Let me set the scene. Getting to MLA was difficult, involving two attempts at traversing Michigan, one blocked by light snow over black ice, obscuring the lanes, and the other hindered by a hundred miles of freezing fog. But what could be better than the entry to the conference hotel after that? The first person one sees is an augury — it was Jonathan Eburne, energetic promoter of surrealism and the avant-garde. Next, in the lobby, was David Lloyd, intent on networking for the policy discussion on travel to Palestine (see forthcoming post on the BDS campaign). Whatever it was that drew me here, now is the moment and this is MLA. And there were sessions, disappointing to be sure in many instances but confirming in others; the book display, with major presses like UC, UPNE, and New Directions not attending; the Pavlovian wine and cheese at 5 in the book display, leading to the perennial overflowing hotel bar, overlooking ice breaking on the Chicago River. A lecture on utopia might be going on right down the corridor, followed by sustained applause through folding partitions. Nods to putative adversaries, for whom one bears no ill will, coming out of the men's room; blowing off a former chair—twice!—in the food court at Nordstrom's next door. Such stuff we are made of! In the spirit of a ludic MLA, I present my fantasy from some years ago:
Dream of a post-Soviet MLA. There is a session
I simply must attend. The MLA bureaucracy will
attempt to undertake an act of self-criticism.
Only, of course, it will be undertaken as a report
of someone else's act of self-criticism in order to
make it historical. J. Hillis Miller reports: the
post-Soviet bureaucracy has undertaken an act
of symbolic self-criticism. The motorcycle of
official government vehicles has stalled. A round-
ed, apricot-colored limosine will not proceed in
the customary direction any longer. It is stalled
now, for a very long time. This is an act of self-
criticism. Now it is turning slowly, away from the
line of cars in the motorcade, alone, toward an
unknowable destination. Ellipsis. J. Hillis Miller
reports on the new line of post-Soviet thinking in
literature. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye
will be read. Its counternarrative everywhere
destabilizes dominant values, or the values of
dominance, in intense but fruitful moments of
private anguish. The horizon of the future is now
opened by . . . or will be opened anew by . . I have
been wanting to hear this report it seems like
forever. I tell Ron Silliman he must come too, but
he refuses. "You can't trust this new claim to a
regulative counter-perspective." "But, Ron, this
report is not some mere impressionistic word
salad, you know, like when we went to Lenin-
grad. It's backed up by hard scientific evidence,
as well as the gleam of what I'm going to say in
my paper. The stalled motorcade really is a new
direction in institutional history. And the post-
Soviet bureaucracy has proposed to canonize a
new work. Ron is skeptical, undermining. He
wants to bust open my party with J. Hillis Miller,
won't read The Scarlet Letter, doesn't want to
hear about the stalled post-Soviet motorcade.
Why is he being so antagonistic, anyway? What
good will it do him?
I am not sure when I wrote the above poem, but I know I read it at one of many offsite readings I have participated in at MLA. This was, it turns out, the one where X— dove across a grand piano and cut Y—'s necktie with a pair of scissors. For that reason, there is probably no memory of my having read this poem, though it got a laugh. This action was, I thought then and still believe, a terrible violation of personal space in the name of—what? An attack on the institutions of poetry? A restaging of the avant-garde as belated and useless? A product of the marriage of convenience of art and power? Likely a bit of the latter, pointing out and criticizing the continuing fantasy of the union of two kinds of literary value—collective and institutional—with the boom-and-bust of the academic market, and its totalizing anxieties, as backdrop.
Now back from MLA, I can submit my report on the state of collective fantasy. Again I participated in an offsite reading ("The Vulnerable Rumble," organized by Laura Goldstein, Jennifer Karmin, Laura Mullen at Outer Space Studios, sponsored by the Red Rover Series). As a site of collective fantasy, the state of poetry is good: some twenty performers were given a minimal set of instructions on how to stage a two-hour collaborative performance, with no rehearsal and much trepidation, and it worked. What was really impressive was the montagelike sequence of entrances, interruptions, dissociations, and exits that framed each individual, or group, routine (the vaudeville element was marked). Twenty poets and an audience of a hundred or more made this possible by really listening to the cues, ironies, and gaps of the performance; poetic content was produced, as it were, out of airy nothing.
My interventions were these: one a staged duo with Lyn Hejinian, where she read a page of poetry loudly and with dramatic emphasis, while I mumbled a paragraph on Amiri Baraka (here), while sitting on the floor next to Lyn. Having done with that, I rose to present a mini-essay on David Letterman's segment Is This Anything? (here), which I hoped would be used as a question to be asked of the performance as a whole. Later, and after a lot of great performances that truly were something, I felt moved to break into song ("Beyond the Horizon," by Bob Dylan), followed by an attempt to narrate my meeting Dylan as a sixteen-year-old, all those many years ago (here). The generational politics of this proved to be too much for several performers; two surrounded me physically and one attacked me verbally, right in my ear, with some high-pitched noise that did, in fact, shut me up for a second.
It felt great to be attacked in public in such a productive way! There were many such bright moments—Jonathan Stalling trying to insert Chinese tonal poetry into the mix but never managing to do so; John Keene declaiming Baraka's "I am inside someone who hates me" against Carla Harryman's reading of Dutchman; Alan Golding's preemptive strike on Rob Halpern's Music for Porn, with Halpern reclaiming it; Ronaldo Wilson's masked drag and electronic noise clips; some awesome stand-up comedy on interracial sex; and a number of impromptu duos and trios. The spirit of Baraka was invoked in the process, and (but?) the result was as good a collaboration between black and white performers as I have witnessed. Something must be going right in Chicago for this to happen, but it wasn't MLA. (On MLA, I do have more to discuss of a serious nature—but for now, you're listening to my dial tone.)
"MLA Dream," copyright (c) 2014 Barrett Watten.
Photo credit: Jennifer Scappetone.