Flipped poetics and the resources (such as they are) of the academy

Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

For Jessica Lowenthal and Chris Mustazza
and in memory of Bob Lucid

Author’s note: This paper was delivered informally, mainly for the purposes of provoking a discussion. As such, this should read more or less as it was presented orally.


I don’t generally see contradictions between poetry and community (to use a phrase from the title of Steven Yao’s paper to be given later), but my topic is academic politics and “clearing a space” for poetic communities inside the institution known for both Panopticism and look-the-other-way-ism (or head-in-sand-ism). So I will have to say something about contradictions first before I get a little happier.

If the space for the poetic community is not a priori characterized by caste, class, or sect — by sectarianism based on level or function — then the poetics of the group can carry on successfully for quite a while before the barriers get erected. But the university is not typically, alas, such an uninhibited community; its scholasticist caste system predates the entry of innovative poetic modes into it. The differences between and among its variously admitted members are a priori true. It’s not a matter, as it were, of degree. The question is whether the institution is capacious enough, or can be discerned as capacious enough, to enable intentional, non- or quasi-academic spaces in which the caste system is checked at the door.

Let me be a little more specific and describe one of the contradictions at most US universities — and I apologize in advance for the bluntness of this. Undergraduate tuition and funds raised from contributions of philanthropic former undergraduates pay for humanities graduate fellowships in programs that tend to produce acts of specialization and professionalization that exclude undergraduates. This constitutes, to my mind, one of the most regressive aspects of the university today. I want to argue that the preprofessionalism of the doctoral program in the academy — at least at the poetry-and-poetics end of that realm — should be fully conceded and frankly embraced. Or it should be fully suppressed, which is to say not so much worried over. Any middle ground there affords us the much-too-easy opportunity, at any point, either to bemoan our fate as under-served impractical advocates of the aesthetic or to roll up our sleeves and contend for resources and centrality, but to be able to choose moodily between those two dispositions anywhere and anytime we like.

MFA programs and poetics-specific doctoral programs participate in this specific form of regressive institutionalization, and contribute to the overall effect of self-marginalization. They make understaffing, underfunding and sometimes outright defunding crises far worse than they would be otherwise, especially at some very large institutions that, if left to their own devices, would pay no heed, for better or for ill, to the “arts” end of the humanities. And yet the field of poetry and poetics happens indeed to be one sub-area of that larger zone called “arts and humanities” (marking a mode of intellection and action not born in the academy) where the line of separation between and among the academic castes (tenured faculty, lecturer, graduate student, undergraduate, marginally affiliated community member in the town/gown sense, unenrolled local artist) has for the most part not been very clear. That line has been obscured by the tendencies of the very form that brings them together. The example of and reality of — and I dare say tradition of — this more or less intellectually classless state should present us with sufficient motive for exploring that state at a conference devoted to the topic of poetry and community. I mean to explore why in and because of the newest forms of innovative poetry the lines of separation are getting less clearly drawn, in spite of a period of extreme academic retrenchment and consolidation.

Al Filreis with Michael Golston, Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

I attended a heady several-day conference thirteen years ago devoted to the idea that there is, or should be, a close, studied relationship between the practice and advocacy of innovative poetry on one hand, and the experimental teaching of that poetry on the other — that there should ideally be a connection between the experimentalism of the poem and that of the mode by which it is presented. How much of the radicalism of Lorine Niedecker’s “condensery” (in the poem in which the speaker’s grandfather tells her to get a job but she refuses, except to do the job of producing this resistant poem) is diminished by the I know/you don’t, I speak/you listen lecture that merely delivers (shall we say, in grandfatherly fashion) the “teachings” of that poem in a university seminar room? I note with some pleasure that in this case it’s a form-content relationship in which the poetry itself is the content, and pedagogy is the form. The conservative pedagogical form is never more than an extension of its liberationist content.

My sense is that the conversation has hardly progressed in all that time. Why not? I’m not certain, but I’ll venture a guess: we’re too busy separating the work of those two areas, worried that the convergence of them, the synthesis or un-disaggregation or de-alienation of that work, requires far more effort than the two done separately and distinctly; and because our drive to innovate in the field of contemporary poetry and poetics has a stronger and greater “tradition” supporting it than the institutionally unrewarded, unincentivized project of reforming our pedagogical poetics, which has typically been the most entropic — and also the least known and least observed — thing we do.

And yet, since 1999 we’ve developed the capacity, fully, for the so-called flipped classroom — and also, not incidentally, for the flipping of the room in which a poetry reading takes place. The “flipped classroom” is a phrase used by IT people to describe the structure in which the presenter-lecturer has been digitally recorded, stored, and made asynchronously available, such that the face-to-face meeting time can now be reserved entirely for the spontaneous, collective, collaborative interaction between teachers and learners and among learners, between performers and audiences, between those who know and those who want to know, between those who already are and those who want to become, etc., such that the interaction can’t be, or can’t easily be, reproduced and redeployed. As hip and contemporary as everyone in this room is, and perhaps even more so those watching today via digital video stream, I hazard the guess that rather few of us have really flipped our classrooms and poetry readings. And yet we are quick to speak in analogous terms about the poetry we produce and admire. The analogy between (1) innovative poetries in the digital age (whether they are digital themselves or not) and (2) institutional spaces in which novices are helped into the world of poetics is not a heuristic metaphor but a real prospect. The connection, moreover, is I think an obligation, given our ideas.

If we are sanguine about the revolution augured by the first, but are taking no advantage of the revolutionary resources available to us in the context of the second, then we are naturally more likely to bemoan our fates as pawns or victims of the institution, which we can say ignores us or deploys its resources elsewhere. Those resources are more ideologically neutral than we think. So much has been made of the hegemonic deviousness, in effect, of the relationship among (a) the Cold War university, (b) formalist close reading, and (c) short-poem creative writing pedagogy — an association I take to be historically and politically accurate, by the way — that we tend to forget that the close reading of the so-called difficult poem is a relatively free zone in which academic and nonacademic can momentarily converge, and in which the sectarianism of doctoral program and non-academic generalist learning/studying can relent the concept of expertise productively tested and doubted as inefficacious. Collective collaborative reading, whether ‘close’ or not — potentially a poetic community’s greatest performance, I think — is a form of open access at the level of the line or sentence.

The intellectuals residing in an institution like the university easily incline toward the values of open access, while the keepers of the institution’s prerogatives tend toward proprietary (not to mention monetized) definitions of the knowledge and productions of its contracted members. (This is an area where the Obama administration has been positively effective, by pushing hard to require free open access publication in science and medicine, a reform from which artists and humanists will soon benefit.) Here again the poetics community can have a specific role to play within the institution. How do we promulgate the values of open access at a university whose data officers and librarians side ideologically with the concept, but whose digital/computing/indexing systems aren’t set up to confer upon open-access writings the credentialed bibliographical and other official commendation that conventional scholarship and academic art-making automatically receive? Does it matter if a magazine like Jacket2 moves into the zone of the academic in order to take advantage of securer servers, longer-lasting storage, stable domains and addresses, only then to face doubts within the academy, its new home, about whether non-peer-reviewed publication can “count” as means of bona fide assent within the system? Well, it matters when the conventions of peer review are deliberately eschewed — a more radical move, actually, than many will realize. In fact, something of the opposite of “peer review” can, and I think should be, valued — writing that takes advantage of the instantaneity and interactivity that the ascendancy of networked computers made possible twenty years ago already but which the credentialing end of academic publishing in the humanities and arts still for the most part resists. I’ll note that peer review isn’t really conducted by “peers” — more typically by those higher up assessing those lower down.

And it matters when the prospect of a cash-cow MFA program is similarly refused by the faculty whom deans and provosts need to run it and live on its masthead — a refusal achieved partly on the basis of skepticism about whether what we should do with poetry in the academy is have it taught (I say no) or, alternatively, make spaces available in which it can be learned (I say yes). If the answer is truly the latter — and I think it is, at its best (the model for that having originated outside the university, by the way) — then degree programs in the making of poetry, and in the field of poetics, tend unintentionally to undermine rather than support what is, in curricular, institutional terms, the site analogous to open access in writing and publishing.

Earlier I said that the new resources of the institution “are more ideologically neutral than we think,” and I am aware that this is a statement that can be disputed. I remind you that “than we think” makes the assertion about our negative expectations. Given that risk, I want to conclude by commending to you a recent talk given by Kenneth Goldsmith which bore the provocative title (with its Cold War echoes) “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution” (first delivered on December 16, 2011, in Chicago).

Goldsmith reminds us that the mode of “institutional critique” is already at least a half century old in visual and conceptual art, and that quite a while ago art schools began offering classes in “post-studio practice, where the studying of institutional critique became an act of making art in and of itself.” Soon he moves on to examples of this sort of thing in poetry, and refers to the controversy surrounding Issue 1 (a 3,785-page unauthorized, un-permissioned anthology of poems not written by the poets whose names appear under them), in which it can be said — although (anti)anthologist Steve McLaughlin et alia might quibble with me — that the project originated from this very institution, and in a sense from the spirit of this very space. The complaints, in favor of proprietary authorship and stringent copyright, came from people outside the academy who otherwise typically decry the squareness of university-based poetry. Such anarcho-flarf vandalism isn’t easily described as “institutional,” but it certainly had support — actual as well as pedagogical and spiritual — from here.

Goldsmith then charts a path from, in effect, his affiliation with this institution (where he teaches[1]) to the ultimate American institution, the White House, where he was asked to give a reading along with several other poets, and to speak with school-aged writers whom Michelle Obama had invited. For agreeing to appear in such an official, allegiant setting, Goldsmith was criticized. The poet Linh Dinh called Obama a mass murderer (for his war policies) and Goldsmith a “minstrel.” I myself replied to Dinh, who then requested my permission to publish my personal note on his blog, whereupon it in turn was picked up by the web team at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere. In his talk, Goldsmith quoted my rejoinder to Dinh, calling it a “nuanced and moderate argument.” I had described my assumption that Goldsmith had pondered “the downsides” of accepting the presidential invitation, which Goldsmith elaborates as “a rare opportunity to put radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play.” He then, in his talk, offered at length a close reading of the event in “institutional terms.”

I think Goldsmith flipped the White House.

McLaughlin and Carpenter flipped the poetics classroom on the day they released Issue 1. The anti–open access argument waged against Issue 1 came from outside the institution — from people who decry the warping effect a large institution has on poetry and poetics.

(With a smile on his face, Goldsmith notes that there is no irony in the academic origins of “anarcho-flarf vandalism.”)

What’s flipped about the Goldsmithian classroom at the White House — distinct from let’s say Billy Collins “teaching” his poetry at the White House — is that the innovative poet momentarily transformed the space into a discussion of the “institutional terms” of his dubious practice, certainly not the authoritative role he was invited to perform.

The flipping still needed in precincts close to here is going to require (to quote Goldsmith again) “put[ting] radical poetic theory and practice into institutional play” by displacing or at least decentering poetic authority — the grandfatherly dictum to get a job other than one this kind of space trains you for — in favor of open discourse that pays no heed to (nor connects resources naturally to) the usual academic class divides.



1. Goldsmith teaches a course within the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.