Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A New Prairie School?

At this past weekend's M/MLA convention in Chicago, Bill Allegrezza assembled a panel on "Experimental Poetics in Contemporary Chicago," with Bob Archambeau, Garin Cycholl, Ray Bianchi, and myself. Since Bob has been kind enough to post his paper at his blog, I thought I'd follow suit.

I think it’s fitting that two of the four papers on this panel have question marks in their titles. Because I think the title of this panel itself, "Experimental Poetics in Contemporary Chicago," is itself a question: can such a thing really be said to exist? Without presuming to speak for the other panelists, I would guess that most of us would like the answer to this question to be yes--that we would like to assert that a discernable and robust experimental poetry "scene" has emerged in Chicago over the past decade or so--but that we also harbor some serious doubts about whether this is the case.

My own contribution to this debate will necessarily be a mix of the critical and the anecdotal, since in raising the question of whether a new "school" of Chicago poetry has arisen in recent years, I am really looking at two linked phenomena: first, the rise of new institutions, such as reading series, journals, and presses, that offer an alternative to established venues for poetry; and second, any distinctive aesthetic that may have been nurtured and propagated through those institutions. So this question of a New Prairie School is a question that is simultaneously aesthetic and social, as much about friendships, networks, and ephemeral connections as it is about texts.

First: what’s the origin of the term I use in my title, the "New Prairie School"? I’ll freely confess that it’s a term of my own invention. When I moved back to Chicago from California in 2003, I began collecting links to Chicago-area poetry websites, journals, venues, and blogs in the sidebar of my own blog, tympan. Needing something to call this section, I decided, on a whim, to label it "New Prairie School." Perhaps I was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which, as a resident of Hyde Park, I walked past most days. Perhaps I was also thinking of the "New Brutalism," a similarly tongue-in-cheek, architecturally inspired name adopted by a group of young poets I knew in San Francisco. Most likely I was just grasping for some sense of a regional aesthetic. But as the list grew, including the blogs of Gabriel Gudding and Jeremy P. Bushnell, Ray Bianchi’s Chicago Postmodern Poetry site, and the homepages of the Danny’s, Discrete, and Myopic reading series, I had to admit that something like a scene for experimental writing was indeed developing. So was all this coherent enough to constitute a "school" of Chicago poetic practice? And what about my improvised label? What, if anything, did the new Chicago writing have to do with the horizontal lines and open spaces of Prairie style?

Let’s begin with the institutional signs of life for experimental poetry in Chicago. Again, I’ll emphasize that this is largely an anecdotal account based on what I’ve seen since coming back three years ago; others with more experience should feel free to correct or add to my impressions. Experimental poetry’s profile on the Chicago scene has been most visibly raised by the emergence of new reading series. Most prominent among these is the reading series at Danny’s Tavern in Wicker Park, which tends to host better-known names: local luminaries like Mark Strand, high-profile visitors like James Tate and Peter Gizzi, and events with national journals like Fence. The Discrete Series, started in 2003 by Kerri Sonnenberg and Jesse Seldess and housed in several art spaces around the city, has been both more consistently avant-garde and more locally focused in its programming, pairing visitors such as Lisa Jarnot and Cole Swensen with Chicago poets such as Mark Tardi and Chuck Stebelton. In 2004, Stebelton himself took over the reading series at Myopic Books in Wicker Park, a series established some 15 years earlier by legendary poet Thax Douglas. The series quickly progressed from a few chairs gathered in the bookstore’s rec-room like basement to capacity upstairs crowds for a diverse range of poets including Daniel Nester, Linh Dinh, and Kristy Odelius. The most recent addition to the scene—and the first to break the North Side mold—is Bill Allegrezza’s series A, at the new Hyde Park Art Center.

Reading series, while crucial to bringing together a face-to-face poetry community, can be notoriously short-lived, so it’s worth noting that several of these series have been able to survive the departure of their founders. But perhaps the most significant thing about the emergence of the experimental reading series in Chicago is the challenge it poses to that standby of Chicago poetry: the poetry slam. While New York and San Francisco are known for their diverse poetic cultures—and for nurturing experimental writing in the tradition of the New York School or the San Francisco Renaissance—the contemporary Chicago scene is still thought of primarily as the birthplace of the slam, an association that is probably as welcome to some Chicago poets as the miming of a machine gun. Since slams at places like the Green Mill are still going strong, reading series are crucial to building a space for experimental writing in Chicago.

Now, I’m making a big assumption here: that the Chicago poetry scene has, to this point, been actively hostile to experimental writing. Is this justified? Well, we can begin thinking about this by observing that the preferred word in Chicago for the kind of poetry we’re talking about is not "experimental." It is, in fact, "postmodern"—as seen in the title of Ray Bianchi’s website chicagopostmodernpoetry.com, which has become an indispensable resource for its listings, interviews, and reviews. I must confess that I’m not so fond of the term "postmodern" to describe contemporary poetry, probably because it is simultaneously programmatic and vague, and reeks too much of the academic. But I think that’s precisely why it’s become the term of choice for Chicago experimental poetry, both for its proponents and its detractors.

Take, for example, a post from early 2005 by poet C.J. Laity on his slam-oriented site ChicagoPoetry.com, which dubs itself "The Center of Chicago’s Cyberspace Poetry." Laity denounces ChicagoPostmodernPoetry.com as "an attempt to dig the rotted corpse of postmodernism out of its shallow grave and reanimate it" by Bianchi and his "academic camp." The association of the "postmodern" and the "academic" was no doubt reinforced in Chicago by the authority of Paul Hoover, formerly of Columbia College’s writing program and editor of the Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry. Without any stable venues for experimental writing in Chicago outside of Hoover’s domain, performance poets have been less likely to see experimental writers as peers and more prone to view them as arrogant interlopers from the academy. If "experimental" and "performance" poetry seem more polarized and pugilistic in Chicago than in other cities, this may be, paradoxically, because of experimental poetry’s relatively weak presence on the scene, and its restriction to a very narrow academic realm, until recently.

Institutionally, then, experimental poetry in Chicago does face an uphill battle. But I think there’s good reason for optimism. The reading series I’ve described have endured and flourished; in the past year I’ve seen packed houses at Myopic and the Discrete Series turn out for poets from Chuck Stebelton to K. Silem Mohammad. Just as important has been the rise of journals and presses devoted to experimental writing, from online venues like Bill Allegrezza’s moria and Larry Sawyer’s Milk, to print journals like Kerri Sonnenberg’s Conundrum and Jesse Seldess’s Antennae, to the new press Cracked Slab Books. Such endeavors provide a more permanent home for new Chicago writing.

But the question remains: has a new aesthetic emerged from these growing institutions? Can we really speak of a "new Prairie school" in poetry? In the time that remains I’d like to address this question by looking at the work of a poet I’ve already mentioned several times, Chuck Stebelton. There’s some irony in my choice of Stebelton, who has recently left Chicago to become manager of literary programs at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern--an institution that’s often pointed to as an example of what Chicago’s experimental scene is lacking. But I think Stebelton’s curious mix of density, seriousness, openness, and sense of place may best embody Chicago avant-garde writing. Stebelton’s deadpan, enjambed, sharply etched sentences give his poems urbanity and, often, a political edge. Yet some of his most powerful pieces also effectively evoke the Midwestern landscape, not through nostalgia but through suggestion and abstraction. Stebelton’s "new" prairie may be a highly built environment, but it retains an awareness of the wider and perhaps more open spaces that structure it.

When I first heard Stebelton read, I was struck by the density and uniformity of his linguistic surfaces, a stark contrast to the casual, fluid, and often jokey surfaces characteristic of contemporary Bay Area writing, or to the rapid switchbacks and self-consciousness of post-New York School poetry. Indeed, it took me some time before I felt I could find a point of access—just as it took me a few weeks to find the entrance to Wright’s Robie House. Again, I don’t think the analogy is entirely inapt. H. Allen Brooks’s classic treatise on Prairie School architecture asserts that the main characteristic of the Prairie style is the way in which the horizontal line dominates and unifies every element of design, from roof to foundation, leading to a "continuity of line, edge, and surface." "Short vertical accents" play off this horizontal structure, and conventional ornament is rejected in favor of what Brooks calls "the textural expression of materials and the often lively juxtaposition of various shapes and forms."

I think Brooks’s architectural analysis gives a reasonably good description of a Stebelton poem like "To My Father’s Emperors," drawn from his first full-length collection, Circulation Flowers, which was published by California-based Tougher Disguises Press as the winner of the 2004 Jack Spicer Award. Syntactically, the poem is a single, unpunctuated, run-on sentence, a free linguistic flow. What orders this flow is not any narrative structure but, quite simply, the poetic line itself, breaking the sentence up into thirteen roughly equal units, with about four beats per line. But just as the horizontal planes of a Prairie house are not symmetrical, but overlapping and projecting, the grammatical ambiguity created by Stebelton’s line breaks creates an overlapping effect, where each new line seems to be revising or restating a part of the previous one: "to be the city they had hoped he would come to / be by this next act and looked around the watch." The city of Chicago is, perhaps evoked in this poem, but not through realistic depiction, nor by using obvious landmarks as poetic ornaments. Instead, I would say Stebelton evokes the city texturally, through the juxtaposition of images: "gray garages," "silver balls," "lost tunes," "chrome toasters," "bird shaped pool." The only proper noun is "Loomis," unlikely to be recognized by anyone but a native.

That Stebelton might think of this poetic mode as a distinctively Midwestern practice is suggested by his 2005 chapbook Precious, published by Chicago’s Answer Tag Home Press. Stebelton’s horizontal structures are even more severe here, with the book broken up into numbered sections, most of which consist only of a single line. The urban scene here is not Chicago but the town of Xenia, Ohio. While the narrative we expect might be that of a poet’s looking back at his provincial past from his urban present, Stebelton makes clear that his project is not a nostalgic one: "I come to bury Ohio, not to blame him." In fact, Precious suggests not only the continuity of the Midwestern town and the metropolis, but the continuity of the Midwestern landscape and its cities, creating a sort of urban pastoral. Stebelton’s isolated lines place cattle and casements, turtles and flaneurs in parallel. As in Prairie architecture, the definition of separate planes paradoxically results in a breaking down of borders, a sense of unity, even between the city and the country. Stebelton writes: "Internal conflict inside or outside the park / to walk the city according to plan." If city parks are "green spaces" within the urban fabric, samples of nature set off from the street, Stebelton breaks down those boundaries; we can’t resolve our internal conflicts by displacing them onto artificial distinctions between civilization and nature. In fact, the natural world might provide the perfect "plan" for thinking about the city, just as the open spaces of the prairie suggest a pattern for organizing urban living.

The distinctive textures of Stebelton’s work, and its structural analogies to wide-open Midwestern space, suggests that the idea of a new Prairie School of poetry is not so fanciful after all. New institutions for experimental writing have given work like Stebelton’s a home in Chicago, and Stebelton, along with other poets of the Chicago avant-garde, have responded by marking Chicago writing with a distinctive style. The accomplishments of such work suggests that Chicago’s experimental poetry is becoming a major force not only here, but on the national scene.