notion of schools be ultimately measured by the writing that does or does not appear in relationship to the name of the group. There is no such thing as an anti-group poetics that brings together all or even a significant portion of the varying groups that exist. Attempts to do so usually just create further groups.

Certainly we have no anthology of contemporary poetry that successfully critiques the notion of the singular school or highlights the range of differences and disagreements fundamental to contemporary poetry. A recent issue of Poetry Magazine that featured flarf and conceptual writing in one section and more conventional narrative and lyric verse in another was an intriguing, if overly cautious, example of at least a small-scale attempt. Approaches that come closest can still be found more within anthologies that consciously embrace experimental extremes rather than attempting to tame them.

For instance, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Experimental Prose by Women Writers, edited by Nava Renek, features more distinctively and outrageously hybrid texts than any recent poetry anthology. It includes works that variously mix poetry, prose, fiction, memoir, criticism, taboo language, self-reflexive commentary, instructional manuals, visual art, processual text, computer-generated and not, as well as much else. Many of the hybrid texts in  that anthology are not designed to smooth over differences between these ways of writing, bur instead show how differences collide with and question each other.

But even if there were poetry anthologies that highlighted, rather than attempting to minimize or avoid, differences across groups, those anthologies would create not a new center but just another way of thinking. Although U.S. poets continue to have difficulty accepting difference or even acknowledging its value, and factionalism creates hostility and furthers existing resource imbalances, I don’t think that trying to end factionalism is a suitable response to the existence of so many approaches. Factionalism isn’t going to end. Any new claim to end it will only be opposed by further factionalism.

And in many ways that’s how it should be. The huge energy of factionalism, of aesthetic and cultural disagreement, shows just how many and different are the people who remain committed to the value of poetry, especially in a country (and perhaps a world) where we’re often told that no one values it at all. Part of that factionalism involves the fear of being unknown or forgotten (right now as well as forever) and the anti-democratic fear that too many points of view equals a chaotic loss of defined value. But it also exists because poets, defying supposed good sense, continue to believe that their poetry and their ideas about it matter.

I hope that my conviction that we should resist trying to make the multiple into a singular will not be confused with lacking direction. My commitment remains to poetic innovation and extremes and to their connection to other forms of cultural awareness and action both on local and global levels. There are histories to borrow from and remember but there are no models sufficient to guide the present or future of poems. Poems that attempt simply to reflect poetry’s past, or to see in it a bedrock source of value, will never be sufficient to deal with the always changing present. It’s difficult to feel optimistic about global political conditions and the role of the U.S. in them. Even if one is optimistic, that can only be on the grounds of the continued possibility of change.

What we need are poems that understand and challenge the present while being aware that the present itself is both a function of the past and an inevitable rewriting of it, for better or worse, since history hardly involves pure progress. We need poems that take aesthetic risks and explore new techniques and provide new cultural insights. The writers I’m most interested in are ones who I feel do that: I’ll save the list of names for another time. Still, I doubt that poems of that kind are going to arise solely within the work of one poetic school or from one or two poets of greatness. We need a more eclectic—and yes, monstrously hybrid—understanding of the profound mismatchedness of contemporary poetry, without a liberal flattening that suggests that all poems meet the challenge of the present with similar types of significance.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Against Unity (part two)

(part one here)

I first began thinking in the early 90s about the disruptive, impure, and nightmarish possibilities of hybrid aesthetics. It has influenced a great deal of my writing and, perhaps more importantly for this forum, played a hidden but nonetheless essential role in the essays gathered in the anthology I edited with Steven Marks, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s (University of Alabama Press 2002), a text that has been insufficiently mentioned in recent discussions of hybrid aesthetics.

To my thinking during the 90s, the hybrid was valuable because it challenged ideas of singularity and purity that I saw as much among writers invested in avant garde, experimental, or non-traditional approaches to literature (feel free to pick your own singular term and its own singular problems) as among writers who denied that those alternatives had value or that they themselves were part of a specific tradition (if there are no alternatives, a tradition isn’t a tradition, it’s simply “all there is”). I noted then something that remains true today: the need to define poetry by the singular, and the fear of the inchoate chaos that might result if one does not, remains a guiding principle of many poetics discussions.

The fear is related to fears about loss of identity, loss of a public profile, and finally loss of all attention. It is related to the fear of democracy both in politics and in poetry, or at least to the fear that democracy might actually be the same as chaos (or its more passive version, an “everything goes” liberalism). I don’t intend simply to criticize such fears, to suggest that the world of poetry will be healed (is it sick, and if it was, mightn’t one want that?) by getting over them. There are worthwhile concerns nestled within the often troubling ways these fears manifest themselves, a point I’ll return to.

My own essay in Telling It Slant, “Towards A Free Multiplicity of Form,” focused on the relation between literary technique, historical context, and social group dynamics among poets. I suggested that it was increasingly unlikely that poets would know only, or work only within, one literary tradition. Instead, many poets now work with an awareness of multiple and global poetic traditions. Insistence on the primacy of any single literary tradition seems more than ever like narrow-minded provincialism. I also raised questions about the relation between innovative literary technique and political/cultural radicalism; historically, those two don’t always match, although manifestos about radical literary techniques frequently align themselves with the desire for large scale social revolution. At the time of the essay’s writing in the mid-90s, there were at least five different, broadly successful schools of thought in U.S. poetry: traditional formalist poetry; MFA narrative and lyrical free verse poetry; a more overtly political poetry of identity raising issues of race, gender, and class; New American poetry; and the New American offshoot of language poetry and other radical aesthetic, often politicized approaches.

At the time, describing U.S. poetry production that way was already overly schematic (something I acknowledged) even as the world of poetry was further changing and splintering. But if there was in the mid-90s a minimum of five major schools of poetic thought in the U.S., the idea of a two party-system (for instance, Ron Silliman’s split between School of Quietude and New American poetries, which has more significance historically than currently), or the notion of a “third way” (which was, at best, in the late 90s no more than a sixth way) was even then an oversimplification. And if trying to isolate U.S. poetic production from the larger global contexts with which it interacts is closer to troubling nationalism than accurate description, the idea of there being only two or three approaches quickly becomes ludicrous.

Not unexpectedly, while the published reviews of Telling It Slant were on the whole positive, the work in that anthology, and of the writers associated with it, was often criticized for lacking direction, or some similar problem that can simply be put as lacking an obvious singularity of poetics. It was conveniently ignored that the introduction that Steven and I wrote highlighted that the anthology purposefully intended to refuse singular answers while pointing to shared questions and the essential importance of disagreement, or that many of the essays were critical of traditions that defined themselves as singular or pure. The anthology did not highlight a singular poetics and therefore, for some people, did not create a recognizable identity. Did not do, that is, what an anthology of contemporary writing is supposed to do.

That anthology did not appear in a vacuum, of course. Many writers shared some of my ideas about the values of disunity (see for instance Steve Evans’ introduction to the Writing From The New Coast anthology, although I disagreed with Evans’ assertion that the writing which similarly interested us was in any shared sense anti-identity). Many others felt that what was needed were new movements, new schools that could be identified as such. Attempts to forge new group identities emerged in the 90s around the magazine Apex of the M, with its editorial insistence that American experimental poetries had neglected spirituality, or in the now long forgotten New Synthesis proposed by John Noto and others. There were also pseudo-groups created to make fun of the group identity impulse (The Bay Area’s New Brutalism, which came several years later, seems primarily to have been a joke). Nowhere is the group impulse and anti-group impulse more connected than in the currently both popular and reviled Flarf group, in which a group in-joke about writing bad poetry turned into a real school of poetics with a now widely recognized name. Flarf is definitely a group but it also makes fun of the group tendency through such practices as ironic, consciously collapsing manifestos.

In circles which had closer connection than I did to the production mechanisms of the 1990s MFA industry, similar responses to poetry group formation were at work. One manifested itself in the anthologies Lyrical Postmodernisms and The Iowa Anthology of New Poetries edited by the late Reginald Shepherd and another, after lurking for years, emerged more clearly in the 2009 anthology The American Hybrid edited by Cole Swenson and David St. John. In these anthologies, a different notion of hybrid emerged. This notion of hybrid tries to find similarity across divergent practices. It breaks down the idea of singular schools by looking for things different poetic groups have in common. It tries to find middle ground. It imagines itself, perhaps, as a new center, one from which the most extreme and divisive elements of divergent practices have been tempered or simply removed. In this imagining, it asserts a power relationship between and over various practices, one in which this new center masters the flaws and excesses of divergent schools of thought, in theory taking the best of each and disregarding the rest.

In rejecting excess and extremes, this notion of hybrid recalls Hegel’s concept of synthesis, which at least the no longer discussed approach of John Noto was willing to name directly. Without dwelling too long on the details of Hegel’s dialectic, which many of us probably already know, a prior set of competing claims in any given discourse is resolved by a synthesis of those claims, one which forms a new central idea. Of course that synthesis, when successful, is according to Hegel again soon opposed, an issue that most attempts at synthesizing contemporary poetry fail to recognize.

The notion of hybrid as synthesis seeks to undermine older competing unities but does so in the name of creating a new, inclusive (but also exclusive), non-competing unity. It’s fascinating that a concept of hybridity, of disrupting the singular, should become a way of creating a new singular. As if one might use a new concept of transgression in order to tame old transgressions. As if the notion of hybridity can become a normative new that can keep monstrous hybrids from being born.

(Part three)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Friday, April 9: Panel on Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents

Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents
Arielle Greenberg, Craig Santos Perez, Michael Theune, Megan Volpert, Mark Wallace
Friday, April 9
9 - 10:15 a.m.
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level, Room 201
700 14th Street
Denver, CO

Recent years in poetry and poetics have seem numerous attempts to break out of, blur, or undermine distinctions between ideas of “mainstream” and “avant garde” poetics, a distinction that from the 1950s well into the 90s often dominated discussions about new directions in contemporary poetry. Yet after as much as fifteen years of attempts to move beyond this often unnecessarily limited distinction, it’s important also to move beyond assertions that the distinction has collapsed or is irrelevant. Instead, it now seems time to evaluate the specific attempts that writers and anthologists have made to create a hybrid poetics.

Are we really living in an era when the mainstream/avant garde distinction no longer has value and significant common ground has been found among poetic approaches long considered opposites? Or has this new era simply adjusted, replaced, or perhaps only re-named this older boundary? Do the terms “avant garde” and “mainstream” still have any contemporary value or have they become the marks of a bygone age? If, as Hegel suggested, any synthesis of earlier ideas is always followed by a new antithesis that challenges it, what future poetic ideas will challenge any common ground that actually has been achieved or has been claimed as achieved?

This panel will feature diverse answers to these and related questions that have intrigued writers, editors, and anthologists involved in the issue. Are boundary-crossing, hybrid aesthetics a moderate, moderating force that smooths distinctions in a homogenizing and perhaps bland way, or one that allows for radical conjunctions not dreamed of in earlier generations of the “poetry wars”? Have anthologies promoting the collapse of the mainstream/avant garde distinction created genuine bridges across aesthetics or simply new poetic coteries? Do we now have no camps, new camps, more camps than ever? Have a variety of aesthetics really been included in the hybrid approach or have they instead been offered only  token inclusion? Is the attempt to eliminate or downplay coterie inevitably a good idea, or is the often intense argument and difference between coteries a crucial source of vitality in new directions for poetry? What fringes and margins remain, if any?

To what extent has the debate been framed too often as simply a problem within American poetry and thus remains wedded to a nationalist vision? What role do poetries in different languages, multiple languages, and translation play in complicating the notions of what it means to cross boundaries, whether aesthetic, linguistic, or cultural? What roles do race, class, or gender issues play in this new environment? When if ever are there reasons to assert the importance of maintaining or recognizing boundaries? What aesthetic, cultural, or ideological boundaries remain most relevant?

For the opening portion of my paper, see my previous blog post.

Also, you don't want to miss the following two AWP offsite readings.