Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mark Wallace Never Commits Himself? Part Two

Hey Joe:

First, thanks for reading my blog and other comments and taking them seriously enough to be irritated. On one level, I do appreciate it: us bloggers have to take the readers we can get. I wish that I could appreciate you reading it well, but sadly I don’t think you’ve done that.

Re my two-line response on Harriet that prompted your irritation, it’s true that it was playful, not exactly the developed poetic “stance” that you seem to wish it had been. A lot of people make playful blog comments, and it’s worth trying some time if taking a stance ever gets dull for you. But you seem to have missed that it was also serious. That could be partly my fault because, simultaneously, I was responding to something happening on Nada Gordon’s blog, which was a videotaped bar discussion between Kasey and Kenny on the concept of “relevance.” I’ve critiqued the concept of “relevance” on my blog before, and in fact you commented on that particular blog post. I think Kenny’s concept of relevance is weak, and on Kenny’s post I was making that point, albeit in an ironic way that I hope both mirrored and undercut his position. If you got from it that the relevance/irrelevance binary is a false dichotomy of experience, and that the result is nonetheless money, then you got what I was aiming for. But I don’t know why you seem to think that I should have been the one to deliver a comment in the way you wanted it delivered. Isn’t that your job?

Which leads me to a second point: what my blog is. Notice, if you will, the title: Thinking Again. The blog is hardly a reflection of everything I do. I’m also publishing essays, reviews, poems, stories, and doing serious revisions on a novel I have coming out in 2010. I’m attending conferences, participating in discussions, teaching classes, and giving readings. The blog, like my other writing, is its own discrete project. Like with many of my projects, it develops out of a particular relation between structure and content. On the blog, I often think through what I take to be issues that need further consideration, often and especially ones around which discourse has calcified into the cliches of poetic, cultural and political debate that I believe people, including myself, need to think through and past. I ask questions and try to find out things I don’t know and encourage discussion and sometimes even get some. I don’t want my blog to be another blog where people (and of course, mainly men) assert questionable half-truths in the expected “I know and they suck” format. I don’t think we’re suffering from any shortage of that approach. Do you?

On September 20, Nick Piombino wrote a fascinating blog post asserting his final annoyance with the sword-wielding male hysteria blogosphere (that’s my phrase, not his). In that post, he said that he felt that debates about schools of poetics, although it had been important for awhile, had nothing of value to say anymore and it was time to be done with it. I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions, although I share his frustration. But debate is an element of discussion, and at times can be a worthy one, even now, although the naturalness with which many men assume that it’s the only way to speak is tiresome. But I was also struck—and I don’t mean this as any huge criticism of his few casual blog paragraphs—that the structure of his post shared many of the “I assert and they suck” elements that it was critiquing. My goal, in Thinking Again, is to lead by example, not accusation, in exploring other ways to think and write critically (and Nick’s books by the way, especially Theoretical Objects, have been some of my main influences on how to do that). And I have to admit it’s disheartening to try to avoid cliches and be told, “Hey, your blog is irritating because it doesn’t repeat the cliches I’m used to.” Things like that happen all the time, of course. A common example occurs in my creative writing classes, where you can be sure that most of the students will dislike the best student line of any day. So I think you need to reconsider the limited perspective that suggests that people are only saying something definitive and important if they do it in conventional assertive language.

Of course, what’s equally surprising to me is that you don’t seem to know how much conventional male head-butting and stance-taking I do. I’ve made all sorts of points on my blog about what I think of as important issues in culture and poetics. I haven’t written as much recently about poetics as I would like, but that’s because I’m busy teaching and helping develop a creative writing program at my university and sadly don’t have much time for reading theory and poetics. But it’s also because in the weeks leading up to the election, I made a conscious decision to write about political/cultural issues that I felt were of some importance and that offered something other than the usual liberal worrying about Republicans.

Besides, I’m not sure you’re reading the blogosphere as thoroughly as you think. I’ve had, in the last few months, a good round of head-butting on Stan Apps’ blog with Joshua Clover, whose idea of the “totality” is to my mind a will-to-power political obfuscation, though it can have its uses. I’ve had any number of back and forth disagreements with Johannes Goransson, whose blog I enjoy very much, and on the Harriet blog I’ve several times questioned Linh Dinh and Mark Nowak on some of the excesses of their usually fine thinking. I participate in a music discussion blog in which men insulting men over very detailed points about the history of music is the accepted order of business, to the tune of a hundred comments a day sometimes, and I do just fine. So I don’t think I need any lessons in how to assert myself in a conventional male way, and I certainly don’t need them from someone who doesn’t have his own blog and therefore doesn’t have to make decisions about how to write in public on it. It’s pretty astonishing that someone who asserts himself so rarely in these public discussion forums should accuse me of not asserting myself when I feel sometimes that I’m doing it constantly.

But just in case you still think I’m avoiding some poetics issue, here goes. First, have you read my essay on Kasey’s Deer Head Nation? If not, I’ll help you get a copy. On the current question, I think the Kasey-Kenny Flarf/Conceptual debates are only half serious, although at times that half is quite serious. I myself don’t see any hugely important differences about which I feel that “taking a stance” is essential. Flarf is looser, less absolutely methodical, more flexible to poetic game-playing in the moment of composition, while Kenny’s idea of the conceptual (and there are many other ideas) is more stark and tight, although both involve numerous levels of artifice and authorial intervention. Loose or tight compositional methods; now there’s a distinction that I personally can’t get that worked up about. I suppose my own tendency is towards the loose, but I can’t see any essential value in sticking a right/wrong distinction on the problem or imagining that either approach is going to save the world, or the world of poetry, from anything, or ruin it either for that matter. I think Kasey’s Deer Head Nation is a great book, probably the best single book out of the flarf collective (that assertive enough for you?) while I think a number of the other flarf writers are putting out work I like a lot. Nada, Gary, and Drew are the ones whose work I know best. Nada, I think, is at work on an interconnected project extending beyond the individual book that I, at the distance from it that I am, am only beginning to understand. I like Kasey’s new Breathalyzer less than Deer Head, though it’s a strong, tightly wrought collection, and often hilarious. It seems to corral a little more tightly what he has elsewhere called “the messiness of the results,” and resolve a little more thoroughly into a voice, and I’m not sure that the range of cultural issues it raises is quite as impressive. Kenny’s work comes alive best through performance and not in book format. Most of his books tend to have that “first thought/last thought” element of conceptual writing: grasp the concept and move on without getting too involved in the words themselves. But he’s the most successfully professional performer of his work that we’ve currently got going in the avant context (and I use “professional” here purposefully, with awareness of its positive and negative elements), and his performances can be amazing. I’m less enthusiastic about his theorizing, which strikes me as (on purpose on his part, I know) one dimensional and flat, though his recent posts on Harriet have been really funny.

Thanks also for reading my book. I don’t necessarily feel that it’s in good taste to debate somebody else’s take on one of my own books, but you seem to want assertive bluntness and so I’m going to take the issue on. Your reading of Felonies of Illusion is unsurprising. In fact it’s exactly what I would have expected you to think, and furthermore it’s a reaction that the book is specifically designed to elicit from those unwilling to challenge their own assumptions. I know you prefer an old school sixties assertive leftist reportage (“realist?” I actually don’t think so) that to my mind takes little account of the limitations of the constructions of language that it uses, and I can’t tell whether you know why some people might find moral didacticism both dull and not really capable of handling some of the complexities of the world we live in. You may more or less think the whole phenomena of language poetry was a mistaken sidestep. On the other hand, some of the more purely language poet/poststucturalist theorist people might find the descriptive minimalism of my book’s first long poem too visceral or imagistic, or something like that which I can imagine Bruce Andrews complaining about. For myself, though, I find value in both approaches, depending on the circumstances, and furthermore the goal in the book is to collide the two approaches against each other in a jarring way. Of course neither the imagistic or the anti-representational sections are pure in either their approach or their opposition to each other, since the first set of poems also concern how “the clear image” evaporates in our political climate and the second set how emotion and a sense of loss can come not only through image but through connotation. In any case, you’re welcome to prefer the part of the book that appeals to the values you favor. For me, the frustration created by the difference between the two sections contributes to making it a genuinely avant garde book, one designed to make all lovers of singular approaches sorely annoyed. I think it’s as avant garde as what Kasey and Kenny are doing, and I wrote every word of it with my own two hands. But again, I understand that trying to talk people into liking your own book, especially if it wants them to think against their own grain, is unlikely to work. And obviously I can’t rule out that maybe those poems do suck, although other people have seemed to like them.

It’s uncomfortable to begin a dialogue under the sign of an accusation. While frankly you’re right that I don’t have any responsibility to answer to your concerns, I’m glad enough to take them on. It gives me something to do with what little spare time I have. Besides, the degree to which you don’t appear to understand what I’m up to seems to call for an explanation. You’re welcome to like what I’m trying to do or not, but please try a little harder to understand what I actually am up to before deciding that I should do things in a way that would better appeal to you.

It could be, at a certain point in time, that I’ll feel done with the Thinking Again approach. Although I’m not at all saying that it’s your letter that did it, I have to thank you, quite seriously, for giving me through this discussion a new idea, a blog called Asserting Again, in which I simply cast my own half-thought assumptions out on the world without either considering the evidence or bothering to think through why I think them. I really do mean it: I like this new blog idea. But I’ll have to figure out a way to do that that’s not exactly like what we already have.

There’s a lot more that’s worth saying, particularly on the issue of what it means to commit to practices of poetry and poetics and poetry communities, for which I feel like I’ve done a fair amount. But maybe, for now, I’ll throw that as a question to you and to any readers who may have gotten all this way. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by commitment in this context, and I’d like to know more about why you think “taking a stance” will lead to it.


Dave King said...

I take Nick Piombino's point to a degree. I do think there is a tendency these days to over debate, even to get hot under the collar about individual standpoints. You find it in all walks of life: insport, for example; endless debates about an activity that should just be enjoyed; people getting aggressive in support of their own preferences.
I've probably just been doing exactly that! A thoroughly absorbing post, though. Much to think about.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for your comments, Dave. There's certainly a lot to say about American Insult Culture and how it's connected to things like sports fan thuggery (which is not new, but always subject to change). I think it's safe to say that television has greatly encouraged Insult Culture, between sit-coms that are really insult-coms and then the constant tough guy insults of the crime shows. Do contemporary poets ever wonder how much they sound like TV? Let's hope so.

Unknown said...

I don't think Goldsmith intends to be a theorist. He isn't an academic, rather he speaks as an artist. And one thing about speaking as an artist that an artist is never wrong; they may be misinformed about their own practice, deluded, insane, etc., but it's not about right and wrong, sort of a privilege of being outside the academy. If I'm not mistaken, Goldsmith teaches creative writing (or in his words, uncreative writing) at UPenn as an artist, not an academic.

Also, Goldsmith is a good performer, but he certainly can't hold a candle to Christian Bok.

One problem about Flarf is that its poetics haven't really been articulated in a consistent or theoretical way, if at all. While I'm familiar with Gary Sullivan's and Kasey's pieces in the Dworkin anthology, it doesn't add up to a poetics. This of course is quite different than conceptual poetics, which has been heavily theorized by its participants and academics (the recent Conceptual Poetry and Its Other conf at UArizona this spring).

Unknown said...

One more thing. Goldsmith is one dimensional in the way that most artists are one dimensional. They're obsessed with their own practice and generally can't speak / see beyond it. Not a bad thing, but I think it's wrong to seek objectivity from an artist.

Matt Walker said...

"One problem about Flarf is that its poetics haven't really been articulated in a consistent or theoretical way, if at all. While I'm familiar with Gary Sullivan's and Kasey's pieces in the Dworkin anthology, it doesn't add up to a poetics."

Doesn't poetry just kind of add up to a poetics by itself, whether it even wants to or not, and whether it's articulated in prose essay form outside of the poetry? If I'm not reading the prose essay stuff outside the poetry, am I doing something wrong?

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody.

Cheryl, I think you're right that Kenny doesn't intend to be a theorist, at least not in any developed and consistent way. He "makes statements" and so forth and so on, and they are indeed consistent with his practice and his obsessions. But I don't think that artists get a pass on the truth-value of their statements because they're artists, and I say this as someone who is, at least sometimes, an artist. The statements that Kenny or any artist makes don't really get a get out of scrutiny card. He has made theoretical statements about his practice and others can make statements in response.

Matt, I definitely take your point. I agree that a poetry practice is a fine representation of a writer's poetics. But at the same time, we live in a culture of explanation, in which people are always called upon to account for what they do in statement-oriented argumentative language. So no, you're not doing something wrong. But I'm sure it's also true that you'll be called upon, repeatedly, to account for what you do, and I wish you good luck in figuring out how to respond to that call.

brian (baj) salchert said...

someplace else,
perhaps on a step
or in a tree notch
or on a fingernail--
sorry--i'm just blubbering.

My most recent poem
(or poemoid, if you wish)
"That Said"
It's a gentle rant against
the sudden pervasive use of
"That said" in blog posts and
When Mark mentioned
"Assertive Again" as a possible
new blog for him, I was struck/
because that is exactly what I
have been thinking about recently:
trying to be more assertive,
to figure out and say why
I like a certain poem, for instance.
Problem is/ my poetics centers on
the artifact rather than on any
theory about how artifacts should
be made. After a 20-year abstention
from the poetry scene, my 2 years
of engagement--which has been both
shocking and liberating--makes me
still a newbie. I think one's
personality has a lot to do with
what one is comfortable with.
I doubt I could ever be a Flarfist,
Conceptualist, Proceduralist, or
Langpoist in any serious way, but
I can find value in modes of making
outside my comfort space.
If someone wanted to use some of my
360+ sonnets for a Flarf project,
I wouldn't care. This is not an
invitation though. I wrote most of
them in or before 1976.