Monday, March 31, 2003

Mea culpa: I'm the mysterious back-channeling Bay Area blogger quoted in Ron Silliman's blog, sparking further hand-wringing about kids today. More precisely: "the problem of younger poets in particular lacking much sense of recent literary history." By the time this reached Jonathan Mayhew it was "younger poets in S.F. no longer know who Ron Silliman is" (certainly not what I said), and by the time it got to John Erhardt it had metastasized to "young poets don't know who Creeley and Levertov are." Sorry, Jim.

When I said that "younger poets" (a term I think we've all been using far too broadly of late) know Silliman primarily as his blog, I did not mean to suggest that such poets had no knowledge of literary history or of Silliman's place in it. Rather, I was trying to call attention to the particular role Silliman and his blog are playing in poetry right now, a question that seems to have become quite separate from the actual influence of Silliman's poetry. Jim's point that Silliman doesn't post his own poetry on his blog is well taken in this regard. There certainly are links to Silliman's EPC homepage and bibliography on his blog, but the blog itself by and large maintains the integrity of critical prose. I think this is an entirely legitimate role for a blog to play; but it gives the blog a tone of authority that other blogs don't have, for better or worse.

That said, I don't think it's surprising or even undesirable that poets are often more aware of the work of their peers and contemporaries than of "literary history," conventionally understood. Again, as I suggested in my last post, institutional and generational issues are rearing their heads. Any avant-garde is in part a rejection of canonical literary history, an assertion that there is a tradition other than the one generally taught by university professors. But if that avant-garde is at least partially successful in displacing some parts of the canon--witness the radical shift in the critical fortunes of Gertrude Stein over the past two decades--it risks becoming a canon itself, subject to challenge by later writers. At some point, one may find oneself having gone from the position of insurgent writer to teacher and critic, and as any teacher knows, once you have a classroom to run you have to pick a syllabus. And as any student knows, the tradition your teacher finds relevant may not be the same one you do. (I'm sure my grad-school colleagues who study the Renaissance--some of whom are also poets--would find Silliman's statement that the relevance of older literature "recedes with each preceding generation" appalling. Who's to say that reading Shakespeare is going to be less formative than reading Stein? Or that it's more important to be familiar with Denise Levertov than Bernadette Mayer?)

As Silliman rightly asks: how far back does one need to go? He says that for blogging purposes he "draws the line at the 1940s." Fair enough--that's about 20 years before Silliman began his writing career. So it would not be surprising that poets of the current decade might choose to draw the line at the 1970s. But honestly, I don't think many do. Perhaps their interests lie in traditions not yet explored.
I was interested to see Ron Silliman’s post Friday on the most recent issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter, and on how the current war might—might—provide the "historical moment" of politicization that he and Lyn Hejinian found lacking for younger writers (or so the quotes in PPN suggested). Silliman notes that the remarkable outpouring of protest in the first days of war means that "my initial criticism about depoliticization is one charge I’ll never be able to raise again."

I actually read the PPN feature in question about two weeks ago, and looking back at it now I’m struck at how much heat Silliman’s and Hejinian’s comments stirred up. What were folks so worked up about?

I was surprised at how many poets took the bait—reading Silliman and Hejinian as saying, "you kids today aren’t political," and responding, "Yes we are! Yes we are!" Laura Elrick: "‘Younger people’ now are organizing marches, demonstrations, conferences, teach-ins, walk-outs, collectives, coalitions, public theaters, and independent media organizations…" Alan Gilbert: "There are as many experimental poets writing engaged political poetry and doing important political work today as there were when Silliman and Hejinian’s generation was ‘emerging.’" Edwin Torres was alone in rejecting the terms of the criticism entirely: "politics has never interested me." And his contribution utterly lacks the fury of the other responses. So: why would it be that the charge of "depoliticization" would be the worst thing you could fling at a young poet?

What this forum’s really about, I think, is not political but generational conflict. I’m not sure that the generation that came of age in the 1960s is fully aware of the kind of rage they can inspire in younger people (even, or especially, those who are in every way politically sympathetic to them) by alluding to the utopia of ‘60s activism. (Allan Gilbert: "baby boomer nostalgia for the ‘60s.") But more importantly, Silliman and Hejinian (and I’m not sure they realize this either) are increasingly seen as elders, institutions (like Language poetry itself), wielders of authority giving stamps of approval to some writers while withholding them from others. I don’t claim this characterization is fair. But the number of writers in the forum who see Silliman and Hejinian as dismissing or overlooking the work of any number of younger writers suggests to me that the approval of Silliman and Hejinian is a desired commodity. In this arena, "politics" is a marker of value; the ‘60s generation is seen as having the monopoly on political virtue vis-à-vis the younger generation; hence the suggestion by an elder that younger poets are "depoliticized" is seen as both a moral and an aesthetic rebuke.

This generational conflict obscures the more substantive element of Silliman’s and Hejinian’s critiques, which seem to me really to be about surface and depth. Silliman deplores a writing that is "simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized," while Hejinian claims that "What tends now to get identified as Language Writing is identified as such on the basis of surface characteristics, surface features." In other words, they see a poetry that looks Language-y, but it doesn’t go all the way down. There’s a funny elision here in the way PPN has paired these quotations: a poem that looks "experimental" is also one that is "politically correct." The assumption behind that is that it’s those aesthetic traits associated with Language poetry that automatically mark a poem as political. That’s a strange pass to have come to; throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s writers like Silliman and Bernstein were constantly battling against critics on both right and left who ridiculed their poetry’s claims for political value, and recent debates around antiwar poetry and Poets against the War suggest that experimental poetry has hardly carried the day in such struggles.

But in any case, the idea here is that at a certain moment in the 1970s historical conditions and aesthetics lined up in such a way that Language writing became a vital and necessary mode of political critique. Many of the respondents in the PPN forum equate this with the utopian myth of the ‘60s and reject it. It’s not at all clear to me, though, that all the "technological advancements in global communication" that Reg E Gaines speaks of have fundamentally changed the conditions of language against which Language writing positioned itself. Is the "corporate media" (invoked by nearly every respondent) and the machinery of government propaganda really so different, in its basic operations, now than it was in the Vietnam era? I quote Silliman from The Chinese Notebook, composed in 1974: "‘Terminate with extreme prejudice.’ That meant kill. Or ‘we had to destroy the village in order to save it.’" Are formulations like "collateral damage" or "Operation Iraqi Freedom" much different? And doesn’t the imperative to reveal the realities behind such formulations remain the same?

That’s why pluralistic visions like the one offered by Kristin Prevallet won’t do as a response to the Silliman-Hejinian critique. Prevallet makes a move common to many post-Language writers, offering a big-tent, can’t-we-all-get-along vision of political/experimental writing. She argues that Language writing "is simply not the only model for how to be ‘political’ in poetry," and asks, "Do they [Silliman and Hejinian] really believe that they have set some precedent for how to be political both in poetry and in the world?" Well, yes, actually, they do, and we must too, or this forum wouldn’t be happening. The fact is that Language poetry offers the primary contemporary argument for why we might see aesthetically innovative poetry as politically valuable. And Prevallet acknowledges as much; when she refers to recent work that "uses a variety of devices to pull language directly from the onslaught of advertising, propaganda, and empty information that the corporate media bombards us with on a daily basis," and that "refers to, resamples, and recontextualizes the language of media and culture," she could easily be referring to a work like Silliman’s Ketjak or Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America). The argument offered for the politics of poetry here is indistinguishable from that offered by those Language poets against whom Prevallet positions herself.

The reason, then, that younger poets take such umbrage at being branded apolitical by Silliman and Hejinian is not at all that they disagree with Silliman and Hejinian’s notions of poetic politics; indeed, they have almost completely internalized them, and hence take the critique as a parental rebuke.

And this is why, I think, the Silliman-Hejinian critique represented here does have some force. As Language poetry has come to seem like academic orthodoxy, younger poets have sought to distance themselves from what they perceive as its less attractive traits—in particular, its alleged suppression of subjectivity, feeling, and narrative. The argument here is that we can have it all: we can have Language poetry’s broken surfaces and linguistic skepticism without sacrificing lyricism and personality. We thus don’t have to confront some of the more difficult aspects of the Language critique, particularly those that might question conventional notions of political voice and agency. What Language poetry suggested to us was that if you want to critique oppressive political narratives and the imperial selves around which those narratives formed, you can’t just offer a mirror image of those selves and narratives; you have to critique the very structure of self and narrative, and if certain lyric pleasures and certainties are sacrificed, so be it. (I think in this context of Ginsberg’s "Wichita Vortex Sutra" and its culminating declaration: "I here declare the end of the War." Rhetorically powerful; yet even at the time the idea of one individual simply "declaring" and end to war must have seemed inadequate in the face of war’s vast machinery. The Shelleyan bargain is that if you want to be a poetic legislator, you also have to accept being an unacknowledged one.)

If we want to claim, then, that recent work is, as Michael Magee puts it, "both political and experimental to its very bones," we need to have a sense of what those terms mean now, rather than leaning on and reacting against unspoken definitions. I’m struck that very few of the forum respondents, despite their rejection of Silliman and Hejinian’s judgments, openly dissent from their implied definition of political poetry. To point out that many young poets are activists does not answer the question of what gives poetry political value today. Only Ammiel Alcalay offers a real challenge to the notion of poetic politics that dominates here, pointing to the "excision of work by Vietnam veterans, suppressed people, political prisoners and writers involved in popular movements around the world" from the canons of experimental writing, and suggesting that "an unwillingness to deal with narrative allows dominant narratives more space to function and take hold." These are legitimate criticisms, and have indeed been leveled against experimental writing for several decades. Would most younger poets agree? It’s hard to say, since the critiques offered are largely generational rather than ideological.

Pamela Lu argues that "ideologies tend to overreduce and obfuscate the complexities of real life." But in what sense would a poetry of "real life," devoid of ideology, be political? If we answer simply that everyday life is inherently political, then we don’t need to have a discussion about politics and poetry at all. And certainly even the most broad-minded of us wouldn’t find all poetry equally valuable regardless of its style or ideology. I don’t think we should be embarrassed to say that when a forum like this takes up the question of whether a certain poetry is "political" or not, it is really asking whether that poetry is good, and whether it seems right in its politics. I think that’s ultimately what Silliman and Hejinian are asking. And if younger experimental poets are to respond to that question, they need to understand the way Language writing has framed the terms of the debate, and then openly and consciously dissent, if they wish, from those definitions, offering their own alternatives. To do otherwise is already to have ceded the field.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Jim Behrle is on the move again. Don't know how we're supposed to keep up with this guy.

Friday, March 28, 2003

At a time when many people are proclaiming the Poetics list a fossil (and one friend who admitted that he's started deleting the digests *without reading them*--shocking), I've just resubscribed to it, after a hiatus of, oh, about five years. I quit the last time because unread digests were piling up to such a degree that they crashed my account. I signed back up in part because I've been curious about the relation between blogs and the list--I know the list had to some folks seemed increasingly like an ad space for blogs, but at the same time bloggers are constantly responding to things from the list, even when they're ridiculing them. What's going on in this genre/technology transition?
A clever piece by Geoff Nunberg on NPR this afternoon, observing that the pronunciation of "Iraq" as "eye-rack" (as opposed to, say, "ear-aak") by certain administration officials was a calculated "faux-Bubba" gesture, in line with pronunciations like "A-rab" or "I-talian." Or, for that matter, "nyu-cle-ar."

I remember in high school doing a report on the development of the atomic bomb, and reading how the general in charge of the Manhattan Project once went through a briefing with the project's top scientists saying "isotrope" every time he meant "isotope." The scientists looked increasingly terrified. Afterwards one of the general's aides pulled him aside and mentioned that he had been mispronouncing the word. The general smiled, said innocently, "Oh, was I?" and walked away, leaving the distinct impression that his "error" had been quite intentional.

The moral: Don't misunderestimate the man in charge.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

The blogverse responds...

My remarks on the essayistic style of Ron Silliman's blog (well, actually, my quoting of Stephanie's remark that the essays could all have been written in 1987 and are being released one by one) drew a response from Silliman himself, who tells us that, alas, his posts are written at best a day or two in advance. While this in no way lessens my awe at his productivity, it does make me wonder to what degree a blog is meant to circumvent the usual channels of self-editing and self-censorship that plague any attempt to produce a piece of "real writing." I do find that I'm certainly at least turning over most posts several times in my head before they go up, and I wonder what's going to happen after the backlog of four or five critical thoughts I have on poetry are spit out.

More food-identification questions, I imagine.

Which reminds me: John Erhardt informs me that capers are berries. Ask and ye shall receive.
Caught the tail end of what I gather is the second installment of Becoming American: The Chinese Experience on PBS. Once I had it on I felt obligated to keep watching despite Bill Moyers's smarmy narration (and the way he gets to keep saying "Chinaman," albeit with ironic inflection). When I tuned in there was a segment on Chinese American film star Anna May Wong which featured her complaints about always having to die at the end of her movies, since she could never be shown marrying the white male lead. (Cf. John Yau's "No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong": "She's languishing / on a ledge, annoyed at all the times / she's been told to be scratched, kicked, / slapped, bitten, stabbed, poisoned, and shot.")

The series is obviously well-intentioned but seems a little confused in its politics. For one thing, there's that title: "becoming American," which suggests that a perfect assimilation was the ultimate goal of every Chinese immigrant, and that the history of Chinese Americans is just a progress toward that color-blind utopia. (On the website: "Share your family's experience of becoming American." What would this mean, say, for a third- or fourth-generation Chinese American?) And couldn't they have found a Chinese American to narrate? (Hey, I hear Connie Chung is out of a job...)

Actually, the best moment was in a teaser for the concluding episode. They showed a young Chinese American woman saying that she felt like she had no problem with her identity, but that she felt all this pressure to "be American." Bill Moyers asks, why? She says, "Why don't you tell me? You're the white guy."

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Stephanie sent along a tidbit from her friend Tanya that she thinks is relevant to my first rant on "public/in public."
Instant gratification! Barely 20 minutes online and Stephanie has already given me a lovely mention.

Actually, the fact that I'll be moving away in the fall is one of the reasons I wanted to start this--I'm hoping it will keep me connected and alive through the long Chicago winters...warm bloggy hugs all around.
Up until now I haven't told anyone of the existence of this blog, although it's been up for days; I've been more comfortable maintaining the illusion that I'm talking to myself. But I'm about to reveal it--yipes. So: Hi Cassie, hi Del, hi Jennifer, hi Stephanie. Tell all your friends about me.
Cassie Lewis, poet and impresario, reports her first two sales of Postcard Poems books through the media juggernaut that is SHAMPOO. These books are beautifully written (by Cassie, Stephanie Young, Del Ray Cross, and Jennifer Dannenberg) and assembled with loving care by Cassie in her Fremont studio. Buy yours today! (Okay, I realize anyone who's reading this probably already has their own copies. But it can't hurt.)

Cassie and I did a month of postcards back in January (appearing soon in a chapbook near you) and it was totally exhilirating. The exchange of poems made the discipline of writing each day a pleasure, and I found the form liberating: only so much could fit on one card, after all, and there was another tomorrow, so I simply kept going with the hope that the sequence as a whole might make some kind of sense. I also loved the cards as physical objects--when visiting my parents over the holidays I had dug up an old shoebox full of postcards that we had collected from various places, probably as souvenirs, but had never sent. There was a huge cache of '70s Disneyland postcards, although of course from the front you could hardly tell--Mickey and Minnie don't exactly update their wardrobes. Part of the game became incorporating text from the cards into the poems, often as a title:

It All Started with a Mouse

& the women who dared
to know him, plump
in his tails & 2-button
pants. Though it isn’t raining
today, a little old woman
in a black bonnet ties
one on; winter meetings
have been banned outright.
Inside the castle, new friends
are gathering round the oven,
warming their oversized hands.

Some of my favorite poems, though, emerged from the exchanges themselves, when I responded to (or blatantly stole) lines from Cassie's postcards to me. William Blake became a recurring character after Cassie asked, "Do you ever have William Blake days?"

How to Survive an Avalanche

Money is no
object, says William Blake.
So what do you
do? A thousand wells
are being drilled in the desert.
A cold front’s developing
while you shop, using
a freestlye swimming motion.
Hard luck. That childhood
forest calls to me.

And the one-a-day rhythm seems to have changed my experience of time as well. Usually when I think back on a month it's all a blur, but the days of January have a discreteness, a measured pace, as if each one counted for something, which of course it did.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The current contents of my car trunk:

Tan Lin, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe
Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange
Sesshu Foster, City Terrace Field Manual
and an aluminum Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

I think it's a new image for Asian American literature.
So what are capers, anyway? Are they seeds? Do they grow on trees? Are they little fish, like anchovies?

Someone seems to have tied a bow in my hair.
Favorite sign at last Saturday's protest march in SF: "Did it scare anyone else when Bush said Iraq was about the size of California?"

Monday, March 24, 2003

Geoff Nunberg, a Stanford linguist (also of the NY Times and NPR), gave a talk recently and made an offhand comment about blogging, which he said he'd always thought of not as "public" but as "in public"--as in "taking off your clothes in public." At first this seemed right to me: a blog is not the "public" of the "public sphere," which assumes a shared reference point and a common culture, the way, say, the Times styles itself the "paper of record" and promises "all the news that's fit to print." If you publish something in the daily paper, you expect everyone to read it; if you write something in your blog, you know there's a decent chance that no one will read it. You can strip on the street corner, but that's no guarantee that anyone will stop to look.

But then I thought about the blogs I read--mostly those of people I know or at least have met--and realized that "in public" wasn't quite right.either. Think about it this way: who are you talking to when you blog? Not to some vast anonymous public; more likely to a fairly limited and, at first, well-defined community, as when you used a travel blog to tell your friends and family where you are. Or maybe even to yourself. And yet at the same time you know that there's some chance that anyone in the world could be reading it, maybe millions of potential readers out there, and you can hardly plausibly pretend that it's just you talking to yourself. It's a community that's (potentially) infinitely expansible.

It's fitting, too, that so many poets are blogging these days. John Stuart Mill called poetry something that is not heard, but overheard, and that's not a bad characterization of blogging either. I think this is why Ron Silliman's blog has gotten so much attention; it is aggressively public and authoritative, meant to be heard, posted regularly once per day, more like a set of book reviews or a newspaper column than a journal--and this has seemed to some like a travesty of the blog, which is perhaps meant to be more personal, more provisional, less sure of itself. As Stephanie put it a while back, for all we know Silliman could have written all of these essays in 1987 and just be publishing them day by day. It sounds like that sometimes. But at the same time it's given the poetry blog-sphere a center, a point of reference to react against.

Finally, I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm feeling compelled to start one of these things at the very moment that the U.S. has engaged in a mad war on Iraq. The blogger, the poet, and the dissenting citizen seem to have a lot in common these days: they're all trying to make themselves heard in a culture that seems intent on not listening.