I found no immediate way in to Coolidge's work with the first book of his I obtained in the late 1990s, Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981. Instead, the way in came through the essay on Coolidge and Robert Smithson in Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax. Watten offered analysis of Coolidge’s early works, which I had never before seen in print; finally, here were excerpts from the “early Coolidge” I had heard about so routinely but never actually read! Here was a passage I highlighted in Watten's book, from Coolidge’s Polaroid (1974):
few part once and then one as around leaves close stays then some
of you few head so forth by whom why leave either to go
part and it leaves once you then some do you within stays behind
either few or just some once of either leaving miss it to close to it beside
the either one or it you part per whom via either one or
few do stay once it's close to you missing the whole either one
Stein made writing like this somewhat familiar for me, but this was something quite different, exciting even. Fifteen years and much study later, it's hard to reimagine how this writing first affected me. It seemed to do so much with so little: aside from how the abundant monosyllables gave an incredible rhythmic drive to this writing, they also offered so many semantic possibilities, as Watten went on to demonstrate: the first five words of the last line could read “(few do) (stay once) (it's close),” “(few do stay) (once it's close),”etc. Likewise “close” could be the adverb or the verb. As I discovered later, rhetoricians had names for these devices, “apo koinou” (syntax that constructs in multiple directions) and “anthimeria” (words that serve multiple syntactic functions).
The Watten book led me to my university library, which had a copy of the Language Poetry anthology In the American Tree and contained representative examples from all of Coolidge's early books. I was also making my newfound excitement for Coolidge known in email discussions on the Buffalo poetics list, such that only a month later I was invited to chair a panel at the 1998 Louisville Modernism conference on Coolidge and Language Poetry. During that conference I skipped several sessions in order to peruse the Bingham Poetry Room, not really knowing what I was looking for but coming across a goldmine all the same: Flag Flutter and U.S. Electric, ING, & Space, here they were in the flesh, the early Coolidge books I'd only heard about but never seen. Later in the Spring of 1998, I made a trip to New York City and found four additional, later Coolidge titles: Own Face, Sound as Thought, The Crystal Text and The ROVA Improvisations. I had also been visiting friends and colleagues at SUNY-Buffalo at this point, the first time being the Louis Zukofsky conference held there. On one subsquent visit, Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiteri hosted me at their home, and Ben showed me through his extensive collection of Coolidge titles. Ben told me how, back in his day (early-mid 1980s) in the Bay area, there was a bookstore (Cody's?) that had multiple copies of The Maintains and Polaroid; had he known then how rare and valuable these titles would become, he would have bought up all the extra copies he could find.
This was my initiation into Coolidge’s work. By Summer 2000, I was presenting a paper on Coolidge’s early work at the Poetry of the 1960s conference held at the University of Maine at Orono. The panel was well-attended with lively discussion afterward. Questions arose about Coolidge’s process and other matters to which I did not have immediate answers. Watten talked to me afterwards and said, “Why don't you just write Clark and ask him?” I did this, and a few weeks later got a very kind and thoughtful letter from Clark encouraging me to continue our correspondence. I was also in touch with Nate Dorward, who was editing The Gig out of Toronto and looking for contributors to a special Coolidge section on Coolidge for a joint issue of Jacket and New American Writing. The material from my Orono talk went directly into the article for this joint issue and, seven years later, the dissertation I completed on Coolidge’s early (1962-1978) work.
Earlier today, we clicked through to Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Three people had emailed us the link by the time we got to our email. They knew that we have for some time been attempting to understand US literary nationalism and the role of literature in US soft diplomacy. Bennett too has been studying, as he puts it, “the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War.” Bennett’s addition is focused on Paul Engle, the second director of the writing program at the U of Iowa: “For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.”
A few hours prior to this, we had been reading Mark McGurl’s The Program Era because we had assigned two chapters of it to our class this week. McGurl, writing about creative writing programs in universities just has this as an aside, “proponents of the program since Iowa’s Paul Engle have argued that it is only because the United States typically offers so little economic support or respect to its artistically ambitious writers, as compared to other countries, that the university must step forth to assume the compensatory function that it does.”
It was just the close mention of Engle two times in one day that got us started thinking about funding again. First off, it doesn’t seem to be true that the US offers little economic support compared to other countries. It just does not all come directly from the government. As George Yúdice in “The Privatization of Culture” points out, the US offers a similar amount of funding to artists as other European nations, but the US does it through a complicated private and public nexus. Perhaps the largest and most far reaching way the US government supports the arts is through an arcane series of tax breaks to not-for-profit institutions. This is one of the reasons why any discussion of US literary nationalism must at the same time consider the privatization of the arts that happens through support from foundations, arts institutes, poets houses, and other forms of nonprofits.
Further, as Bennett is noticing, the US government also provides significant funds for the arts covertly. And has for some time. Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War documents in exhausting detail the numerous conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and readings that were organized by the CIA, often through philanthropic organizations that were basically fronts for the CIA, during the Cold War. Nicholas Cull in The Cold War and the United States Information Agency picks up where Saunders left off and tells the story of US Information Services/US Information Agency, in the 1950s. Andrew Rubin in Archives of Authority looks at the impact the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom had on the careers of writers such as George Orwell, Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Albert Camus.
The list of the beneficiaries of US government largess is a who's who of early to mid-century US culture. When we began reading about the CIA, we kept text messaging a friend each surprising name of someone who took money from the CIA at some point. Our friend asked us to stop; she was overwhelmed. It might have made more sense for us to text her the names of mid-century writers who do not show up in these studies. We imagine that list is much shorter. The US government was notably multicultural and aesthetically inclusive in its desires to counter communism during the Cold War. Although it is hard to know the budgetary extent of all of these projects together, the funding that the CIA gave out during the Cold War years might be the most extensive funding of the arts that the US government has ever undertaken. It was not minor. Symphonies went on tours. Plays were produced. Huge conferences were put on. Magazines were edited, for many years. The most famous of these is The Paris Review, the last of the CIA front magazines still meaningfully standing (although several--China Quarterly, Freedom First, Quadrant--are still moribundly publishing).
Bennett’s article is a sort of personalized telling of what it means to be a graduate of the MFA at Iowa and also writing about the MFA at Iowa as a scholar. This article isn’t his scholarly book which is forthcoming (ironically enough) from University of Iowa Press, whose editorial process is largely overseen by Workshop affiliates. Instead, in this article, he goes on to talk about what was acceptable and what not at Iowa. His analysis here is more personal than surprising. Iowa does not like postmodernism. And if one just reads his article, one gets the idea again of the modernist tradition, the experimental, the postmodern — choose your term — as being in its nature revolutionary, free from the state, from soft diplomacy’s base desires. As our more experimental poet friends have linked to this article in the social media feeds, we’ve noticed a sort of glee that the Iowa MFA’s New Critical aesthetic is CIA funded, anti-communist in intention. And a sort of implied, well if the CIA funded Iowa, then finally the resistant politics of my experimental formalism are confirmed.
And yet, the history shows otherwise. Greg Barnhisel, writing about modernism in "Perspectives USA and the Cultural Cold War: Modernism in the Service of the State," notices how James Laughlin worked with the CIA and the USIA and the State Department to make modernism part of US imperialist soft diplomacy: "In other words, Laughlin sought to 'corner [the] free market' of ideas about modernism in a way that made modernism useful to the coalition of business, foundations, universities, and the state in the service of their larger politico-cultural objective: creating a cross-cultural alliance of writers, artists, and intellectuals who would discard their disdain of the U.S. and join with the Americans in opposing the Soviet threat." This story continues even into the contemporary. We’ve been interested in how many artists we respect have been willing to work with the state in the name of soft diplomacy in recent years. We first started noticing this when shortly after 9/11 the State Department hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent adwoman often associated with J. Walter Thompson Co, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Among Beers's projects was the publication of an essay collection to be distributed by US embassies called Writers on America. The publication is an unusual example of old-fashioned, government-sponsored literary propaganda. It could not be distributed within the US because of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids domestic distribution by the State Department of propaganda materials intended for foreign audiences. Writers on America features fifteen American writers--among them are the expected, Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, and the less expected, such as Robert Creeley--writing about and celebrating being an American. With obvious nationalism, the writers featured in promote US freedoms. Much of the work omits the negative role that the US government plays in the lives of its citizens and does not reference the hugely detrimental impact that the US government has had on the lives of citizens of other nations. The publication is, of course, fairly multicultural and features many immigrant-identified writers writing about the advantages they have received from being included within the US nation-building project.
The Bush administration seemed to be interested in a fairly narrow aesthetic. Steve Evans notices a version of this in "Free (Market) Verse" and he calls his version by the tag name Poets for Bush, a group that comes into formation, he argues, after 9/11. "Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser," Evans writes, "Karl Rove's battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world." But in recent years we have noticed a more multicultural and diverse aesthetic being embraced by the US government; this is an Obama legacy. Among those who have read recently in the “Reading Abroad: American Writers on Tour,” a series of State Department funded literary tours are Eleni Sikelianos in Cambodia and Vietnam; Annie Finch and Laird Hunt in the Congo; Bob Holman and Ram Devineni in Nepal, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan; Major Jackson in Kenya; Katie Ford in Tunis, Morocco, and Sarajevo; Eliot Weinberger in Tunisia, Morocco, and Kenya; Olena Kalytiak Davis in the Middle East; Joyelle McSweeney, Matt Hart, Amanda Nadelberg, and Shin Yu Pai in China; Terrance Hayes and Matthew Zapruder in Russia; Alison Deming and Cornelius Eady in Brazil. Ilya Kaminsky, Charles Simic, Cole Swensen, and Weinberger serve on the advisory committee of the State Department’s International Writing Program. Poets have been reading willingly at the Obama White House (notable after Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” protest in 2003). In 2011 Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann, Jill Scott, and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers all read. Do we need to note that in 2011 the wars with both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp — the reasons that provoked Hamill’s protest — were still ongoing concerns?
Whether cultural diplomacy is effective or not is anyone’s guess. Edward Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, while calling nationalism a "mixed blessing" for humanism (he is, of course, attentive to the role that nationalist literature has played in Palestine), also notes how dramatically "Cold War concerns" have shaped the field of literary study: "This is not to say that everyone who worked in these fields was in the pay of the CIA, but it is to say that an underlying consensus about knowledge began to emerge that was scarcely visible then but has, retrospectively, become increasingly evident.” And it can also be said with confidence that the State Department in its publications is fairly clear about the goals of this sort of programming. The US Department of State’s Paper of the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy equates US “cultural riches” as the equivalent of military action in the war on terror: “History may record that American’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror.” The State Department’s rhetoric does make clear that agreeing to read for the State Department is an agreement to become part of the US war machine, to be willing to be the public face and representative of US policies. In this context, to read for the State Department has a different valence than to accept a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Cultural diplomacy will, the publication notes, counter the negative perception of the US “in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the controversy over the handling of the detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay.”
So what does any of this mean? We do not know. We’re trying to tell a history, not outline a program. We do not have a five point plan. We are not purists. We are fairly sure we got some State Department money when we taught a writers workshop in Tijuana a few years ago because the check that paid us came from the US Department of Energy.
We here at Commune Editions are probably much more skeptical about the efficiency of cultural riches than the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy. The most we can agree on is that poetry might be a barking dog. We might be interested in the state’s interest in literature because it challenges some of our insistence that literature is at best beside political antagonisms, not a meaningful provoker of them. We are for sure interested in how optimistic the State Department seems to be. Do they know something we don’t?
It might be that the most we can say is something snide. Like we are fairly convinced that the red baiting that seems to crop up so regularly in poetryland is part of this CIA tradition. And we really hope that at least some parts of poetryland are billing the State Department for their service. We hope, for instance, that the organizer of the AWP panel Goodbye, Lenin: Poets Write the Cold War and Its Aftermath in which poets are going to explore “what it means to have witnessed firsthand the traumas of Communism and to have watched as the region made its delicate transition to democracy” at least got their travel expenses covered.
Evie Shockley’s first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 is the first of five we will publish in this second set of short essays in the new series. We will soon add first readings of Philip by Arlene Keizer, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Kathy Lou Schultz, among others. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
If I remember correctly, my first first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! was a listening. In that I was lucky, because Philip is a beautiful reader of her own work, reciting in a quiet, steady voice that makes even the harshest, most guttural sounds in the English language (“l/anguish”) sound comforting — and also because hearing parts of Zong! read aloud gives one assurance that it can be read on the page. Introduced by Tonya Foster, one of the curators of the Segue reading series at that time, Philip took the stage in the darkened performance space of the Bowery Poetry Club and led us into a particularly dark (or Enlightened?) moment of world history. Listening has often provided me a powerful entry point into works that I might otherwise have floundered around in for a while.
For works like Philip’s that have a strong conceptual or procedural component, I often also begin by reading an artist statement or interview — some authorial discussion of what is at stake and why s/he has gone about creating the poem in an unconventional and perhaps opaque fashion. Is this cheating? There are those who argue that a poem should be able to stand on its own, without paratextual accoutrements. I’d argue that a reader should say thank you politely when offered a hand getting into a complex, nuanced poem of this sort. Philip’s “Notanda,” a “making of” essay on Zong! (included in the book), is great gift. From it we learn what the Zong was (a slaveship), where it was going in 1781 (Jamaica), and why it stands out among the many, many, many slaveships and voyages involved in the transatlantic slave trade over a few hundred years (because of a calculated shipboard massacre masquerading as insurance fraud).
By the time I arrive at the page where Zong! #6 is inscribed, in other words, I’m not reading blind. I know the language of this poem was once (still is) the language of a legal decision, in which trial and appellate court justices in England were able to consider the merits of an insurance claim for the loss of property — 140 African people, deliberately thrown overboard to prevent them from dying of dehydration at their owner’s expense — without considering it, even potentially, as murder. The decision is being made to tell on itself. The story of those massacred (and those remaining enslaved) is being offered a space in which to tell itself.
I see the circularity of the language as it is laid out on the page (particularly in the book, where the phrases “and calm” and “— from the maps” are farther to the right than the version available online). Though the linear reading is the one Philip gives, we can take note of the way legal reasoning — with its supposedly logical “therefores,” its agentless “it is saids,” its firmly delimited “the evidences” and “the maps” — chases its own tail until, dizzy, exhausted, it spins us out on a would-be new trajectory (with the last three lines, the O becomes a Q) that is somehow exactly where we started (questioning, therefore, the age).
But we’re not exactly where we started. Though the phrase repeats, the lines break differently: “question therefore / the age” becomes “question / therefore / the age.” The first “therefore” hides behind, or huddles against, its “question”; it knows, if you will, that it is supposed to mark an inference based on foregoing information, but no information precedes it within this poem. In its second appearance, however, it stands solidly on its own line and on the evidence of contradictions. Similarly, the first occurrence of “the age” is undercut by the immediately following phrase: “eighteen weeks.” As a period of time, four and a half months (especially rendered in weeks) does not seem especially long. But we are told to question it: eighteen weeks of what? Eighteen weeks at sea, on board a sailing vessel, with winds that are ominously “calm.” That might indeed seem like an age. And the unqualified “age” that ends the poem feels much more expansive, feels like an era when people and documents lie about what it means to call Africans cargo and treat them as property — lie blatantly, in the face of contradictory evidence — a period, say, of a few hundred years …
And where is everybody? The I has gone missing. The other speakers are abstracted (“it is said”). The you is understood (“question / therefore”). The Africans are understated: “Zuka Tuwalole Urbi Femi Chuma.” Understated :: below deck. Underwritten :: the fine, fine print.
And that is how I do a first reading of this kind of poem. I gather up everything at hand that might be useful in a quick reconnoiter; I go into the poem with all my wits about me; and I tell myself stories about the language, listening closely for what sounds true.
Evie Shockley is the author of two books of poetry — most recently, the new black (Wesleyan) — and a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa). Currently serving as creative writing editor for Feminist Studies, Shockley is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Steve McLaughlin represented the Kelly Writers House on a committee steering the University of Pennsylvania through its “year of sound” (2013-14). Needless to say, sound is right down our audiophilic alley. Steve organized an event as part of the theme year at the Writers House — held on February 4, 2014 — and it featured experimental radio host and producer Benjamen Walker. Audio and video recordings of the full program are available, but today we are releasing a Kelly Writers House podcast, number 35 in the series, that offers a 15-minute excerpt of the hour-plus-long program. The excerpt was edited by Matt Bernstein.
Benjamen Walker's work has been heard on the BBC, NPR, and the CBC. His current podcast is called “The Theory of Everything” (a member of the brand new PRX podcast network RADIOTOPIA, toe.prx.org). He also hosted a program called “Too Much Information” on WFMU. He uses both fiction and nonfiction in his work and often interviews his friends as well as experts.
1997 was a relatively quiet time, between the first and second Intifadas, in Israel/Palestine (Wiki here): a period of sustained tensions but relatively few new acts of violence after the 1998 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with 1100 air strikes, Hezbollah counterattacks, and numerous civilian casualties, which led to the 1999 election of Ehud Barak and withdrawal of Israeli troups. In 1997 there had been three major suicide bombings in Israel, one at a centrally located cafe in Tel Aviv in March, and two in Jerusalem markets in July and September. These were the present politics in which the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, collective editors of the journal Poetics Today (published by Duke University Press), invited three Language writers (myself, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman); four American critics (Charles Altieri, Maria Damon, Jonathan Monroe, and Tyrus Miller), and a small but focused group of international scholars (including Mihhail Lotman, Koji Kawamoto, Toshiko Ellis, and Alison Mark) to present their work. Sponsors included the American narrative theorist Brian McHale and Israeli scholars Meir Sternberg, Tamar Yacobi, and Karen Alkalay-Gut. The conference was attended by faculty and students from Tel Aviv and other Israeli universities and, significantly, one scholar from a Palestinian university—who traveled to the conference via Cairo. By all measures a success, the conference led to much productive work, significant exchanges, and a two-volume feature in Poetics Today (20:4 and 21:1).
I want to put this event into the context of the present—not to retrospectively apply any form of current judgment, but to acknowledge that the political situation has changed dramatically. The ASA call for an academic boycott, and the BDS movement itself, comes after an acceleration of not just "tensions" but of sustained human rights violations that affect millions of lives, in the absence of any resolution to the fundamental questions of Israel/Palestine. Rather, we are aware of a constant background of resisted diplomacy; construction of settlements; housing demolitions; travel restrictions; and intolerable living conditions for the majority of Palestinians. But there is a second half to the political response to this ongoing, intractable situation, namely the use of an academic boycott of Israeli universites—and thus the breaking off of precisely the kind of scholarly contact and exchange that I participated in in 1997. I have argued, in the preceding post, that two forms of universal right involved here are not in conflict—human rights and academic freedom—and that the willing suspension of academic freedom as a political gesture of protest involves a faulty means-end rationale by the best account. The question then rises: what precisely is being given up when intellectual and cultural contacts, scholarly and creative exchanges, are sacrificed on political grounds?
To assess the value of the 1997 conference, one could simply look at conventional, professional measures, such as the quality of the work produced and its importance for the field(s)—namely poetics and avant-garde studies. The double of issue of Poetics Today is without doubt an outstanding collection of essays; its publication helped revive the theory to the avant-garde (arguably stalled since the general acceptance of Peter Bürger's historicist critique in The Theory of the Avant-Garde), and it placed new forms of experimental practice squarely at the center of this revision. I contributed a key chapter of The Constructivist Moment, on Language writing as an avant-garde social formation, which I wrote specifically to give at the conference. The conference also brought the formalist/structuralist methods of its founders, who invited Roman Jakobson to deliver a lecture at its founding in 1975, into contact with new movements who took language and the avant-garde as primary, but not simply as "the tradition of the avant-garde." There is a larger discussion to be had about the nature of "poetics" as a discipline and a zone of experiment now, but this event could be seen as a significant transitional moment from a formalist (and Eurocentric) paradigm to a reconfigured global poetics with a necessary component of the avant-garde. But even these critical frameworks are too restricted for coming to terms of the larger cultural politics of traveling to Israel/Palestine for an academic conference on avant-garde poetics, between intifadas, in 1997. It is the minor details of that event that are of greater significance, in both positive and negative terms.
The first minor detail was what it meant for scholars (not to mention avant-garde poets) to travel to Israel at that time (and how that compares to restrictions on travel that are the subject of the MLA's recent resolution). I booked a flight that changed planes at Amsterdam, from Northwest to El Al, and that was the first wake-up call. Alone in an underground room with three Israeli security officers, I was grilled about the conference, asked about my paper, and told to rehearse its argument. I had to produce a copy of the paper to back up what I said, I recall. Once on El Al I had my first, revisionist, take on what the state of Israel might mean: I found myself in an ethnically homogenous group of Israeli citizens, not an international flight; if felt as if I had already arrived in its territory. There was something markedly populist about this group—they were the people, not business travelers, not the elite—and this registered in turn the socialist as well as Zionist aspects of the state. Meanwhile, a welcome message began playing on the TV screen—in fact, a propaganda clip in mourning for the assassinated premier, Yitzak Rabin, who was seen by many as the last hope for a negotiated and peaceful solution. I have always found the definition of collectivity as an act of permanent mourning to be deeply suspicious, and Rabin was portrayed as only the last of many sacrifices. It was the relation of the politics of mourning to the homogenous passengers that gave me my first insight into where I was going. On arriving, I remember finding the Tel Aviv airport to be remarkably small, cluttered, inconvenient, and tense. One's first impulse was to get out of that place, which I did—arriving shortly at the concrete block beach hotel, on the corner of Max Nordau Street, that would be our residence over the next week. I like being in the "zone"—defining a zone as a territory that is both removed from and continuous with everything else—and this was, a bit ominously, one of them.
[In the next post, I will continue on the politics and poetics of the conference, and further travels in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem that were as much a part of the event as its academic content. In reading back from the present moment, and the politics of academic boycotts, I will want to assess the ethics of the conference itself—again both positive and negative—but also the loss of knowledge that would result from foregoing such an experience.]