Sunday, September 30, 2007

Poetry Needs To Be More Academic

Did you think I meant that, what I wrote above? Maybe just for an instant, feeling a flush of annoyance come over your face, one that was half a pleasant sense of moral superiority and half baffled outrage? Or were you sure that I couldn’t possibly mean it? And therefore picked up instantly that the next sentence would provide a twist?

Did you wonder for a second what kind of writer could actually want poetry to be more academic? I mean, I would wonder, and I am. I’m trying to imagine right now what sort of writer could want such a thing.

Being a Poet Against Academic Poetry (PAAP) is like being a Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD), if you recall that organization from the 80s. I always remembered thinking about MADD, why do they have to declare it? To distinguish themselves from those mothers who are for drunk driving? My bet is that if you polled them, even mothers who drive drunk would declare themselves against drunk driving. What other stance could a mother take? “The more drunk drivers we have, the better mothers will feel.” No, probably no one holds that position.

In the same way, I would guess that poets are almost by definition against Academic Poetry, and that almost certainly includes a number of poets who other poets would accuse of writing Academic Poetry.

Thus to declare yourself against Academic Poetry is to declare yourself against a group that no one would acknowledge being part of.

What a relief to be against something that nobody really is for. You get to be angry and have everybody on your side simultaneously. Unless of course you start pointing fingers—and it’s only then, I suppose, that the game really gets interesting. Or maybe not. Accuse somebody of something like this and you give them only two choices: to deny it or ignore you. And since in the routinely sensationalized, scandal-loving present moment, denying something is more or less the same as admitting it, the usual result is a lot of silence.

But let’s say, for a second, that some of us might be Academic Poets without knowing it, in which case we would be against ourselves without knowing it. We would be at this moment denouncing the enemy in our midst without knowing we ourselves are the enemy. It’s like we’re in a Philip Dick novel. Here I am, glaring at myself across an alley strewn with administrative junkies, ready to shoot myself down.

The question would then be: how do we recognize an Academic Poet when we see one, especially when that Academic Poet might be us and is almost certain to deny it or to ignore the accusation?

Of course, when I say us here, I don’t really mean me. What I mean is, how do we recognize that somebody else is guilty? Especially when no one thinks they are.

One possible definition: Academic Poets are simply academics who write poetry. We would therefore be declaring ourselves against the idea that college professors can write poetry. It would have to be something about the university environment that made people unfit to write. Universities, and university departments where poetry is studied, would be the one kind of institution in the world in which people who worked there couldn’t possibly be good poets. Unless we start listing other professions and saying people who do that for a living couldn’t be good poets either. It makes me wonder what are the good jobs to have for writing poetry. Anybody out there have a good job for writing poetry?

Still, examining the university environment would lead to another perhaps more nuanced definition: working as an academic implies professional caution and also professional ambition. In other words, the poem plays it safe because it imagines itself up for tenure review. The poem is written because the author wants tenure, and maybe the writer didn’t even want to write it, or only wanted to because academic success would follow. And therefore the poem is written to conform to current academic standards, whatever will get the poet ahead, rather than for some more genuine reason of the poet’s soul or love of language or social outrage.

Is there a university class bias here, by the way? In other words, can adjuncts write Academic Poetry, perhaps under the illusion that the university they work for gives a shit about them? Can they write something that is not Academic Poetry, because of their second class status?

Of course, as the concept of the Ivory Tower implies, academic = the opposite of the real. Even academics know this. Academic Poetry in this conception speaks only to other academics, who are not real or in the real world, while Real Poetry speaks about the Real World. Academic Poetry is not Real Poetry.

I’m against Real Poetry.

Now come on. You didn’t really think I would say that and mean it. I’m very much in favor of poetry when it’s real.

Combining all the above definitions, we have the following: Academic Poetry is a bland cautious poem written mainly or only for tenure review, real or imaginary, a poem eager to conform to current academic standards and indifferent towards the rest of the world.

Interestingly, it’s hard to push the above definition to any clearer aesthetic definition. Obviously, a poem written solely for tenure when Charles Bernstein is on your tenure review committee and a poem written solely for tenure when Tony Hoagland is on your tenure review committee have nothing aesthetically in common.

My apologies to Charles and Tony, both of whom are, I’m sure, opposed to Academic Poetry, and rightly so.

I mean, a poet writing such a poem would have an ulterior motive for everything the poem said. The poem would be nothing more than a power maneuver.

I’m definitely against that. Except in those instances when power maneuvers are fascinating. But maybe that’s an issue for another time.

What almost all poets are truly opposed to, I would finally conclude, are the straitjackets of professionalism, the way they insidiously corrupt and limit our freedom of speech and action, and worse, can do so without our always being aware of it, so that we sometimes participate in our own corruption.

Yep, I’m definitely against that. It’s a real problem, the way all of us are connected to institutions in so many ways, and how those institutions really can shape and change what we think and do.

What MADD was finally about, of course, was organizing mothers to take practical steps against drunk drivers. This is what PAAP will also be about: we will organize and ferret out Academic Poets wherever we find them.

Who’s with me?

And after we’re done, we won’t stop there. Our next step will be to ferret out bad poetry.

But maybe that won’t work. Maybe there aren’t enough poets against bad poetry. Are you against bad poetry? Let your voice be heard.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

amorphous blob

Ron Silliman and others have taken to calling this moment in contemporary literature and art “post-avant.” I don’t know whether Silliman has defined that term, and my suspicion is that in some ways he may be using it pejoratively. What I take the term to mean is that we live in a moment when characterizing contemporary writers in terms of their adherence to specific literary traditions (especially when divided along lines of “avant garde” vs. “traditional”) has become an overly limiting approach. Increasingly, many writers do not define themselves as working in a tradition so much as they borrow from many traditions and depart from them as well. What’s good about such a situation is the liberated potentials it offers a host of literary and related practices. There’s flexibility, looseness, a playfulness regarding the history of literature and art that rejects easy categories and straitjackets of lineage. What’s dangerous about it is a possibility that I might characterize as “amorphous blob”; writing whose fuzzy relation to historical influence is not marked by liberated daring so much as by the vagueness and incoherence of not trying to find out where you came from and not knowing where you are. There’s possibility in not knowing the past too certainly and not being too directive about the future. But that’s not the same thing as walking around in a daze. Being unaware of material conditions and literary history is not the same as being free of them.

But I need to be careful here, because when looking at the poetry of other people, it’s easy to confuse the difference between vagueness and a struggle you haven’t yet learned to understand.

Besides, too much of the talk about contemporary poetry, whether formal criticism or casual conversation, seems to carry a nostalgic sense that there ought to be less worthwhile ways of writing poetry.

There’s a difference between insight and making individual aesthetic preferences into absolutes.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

That's Entertainment

When I’m speaking with students, I always try to point out how much more than entertainment is at stake in a work of literature. Literature, I suggest, can deal with the whole range of human complexity, all possible ideas and emotions, and therefore can do a lot more than briefly entertain us. It can help us better understand and engage with many elements of our experience in the world, and I suppose beyond it. And while it can certainly give us pleasure, there’s a lot more going on in that pleasure than simply a momentary distraction.

Yet sometimes, when reading the work of poets or listening to them read, I wish they had considered the value of entertainment more. There’s a dullness to the lines, or to the way they’re being read, that suggests the writer or performer hasn’t made enough effort to be entertaining: that is, hasn’t attempted enough to make the work engage not just the writer, but the reader or the audience too.

I’m not talking here about a self-consciously flat reading style, a la John Ashbery, nor do I think it’s fair to suggest that poets (writers) must necessarily be good live performers of their work, although I wish some of them had thought about performance more. Nor am I suggesting that most poetry readings are boring. I find poetry readings fascinating, and I love going to them.

Besides, these days the world of avant literatures at least is full of performance elements, from lively reading styles to acting and sound and visual effects, etc. Sometimes I’m even wary of these performance elements. If it seems, for instance, like a writer has tacked on these elements just to keep us from being bored with the actual written words, I can be skeptical. It can seem like the added performance elements serve as a cover for a lack of liveliness in the writing itself, or are pandering to the audience in the general belief that everybody finds poetry dull. In cases of this kind (I’m naming no names on purpose here, obviously), I find myself distrustful of the way that the entertainment seems to be a kind of apology. Poets already apologize too much for poetry. So I think it’s also true that a poem or a performance can try too hard to entertain, and in so doing neglect other important elements.

What do you think about the significance of entertainment in literature or performance? Is the whole concept of entertainment too degraded by its association with the idea of mindless entertainment, which suggests that entertainment is no more than a frivolous distraction from the world’s serious business, and one that usually reinforces harmful social norms in the balance? Or can the concept of entertainment be seen more constructively, for instance in its potentially complex relation to pleasure? Do you as a writer or performer wish to entertain your readers or audience? Do you as a reader or audience member wish to be entertained? Is the concept of entertainment degrading to the importance of literature, or one of the key elements of that importance?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

just wondering about desire, sincerity, and language

I'm wondering what poets these days see their poems as sincere expressions of their own desires (as authors, as people) and what poets believe that, in a poem, the voice of the poem has its own identity, separate from the author in some ways (in however many ways it may be connected).

I think that a lot of the discussions and debates going on in contemporary poetics turn out to hinge on this particular issue, a fact that often surprises me. So I'd really like to know what people think.

Do the poems you write express your desires? Or does the use of language become a mediating condition that creates a distance between your desires and the desires expressed in the poems that you write?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

poems about credit cards

My credit card company tried to steal $39 from me today, but I caught them and they're giving it back, which they'll do sometimes if you catch them. But you have to keep your eye out. I've written only one poem I'm immediately aware of that references credit cards, from my manuscript Belief Is Impossible. This poem and many others from the manuscript have been published in magazines but the manuscript itself has never been published:

Between corporate downsizing
and rampant part-time underpayment
a group of people wander, silent
in halls that separate them.

If I wanted to be a hermit
high in the hills above Los Angeles
sooner or later credit companies
would steal the wine from my bamboo hut.

Anybody know any other poems about credit cards? Please send one that you know of, or if you don't know of any, write one yourself and send it to me.

Monday, September 3, 2007

excerpt from Things I Don't Know

"Some Things I Don't Know: Reflections on Process in Politics and Literature" was a talk I gave at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver on May 13, 2007. The piece features a series of associatively-connected paragraphs written between November 2006 and May 2007.


I tend to consider process-oriented writing differently than texts created through more conventional methods of authorship. Without getting into all the judgments involved in deciding what’s “better,”if it remains true that when we're looking at process-oriented work, we know it's process-oriented work, then that means we continue to see that work as categorically different and so are likely to consider it by different standards. Much though not all processual work tends to highlight concept and performativity more than close attention to line by line reading (though of course conventional writing is still a kind of performance). Is that difference a problem? Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no. Depends on what you've gone to the work for. As Roland Barthes would note, none of us ever read every line of a text anyway. But how does it change our habits of reading that with many process-oriented texts, we know there's no real point even in trying to read every line? In a certain scenario, we would begin to decide that any given line of a text doesn't really matter that much—which of course is only true, in some sense, and unfortunately inattentive in another. We would dip into the text here and there, picking out lines and moments of interest, without assuming that its totality was relevant except as concept. But does such a notion do away with problematic Modernist dependence on totality or simply encourage readers to care less about the specifics of a text and more about its conceptual framework and aura?