The Tolerance Project

Projection of the intimate into the historical

Poetic DNA at the Tolerance Project collaborative blog.

The Tolerance Project, what could be the first collaborative MFA in Creative Writing ever,[1] has engendered many defining responses. Poet and scholar Jeff Derksen frames the project “within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer.”[2] One blogger poet wrote that it “actively challeng[es] the stagnating culture of poetry workshops and the dominance of mainstream Romantic ideas propagated within them.”[3] Another blogger poet opined that The Tolerance Project “explore[s] the civility agenda intrinsic to the MFA workshop experience.”[4] Language poet and critic Charles Bernstein wrote me that it “promises to take on the institutionality of the MFA in a way that I haven’t seen before.”[5] And some reactants claim that this collaboration “violates the privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, while others have accused me of “cavalierly” using my “arrogance” to “GAME the system” — in big block letters.[6]

While I appreciate the range of these takes on The Tolerance Project’s poetics, for me this is primarily a collaborative conceptual-performance project, a queer-in-more-ways-than-one response to how desire is constrained and regulated in the US, an examination of the governmental functions of docility (partly under the guise of tolerance discourse), the self-regulating “conduct of conduct” that occurs under the sway of institutional and repressive state apparatuses not only at the border but within the academic industrial complex or even the hospital, where I may not be allowed to visit my partner if she’s sick, or on the street where queer (mostly trans) sex workers get killed every day for sport. Suffice it to say that for me The Tolerance Project is not simply a set of poetic gestures; it has had daily real-world implications, so its lived material aspects are as important as its conceptual and poetic facets.

The project is influenced by theorist Wendy Brown’s book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in Age of Identity and Empire,[7] in which Brown examines how US government policy notions of tolerance have come to dominate pedagogy and other forums and have shifted discussions from challenging citizens to work on internalized and externalized racism, homophobia, classism, etc., to simply tolerating (or not, in the case of Islamophobia, for example) what we hate about the neighbo(u)r over the fence. As alluded to earlier with my use of the terms “docility” and “conduct of conduct,” Michel Foucault’s work is also key to the project. Discipline and Punish[8] is an important inter-text, and both Brown and Foucault appear in The Tolerance Project Archive’s Office of Institutional Research, a key source of poetic DNA in the project.

As Derksen rightly deduced, the project is also influenced by Institutional Critique, which is a subset of conceptual art made famous by artists such as Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Andrea Fraser since the 1970s, and which looks at the systems and processes of art worlds and the solidification of the artist as commodity. Michael Asher made an important piece in 1974 in which the art viewer entered the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles and was confronted simply with blank walls, no art objects anywhere to be seen. Gradually, the astute viewer (the one who doesn’t leave in flustered confusion) discovers that the only subtle manipulation Asher has made to the space has been to remove the wall separating the art dealer from the spectator, thus laying bare the invisible hand of commerce behind each art gesture. Andrea Fraser, who engaged in a well-known performance in 1989 where she posed as a tour guide in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and waxed on about the beautiful architectural composition of the museum cafeteria and Duchampian water fountains, even went so far as to have sex with an art collector for $20,000 in one infamous instance of Institutional Critique in 2003.

The Tolerance Project is also in conversation with the recent Conceptual Writing phenomenon thrust onto the public scene by Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place, among others. British artist and poet Brion Gysin (inventor of the cut-up technique) quipped in 1959 that “writing is always fifty years behind painting,”[9] and indeed Conceptual Writing is a little late to the game for conceptual art practices made famous in the 1960s, many of which used similar textual modes of appropriation, constraint and polyvocality that are so trumpeted by Conceptual Writing folks. I was asked to be in a forthcoming anthology of Conceptual Writing by women (perhaps there is another more important one by men), and though I gave them some work, I don’t define myself as part of the Conceptual Writing movement (as Groucho keeps saying, I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member). Though my work can employ allegorical and other strategies that Conceptual Writers promote (again via theories of conceptual art and Walter Benjamin, etc.), the product is always impure, and indeed too invested in meaning and materiality for some. “Context not content,” Fitterman once whistled pithily to me.


The Tolerance Project call

The Tolerance Project began with an email call on June 6, 2009, to more than 250 writers and artists across North America. For reasons that may become apparent, the call itself went through thirteen drafts as I dealt with intense focus-group feedback from my poetic peers, who warned me not to sound too “smug” or too “negative” or unwilling to engage in “community” with my fellow students; to especially avoid being threatening to my teachers; and to not exhibit a number of other adverbs and affects I can’t remember right now,[10] affects that, as Derksen would later astutely notice, I was deliberately trying to circumscribe in order to place myself “outside of the feelings of the workshop”[11] while being ensconced within it, doing something like a duration performance:

June 6, 2009

Subject: Donate your poetic trace to a worthy cause

Dear fine writers, artists and thinkers I admire,

I’m embarking on a two-year conceptual writing project — and I need your help. It’s participatory! This fall I will be entering The New School MFA in Creative Writing to work on my fifth book of poetry. The story behind that weird decision is long and at times boring boring,[12] but the gist is my partner K. got a job at The New School in 2008 and because of the US Defense of Marriage Act, I was not allowed to move with her from Canada. I have “visited” K. and the lovely NYC this year, but that is no longer tenable and I need status at the border, which being a student brings for a couple of years.

Okay, here’s where you come in. As far as I can gather, part of The New School MFA involves writing poems each week — sometimes in specific forms and on assigned topics — and bringing them to class for critique. What I’d like to do is gather “poetic” material from you fine folks for a textual archive from which I will draw elements to create poems for the MFA. For example, if the assignment is to write a sonnet in the style of Petrarch on the colour purple, there’s bound to be something inspiring in the archive, even if only a hint of blue in a Fitterman tome or a yellow Levitsky sigh on the page. I will likely have to mash together multiple pieces of donated poetic material to fulfill the parameters of the week’s assignment, so there’s no worry that plagiarizing — that scourge of university campuses and influence anxiety everywhere — will come into play here. What you define as poetic material is up to you. It can be your favourite poem from your salad days in the MFA, it can be a grocery list, a picture, a philosophical treatise, a confession, manifesto, tweet to one of your thousands of friends — in short, it’s your poetic DNA, define it as you wish.

What I offer you is a chance to hear real feedback on your work from my fellow MFA students[13] and our instructors. What I offer you is a chance to take part in what could be the first collaborative MFA thesis ever imagined! What I offer you is a chance to help out a queer poet[14] who might just blow her head off if she has to look out her window and wait for poetic inspiration to come to her each week. How’s that for a good cause, eh?

Each poetic trace that you give me will receive a barcode that I will give you — you’ll see it on your donation receipt, which you can attempt to get a tax break for (good luck!). Starting this September, each week I will post the poem(s) I brought to class, plus the feedback I received, on a blog created for this project. Maybe it will be called The Tolerance Project, because, as Wendy Brown and the Museum of Tolerance have taught us so well, it’s important that we tolerate neighbo(u)rs and lifestyles and other things that we hate!

The pieces of poetic DNA used in the poem and their barcodes will also be posted on the blog, so you’ll know when your trace has been activated. I will include a comments section on the blog too, so you all and anyone else can put in your two cents toward creating the perfect MFA poem. I will then attempt to revise the poems according to all comments received and get closer to that messianic MFA perfection myself.

For my final thesis, I will collate the poem versions and responses and such and make something beautiful and grade A-worthy that everyone will want to publish. What else is an MFA in creative writing for?[15]

So, I’m offering you participation in something pure, something purely conceptual, a collaborative idea that may not work but may be fun, an idea that will help me tolerate MFA school (and it me). Your assistance in this matter would be greatly appreciated. 

Please send poetic material [by email] that you think would help me create the perfect MFA poem (come on, most of you have taken and/or teach in these programs!). At the end of the project, all barcode IDs will be revealed on the blog and in print, if it gets that far. Of course it’s fine if you’d rather remain anonymous too. I promise to only create poems from the project archive and to use at least an aspect of every piece of poetic DNA donated — so bring it on, bards!

Yours in canonical perpetuity,

Rachel Zolf

After the thirteenth draft came as close to perfection as humanly possible, I sent the call out on June 6, 2009, to all the writers and artists I had email addresses for in North America, most of whom I didn’t know personally at all. As I performatively pressed “send” 250 times and imagined people’s responses on the other end, my sense of anticipation and mild fear was interesting. Would these people know who I was? Would they care? Would they write back? Would they narc to the “authorities” and have me kicked out of the country? It’s difficult to explain to United Statesians (to borrow Rachel Levitsky’s torquing of the colonial American) the daily fears of the precarious “alien,” and of course my situation as a white Canadian is nothing compared to “suspect” Mexicans or other brown people forced to carry nonexistent “papers” on their bodies in Arizona and likely soon a state near you.

But the fear, however borne from privilege and incomparable to the struggles of racialized peoples, was real. This is partly why I had decided to do the MFA, so that I could get two years in the US with my partner somewhat free of overriding anxiety. Yet, once I was accepted into the New School program (after an initial wrinkle due to my lack of a Bachelor’s degree — and a consequent intervention by a powerful Language poet, who assured the Dean that I had more “credentials” than students exiting the Ivy League PhD program where said poet taught), the anxiety merely shifted, when I realized I had no idea what poems I would work on during the MFA. I was in the final stages of editing my fourth full-length book, Neighbour Procedure, and not interested in “workshopping” (that awful neologism) those poems with people I didn’t know or trust, even if the poems could possibly make sense as stand-alone pieces, which they couldn’t. I’d also never taken part in a workshop, other than once in 1990, when I was living in what I called “the sex commune” in Winnipeg and was sort of forced to go to this weekend poetry workshop (long story … it was a fundraiser and one of the members had to go); at the time, I had never written any poetry at all, so had to bring an unfinished essay from my failed BA era on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that stopped after a page and a half when the reader became a travailer (i.e., the reader had to work like Christian to get anywhere). I actually wrote my first poem at this workshop, something about an abusive guy and a bellybutton, but hadn’t attended another workshop since. And, at the risk of sounding maudlin, my “little poet” inside, which I guess you could laughingly call a kind of “voice,” was mildly panicked at the thought of having to write an “experimental poem” or sonnet, villanelle, haiku or whatever assignment task I might be given each week, and I was more than a little worried that that little poet might shut up forever in protest.

Though my poetics changes with every project, the base of my work has always come from years of intense research collecting textual material and fumbling around with inexpert knowing. I am pretty much physically unable to write poems by looking out my window at the birds or at my inner consciousness, and I tend to depend on that archival crutch, feel safer with my hoard of research or marbles in place to work and play with. Hence, K. and I came up with the idea to make the MFA process collaborative and have people donate “poetic DNA” from which I would cull the MFA poems. Not only would I get my language archive, and sort of feel in control of one part of my existence in the US (much as of course the archive always swerves slant just out of grasp), but the project would push the boundaries of the workshop, and of course its buttons too. The project’s constraints, where I would only make poems from the donated textual material, would mimic the constraints I was living under on a daily basis. The extensive time and labor involved with the project — which included organizing an enormous amount of material in various forms, extensive communicating with collaborators, dealing with finicky barcodes, and wrangling with blog software, not to mention combing through the archive and actually writing the poems as well as participating in classes week in and week out — also reflected the quotidian nature of the physical and emotional labor involved with figuring out how to be here with my partner and for how long and how to make money to survive, etc.

The project would of course also test the limits of what is deemed originality within the “American MFA industry.” The notion of defamiliarizing Romantic originality and transparent self-expression is not new, but the MFA is, of course, still designed to churn out marketable “author functions” (to use Foucault’s term)[16] and mostly not set up to tolerate much difference from or opposition to that saleable norm. The “American MFA industry” is poet and activist Mark Nowak’s term for “the multimillion-dollar conglomeration of state and private enterprises within the neoliberal language industry that has developed in continuum with the crisis of global capitalism over the past four decades” that he examines in a well-known essay published in 2004 called “Neoliberalism, Collective Action and the American MFA Industry.” In the essay, he “reconfigure[s] the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (‘the culture industry’) and Charles Bernstein (‘official verse culture’) by examining an industry and culture at all stages of production, exchange, consumption, and reproduction.” He continues:

As an industry its objectives include the market socialization of the contemporary “poet & writer” and the neoliberalization of its relations of production. Through its rapid expansion in the late 20th century it has produced a largely under- or unemployed workforce of “poets & writers” in free market competition for jobs (advertised through the MLA job information list, the AWP job list, and the Chronicle for Higher Education career network) and publication opportunities …

… A new social formation for the collective cultural worker must replace the stereotypes of the hermetic, visionary artist (the product of early capitalism) and the market-socialized neoliberal artist (the product of late capitalism and the American MFA industry). One question at hand is whether the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer.

In response to Nowak and further to Derksen’s reference to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the author as producer,[17] it was important to me to look at the institutional processes involved in my being in the MFA, and how I was being constructed and reconstructed while I attempted to sit placidly in my seat in the classroom for the two years it would take me to become accredited to teach other writers. Hence my decision to expand the authorial creation and feedback process beyond the confines of the workshop room, as a way of examining the inner workings of the MFA, in the tradition of conceptual art’s Institutional Critique, and also to see how these processes operate within larger state and cultural apparatuses. I was here influenced by Louis Althusser’s writings on Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses (ISAs and RSAs), through which the subject is “interpellated” — called into being — by a force outside herself that torques her subjectivity with its loud “Hey, you!”[18]

Rachel Zolf in Brooklyn, May 2011. Photo © Brian Adams.

A hoard of poetic DNA 

The response to The Tolerance Project call was enthusiastic, and the material donated from eighty-six writers and artists across North America was vast and varied. A number of donations looked like they could be actual poems or notes toward poems. Sometimes they had titles. Among the poetic DNA traces, there were photos, pop songs, syllabi, blood sugar charts, parking tickets, pet-loss odes, prayer lists, to-do lists, lists of aphorisms, lists of library headings, list of chemicals, lists of Facebook updates, academic and layman articles, prose musings on stray facts, museum objects, and even a breast cancer diagnosis and two medieval gynecological texts. Some donors gave whole books of their own poetry. One donor gave a multitude of email spam, which (strangely, or perhaps fittingly) proved to be the most poetic of all donations, this trace appearing in The Tolerance Project poems more often than any other. One judge kindly gave a ruling, another lawyer a note of appeal. A corporate hack writer parted with some corporate hack paragraphs; a few activists telegraphed activist texts. One mother sent her son’s dinosaur poem; another mother some posts from the “parents of twins listserv”; yet another sent some musings on breastfeeding and chemicals. There were translations of history texts, strangely beautiful paratactic sentences generated by an online engine, and even two love poems addressed to me. One donor gave a stack of response papers she had written to her peers during her own time in the MFA. Another donor chose to remain anonymous, because the donated material was scathingly insensitive feedback she had received from a key instructor in the New School program (e.g., “There is nothing in this that interests me.”… “You might want to give up on poetry entirely and take up creative non-fiction, perhaps even learn to write linearly and write your own memoir.”…“Why don’t you try centering all your poems — both physically and theoretically?”). Both this donation and the one from the other former MFA student would prove to be very useful after the event described below. 


The event

Here it makes sense to skip ahead to the “event” that sort of sideswiped me in the first term of the MFA and The Tolerance Project — even though I had guessed an event would occur. There tends to be some kind of event generated by my work, whether it be a potential lawsuit or other threat, such as being kicked out of job, country, or family. K. and I were aware of this risk when we came up with the idea for me to attempt to do the MFA and then to do The Tolerance Project — we suspected both would be awkward fits. This awareness of risk added another layer of tension to the process, and frankly to our relationship, which had experienced its strains as a result of our separate and common anxieties about my immigration status. One might ask, why take the risk of doing a controversial project based in a seemingly negative stance when it could affect your visa status and your partner’s precarious job security as an untenured professor at a new institution, not to mention piss a lot of people off? We thought about these issues, and I’m using “we” because both K. and I were implicated by the choices that went into conceiving and following through on this project. But we still felt compelled to go forward, primarily because both of our practices involve examining the rhetorics of structures and ideologies and discourses from within and without, this is what we both do. And negation can be a productive creative space, however fraught, acting as a kind of psychic protection against falling into docility. The line of creation is the same as the line of destruction. Nevertheless, neither K. nor I was sure what blowback this particular risky venture would generate.

The cataclysm occurred after I posted on The Tolerance Project blog some anonymous feedback that my classmates in my first term (fall 2009) workshop wrote on my poems. Somewhat like a reality TV show for poets, as mentioned earlier, I had promised my collaborators constructive criticism by “real” MFA students and teachers. By that stage of the workshop (mid-October), I had drawn on Juliana Spahr’s donation to bring in a poem about the chemicals in breast milk that I’m sure led some people to assume I had a child. K.’s DNA was the source for a love poem/manifesto about my fears at the border due to my naïve “radical honesty” that never works. (Incidentally, students had a lot of trouble with that poem’s pseudo-typewritten x-ed-out words mimicking tweaked-to-the-last-minute political manifestos of the 1980s.) And just to shake things up a bit, I had also brought in a poem from my third book, Human Resources, partly about Adrienne Rich using a form letter from Norton to let me know that I wasn’t allowed to use a piece of her famous lesbian sonnet sequence, “Twenty-one love poems,” in my first book (that was back in the 1990s when we used to ask permission). I thought people might get a giggle or something out of the Human Resources poem. Instead, I got a range of epistemological reactions that circled like a chorus around the cramped and sweaty little workshop room, and later on the copies of the poem that students gave back to me. As had been my habit up until then, I posted this constructive feedback “as found” (but anonymously, as a choral response, just as I had experienced it), preceding the poem on The Tolerance Project blog:

“I don’t know what this is about — I am pretty sure I am not part of the target audience”; “I can’t find much to hold it together beyond its instruction manual style tone”; “I’m confused by the poem”; “doesn’t seem to hang on its own”; “I don’t get it; or I don’t see how these things are related”; “I can tell some of the expressions are meaningful, to someone – but I can only read them and read on”; “I don’t get it”; “I don’t think I ‘get’ it.” “C3I = Church?”; “flarf?”; “a bit cynical, in a way, how certain things are unquestionably negative”; “do you not want a title!?”; “particularly don’t understand ‘communities of meaning’”; “not convinced with the [George] W. imagery, it’s an easy out …”

What seems to have happened is that soon after I posted the Human Resources poem and its feedback on The Tolerance Project blog, a teacher of mine in the MFA program — strangely enough, not my workshop teacher — went to the blog for the first time, and apparently this teacher was quite disturbed by its existence. A number of discussions ensued, including one between this teacher (a well-known New York School poet) and my workshop teacher, and one between this teacher and a famous Language poet (who has nothing to do with the New School program), and one between this famous Language poet and me, and then, finally, one between said offended New York School teacher and me, in which the gist was that the teacher thought I was “violating the privacy of the workshop structure.” The teacher vehemently did not appreciate the term Institutional Critique, and didn’t think the MFA administration would either, and by the end of all this discourse, enough subtle or not so subtle admonitions had been communicated that I became sufficiently paranoid of being kicked out of the program (and hence country) that I decided to remove the anonymous comments from the blog and put them in the private space of Facebook.

Everything happened very quickly, and in a two-hour blur before the next workshop a couple days later, I wrote a statement to read to my bewildered workshop-mates, who hadn’t even bothered to go to the blog. I had quickly told them about the project and the blog in the one minute we got to introduce ourselves in the first class, but the rest of the workshop term had been devoted pretty much solely to the black ink bits on the page. Writers were barely allowed to respond to feedback on their poems in class, let alone discuss their work in any larger context.

But back to the statement: I had written to my workshop teacher in advance of class that I would use my slot in the “Issues in Writing” portion of the workshop (which fortuitously happened to coincide with that night) to speak to this controversy related to my MFA project, as it seemed an appropriate issue for discussion. The teacher’s response, with no explication, was that I should stick to the original idea I had proposed, which (somewhat ironically) had been to use Charles Bernstein’s essay “The Difficult Poem” as a teaching tool. After I held back my terrified impulse to vomit and came to class and read the statement out anyway (which included an apology for any confusion or upset caused if I hadn’t been clear enough about my project), one of the students gave me a thumbs up, and another shrugged and later said to me, “I thought everything was public.” The workshop teacher spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project).

After the teacher spoke, we were given no time to discuss the controversy, and I realized I had to quickly talk about Charles’s essay so the teacher wouldn’t fail me. I later sent all the students an email asking how they wanted to move forward, and by that time enough of them weren’t interested in my posting their anonymous feedback on the blog that I decided it was too much trouble to push that aspect of the project further. I encouraged the students to use the blog’s comments field to post their feedback on the poems themselves (anonymously or not). As far as I know, few students from that workshop have posted on the blog — but I could be wrong, given the anonymous comment option.

I posted the statement that I read out to class on the blog on October 13, 2009, and here is just a short excerpt from it:

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter … that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How’s that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?

Some interesting discussion in the blog comments stream ensued. One anonymous commenter’s long post started with the strange solecism, “I empathize deeply with the state-sponosored [sic] homophobia of the US government,” then went on to bemoan my “lack of educational humility,” calling this apparent lack “ludicrous and shaming to say the least,” and, among other things, venturing that I was “simply enrolled in the MFA to GAME THE SYSTEM” and had “bought into the arrogant, hyper-commercial notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation.” Finally, the commenter asked, “do you even give a darn about truly teaching anyone in the future in a way that mirrors how you **could*** have been guided if only you were open and not bitter?”[19]

Poet and academic K. Silem Mohammad responded to this commenter with the following statement (excerpted):

Let’s talk about arrogance. Boiled down to their essentials, these comments amount to the following: “How dare you enter into an institutional structure with a negative hypothesis about its methods and objectives? How dare you challenge the participants in that system to examine that structure and their roles in it? How dare you come into this system with an idea of your own? How dare you pursue your course of inquiry without submitting to the very conditions of supervision and control it is partly your objective to question? How dare you use the position you have been so benevolently granted within this institutional structure to advance a project that is critical of that structure, and how dare you attempt to critique the criticisms of that project you receive therein?”

Wow. Even taken on their own terms, the commenter’s objections are often nonsensical: in what way is the “notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation” a “hyper-commercial” one? Isn’t commerciality precisely what such a notion protests?

… Any system that can’t tolerate being “gamed” when the alleged game consists of nothing more insidious than a legitimate interrogation of that system’s efficacy doesn’t deserve to sustain itself.

Another anonymous commenter self-identified as a second-year New School MFA student, whom I’d supposedly never met, but who claimed to have been “a provocateur in the program to a certain degree” and who pointed to “some issues which I think your enthusiasm may have caused you to overlook.” The commenter continued:

Many of our classmates are very young, fresh from undergraduate programs, and while they have the excitement for poetry they still trust very much in the system. They are looking at this program through the fogged lens that lets them see the glory of themselves as future masters, and the slightest moment of instability that they feel may give them pause. I'm not saying that giving them this is a bad thing, it is perhaps the best lesson one can learn, but it is a point that you should consider.

The commenter went on to warn me that “our program buys into the ‘positive and nurturing’ MFA philosophy, whether it be because of cynicism (‘why not nurture, they’ll never go anywhere anyway’) or a true desire to progress the arts I don’t know, but any critique of the system will draw out the ire, especially by the individuals who stand to face the direst consequences, i.e. the position of teaching creative writing will fight for its life while being exposed as a fraud or mocked in any way.” 

Poet Lisa Robertson posted a comment asking, “What’s with all the anonymity here in the comment polis? Do I sense fear? I think so.” She spoke to the professionalization of poetry in the US and her own struggles to get work here without an MFA or BA, even with a widely read and respected oeuvre. She continued:

Most Canadian poets do not have MFA’s. We think there are many ways to become a poet, even a very good poet, and so we set about inventing ourselves and our communities (and our arguments and enemies! We do not follow the support and nurture model of learning — it’s more the swill and swear model.) … I have played the game in order to have my little visiting positions [in the US], which are the positions available to an MFA-less poet. But we all know this: nobody needs an MFA in order to write a poem. It’s another mode of regularization. Because of love and politics and economics some of us step through some of the hoops. Rachel is displaying the hoops publicly instead of pretending they’re natural. This is what an engaged poet does. This is a real time engagement with form. Why agree to protect the naive? Why not explore together how power works? She has guts. Maybe a little more arrogance would be in order, if this is arrogance. I’d call it discourse, simply.

 Jeff Derksen’s comment post came closest to describing The Tolerance Project as I see it:

When Rachel first announced her project, I thought that — by using poems from a transnational community as source texts — it was structured to test the concepts of originality and self-expression within a creative writing MFA program. And the project was also going to foreground the social context that it is as taking place within — the USA’s nonrecognition of same-sex partners and restrictive immigration policies. The project struck me, to use a phrase from Walter Benjamin as an investigation of “the projection of the historical into the intimate” and also a critique based on a reversal, of a projection of the intimate into the historical and structural (from the state to the university to an MFA program to everyday life). These aspects seem to solidly put the project within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer. So the roots of this project can be traced from Walter Benjamin, through the institutional critique phase of conceptual art up to the type of art as commodity critique that Andrea Fraser has spectacularly engaged in. Given this, it would seem like an ideal project for a research university with a radical heritage. In the statement on her blog, Rachel is pretty clear about the critical heritage of her project and points out that part of her project is to take the workshop feedback as also part of an institutional mechanism. I know of many MFA projects in visual arts that have done similar things and have not met with the same nervousness (and most forms of institutional critique have been institutionalized in the art world …).

And Lisa’s comments also show what is at stake beyond the feelings in a MFA workshop (which is the space that Rachel’s project was exactly aiming to be outside of). There is a simultaneous professionalization of the university and the “creative industries” in it and the precariousness of many jobs in universities. So writers and artists are being asked to do more to get less (and being asked to be “flexible” and move from city to city and negotiate the tough J1 visa which was the class of visa clamped down on after 9/11). This set of relationships is what critical/conceptual practises are supposed to show or reveal: the dialectic of possibility and restriction, of forms and scales of “freedom” and, of course, the possibilities of art as a form of knowledge/research/expression. So rather than critique being understood as “arrogance”, I’d rather think of it as “sincerity” (in the way the Objectivists drew on sincerity).

I was heartened to get these and other responses, but my consequent response was to go into retrenchment mode, thoroughly emotionally exhausted. I decided to concentrate on getting through the program without another “event” occurring. I kept quiet. I wrote poems that no one got. And I attempted to mend fences with the New York School teacher who didn’t like the blog by giving said teacher a green dinosaur brooch I found on the floor.

But alas, it wasn’t going to be my fate to avoid further controversy, and in the second term I had a strangely terrifying encounter with a nonfiction teacher (I was taking a little break from poetry) who actually screamed at me in response to my holding a different opinion from her about a George Orwell essay. But I won’t get into that event, because it wasn’t focused on The Tolerance Project and I, fortunately or unfortunately, was not the only one to experience the wrath of this particular teacher in that bizarre class.



On the bright side, term two’s workshop turned out to be much more bearable than term one’s had been, particularly with the addition of one curious student who was interested in “innovative” work, and a more laidback teacher, Mark Bibbins, who was supportive of my project. I even collaborated with the student, Jeff T. Johnson, on a poem, and he wrote another poem riffing on The Tolerance Project blog comments stream. And interestingly enough, other students in the workshop who had been quite resistant to my work in the first term opened to it a little more this time around, perhaps because the groupthink “I don’t get it” attitude was not given as much sway in this class.

So I was able to get into the swing of writing poems for the project in a much freer way than I had in the previous workshop. I honed a method of using search terms related to what I was thinking and feeling in the moment and then rooting around in the archive to make poems riffing off the lines that came up in the search and nearby lines that popped out at me. I started with search terms such as “tolerance,” “respect,” “economy,” “catastrophe,” “horses,” “dinosaur,” and even “love.” Just as an example of how my mind would swerve based on my circumstances, partway into the second term I found myself going down one particular path in the poems for a little while. As befits my anxious DNA, I had already started to get worried about what I was going to do after the MFA, and considered applying to get into a PhD program in English in New York in order to give me a few more years in the US with my partner, and the credential that is in the process of superseding the MFA for poets like me to get any work at all in North America. In order to even contemplate applying for PhD school, though, I had to get over the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) hump. So I spent a couple months dusting off twenty-three years of math cobwebs, memorizing thousands of arcane vocabulary terms I’ll never use, and attempting to learn how to write a five-paragraph essay the GRE grad student markers would be pleased by. I found the whole process quite frustrating to say the least, even though I got the score I needed to on the GRE (bombed the math, though). Indeed, I found studying for the standard GRE such a colossal waste of time that I decided to cancel the Literature GRE slot I had signed up and paid for, knowing that my cursory movie version of studying (renting all the BBC movies on “great books” on Netflix) wasn’t going to lead to a good score on what is an impossible test of memorized middle-class cocktail banter designed to weed out those with little cultural capital and/or bad memories for dates and names. I guess you could say I reached a hard limit with this particular hoop and couldn’t bring myself in any conscience to jump through yet another round in the docility sweepstakes (mixed metaphor intended).

In response to this failed attempt to continue my travails as a forty-two-year-old student in and of the US academic industrial complex, I ended up writing a few poems that referred to the US “mental measurement” tests and their origins in the early twentieth-century American eugenics movement that prefigured and inspired the Nazis’ grand eugenics performances.[20] The American scientists involved in those early eugenics tests (and sterilizations of the “mentally unfit,” etc.) were also the progenitors of the Educational Testing Service that oversees the GRE and countless other gatekeeping tests in the US that are an arm of the education system’s regulatory and regulating apparatus. The links between my mental measurement journey and my MFA accreditation/nonresident alien journey were indeed ironically apparent. Perhaps needless to say, I hadn’t had to write any standardized tests during my schooling in Canada.

In term two, I also wrote a few poems based on the controversy over my project from term one. Luckily, as mentioned above, one Tolerance Project donor, Sarah Dowling, had donated a lot of feedback she had written in response to her colleagues’ poems during her MFA; so, coupling this with the feedback from the anonymous donor who had so suffered during her experience attempting to write “experimental” poems in the New School MFA program, and with the addition of other complementary Tolerance Project material, I was able to make poems that addressed the issue of term one’s “event” without actually using any of my own poet-colleagues’ comments, and thus not “violating the privacy of the workshop.”[21]


The Tolerance Project Archive revealed

By the end of term two, I had survived half of the MFA and indeed had already managed to use a tiny bit of my eighty-six donors’ poetic DNA. I decided it would be an interesting shift in the project to make the archive public at this point, so I worked with designer HR Hegnauer, who created the clever Tolerance Project logo (a riff that K. thought of on the hip New School graffiti-in-the-city logo), to put the donation archive on the web. I had originally planned not to reveal the donor identities until the end of the MFA, but since I had used a trace of everyone, it seemed right to make the collaboration more visible and expand its reach. With the archive now up on the web, the barcodes below the poems on the blog became live links back to the poetic DNA donations from which I had culled material for each poem. This simple linking act made it instantly clear that each poem written for The Tolerance Project was much more than the sum of its stanzas on the blog, and that part of the act of reading the poem involved clicking on the barcodes and absorbing the donated material that emerged. The poems themselves as presented on the blog enacted the destabilization of the canonical western authorial “voice” and its singular ownership framework. The reader was thrust into the collaborative position of becoming coproducer of the text, not simply consumer of the Word of MFA genius.

To stretch the collaboration trope even further, in term three I worked with a number of other writers and artists to create poems for the blog. One collaboration was with Kai-Fierle Hedrick as part of an artist residency with the UK’s Department of Micro-Poetics at the AC Institute in New York’s Chelsea art district. Together we wrote a sequence of poems responding to the exhibition EXCHANGE VALUE at the AC Institute. Fierle-Hedrick wrote onsite at the gallery, then forwarded an ekphrastic poem to me at the end of each session. I then identified a set of search terms in Fierle-Hedrick’s poem and used these to generate a new response from within The Tolerance Project Archive. My poetic permutation then served as the starting point for Fierle-Hedrick’s next session in the gallery, and so on for three sessions. The residency explored a variety of exchanges and mappings — ekphrastic, dialogic, technological — in addition to embodying some of the challenges and creative loopholes of distance collaboration.[22]

I also wrote a Tolerance Project poem in response to a photographer’s request to create a written “frame” for one of his photos, as well as writing two occasional poems for specific anthologies using specific search terms.[23] Near the end of the project, my MFA thesis supervisor Mark Bibbins even wrote a guest poem riffing on the sponsored search results in The Tolerance Project Archive. It is interesting to read through these final poems of the project and see how the themes that emerged at the beginning of The Tolerance Project related to constraint and freedom and docility and collaboration and response have remained as traces throughout the course of the project, even with the variety of approaches to making poems.


The future of tolerance 

Poet and Tolerance Project collaborator Erín Moure suggested that I could publish two companion books out of The Tolerance Project, one with the poems and one with the large archive of donated poetic DNA; but I think the project is best situated as it is on the web as a kind of hypertext moment that could last forever. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of the treasures that The Tolerance Project Archive could yield, and I think there are still some artistic, playful, and pedagogical uses it can perform over time — by others than me. Duration Press has kindly agreed to host the archive for free, so maybe The Tolerance Project will attain canonical perpetuity as a duration performance (pun intended). Not only is The Tolerance Project’s hypertext quality so key to the way the blog poems interact with the archive and expand its reach, but the blog comments section is also integral to how the poems are read and received. One could also say it’s fitting that The Tolerance Project not become yet another book of MFA poetry. As K. remarked in a talk at CUNY on queer/feminist literary nostalgia, “the desire is not to get somewhere,” the “desire is for desire” itself.

It is also perhaps fitting (and perhaps a little tragic) that the culmination of The Tolerance Project has been the breakup of my relationship with K. Perhaps all the pressure of projecting the historical into the intimate and the intimate into the historical — and present and future — in the end proved to be simply intolerable.

Now, of course, I am recalibrating, and wondering if I can live like many of my poet colleagues in New York as an adjunct “professor” teaching first-year composition classes with little pay, no job security and no health benefits. Not to mention dealing with having to cross the border to get a different visa for each institution I work at in each and every contingent term. That is even if I can get work in a tight post-“recession” market. After all is said and done, I may be forced by fiat or resignation to go back to Canada and figure out some other new way to make a living besides teaching, because, fortunately or unfortunately, not every student in Canada has to take a first-year composition class, and MFA programs have not yet done their viral thing there. Yes, indeed, the irony is not lost on me that I may have gone through all this enormous trouble GAMING THE SYSTEM for nothing but three useless block letters next to my name.[24]


The Tolerance Project collaborators are: Sandra Alland, Gary Barwin, Emily Beall, Joel Bettridge, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Jules Boykoff, Di Brandt, Laynie Browne & Jacob Davidson, Kathy Caldwell, Angela Carr, Abigail Child, George Elliott Clarke, Stephen Collis, Communications & External Affairs, Jen Currin, Moyra Davey, Anonymous Donor, Thom Donovan, Sarah Dowling, Marcella Durand, Kate Eichhorn, Laura Elrick, Jennifer Firestone, Rob Fitterman, Jenna Freedman, Dina Georgis, Barbara Godard, Nada Gordon, Kate Greenstreet, Rob Halpern & Nonsite Collective, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Holbrook, Catherine Hunter, Jeff T. Johnson, Reena Katz, Bill Kennedy, Kevin Killian, Rachel Levitsky, Dana Teen Lomax, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jill Magi, Nicole Markotic, Dawn Lundy Martin, Steve McCaffery, Erica Meiners, Heather Milne, K. Silem Mohammad, Anna Moschovakis, Erín Moure, The Office of Institutional Research, Akilah Oliver, Jena Osman, Bob Perelman, Tim Peterson, Vanessa Place, Kristin Prevallet, Arlo Quint, Rob Read, Evelyn Reilly, Lisa Robertson, Kit Robinson, Kim Rosenfield, Paul Russell, Trish Salah, Jenny Sampirisi, Heidi Schaefer, Susan Schultz, Jordan Scott, Evie Shockley, Jason Simon, Cheryl Sourkes, Juliana Spahr, Christine Stewart, John Stout, Catriona Strang, Chris Stroffolino, Michelle Taransky, Anne Tardos, Sharon Thesen, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Aaron Tucker, Nicolas Veroli, Fred Wah, Betsy Warland, Darren Wershler, and Rita Wong. Profuse thanks to all donors for your steadfast collaborative energy and patience for the duration.

Particular thanks must go to Kate Eichhorn for her enduring contribution to The Tolerance Project

A final note

So so sadly, far beyond words, two of our beloved collaborators died during the duration of The Tolerance Project. Rest peacefully astounding luminous minds and bodies, Barbara Godard and Akilah Oliver.

And farewell, too, to gentle soul Paul Violi, one of The Tolerance Project’s final MFA teachers.



1.  This project was launched in June 2009 and completed in May 2011, when I graduated with a MFA in creative writing from New York’s The New School.

2.  Jeff Derksen comment to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog. See comments section below post.

3.  Eric Goddard-Scovel, blog post, December 14, 2009.

4.  Alex Leslie, blog post, April 14, 2010.

5.  Private email correspondence with Charles Bernstein, June 2009.

6.  See rest of this essay for more on privacy/sanctity comments. “GAME the system” etc. from comments section to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.

7.  Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

8.  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

9.  Gysin, quoted in Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age, ed. José Férez Kuri (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 153.

10.  See Communications & External Affairs in The Tolerance Project Archive for some of this focus-group feedback.

11.  See Jeff Derksen comment below The Tolerance Project blog post, October 13, 2009.

12.  This is an allusion to Kenny Goldmith’s statements on the experience of reading Conceptual Writing as being “unboring boring” as opposed to “boring boring.”

13.  First footnote to project email: “I want to assure everyone that NO MFA students will be harmed in thE MAKING OF THIS proJECT. They won’t be identified by name, and some may actually enjoy the project, since it won’t be a secret. We’re all collaborators in this grand Ponzi scheme, aren’t we?”

Subsequent note added at the talk I gave on The Tolerance Project at The Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church, on May 19, 2010: “Just as an aside, I can’t take credit for the Ponzi metaphor. I heard it through the grapevine; some said it was Kristin Prevallet, who denied attribution and thought it might have been Rebecca Wolff, and they told two friends and so on and so on.”

14.  Second footnote to project email: “If the queer thing isn’t clear, the point is I can’t enter and live in the US on a spousal visa (even if my partner and I swallowed our political aversion toward institutions like marriage, held our noses and took the plunge in Canada, the “event” wouldn’t be recognized at the Amerikan border). Why take the MFA and not a PhD or something else? Well, like a number of your favo(u)rite Canadian poets, I don’t have a BA, and no one’s going to let me into a PhD program without one. Going to The New School for the MFA was basically the only viable option, because the tuition will be largely covered, since I’m recognized by the school as a “domestic partner” of professor K. [last name deleted]. Yep, there are different rules for queers at the federal and state level. Pretty boring boring, eh?”

Subsequent note added at Poetry Project talk, May 19, 2010: “And an addendum to this — in fact I will be spending almost $30,000 to get the MFA because the tuition ‘benefit’ is added to K.’s salary and taxed at 50%, and I pay her the taxes. They used to have an exemption for a certain portion and then arbitrarily changed it for grad students. Another lovely surprise.”

15.  Third footnote to project email: “In initial focus-group testing, some concern has arisen that this project may have a stink of the smug to it. Perhaps people think I am going to create deliberately ‘bad’ MFA workshop poems. This is not the case. The reality is that all of my work is based on collecting archives of material and drawing from them. And all of my work has a self-conscious ‘meta’ element to it. Tolerance and the MFA is the project because tolerance and the MFA has to be the project. The poems I create for The Tolerance Project will be real poems that will be critiqued and improved upon by real students and teachers and people like you who read the blog religiously and comment religiously. How much more open to ridicule can I make myself?”

16.  Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 108.

17.  Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 220.

18.  Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).

19.  All comments quoted in this section are from the comments section below the October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.

20.  See poem 24 and poem 25 for direct reference to mental measurement. Other references scattered throughout a number of Tolerance Project poems.

21.  See poem 21 and poem 23. Poems 26 and 27 are also response poems, and there are other response references peppered throughout the later Tolerance Project poems — poem 36, for example.

22.  For “Exchange Value” collaboration, see Kai Fierle-Hedrick’s Guest poems on September 19 and 26, and October 3, 2010, on The Tolerance Project blog. See Tolerance Project poems 35, 36, and 37 for the response poems.

23.  See Tolerance Project poems 38, 39, and 40.

24.  Immediately before publication of this essay, another ironic twist reared its mixed-metaphoric head, as I was offered a three-year contract as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, hired partly to supervise grad students to completion of their creative (and critical) theses and dissertations. Perhaps the three block letters aren’t so useless after all, eh?