I hadn’t planned for this commentary to coincide with the Sussex Poetry Festival, the chief criterion in my dashed-off email to Jessica nearly a year ago being that I put it off until later. But here we are talking about irritation, and anyone who’s been involved in planning a poetry festival knows about that.
At Sussex our union is in a labor dispute with management over eroding real pay against increased workloads, the wage gap for women, and casualization (again: gendered). Basically, although no one has said this, it is a dispute over the “feminization of labor,” the fact that it is now considered not only okay but natural to treat all workers the way it was always considered natural to treat female workers (underpaid, precarious, competition-based, smile required).
We are working to rule (a bad strategy in the summer; we should do it during term-time when our research time is destroyed anyway) and there was some question as to whether we should hold the festival at all.
“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” says Ben Lerner (32). What he means by this is that each actually existing poem stands a monument to the unrealizability of the utopian hope that we call “poetry.”
Lerner has some interesting things to say about poetry and its relationship to work, the desire and the worry that writing poetry not be work. Poetry is utopian insofar as it seems to offer an alternative to “getting and spending,” an order of work that is also seamlessly a way of leaning and loafing at one’s ease; hence the defenses. That very utopian possibility also seems a monstrous indifference to the brutalities of being constrained to sell one’s labor in order to live; hence the denunciations.
Whenever I think I might be being too thin in my thinking about aesthetic practice, someone says something in agreement with my thoughts, though more bookishly and then I see that I’m right, even in my simplicity. Like when I was procrastinating this weekend on writing on my promised account of Hurston’s Mules and Men I went on twitter where Anne Boyer tweeted this quote from Pierre Macherey: “To deprive the bourgeoisie not of its art but of its concept of art, this is the precondition of a revolutionary argument.” I like this sentence because of the “its” and the “its concept of.”
There are, indeed, but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a Relish of any Pleasures that are not Criminal; every Diversion they take is at the Expence of some one Virtue or another, and their very first Step out of Business is into Vice or Folly. A Man should endeavour, therefore, to make the Sphere of his innocent Pleasures as wide as possible, that he may retire into them with Safety, and find in them such a Satisfaction as a wise Man would not blush to take.
Of all the new writing I’ve encountered in the last few years, Aaron Winslow’s is certainly a favorite. It’s post-apocalyptic, full of body issues, and the prose itself, the way it's written, is hilarious — it’s the kind of comic relief I need after a long day at my own job of the great misery. Aaron himself is pretty funny but also pretty humble, so instead of interviewing him I convened a roundtable. I didn't tell our panelists why I chose them — didn't want to put any pressure on — but each of them delivered here exactly what — even more actually — than I had imiagined. I knew these three would produce a great conversational balance together — and you'll see below they did.
Sometime around late August/early September, I had lunch with one of the young women writers I see often in New York. She told me she had recently been to a reading in Philadelphia where Holly Melgard had, as she described, “performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.” This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that? That's what it seemed to boil down to, according to my friend.
Well, only Holly Melgard can answer that. But let's not pretend the WHY question is really just about explanation. Discussion about a controversial choice made by an artist opens up opportunities for all kinds of analysis. And with the sharp increase in people choosing to not bear children, emotions on this issue seem to be running high in our culture. From what I'd heard, Melgard landed herself squarely in the middle of it when she performed in Philly.