Alternative poetries and alternative pedagogies
Joan Retallack, Kelly Writers House, 2001
Editorial note: The following is an edited transcript of a discussion about the pedagogical future of experimental poetics that took place at the Kelly Writers House on February 28, 2001. The discussion opened with an introduction by Al Filreis and an extended reading from poet Joan Retallack, which included her “Memnoir,” excerpts from Errata 5uite, and “Here’s Looking at You, Francis Bacon,” and Gertrude Stein’s “What Is This?” In the portion of the discussion transcribed and presented below, Retallack and others (including Bob Perelman, Eli Goldblatt, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Jena Osman) tackle a number of concerns that had been raised at a four-day symposium convened by Retallack and sponsored by the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking. Central to the focus of the symposium, titled Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, were questions about the merits and means of teaching experimental writing. With Filreis moderating questions from the room, the internet, and several phone lines, this early multimedia Writers House event was Retallack’s (self-described) first experience “casting words into the Web.” This discussion was transcribed for Jacket2 by Michael Nardone and lightly edited for readability; the original recording can be found here. — Kenna O’Rourke
Kerry Sherin: Thank you, Joan Retallack. Thanks, everyone. I’m Kerry Sherin. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the director of the Writers House. As Al said before, I’m just going to provide a brief transition into a conversation that we’ll be having in the room and also over the internet.
So, first, I just want to say again thank you so much for being here. It’s really a pleasure, and thanks for reading your pieces, too. It’s exciting to think of that conversation as an ongoing one. I have a few notes here about the prompt that led to this program tonight. First of all, we were really eager to have Joan come back and read her work, and also many people from the Writers House had participated in a symposium that Joan had organized at Bard College at the Institute for Writing and Thinking, that was held in June of 1999. So, I can see some people here who participated in that symposium, and there are people over the webcast, but for those people who weren’t there, I thought that maybe I could take a little bit of time, at the risk of being too descriptive, actually, and talk a little about some of the topics that came up. The Bard symposium gathered participants into a conversation, a three-day conversation actually, about poetry and pedagogy. And, as you can imagine, this is a topic of particularly urgent interest to many of the writers who were at the symposium. It was really a symposium that was primarily a gathering of people who were interested in experimental writing. The people who came together were writers who were working in these modes in this admittedly fuzzy category, many of whom are now senior faculty and teachers themselves, and there were also lots of people there who have been schooled on contemporary writing, and offered just observation of conventional education to question the various economies and outcomes of institutionalized learning. So I think people were coming together to really try and figure out how does experimental poetry get taught, how can it be taught, and why, why should it be taught.
Some of the questions and issues that were raised at Bard seemed particularly appropriate tonight after listening to Joan read. We talked a lot about purpose and tactics and about the relationship between the kind of experiment or technique in teaching undertaken, and the results that come from that. We talked about how text gets selected, and how teaching can reflect not just intention but chance. We also talked about the context — the social, literary, and historical contexts — in which texts are written, and into which texts and students are placed. And we talked about the possibility of a kind of teaching that understands the reader as writer, and the writer as reader. And also the centrality of gender, race, and class as lived and as constructed, and how those issues relate to the reading and writing and especially the teaching of writing. And we also talked, as always, about what might happen next. So, I guess, this is what might happen next.
Tonight, we’re hoping to continue this conversation after listening to Joan Retallack’s work, which I realize is actually a manual in the question of how to teach experimental writing and how to read. I just want to quote a section from Joan Retallack’s piece “The Woman in the Chinese Room: A Prospective”:
In this story to describe roundness you may have to think about a square you may have to retreat from decorum or just spell it out phonetically you may have to find an Oriental Jesus with a vertical smile you may have to calculate the rectilinear coordinates of a blue duskless mountain with the distance of a female Faust.
I just want to say again, thank you for letting us take advantage of your presence by returning to the subject of the symposium, and start with a question. We’re going to move the podium out of the way, and I’m just going to sit up here. And Al has a microphone, so if you have a question, just raise your hand and Al will come and find you. And we’ll be taking questions over the internet.
So, to sort of open up the question about poetry, pedagogy, how do we teach experimental writing, and maybe, more polemically, in the way we put it tonight, is it better to teach experimental writing in an experimental way?
And I think the first question that I’m going to ask Joan is just how important is it, in your view, to contextualize for and with your students the texts in contemporary writing that you teach? So, in what ways do you try and provide some sort of context, and what constitutes the idea of context for you?
And before you answer, I’m going to move this back so we can get started.
Al Filreis: So, what we have are three microphones, okay. One of them is here and will stay there for the few people up front. I’ve got one that moves around, and we’ve got what we call the town meeting microphone, which is for people who can’t get to this or that, and would like to just walk up and ask a question or make a comment. And we’ve got thirty-five people out there, and there are two ways for them to interact with us by asking a question. One is to send a message to the following email address: email@example.com. And I think Heather already told those folks how to do that. They can also phone us at 215-573-9753.
And you [addressing the audience], if you have cell phones, and if you have a problem reaching me, you can call in, and actually it might be easier. 215-573-9753, and I hope you will call. There’s some good friends out there, including some people who were at the Bard symposium. So, Joan had some time to think about the questions, Kerry’s up there, and I’ll be looking for some people who want to make comments and questions as well. So, Joan, thank you again.
Joan Retallack: Despite the fact that I’ve had time to think about the question, I will answer it in the following way. I think, most importantly, any contemporary innovative or experimental poetry is, in the way Gertrude Stein talked about new forms of writing in her 1926 essay “Composition as Explanation,” is actually composing our contemporariness. It is, in fact, a poetry that is both coterminous with its context, and in the act of remaking, or reforming that context.
Now this may seem to beg the question, if by the question is meant things like how much should we know about the biography of the author, the location of the author, the connections with prior traditions or contemporary movements, et cetera. But I don’t think it does beg that question, because I just presume the answer to that question is, of course one should know as much as one can. It’s all of interest. But the context in that sense, the sense of facts that we know about, say, the biography of the writer, is never a substitute for an experience of the poem as itself the form of life that we are entering as reader, as contemporaneous ourselves, and are thereby continuing its making of, or forming of the contemporary through our engagement with it. I really feel that everyone who loves poetry and writes poetry should know a lot about many things and should be a curious person excited about history, excited about science, excited about theories of mathematics, all of the things that have converged to make our contemporary moment. And where these converging lines, or where the Venn diagrams seem to indicate limits of what needs to be known about a particular poem will, I think, vary according to the context in which it is taught, and the purposes for which it’s being taught.
Filreis: Does anybody want to respond?
Jennifer Snead: I have a question.
Filreis: Jennifer wants to respond. […]
Snead: In the very beginning of your reading, you prefaced it by saying, well all in the same breath you had the words experimental, innovative, avant-garde, and difficult all together. And then we’ve added on now contemporary to that kind of list, right, or those things that have all gotten, sort of, equated. I guess going along with Kerry’s question about contextualization and in terms of teaching poetry, what makes the experimental innovative avant-garde contemporary poem difficult, and is it a different sort of difficulty from, how would we say, what’s the opposite of that? Traditional, nonexperimental. I mean, I’m just curious is the nature of the difficulty, does that lie in this poetry as being coterminous with its context in a way that perhaps a poem by Swift taught in a twenty-first-century classroom would not be? Is that wherein the difficulty lies?
Filreis: Joan, I know you want to answer this, but I’m gonna do my moderator thing of asking you, indeed, if you have an answer to answer it, but inviting people to speak collectively so that this isn’t just a Q&A — so, you, Joan might want to start us off with a response, but I’m sure there are other people in the room who would like to respond as well. So, Joan, I invite you, certainly —
Retallack: And I’m very curious about other responses, too. I suppose I would want to say almost all poetry I would call truly contemporary is difficult, but not all difficult poetry is contemporary. I also want to say that I don’t mean that string of adjectives as an equation. I mention it as a range of ways in which contemporary poetry has been described. I think the contemporary is difficult. The contemporary moment is difficult. It’s been difficult for every contemporary throughout history because it has so much that is unprecedented, that we don’t know how to respond to. And our habitus, as Pierre Bourdieu puts it, is designed in and for other (earlier) times. Our ways of thinking, our forms of understanding, are always slipping out of date on some level. Many things remain useful for parts of the contemporary, but not all of the contemporary. There’s always, I think, a bad fit between what is new and what has changed — ischanging rapidly now — because we’re all experiencing, have been for most of a century, a radically accelerating, radically changing contemporary. I mean, this is all obvious. This is what makes it, I think, a kind of poethical challenge to poets who foreground issues of form in their work, more than other sorts of writers. Issues of form are issues of composing the language you are living in the world in which you live. And I think that’s where it becomes difficult, both in the sense of being hard and challenging and being delightfully puzzling. I think beauty and difficulty are coterminous in work that’s really exciting.
Filreis: Any other responses to that, to that issue? Okay, Kathy Lou.
Kathy Lou Schultz: Well, that doesn’t seem to me particularly to be an issue of both form and a reading practice in that to move this question not so much, to move it a little bit away from, like, social context, but into use of language itself and reading expectation, but if you’re teaching a text that is unseating traditional expectations for narrative or unseating semantic expectations, that that requires that you teach a new reading practice. So, it’s about multiple reading practices and how you can invite students to enter into those different ways of reading.
Filreis: Heather Starr is taking questions and Louis Cabris, who is in Calgary, I think, has posed one. Do you want to read it? Go ahead, Heather, you have a mic.
Heather Starr: Yeah, there have actually been two questions that are somewhat overlapping. One’s from Louis Cabris who is watching in Canada, in Calgary. And the other one is from Fred Wah —
Filreis: Is he right there next to Louis?
Starr: Who’s also there in Canada.
Filreis: They are probably watching together. Hi guys!
Starr: I don’t think they are, I don’t think they are, but they are thinking along the same lines. So I’m going to read both their questions, actually. Louis writes: it would seem to me that the idea of teaching experimental poetry in an experimental way might default to the idea that the student is in a creative writing class. But what if the student is not in a creative writing class? How can one teach poetry in an experimental way and not assume that the student is a creative writer, in other words, that the student has a special identification with writing as a creative act?
And along very similar lines are Fred’s questions, which are: is teaching about formally innovative writing different than teaching how and why one might make formally innovative writing? And then: should the reader of it do something different than the writer of it?
Filreis: I wonder if it might be good to appeal to those of us who are teaching difficult poetry in unusual ways to hear about some practices. We did this at Bard and it was very successful. I’ll start by saying, and there’s some students, probably about fifteen people, more or less, who have taken my modern contemporary poetry course in one form or another, and who know that when we get to very recent material including Joan’s and Bob’s, Rachel’s and Jena’s and others, we try to do in this very room experimental things, by taking on unusual positions, by having a kind of chance operation in the room to create, forgive me, not anything we would call a poem, but some sort of accidental collaboration that would produce a critical result that would be a little more random, a little more interesting, and I think — I’m not begging for my students to say this — but I think, at least, a little more exciting and more relevant to the work that we’re studying. And this is, in part, a rejoinder to Jennifer, who doesn’t have a mic and can’t respond. Are there other, others who either teach in a way that’s suggested by Louis’s and Fred’s question, or people who actually, through their pedagogy, would take exception to that assumption? Others who would like to speak about this? We have some very experienced teachers here.
Bob’s half wanting to say something, and that will give Joan some time to think about how she wants to say something.
Bob Perelman: I don’t know, a line from a James Cotton song keeps, is intruding into what I am trying to compose: don’t start me talking. No, it’s a tremendously complicated perspective, and Joan and I have a kind of long and sort of loving kind of fencing match that we’ve been conducting on these issues. I’m always, I’m somehow cathected to the non-creative-writing student, to the broad, crude social situation of the classroom with all of its possible rewards but that are separated out by graded achievement that is the triage of institutional classrooms. All of that’s hard to escape and difficult to imagine ways out of. On the other hand, Joan’s vision and practice, the manuals that she does, the way she presents, the way you present this work is very exemplary and really does what, I think, any teaching needs to do, which is inspire, invigorate, enthuse, and cause one to say yeah right, you know, identify what opens, what you are proposing.
So, I’m just thinking, though, about teaching a couple of hours ago, teaching Tender Buttons in a crowded syllabus to an undergraduate class where the students more or less did not identify themselves as creative writers. The feeling was, at least that I’m getting from this, is that a lot of contextualizing, modeling of readings, the more that I could do, the better it would be, the better it would be for Tender Buttons, for Gertrude Stein, for them, they would like it more. And what happened, given the logistics, was that I had allocated, you know, in dystopian fashion, one class for Tender Buttons, which, you know, help. Yes and no. And so, I certainly tried to get the kids to, you know, I first taught, was finding out where they were coming from, and basically they found it very, very difficult and so I tried to model as briskly and uncoercively as possible, as many reading strategies having to do with erotics, cubism, semantic openness in various ways. … I think it did some good, but the distance between that very recent experience and some of the assumptions in this discussion is a perpetually difficult and painful one. And I just think that, I don’t mean to be the bearer of the harsh, cold, you know, unpoetic social habitus, but I think we have to be somehow, keep the social logistics in line, always, and be aware that, I guess, let me just, okay, I’ll shut up now with this question: who, there may be more than one type of student in our classroom, there maybe the identifying enthusiastic student, and there are other students, and how do we not create any kind of cult-like or initiatory set-up where there’s people who get it, and then there’s people who are excluded? So, that’s my question.
Filreis: I know that Joan wants to talk, and Jena as well. Joan?
Retallack: I’ll try to be very brief. My sense is that the traditional dilemma of the academic that you have just articulated is precisely the one that does set up a kind of cult status of those who get it in contrast to those who don’t, reflected in grades, reflected in special knowledge that is removed from the experience of the texture of the language, the sensuality of language. About your example, Tender Buttons, I just want to say that I’m in a happy situation right now because I have just decided to structure all of my classes as seminar-workshop hybrids: “practice-based seminars.” I do not teach workshops. I do not teach seminars. I teach hybrids. They are all about writing and reading, and reading and writing and, actually, making other kinds of art. They are offered in the Integrated Arts program at Bard. I think that a course at Penn can be offered that way by having — whatever the kind of class — by having workshop-seminar discussion groups in which students are given a chance to enact, play with the work, with their voices, with performative approaches, and especially with writing. I really feel the notion of creative writers as different species just has to be abolished. Everyone who is in any of our classes can write, and can write in response, and can be invited into doing writing that is surprising to themselves in relation to texts that surprise them.
Jena Osman: My comment is related to both. It’s a Tender Buttons story, in that last year I was teaching a two-hundred-level class and we spent a day on Tender Buttons, and I had used some of the strategies which I’ve learned through the learning and thinking, that’s what it’s called, L and T —
Retallack: Language and Thinking.
Osman: Language and Thinking. Nobody, everybody says something different. The institute. And I had started off, it was a survey to modern poetry, and I had started off by kind of doing the experiments with poems that we were reading in the course. By the time we got to Stein’s, students were actually doing, they were leading the discussions themselves and the woman who was presenting Tender Buttons, she had in her preparation, she had realized that many of the words in the tender button she was presenting to us, when she looked them up in the dictionary, she realized that there were five or six different definitions for every word in the poem she was looking at, and she decided that what she was going to do was write definitions on three-by-five cards for every word and then she passed out the three-by-five cards and we reread the poem translating the words into the definition. And what she discovered, and the whole class discovered, was that there was this kind of subtextual narrative that was going on in a seemingly non-narrative poem. I don’t think any of the students came to the conclusion that oh this is the right answer, there’s just this hidden story that we had to find, but instead, I think, they realized that language is something you can really just sink your teeth into, and just really get involved in. Whereas many of the students enter the classroom feeling that they had no access, because of this experiment that a student had come up with, they all left feeling like it was an eminently accessible poem. So, I think that these experiments are so good for that, and I was wondering if maybe Joan or other people could mention other examples where difficult texts were ...
Sherin: I hope you don’t mind if I jump in actually, I wanted to respond to that and maybe and also respond to things both of you have said. Thinking, before this program got started, about conversations I’ve had in the past couple of days with students at the Writers House, we were talking about writing in class and the whole notion of taking notes while someone’s speaking, and I noticed lots of people in here have notebooks and pens out, and there’s sort of this notion that you are furtively scribbling your truest thoughts while the other person’s talking, it’s a little illegal, a little illicit, and in fact one of the things that I’ve learned from, well, from being at Bard, and also from talking to Jena actually, is that there are plenty of ways a teacher can encourage her students to do that kind of writing back to the conversation, and writing over the text, and writing into them. So, I guess in response to what you just said, Jena, I was just thinking of something you and I had talked about: take a text that another student has written, even in a creative writing class, and have everyone in the class write into it so that there’s this constant reminder that that’s actually what we’re participating in is this ongoing, fairly involved, complicated program in writing that happens. And to just remind people that this is happening constantly. And I think I got that straight from the Institute for Everything. I can never remember. And I know there are other — I’m thinking, you, Jen, have taught me a couple of other strategies, too, and maybe I learned them at the Bard symposium, things where you can have people read text, as you have the audience read your text in sort of different ways to try and get at what’s happening there. But I think one of the tricks is to not feel yourself as the instructor drawn towards the notion that there is a right answer. Or that you’re hoping to get them somewhere. And that can run counter to your own instinct as a reader sometimes. You really feel that there is a place to go. Anyway, I just want to honor all the furtive scribbling, partly.
Filreis: Eli. To Rachel. Rachel, and then Eli.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: I didn’t know whether this is a third position. Also, teaching at Temple University as Jena does and as Eli, who is about to speak, it’s kind of a semiotics position, by which I mean that students I’m talking about, undergraduate students, that I think I’m talking about people who perhaps come into a contemporary poetry course, not a writing course, I mean, it’s not a creative writing course, I usually don’t move around technology, which is a complicated thing to do because it has some lacunae and some misprints, right. Students know how to read a lot of things. They just mostly often don’t know how to read the kinds of things that we give them in this kind of class. If you look around, I would bet that any undergraduate student here could give you an incredible read-out on how people look, the semiotics of their clothes, just even their sneakers, for example. A kid would say don’t buy those sneakers, and you don’t know why they are saying that because to you they all look alike. So, what I am talking about is making very subtle distinctions that are reading distinctions, that have to do with convention and genre that people really know already. That is, people always already know something about these issues. They also know, to some degree, something about convention and genre, although they may not be knowing that about poetic texts.
So, there is a strategy that could start with description, very simple, that might lead to a greater understanding of convention and genre, and, sort of, semiotics of reading a poetic text that would simply ask a person not to thematize as soon as they saw something, but just to describe it. Like, anything: this is five-line stanzas, something that already, you know, you could count to five, but you might not even know the word stanza, or some people use the word paragraph. You know, very, very straightforward, simple things, because people who don’t yet know how to read those texts don’t have a lot of language for doing it, but when you describe, you have to make up some sort of language for doing it. And soon you get into, very fast, you get into what they call the semiotics of poetic convention via this tactic. And it does build, you know, you can build vocabularies that way. At the same time, you’re not, you’re looking at detail, you’re looking at the poetics of detail in a very close way, issues likes diction, discovery, various discoveries, like making little bumpy discoveries along the map, the terrain of the text. And I think that’s a position slightly between what Bob is describing, although the classroom situations may demand what Bob is saying, and what Joan has described.
Filreis: Thank you, Rachel. And more from Temple University: Eli Goldblatt.
Eli Goldblatt: Well, I feel what Bob feels: how do you get, don’t, don’t, Alice, don’t get me started, you know. You know there’s also the question of Penn and Temple, the differences between those two institutions and who sits in what classes and so on, that there is what I think about, and I want to open up the geography of writing a little further. The distinction you were making about that list of adjectives, alternative and avant-garde and so on, what I’m thinking is that there’s reception, and there’s production. And it happens in many kinds of classes, and many kinds of circumstances. But I’m also thinking of another distinction, which is unsettling and settling kinds of reading and writing. That is, there are kinds of reading that we both teach and encourage, which is reading that settles down the dust that’s in the air … there’s always stuff going on, I want to know how to put it together. So, we may read something that gives us a method for putting things together. But we also at other times read texts that unsettle, that is, that put the dust back in the air so that what we thought we knew, we no longer know in the same way. But the problem that students have when they walk into our classes is they’re never sure whether they should be unsettled or settled, and there’s also a real distinction between what faculty or instructors think what is settling or unsettling, and what students think. And that happens at both the reception, in the reception process, and the production process. So, I’m thinking, for instance, of freshman composition class, where what we’re trying to teach is how to take a lot of things that are floating in the air and settle them in some way that somebody else will be able to, so-called, follow. And then in the creative writing class, what we’re doing is, often, is saying take the things that you thought you knew, and unsettle them. Does that make sense?
Okay, so, I’m really just raising this as some way of looking at this. I don’t think there’s a, you know, we could develop tools out of that, but I think what I really want to say is that I’m very invested in not splitting off kinds of writing, even though there are times where we need to say, okay, today we’re going to try and settle things, and today we’re going to unsettle things. But that’s a dangerous thing. All I’m saying is that very often what happens is that creative writing — this is where, I agree with you Joan, about, the creative writers come over here and here we do a certain kind of magic which is, which has a certain privilege, and, as Bob is saying, tends to say these are people who know, and these are people who don’t know. And then we have other kinds of writing that [are] often stigmatized or felt to be kind of a simpler or less endowed in some way … and yet they really need to speak to each other in many ways. I don’t know if that helps.
Filreis: Thank you, Eli. Joan?
Retallack: Could I —
Retallack: I find very confusing those dichotomies. I’m sorry that I do, but I do, because everyone else seemed to understand them. The unsettling, settling, the production and reception, and, you know, I almost jumped in to ask that you say what you meant by those, but my sense is that you are engaged in the production of meaning when you are reading, which, I suppose, would normally be considered the reception area, and that you are, you know, you are always in a mode of reception with language, that it’s actually a conversation. I like a conversational model better than that kind of bifurcation.
So, I’m not sure. I have a feeling that people are often working within what they consider to be such timeworn, given constraints that there’s not a sense of the fact that the classroom doesn’t demand that we teach in a certain way. Was that Bob’s term? Here, we are in our friendly terrain. When we walk into a classroom, that classroom is not making demands on us. I mean, the room isn’t demanding anything. The students have expectations, that’s for certain. That’s like someone earlier said. A good deal of what can be difficult in reading work that isn’t familiar is that it is upsetting our expectations. But we come into that room with enough power to reshape expectations, and to reform it, literally. And that can really have to do with not colluding with those dichotomies, so that you’ve got the reading going on over here, the writing going on over there, and in the notion that you must have an initial remove from the new text, rather than entering into it with a voice. The first thing I do with poetry in a room with students is to read it aloud with them, to hear it in multiple voices, to get the sound-sense of it. That’s an active reforming of expectations, that we must first put it at a distance, and look at it with a microscope. So, I don’t mean to, I wish you were still at the microphone, because I may have misunderstood —
Filreis: It can happen.
Retallack: Those dichotomies.
Filreis: He is now.
Goldblatt: And I really wasn’t trying to set up a dichotomy that we fall in some kind of curricular way. I’m really thinking of a kind of moment-by-moment, provisional scan of what happens. I think that sometimes, sometimes there’s a great surprise in a classroom where you bring something and you think that this will kind of clarify something for students who are confused by something. In fact, it makes them much more uncomfortable. Sometimes you want to make them more comfortable, or make them uncomfortable and somebody says, oh, I get it now, so, and you mean this. That’s not literally what you mean, like, they become settled on it. I’m actually talking, actually speaking for, against certain bifurcation, which is the bifurcation between expository writing and creative writing, but that’s a very complicated geography.
Filreis: This is Chris Evans, who is a student. So we have our first student.
Chris Evans: Yeah, I took Al’s class on modern and contemporary American poetry last fall, and some of the things I found interesting about the course is that we were dealing with a lot of really contemporary, really experimental poetry, and we were dealing with it in an experimental classroom that was kind of a listserv-based classroom where, I guess, kind of, the boundaries between text and the conversation about text really by the end of the course started to coalesce, and it started to coalesce in a classroom that was at once in Puerto Rico and west Philadelphia and all over the world because there were students existing in all these different places. I can remember before I started the course I saw a lecture that Al gave on how the lecture is obsolete. It was a one-minute lecture. And it was a really good, I guess, precursor to finding that the rose is obsolete later on with Williams. And dealing with a lot of the nonreferential kind of non-narrative language we were dealing with, having the format where a lot of students who have never really dealt with this kind of language are dealing with it in a kind of conversation, a dialogue with the actual text. I mean, I think it’s the only way to really learn these modes.
Speaker: Hi, I’m not a teacher or a writer or a student, but I’m gonna talk about all of them. Actually, everyone’s talked a little about the dilemma in pedagogy within English, or within compositional writing, but there’s actually a larger kind of crisis in academia itself where there are all sorts of problems with how we construct disciplines. You know, I’m surprised a little because you talked in your kind of advice to the poets you actually kind of underscore the problem. I mean, you told everyone that to be a good poet you should also read in history and mathematics and science, but the bigger question is how do you get people who will read the mathematics and science to read poetry? Not only read it, [but] understand that it’s a part of their own education, their own lifelong learning. And it seems to me to underscore a crisis in academia that no one really considers finding a way to have people who are on one hand coming to go through university nearly for a vocational training to realize how important humanities, and specifically poetry, can be to their learning. So, that’s something maybe more important or more radical to think about than just maybe what we do in our classrooms.
Retallack: I agree with that. The Language and Thinking program — whatever that may be that we do at Bard in the summer — is a program for all incoming first-year students and is designed to be a kind of microcosm, with an anthology we put together, including all the liberal arts and sciences; the humanities, math and science, poetry and visual arts, in order to foster conversations between the arts, including poetry, math, and science, and so on. The whole idea, really, is to get the few students who come to Bard primarily interested in math and science — there aren’t many — interested in poetry, and vice versa, for the conversation to be a complicated and rich one, and yes, as you say, going in multiple directions.
Filreis: That’s a great question. I’m going to take one from far away. It’s Alan Golding, who says hello to everyone here he knows from Louisville. Alan has two questions. I’m going to read the first one because it’s been talked around … [Phone rings.] That might be Alan actually. “I’d like to shift the discussion for a moment from experimental poetics as an object of pedagogy, i.e. that which is taught, to experimental poetics as itself a site or form of pedagogy. Can we think of experimental poetics as a form of teaching? And, if so, what does it teach and how does it do so? I’m especially interested in what you might have to say on how experimental poetics might enact a pedagogy through its forms.”
So, Alan is putting one out there, and I wonder if anybody has a response to that? I mean, I feel my response is affirmative, but I’d rather somebody else elaborate while I figure out who’s on the phone. Does anybody feel that Alan’s move makes sense? I wonder how Bob feels at this point, taking Tender Buttons not so much as itself the object of teaching, but as a teaching. And you can have the mic while you ponder, while I figure out who’s on the phone.
Perelman: Okay. It’s funny, but my first matter, to catch up with some prior things, I want to get out of the position of the pedagogue who does not believe in student writing and productivity, and would testify that yes, you know, I think that getting students to read the poems aloud, and certainly I’ve taught versions of courses where reading and writing are mixed, and I think that is the way to go, and I’m just wondering why I have this lingering need to keep underlining how the magnitude of what we’re attempting in our modeling of this linguistic and artistic openness, that it’s — what the society we are addressing with this wonderful, pleasurable power, utopian power is very big, and our address is still quite circumscribed. So that’s what I keep coming back to, that issue. But about the pedagogical nature of experimental writing, I mean that’s a, there’s many examples that come to mind that sort of tally with one another. There’s the tragic figure of Pound and what he wants to teach, and how, in some sense, he models a bit of what Joan is talking about, and in the other senses, of course, he doesn’t, and is very withholding and initiatory in ways that are very troubling.
I don’t think there’s a single answer to the question of the avant-garde and of pedagogy. And maybe just to turn this to Joan, as a kind of touch-pass from Alan’s question and then ask it to Joan, what is there, and it goes back to that first question of context, is there content that you teach or that is desirable to teach that isn’t simply a set toward inhabiting language in an open fashion and feeling that one is invited in, allowed to enter? Are there, to use, I guess, an architectural metaphor, are there rooms or libraries [that] once you get in, you then feel like need to be, that it would be good to get the students to go to? That’s a metaphorical way of asking that question about content of pedagogy, and of work that teaches content besides just a kind of formal openness, linguistic openness.
Retallack: Well, actually, I want to choose to respond more directly to Alan Golding’s question, which in fact had to do with form. I think the one thing that one can say about any of the poetries we use, any of those words I strung together earlier in relation to, is that they foreground issues of form, partly because they are operating in forms that are unfamiliar, and that, the unfamiliarity automatically foregrounds the fact that space on the page is not being used in the way it usually is. That words are not either. The typographies are different, sequences are odd — and this can be on the visual, graphic level, it can be on the syntactical and semantic level. So all these things become foregrounded in this unfamiliar poetry. What that means, if we are to spend time with it, to begin to have a conversation with it, is that we are going to have to reconfigure the geometry of our attention. The usual way the trajectory of our attention moves is left right left right across the page going down. Many of these poetries actually disrupt even that, the simplest geometry of reading. I think at the moment the geometry of our attention is in crisis, which has to do also with conversation. The word crisis means a turning. To converse means to turn toward another; in this context, the page. To constantly be turning toward. And so, we’re turning toward this text with our mind which it itself is cuing us to a different kind of geometry of our movement. And reading is movement. It is not just sitting catatonically, staring at a piece of paper. It is moving the eyes. It is moving the mind, and moving the body, as well. There’s a lot of work that’s being done now on the hyperactivity of the renaissance reader, the way people used to pace and engage in acts of marginalia. I think that forms of today’s innovative poetries, those forms are in a way scores (like notation in music) for realizing new geometries of attention. Or, perhaps it would be better at this point to talk about choreography scores. So, yes, I think the answer to Alan’s question is yes.
Filreis: Thank you Alan and Bob. And yes, I know we also have someone on the phone, and can you, this is Joan. Hello, Joan.
Joan Goodman: Hi, how are you? I gotta turn down my monitor because —
Filreis: Turn down your monitor because we’re on a bit of a delay now.
Goodman: Yeah, yeah.
Filreis: Joan? Joan was at the Bard symposium. Joan, you’re a teacher, aren’t you?
Goodman: Yes, well, I’m still in doctoral studies, but I’m teaching at State University at Albany.
Goodman: At New York.
Filreis: You were at the symposium. We met there, and what, what? You have a question, or can we ask you about the symposium, and what happened immediately afterwards? Maybe you should just go ahead and ask your question.
Goodman: Well, I had a comment that’s not exactly a question except that I’m really welcoming Joan to add some comments in terms of how the Bard symposium has spun off for her and what results have happened, and whether there have been specific experiments or teaching experiments that have developed at Bard or elsewhere. There was going to be an internet conversation that, I think, didn’t quite completely evolve. We didn’t end up having a list, but I wondered if there is a list that has finally been generated, and I’d like to join it.
But I wanted to just put in a comment that I was happy to hear what sounds like is evolving in this conversation at the moment toward movement, toward body movement, toward interaction with other than the more cerebral types because, I guess, what I was trying to quickly note down while I’m listening on this delay and trying to catch up with what’s been said, it seems to me the trick to encountering experimental poetry is, at least partly, to remain playful and to take play as somewhat even more literally in terms of games, to use games and other types of oblique means of kind of coming at the poetic space and triangulating the experience of reading the poem and coming at it full face, you know, trying to pull meaning and make meaning so significant and, you know, to try and pull that out of the poem is one thing, but to then to somehow play games or cross-pollinate that experience with movement and with production of not necessarily with the seriousness of asking your students to write a poem, but actually to make productions of sound and other things. I’m reminded in particular of how, Al, you and I were in that experimental session where —
Filreis: I remember it.
Goodman: — we had a joke narrative, and that was a wonderful play with the means of making poetry that I thought was very useful. So, I just wanted to put that in, and say that I’ve been using that experience in my classroom and making all kinds of efforts to be more than just conversing with the text, but also interacting in a playful way, and I’d like to hear what Joan wants to add.
Filreis: Joan, thank you for calling. You’re calling long-distance. You can actually hang up and then listen as it comes out over the webcast.
Filreis: Thanks for calling.
Goodman: Thanks very much.
Filreis: And Kerry is going to respond. Oh, you were —
Sherin: Have a separate question.
Filreis: You have a separate question. Joan did you want to respond to Joan?
Retallack: Well, I’m just delighted by what she said. I will say that the aftermath of the symposium at Bard is still unfolding. We did have a list. We got it up on the website probably a month or so after the symposium was over. Actually, a couple of months. That was unfortunate. We should have had something happen instantly — as would have happened had it been orchestrated by Al, who is so good at immediate technical, complex technical, responses to things. Though we’ve been putting together a book called Poetry and Pedagogy; The Challenge of the Contemporarythat comes directly out of that symposium and we are also planning to put up a major poetry and pedagogy website that will have to do with just these issues. And since Al is our numero uno consultant, I think this may happen.
Filreis: Thank you, Joan. That is an exciting prospect. And thank you again, Joan, for making that call. We have a question over here and then J. C.’s going to have one up here at this mic. Thank you.
Speaker: Hi. In following, I’d like to revisit the geography of Eli’s question. And I’ve been thinking about the different discourses that meet in the classroom and just as there are different ranges and offerings of writing, there are also different approaches to teaching approaches to criticism. I’m curious how you might speak and talk about how one might foster a critical discourse in the classroom that doesn’t turn these dynamic open texts into closed pictures of themselves almost?
Speaker: I guess it’s a question of aboutness, because it seems to me like so much of teaching, so much of criticism is aboutness, whereas that’s what’s rejected, or avoided.
Retallack: Well, I’m very interested in rethinking what we mean by criticism, of course. I think there are multiple models, obviously there are multiple models, one of which is the descriptive contextual analysis that is primarily one of aboutness. And the presumption with that model could be that you’re going to sort of finish off a poem by doing that with it, and that unit by unit. First, I’ll look at this poem, and I will say what I want to say about it, and then the next, then the next. I think there are other forms of discourse that are perhaps healthier, more robust, potentially more generative of subsequent desires to read. That kind of work happens within the form of the essay as an exploratory tool of the humanities, that is, the form in which thought-experiments can take place and radical kinds of conversation with text and context can take place. It would be hard right now to answer, and I think it would require too much length to approach this in detail, but one of the things I try to do within a semester in the courses I teach is to structure them as though the entire course were an essay we were writing together. At each point, I’m asking students in their writing to refer to things that we have been discussing, the things we have been reading, and to make work that has accompanying, ongoing textual exploration and conversation. I do that rather than using the more standard model of criticism, which almost always has to do with a certain degree of descriptive judgment, a kind of closing down. This, what I’m trying to do, is no less analytic in the sense of looking at detail, close readings and interactions, and juxtaposing things in very complex ways. I think it’s much more lively; keeping the reader in an exploration of the text rather than a closing down of the text.
Filreis: Thank you both.
J. C. has a question, and then we’re going to go to Solade in the front row.
J. C.: I have a question about putting the text in the mouth.
Retallack: I’m sorry?
J. C.: Putting the text in the mouth. For example, as you were reading and I was looking at the boxes, having book in hand, it was very clear that you were reading a sequential text, but I was reading an interrupted text. So, just using that as an example, Robert Hass has when we read, we take, by reading aloud, we actually enter the body of the writer. He can take this pretty far, but I’m just going to take it an inch, and say that there’s a way in which we either transgress against or ride the breath pattern. That act of transgression, to me, seems to be an extraordinary way in the classroom or in a reading circle to contextualize a text without having to actually talk a lot about social issues, about racial issues, or about where the text came from. You begin to see how the reader-student enacts the text in their own speech pattern, or speech pattern they’re presuming. And I wonder if there’s a way that you could respond to this particularly, the notion of transgression as important to any kind of contextualization.
Retallack: Transgression. As you were describing this, I was thinking of music and the term among composers and performers: realization. I mean, particularly with contemporary music that has indeterminacies built into the score there could be multiple realizations of any one score. So, if you think of the poem, and I feel it’s always possible to think of every poem as a score, and you’re trying to decide — what are the cues that one could build a realization out of? There will be multiple cues, just as there were different cues for the reader visually, just looking at the poem, than there are for the person who is speaking the poem. So, my question is why would any of these be transgressions rather than further, or other, realizations?
J. C.: Well, that’s a question in my own mind, too, and yet it seems that however plastic a text might be, that, as the writer is writing it, there’s a certain degree of plasticity that the writer might intend or come to understand as part of the writing, but then that takes on a completely different augmentation when it goes out to other readers. So it seems to me all that, once you enact the text, even in a non-intended way, will argue with that text.
Retallack: Well, I never presume to know the intentions of the writer. Even if the writer has told me what they were, I’m not sure. I am very happy to discover I didn’t know my own intentions when I was writing something or that they’re not shadowingthe piece. I think intentions have to do with the production, with the energy that went into making an object that then becomes a public object. The reader’s intentions perhaps become more powerful than the writer’s intentions at that point.
J. C.: Well, not having attended the institute, it’s really a great relief to me to hear you say that, because it’s not always been my experience that teaching knits to that.
Filreis: We’ll take a few more questions. Solade, then someone who has emailed in.
Solade Thorp: I’m not sure what exactly I have to say is a question because I don’t see my field of expertise, but what I know more about is physics, and so thinking about this, I don’t want to divide things into camps, but when I was thinking about what Bob was saying, and I just wondered, when you talk about contemporary poetry, per se, and you made the observation that the habitus and the ideas and the concepts that we’re dealing with are concepts basically from the past that we’ve mastered, so it seems even that contemporary experimental writing in some sense is not, is writing that even though it’s contemporary, that’s the main label, the name, or genre that it is, it is kind of not contemporaneous without understanding, so it might be that while these experimental pedagogies we think might be accessible to everyone, I’m just wondering, because if you read, like, Louis MacNeice talked about, he wanted the poet to be just like a man on the street, you know, who took part in everyday human activities, you mentioned something about a poet should know something about math and physics, and different theories. I’m just wondering because it seems to me that the contemporary or experimental poetry has to do with being more than the average person, and there’s no real such thing as the average person. So it seems it becomes really atomized and in a way to find an insertion, or in a way to, it’s like learning these different geometries as you were saying, and it’s not an easy thing to teach, geometry, let alone geometry of language. So, I’m just wondering is it, could it be that it might be too difficult for, that it might be as democratic a process as we would think, that it might be that, I can think maybe it was Wordsworth who said something that poets in their youth begin in gladness, whereas it ends in despondency and gladness, I mean madness —
Filreis: Gladness, madness, what’s the difference?
Thorp: Could it be that it’s because to be truly experimental you have to be removed from your time, because I read some poems like by W. C. W., William Carlos Williams, and they were written in 1920 and they seem to be just language we are using now. Could this be something that people might not want? It just might be difficult in search of such and such a mode.
Filreis: Thank you, Solade.
Retallack: Well, a lot of very good questions built into that. I think I don’t believe in the average person. I’ve never met one. I also don’t believe in a democratic notion of education that rests on the idea that there is an average person. The way in which the contemporary poet is interacting with the contemporary world, I think, is not — and now I’musing a ridiculous abstraction, there is no such thing as the contemporary poet — but let’s say “contemporary poets” whom I find interesting are reacting to their contemporary milieu very much in the context of their everyday lives, in the forms of everyday life. Just think of what the form of your everyday life is.
An urban environment? Where you are constantly moving through multiple languages, a kind of ambience of sounds, sights that come from all over the globe. You are actually intimate with what is going on in the rest of the world every time you turn on anything electronic, just as we are here in this moment. You’re very concerned with things only you know about, very private things at the very same moment that you are at an intersection of things that concern people all over the world. Those things are feeding your senses and are clothing you and have to do with what you eat. There’s a complexity of the forms in which you are living now that I think the kind of poetry we’ve been talking about, at its best draws on in ways that, again, to talk about geometry, foreground these intersections, and foreground ways of finding patterns in what might otherwise seem overwhelming, an overwhelmingly diffuse kind of experience. I think that the reasons why a person might feel daunted by contemporary poetry don’t have to do with their insufficiency — say, any student at this institution or any other — or their averageness, which I don’t believe in. I think it has to do with the pedagogy not having risen to the occasion. In the classrooms where the best teachers I know teach, remarkable connections occur with work that at first may have seemed opaque and completely unreadable. I don’t know how else to answer. And I don’t think you should take me on my word. I think you should take one of Al’s classes.
Filreis: Might be too late for Solade [laughter]. We have [time for] two more questions or comments, Joan and all. One is coming from afar, and Heather is going to tell us about it, and then one from afar within this space, and then we’ll wrap up in a moment.
Retallack: Actually, can I join?
Filreis: Yes, of course you can.
Retallack: I have one little addendum.
Retallack: The first thing that I thought about when you said you were a physicist was Niels Bohr’s essay entitled “Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature,” in which he says, now that we have quantum mechanics, we have to think of an entirely new way to describe nature. That’s, I think, another way of saying what the role of poets needs to be in the world that is so different than it was even ten years ago.
Sparr: Christina Spiegel. There have been several questions, but Christina emailed in a little while back. She’s writing from New Haven where she’s an artist who teaches visual persuasion to third-year law students, and she’s employing a lot of the techniques she learned as a faculty member at Bard. She writes —
Filreis: Sounds like a ringer question coming from a Bard faculty member.
Starr: She writes, “isn’t part of the problem traditional separation between creative writing and the study of literature? I realize that I am soaked in the practices of Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, but I would ask more traditional pedagogues whether the study of literature would not be enhanced by an experiential component, be it writing, performance, or the other strategies alluded to by Joan. Why do the experiential things seem radical?”
Filreis: Would anyone, you don’t have to characterize yourself as a — what was it —traditional pedagogue to respond? But does anyone want to respond? Let’s radicalize the question. How could you say no to an experiential component to teaching this? Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t use an experiential part of this? Okay, here’s J. C., go ahead.
J. C.: I wouldn’t argue with it, but I’ll give you an argument. It’s not measurable.
Filreis: It’s not measurable. You can’t get an outcome. Good, that’s one. Is there another? Surely there must be others.
Vic Tulli: They’re different for everyone in the class or in the group or in the response, like, if it’s not one piece that each, that you’re conveying to a group as a whole, but if it’s experiential, it’s unique for each person.
Tulli: It’s not comparable to the way other disciplines do their work. So when you compare across the disciplines, you can’t say, oh, what we’re doing in our poetry class is exactly what they’re doing in their physics labs or their chemistry classes.
Filreis: And that’s literal. You’re speaking as a dean might. Vic’s going to be a dean some day. Bob [Perelman], who is the associate chair of the English department, must hear that in the dean’s office: how can you bring this to the table when we have all this measurable stuff, comparable stuff? You can’t do this apples and oranges thing, which is a version of what J. C. said. I think there is also another enemy structure out there. Take that, Eli [Goldblatt], while I’m talking. I think there’s also another enemy structure out there, and it is the old agrarian semester, you know, the structure of the university semester, and this university and most others, even the, you know, progressive institutions, are stuck in a semester system. And this is stuff probably not done well in three months. Bob was talking about, I think the phrase was, marching through Tender Buttons, because we had to get to the next day’s class. We teach anthologies, and I’m committed to teaching a version of an anthology, but the semester is not the right structure in which to do it. I think one way in which you do something experiential is to actually experience time and space the way we normally do outside the university, which isn’t by the semester. Since nobody has brought the Writers House into this conversation, I’ll just throw it in, because I think one of the reasons why many of the people in this room founded the Writers House was to see if within the semester structure, the curricular structure, we could create an experiential non-semester so that the relationship between and among students in this room, including teachers from other institutions who regularly join us, and sometimes join us digitally, we have a relationship that isn’t based on marching through Tender Buttons on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. It’s based on walking through or experiencing the Tender Buttons that gets talked about week in and week out over a period of semesters, there’s literally a person who lives in this house who is a poet who has probably been thinking about Stein in one way or another who took a course from Bob, who’s taken a course from me, and who’s talked about Stein, literally, with probably half the people in this room over the course of four years, and that is a different form of experiential education. We’re probably always going to be stuck, even Bard is stuck to some degree, by having a moment in December when they all go home to their homes not like Bard, and then they come back. It seems to me that those are the scenes of the crime where you get to learn reading left to right and you never actually learn to read in any other way, and revisiting the scene of the crime in a classroom is a way of having to be at the very place where you learn to read left to right, and having that awful feeling of being told to try something else. So, if you march through that, it’s obviously going to be difficult.
How are you doing, Eli?
Goldblatt: I’m fine, I think I just want to say something about experiential learning is that there’s always experience going on in classrooms, it’s just that a lot of the people in the classroom often aren’t having a very good time. I think that some of it is the way we teach teachers or don’t teach teachers to teach, especially in college. Teachers are taught to be professors. They stand up and profess. And that’s when people often have bad experiences in the classroom, because their experience of the classroom isn’t being taken into account. I wouldn’t say that necessarily a class where people write poetry in response to the poetry they read is any more experiential than a class where they do other things related to the poetry. But I think that teachers, that professors, are trained in specialties, and they don’t want to do other than that which they’ve published two books on. So, very often they are afraid to do things they weren’t trained to do. That’s a very hard thing. I don’t know how you solve that problem.
Filreis: There’s fear all over the place in a situation like that.
Sherin: Does anyone mind if I just jump in?
Filreis: Jump in, but we are running out of time, and we have a person back there who wants to say something.
Sherin: Thank you. I just want to say, I guess I want to state the obvious in a way because I’m still thinking about something you said earlier, Eli, about teaching at Temple. I taught at Temple. I taught the Composition 50 class, and I’ve taught the Composition 50: Writings on Race class, and I’ve taught business writing, and also creative writing, a series of creative writing classes, and a literature class. And I remember from that experience receiving lots of received information about how to teach. At the same time, I was also encouraged to try and develop my own pedagogy. I don’t want to knock Temple as the only institution that’s doing this, but I think that the idea of difficulty actually adheres not only to the poetry we’re talking about, but to the act of teaching. That, in fact, it is tremendously difficult to position yourself in the classroom as an instructor in a way that allows people to be critical. And it is a constant, and you find yourself all allied with the deans, or you find yourself allied with your mentor in a composition class, or you’re a graduate student and you are learning how to teach, or you are in a creative writing class and you’re allied with the notion of the artistic type, and you have to constantly, I mean, not in the sense of self-flagellation, but you have to constantly be questioning what kinds of decisions you are making, and I don’t think that that stuff should ever go away. When I think about Writers House and the idea of teaching outside the classroom and getting rid of the three-month semester, I think, yeah, that’s true, but I think the real difficulty is when you get away from a place like Writers House, and you find yourself confronted by the language of People magazine. To me that’s the real horror of the world that we live in right now, that we are constantly being taught to think in such tremendously powerful and insidious ways that that’s the real drama that we, in a way, have to constantly experience and feel and take into the classroom. I don’t think there is an average person, but I know they’re really trying hard to make me into one. And I think that the “they” could be me tomorrow, even. So, I feel like that what you said just made me realize how much that’s an ongoing problem.
Filreis: Thank you, and all the twenty-something editors of People magazine studied under the semester system, no doubt. And I don’t know how much of a non sequitur it is, and I apologize that you’ve been structured into a corner, but we’ll welcome your final question and then we’ll wrap up very briefly.
Speaker: I was thinking about the question of teaching Tender Buttons to undergraduates. A student is, sort of, trying to construct a discursive response or a critical response to a text that constitutes achievement. And does the sort of silence of the undergraduate to Tender Buttons maybe signify a defeat of the traditional discursive response? And what would that mean? Cage talks about reading Finnegans Wake as if you were a pebble in an ocean, and would the pebble symbolize an exemplary response to the defeat of discursive responses?
Filreis: Since it’s a Cagean question, maybe a Cagean poet should be asked to answer. Or you could just be cagey.
Retallack: Well, it strikes me as a lovely image. In that, it needs no response. It would be lovely to pose this to students: I want you to experience Tender Buttons in a way analogous to experiencing pebbles in the water with your feet.
Filreis: On that cagey and Cagean response, it’s time to thank Joan Retallack who has joined us from a distance today. This was great. Both parts were great, and also thank everyone here. Most of the folks in the room participated. Thirty or so people who are there in various places in North America, I think we’re confined to North America this time. Aaron Couch for having done the tech work. Thank you, Aaron. Heather Starr for taking the questions. Kerry Sherin for helping us make the transition, and all of you. And, in fact, there is a reward. The reward is that we have dinner that’s probably enough for everyone here. Not you people out in webcast land. It’s very hard, we haven’t figured out how to get the Indian food out through the wires, but if a number of you can stay for dinner, we would love to have you join us. Let’s thank, in any case, once again, Joan Retallack. This was good.