Commentaries - March 2011

Manifesto: planning to stay

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.

Cold War language theory

On free speech and literary intention

Back in the late '80s I used the opportunity to write a review of two books about the Smith Act prosecutions of American communists to put together an essay on First Amendment theory, literary intention and the political interpretation of speech. It's called "Words with 'All the Effects of Force': Cold-War Interpretation" and was published in American Quarterly (volume 39, issue 2 - Summer 1987). Here is the essay as a PDF.

Wallace Stevens of the New York School

Wallace Stevens dark portraitI've made an mp3 recording of a speech avatar reciting the lecture Wallace Stevens gave at MoMa in 1951, "Relations between Poetry and Painting." Stevens himself spoke in a low droning monotone so the avatar, minus the patrician accent, gets it about right. Stevens made more public visits to New York in 1951 than any other year. He read at the Poetry Center/92nd St Y, at MoMA, gave several short talks at various occasions, etc. Some of his letters read like I-do-this-I-do-that accounts of walking and looking along the avenues.

Aaron Kramer

We at PennSound have now created a new author page - that of the left-wing poet Aaron Kramer. Kramer was (for a time, and perhaps for a long time) a member of the Communist Party of the U.S. He was involved in just about every radical issue, cultural and straight-out political, of this time: the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Perhaps his first big break as a poet was his inclusion in the anthology, Six Poets in Search of An Answer (1944), which at a (brief) hopeful moment in the liberal-left alliance brought Aaron in with Max Bodenheim, Joy Davidman, Langston Hughes, Alfred Kreymborg (by then a vintage modernist who'd joined the radical left), Martha Millet, and Norman Rosten. His "Garcia Lorca" memorialized that poet murdered by Spanish fascists. "Berlin Air Raid" begins: "For ten years they were listening to different / sounds." "Natchez" is about southern racist violence, a place where "a hundred tabloid writers ran to the flame." I have been in touch with Aaron's daughter Laura for years. Recently she went through the attic and gathered together three shoeboxes of cassettes and VHS tapes and delivered them to us at PennSound. We are slowly going through them, digitizing them, and make them available--as always--for free download through our archive. Thanks to the work of Rebekah Caton, the first three readings are now up. Coming soon: a recording of a radio program featuring a discussion and performance by Kramer of poems from the sweatshops - verse of radical Jewish immigrants of the first years of the 20th century.

Marjorie Perloff circa 2000

In January 2000, Lingua Franca asked me to write very, very briefly in praise of a then-recent book. I chose Marjorie Perloff's Poetry On & Off the Page and here is what I wrote:

This fine collection of occasional essays is concerned with the way supposedly ordinary language becomes poetic. From The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) forward, Perloff has confidently, helpfully mapped contemporary poetics during a period of almost constant change. (She herself is one of the few constant features on that landscape.) Wary, as always, of holistic paradigms for the literary history of poetry, in POETRY ON & OFF THE PAGE she describes not the replacement of hip canon for square canon, "political" for "formal" poetries. Rather she shows shifts within (usually coinciding with the growth of) aesthetic movements that range across interests, forms and social formulations. Although a number of the essays have less to say about poetry per se than about, for example, Johanna Ducker's bookworks, the video art of Bill Viola, the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Christian Boltanski's simulated documentaries, I cannot think of a better introduction to contemporary poetry and poetics. Such commendation tells much about the special mode of Perloff's writings as well as the dynamic, interactive condition of experimental poetry today.