This talk was presented in response to a request for a manifesto to conclude a four-day conference on new writing practices. The conference took place in February 2010 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta.
My dicta are four in total. In sum they are:
1) Writing isn’t the only thing that is changing or needs to change. 2) The other kinds of changes might demand an attention very different in kind from our usual. 3) Deep down, most of us do not really want these other changes to come. 4) The ideal site might be where things happen rather than get presented or taught.
Now I will elaborate a little on each:
1) If all this talk about true modal changes caused by (or aided by) writing in new media is going to be more than just talk, then we must also seek, or at least encourage, major changes in the institutions that were and are organized to assure the continuation of the old mode. Which is to say: if publishers and universities and art centers as organizations (with budgets, staff hierarchies, physical spaces, customs of credentialing) are set up assuming these binarisms:
I write/you read I talk/you listen I have/you want I am/you aren’t yet I have language/you need my language I produce/you consume & purchase
--and if the relationship I write/you read is in the process of really changing (and indeed most of us here do our work on the assumption that it has already changed)--then all other aspects of the relationship must also be subject to that change. We cannot expect the traditional I write/you read binarism to disintegrate and then just hope that everything else in the writer/reader (and publisher/consumer, teacher/learner) relationship will similarly wither away, for there are actual forces maintaining it.
2) So the most obvious thing one can say is that the conversations we have been having this weekend are not just about writing. We should think every bit as innovatively about the institutions and organizations that rose up around the technology of the book as we have in conceiving the writing that goes on inside or near or astride these institutions. (Complete separation from them is a nice dream, but only as nice and dreamy as other separatisms.)
3) The honest truth is that most of us associated with such organizations - again I mostly mean universities and publishers and art centers, but also humanities institutes and foundations supporting artists – probably don't want the rest of the changes to follow from the disintegration of I write/you read exclusivity. This is especially true of I talk/you listen. (I make noise and you listen silently. I am producing something; you for the moment are unproductive.) Like the poetry reading, the lecture--being an ideology as well as an artifact of a certain phase of technology--is not something most people here are ready to give up. But I'm certain we will all be better off when we’ve put an end to the lecture; and anyway an alternative mode is among the main implications of what we do. So what is truly interactive? How many of us have been promised that such-and-such a gathering would be “interactive” only to find out that what people really want to give--but rarely to receive--is a series of monologues?
4) I do not believe what I'm saying is to come about virtually. It is very much a matter of physical design, of planning (and, incidentally, of planning to stay), of working with brick and mortar. We need to build spaces that are unconducive to what I'm doing right now.
Back in the mid-1970s, when he was promoting “oral poetry” as an alternative to the traditional presentation of writing, Jerome Rothenberg said the following: "As for poetry 'belonging' in the classroom, it's like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have been an accountant." Yet Rothenberg did teach poetry in the classroom, and so admitted to a realization I very much admire and have myself used as a guiding principle: “the classroom [can] become a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be ‘learned’ (not ‘taught’) in action.”
As pre-digital as the metaphor of the kiva is, I still like it. I like it because it pushes the distinction between teaching and learning, and because it imagines spaces where “poetry actually happens” rather than where it is presented as if it’s not there and thus must be talked about.
In the preface to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (1998), Charles Bernstein describes the book – a collection of essays on the poetics of sound and performed poetry, the audiotext (including digital forms) in general – as “a call for a non-Euclidean…prosody for the many poems for which traditional prosody does not apply.” What I want to say here simply in this context: where is the non-Euclidean pedagogy to go along with this new aural consciousness?
For surely, if it is true, as Bob Cobbing put it in 1969, that "[s]ound poetry dances, tastes, has shape," then those of us who have been teaching poetry-as-printed (poetry on the page, unsounded poetry) would presumably have to add at least these dimensions to the realms of approach in the classroom. This is perhaps too elaborate a way of saying that to have been prepared to teach words on a page, no matter how complex, is not necessarily to be prepared to help present a language as a kind of dance or as something that has a physical shape. “When the audiotape archive of a poet’s performance is acknowledged as a significant, rather than incidental, part of her or his work,” Charles writes in the same preface, “a number of important textual and critical issue emerge,” and he goes on to name these. Here I add another issue to his list. The technology that enables this – our ability to acknowledge such material as significant rather than of additive or illustrative quality – must itself become a part of the story of the poetic art taught to students of that art.
"Leonardo da Vinci,” Cobbing liked to say, “asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems to me to be achieving this aim." Same problem here, I'd suggest. Seeing and even hearing we can manage, albeit the latter with special effort. But touch? That's difficult in the traditional poetry classroom. (And although seeing a printed poem - really seeing it as a thing, in William Carlos Williams's sense - poems aren't beautiful statements; they're things - is something we think we do in a close reading when often it is not what we're really doing.) All this strikes me as relatively easy to discuss in theory, but actually doing it, creating a consistent practice, seems daunting.
We can enlarge from sound poetry to poetry in general that is aided by – though in the case of sound poetry was never dependent on – new computing media. The contributors to New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (2006) make precious little mention of the impact on pedagogy made by poetic technotexts, yet at nearly every point in this collection an altered practice is at least implicit, even in the section titled “Technotexts”-—meant to show examples of computer-generated or –enabled poetry. An essay on Cynthia Lawson and Stephanie Strickland’s Vniverse, for instance, describes the “social reading space” required by this work in a way that suggests rather specifically what a teacher would need to do in the classroom in order to “teach” such art: while the text is performed through the artist’s viritual interaction with the site—which can of course be apprehended without its creators present—“the audience is also reading while being in a social space.” However, the artists add, “we do not read it as they do.” Thus their “performing new media poetry” is a kind of teaching, assuming teaching to be a dynamic three-way interaction: (1) technotext, (2) performer/instigator of the site, (3) audience that reads/interprets in a social space.
One of the several innovations inherent in such poetics is that the artists’ “creative process is [itself] an initial model for th[e] interaction” of the sort that can take place in the classroom, so that students can glimpse the creative process and, if the technotext succeeds, can experience it.
A completely gorgeous performance of his poem "The Circus," by Kenneth Koch. He'd already written a poem called "The Circus" years earlier, and now this is a poem about thinking about having written that poem - a memory of writing that poem, its circumstances, and then some digressing thoughts about circumstances. New York School epitomized.
Many thanks to Curtis Fox, who featured this poem--and this terrific recording--in a recent episode of the podcast, "Poetry off the Shelf."
Back in the heyday of claims about "the internet revolution"--I'd say 1997 was a peak year--there was naturally a backlash. I sympathized a little bit with the backlashers, since so many people who knew nothing about computing and information technology participated in the hype. But mostly I did not sympathize. In '96 or so I was asked to write a short review of Barry Sanders' A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) and I used it as my chance to respond to those who fretted about the impending demise of the book. (I knew Barry a bit from our days researching together at the Huntington Library and actually--from those good conversations in which he seemed no troglodyte--I was surprised when reading his book how much I disagreed with him.) Here are the first two paragraphs of the review (the rest can be found here):
Some anxieties become merely historical. One is surely Barry Sanders's. His book A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) is full of worries that the flow of data across the screen is replacing the cozy curl in the armchair--frets about the death of the book. I'm not really much concerned with the problem of making a rejoinder to Sanders, or to Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber, 1995) eloquently joins the trend of English profs become anti-computing Jeremiahs. I'm more concerned, actually, with the way in which the logic of Sanders and Birkerts and others affects our thinking about universities at a critical moment when teaching, the intellectual relation of teacher to student, and basic university structures, can dramatically change for the better if we take a few conceptual cues from the information age. The parallels between the two situations--how electronic media alter the book and how they alter education--will have to remain somewhat implicit here, for lack of space. (But, partly to prove my point, I invite discussion of the animated sort these printed pages won't enable; see below.)
For Barry Sanders, computers are intellectually fascistic. He thinks that when young people read books, as opposed to electronic text, they experience a kind of authority (the author's) that is engaging and not forbidding--entreating interaction. Horrified, he imagines that when a "young person...enters into an electronic world, [it is] one in which the rules are immutable and pre-established.... He or she comes to know that authority, real knowledge, and skill, reside in the machine, dictated by an anonymous disembodied programmer.... Authority resides in the book as well. But it is authority, not technological ukase." This so completely mistakes electronic text that one hardly knows where to begin. Sanders is wrong about the relationship between the authority of the programmer and the individual reader of e-text. If anything, authority is both more transparent and more effectively open to response in the new media for reading and learning than in the context of print--and here is where we might conceive of a powerful author-reader/teacher-learner relation for the near future.
The site called Mashable / Social Media ran a story a while back with the news of "hotseat," which is being adopted at universities such as Purdue. I quote:
Students at Purdue University are experimenting with a new application developed at the school called Hotseat that integrates Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to help students “backchannel” during class. People who have attended technology conferences in the past several years are already familiar with this phenomenon, where social media is leveraged to allow the participants in a session or panel to comment and exchange questions and ideas in real-time. At Purdue, Hotseat is used to allow students to comment on the class as it proceeds, with everyone in the class including the professor able to see the messaging as it happens. The Hotseat software allows students to use either Facebook, Twitter, Myspace (MySpace), or SMS to post messages during classes, or they can simply log in to the web site to post to and view the ongoing backchannel. Right now it’s only being pilot tested in two courses, but has already become a fast favorite for both teachers and students. Professor Sugato Chakravarty, whose personal finance course is one of the pilot tests, said, “I’m seeing students interact more with the course and ask relevant questions.” And although it’s been optional for students to participate, so far 73% of the 600 or so in the pilot classes have used the software. We’ve seen Twitter become mandatory for journalism students at Australia (Australia)’s Griffith University to some negative reaction, but this is a less structured implementation which may perhaps account for its more favorable reception. As Chakravarty goes on to note, though, the application is called “Hotseat” for a reason — and professors will have to be resilient enough to take any potential criticism or even corrections from students in real-time. Nevertheless, he cites it as a “valuable tool for enhancing learning. The students are engaged in the discussions and, for the most part, they are asking relevant questions.”
My first response was extremely negative: just another use of so-called social media to enable universities to continue rostering huge courses (which is obviously a money-saver). I certainly won't celebrate yet another reason why class size will continue to grow and the distance between faculty and student will increase. But then I realize that the distance I'm thinking of is physical. Programs like Hotseat will tend to make the lecture impossible to maintain, if (for instance) students are not understanding the material, if they have questions they feel the need to pose but can't otherwise break into the competent super-confident flow of a lecture. So this might shake up some lecturers a bit, might cause them to revise their yellowed lecture notes, and to look up at the tweetflow on the monitor behind them. Well, then, back to skepticism. Do we really need students' tweets projected in the front of the classroom? Can't we all learn, even in large classes, to ask questions, encourage students to speak, lead a real discussion? If a Hotseat-enabled tweet from the otherwise reticent student in row 26 then makes possible an interaction "outside" the social media--if this system becomes a prompt--then I'm fine with it. If it's just another excuse for pedagogical impersonality (not to mention I know/you don't antagonism between teacher and learners), then I'll sit this one out. I'll just repeat what I've written in this blog any number of times. My pedagogy is saturated with uses of digital media and IT (I'm downright gaga about it all), but my classroom itself--the space for our meetings--is for the most part pre-tech: the students and I in the space. Not always, but often, my classroom is the only tech-free experience my students and I will have all day.
This essay on modernist poetry at the end of the lecture is now available through the Selected Works site. Many thanks to Peter Middleton and Nicky Marsh for commissioning it and for fabulous editorial and other advice along the way. Thanks also to Julia Bloch, whose class session on the sounds of Amiri Baraka was inspirational.
Barbara Guest in reply to a question about subject matter:
"Oh, yes. The subject matter. The subject matter. I know I was talking to some students in Santa Fe and they were very worried about when I said well what have you been writing, and they said, well, not very much. I realized that they were disturbed more by what they thought was in front of them that they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying she said the subject doesn’t matter. Because the idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule."
Recently my students and I finished up a "chapter" of English 88 on the New York School. The final class in this part of the course was devoted to some collaborative close readings of several poems by John Ashbery: "The Grapevine", "What Is Poetry", and "Hard Times". (Well, the discussion of "Hard Times," due to lack of time at that point, is really just me reading the poem and making a few comments.) A number of people watched the video live on their computers at home and work, and several of them telephoned in to ask questions or make comments. Here's your link to the video recording of the class.
Dated January 3, 2011 - a conservative's view of holocaust education - not very positive. "Genocide Studies has become an academic specialty and a fundraising bonanza, with professional organizations and prizes. Great books have been written and beautiful museums have been built—all in the conviction that they will prevent the production of future mass murderers and their willing executioners." But the conviction is hollow. We give students (starting quite young) ideas about preventing genocide but no sense of what to do. Further on you realize that the failure is largely owing to the left, because, in part, they are too much on guard against scholarly and other presentations of the equivalence of Stalin's regime and Hitlers, of communism and fascism. The issue becomes a matter of "minimizers" of communist mass murder. By this point we've come a long way from the quite reasonable concern that educators are teaching their students about the holocaust in the wrong place, the wrong site - the classroom. That's, for me at least, the value of these doubts. I don't know how to get past this very real irony.