Sunday, May 16, 2004

Ron Silliman on Foetry, Fence, and external validation, which is, I think, along the same lines as my post on Foetry last month.

The jousting that's been going on in Ron's comment boxes--a battle, remarkably enough, that has even drawn in the top editors at Fence itself--really only illustrates the futility of carrying on this debate at the level of poetic friendships or cronyism. While I'm not crazy about the nameless critic who's been "outing" Iowa MFAs (and I'm especially not crazy about anonymous commenting--who are you hiding from, really?), I'm even more bemused/dismayed by the responses from Rebecca Wolff and Max Winter, whose mixture of moral indignation and petty dismissiveness kind of makes you wonder why they got involved in the discussion in the first place. Why should they feel so threatened by such attacks?

Anyway, the larger point is that with any literary institution, critics will always be able to point to a social network that seems to underlie ostensibly aesthetic choices, while the institution can defend itself by pointing to ostensibly objective procedures designed to guarantee fairness. Neither perspective acknowledges the profound link of the social and the aesthetic; styles get attached to institutions and communities in ways that go far beyond arguments over who knows whom.

I do feel--especially given the kind of work they tend to publish--the Fence folks ought to know better on some of these issues than to simply say that Iowa grads have "more ambition" than other poets (Winter) or that the process is just evidence that the Iowa admissions committee knows what it's doing (Wolff). The experimental aesthetic that Fence supports has had a long struggle for recognition over the past few decades, and it's certainly by no means necessarily true that fifteen or twenty years ago Iowa or other well-known literary institutions could have supported the kind of work that now appears in Fence and elsewhere. In fact, such work was generally suppressed by appeals to the same standards that Wolff and Winter now use to defend their own publication--those of quality, objective judgment, and institutional ratification.

That Wolff and Winter can now make such appeals certainly shows how much the landscape has shifted; Fence itself is now viewed as a site of power, in which external judges have to be brought in to ensure the fair distribution of its resources. Perhaps the best evidence for this is that neither editor feels able to make the most obvious and unapologetic response to cries of favoritism: "Yes; that's right; I pick whatever the hell I please because I like it." That's pretty much the standard prinicple of any small-press endeavor, because what other justification could there be for investing all that effort with no prospect of return? That Wolff and Winter can't appeal to this principle demonstrates the extent to which Fence has departed from this model to become an old-fashioned literary institution, with editorial boards and external referees and procedures to distribute what is now seen as a valuable resource: publication by Fence.

There's plenty of reason to greet this with great enthusiasm. Fence has, by and large, produced good work and brought it to an increasingly wide audience. Good for them. But the persistence of the signifier "Iowa" as a symbol of literary power--and as a target for resentment--suggests that something like Fence represents less a revolution in American poetry than a continuation of roughly the same structures of power with a different face, something that its editors could be a bit more circumspect about.

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