Having spent the better part of the morning reading the various reports on the Rethinking Poetics conference, I find myself feeling a mixture of sadness, resignation, anger and despair.
(None of which, by the way, has anything to do with poetry or poetics per se, which seem to me to be alive and well and operating in a period of high creative and ideological ferment. It was no too long ago, you might recall, that there was no Flarf, no Conceptual Poetry, no Slow Poetry, no post-Avant, no School of Quietude, no American Hybrid, no Third Way to argue about. If one excludes the most successful poetry movement of the 90's, The Poetry Slam, on, say, the specious grounds that it is primarily performative and therefore not "literary" per se, then what you would have found circa 1999 was language writing, which one might love or hate, and which was already at that time a historical artifact, and then a sort of vaguely defined "mainstream" of confessional poetry, dubbed Official Verse Culture by Charles Bernstein. People back then sort of idly wondered what would happen next, or even if anything would or could ever happen again, if we were not at the very end of poetic history. The Millennium was nigh.)
My negative feelings derive mostly from the lack of imagination evident about poetry's operation within the academy and without.
Much handwringing seems to have occurred, and likely still is occurring, all over this great land, about the academic power structure and its relationship to poetry. People seem worried that by sucking at the teat of sweet mama academe they will be perceived as somehow lacking in poetry street cred, once known as "authenticity," a concept rooted in the outlier poetics of the New American Poets, who built up their street cred outside the academy, mostly without higher degrees, certainly with little institutional backing, before most of those who didn't die young eventually found themselves in some way or other part of these same institutions they once avoided.
Today's poets just skip over that first part and head right to the academic, pseudo-bohemian playpen.
They seem to be asking themselves and each other (and any of the 75 or so people in the country who care to listen): if I accept the academic power structure, can I still be a rebel within it, and can my personal/political rebellion from within be as authentic as the rebellion of someone outside of that structure? Given that there is almost no poetry power structure to speak of outside the academy, the answer is a flat, "No." In it is of it.
An entire generation of academics filled the academy's head with the idea that academic work was on a par with, and as efficacious as street level action, that by changing the way people do their homework, they were actually changing society in a way someone, say a social worker or a union organizer, was not. Some deluded themselves into thinking that this approach to political action was in fact superior to the "hands-on" of other kinds of work. AND you got summers off and travel money and sabbaticals and tenure, unlike those other poor suckers out there dependent on city budgets, union negotiations, private foundations and the will of the political class in order to even have a a modestly-paid job to do.
Now, I think we all know this. We all understand that on some level working in the academy is about having a job that allows a poet time to do something he or she really wants to do, i.e., write poetry, and that, most of our justifications to the contrary, it's really about that, and that "that," i.e., the intellectual compromise one has to make in order to derive from the academy its many comforts and benefits, is in fact just that, a compromise. Not a sellout, a compromise, an agreement that says we are willing to accept enough of the hierarchy and enough of the power structure and enough of the judgment of these institutions to allow us to benefit from them without besmirching our poetry street cred.
Just take a sip and swallow, it will all be over soon, just like it never happened at all.
But I want to return to an earlier point, that "there is almost no poetry power structure to speak of outside of the academy." This is not quite true. There is no poetry power structure outside the academy upon which we can reasonably rely for authority. The primary function of the academy is to produce (and reproduce) authority. And let's face it, they're good at it. They've been doing it for hundreds of years. They write well, they're organized, and they know how to stick together. It's a very effective arrangement, and by accepting that authority, we can, we hope, benefit from it.
Those places that produce authority outside the academy: publications, pressess, reading series, not-for-profit literary centers, blogs, etc., all fail to produce even a modicum of the authority that comes from even a single one of the Marjorie Perloff's of the world. They have the authority of their institutions behind them and around them, and they have learned to make great use of their power. The same can be said for many poets, even some of those wringing their hands.
Part of this lack stems from the fact that most non-academic organizations are born as a reaction against some kind of institutional authority. As an "alternative" to that authority. Most seem to want to free themselves from it, not necessarily to re-create it in another form. This can be perceived as a kind of weakness. I don't see it that way, but many do. Many crave the structure of authority the academic environment provides, while simultaneously ranting against its particular judgments.
Which brings me to my point: there is no getting away from the academic power structure from within. It's too strong, too old, too good at what it does. (Lest this be taken as a rant against the university, let me say it is not. I am just trying to name a problem I see with the form of this discussion).
Which leads me to my next point: poetry communities, contrary to Juliana Spahr's assertion regarding the Bay Area Communities, can and do exist outside the academy. They even thrive. They thrive because they do things differently than the academy does. However, in order for them to do this, they must first wash themselves of the dirt of academic structures, functions and authority.
For instance, the poetry reading format, which Juliana describes thus:
But some days when I look at the social formation around the Bay Area outside of the academy, all I see is a claim to a loving social as the difference. Everything else looks the same. The reading series is the reading series. Perhaps the chairs don’t match at the community reading series, but otherwise the community and university reading series happen with two readers behind a podium in a somewhat darkened room. The readers read, often in the same week. The same audience shows up. The reading group of the loving community is reading the same books that are read in the seminar down the street. The only difference is the claim to be better at loving, better at the after party.
This, in my opinion cynical and demeaning, view of poetry outside the academy as being the domain of a bunch of well-intentioned schmucks too stupid or lazy to get hip to the benefits of the academy, is wrong and wrongheaded, and reveals the kind of presuppositions one swallows when making the academic compromise.
The problem with the kinds of communities and readings Juliana describes is not the fact that they are "the same" as academic, only poorer & less well-dressed, but rather that these kinds of reading series seek, albeit outside of an academic context, to appease the same power structure whose compromises they hope to elude. By setting up a reading in the classic "two poets reading" format and/or by ignoring forms of poetry not discussed or accepted within current academic discourse, they seek, implicitly or ex-, to attract to their series members of said power structure, perhaps either to convert them to their way of life, or at least to go tell their fellows it's safe to go outside, that things won't be totally "other" beyond the ivory tower.
There are other models. Pause. There are OTHER models.
In 2007 I read at the "Late Night Snack" series in LA, curated and hosted by Harold Abramowitz and Mattthew Timmons. The reading took place in a gallery in the basement of a Chinese restaurant Dowtown. No one even took the stage until about 11 PM (hence the series' title). On a school night, no less! Several male and female poets read, some local, some from out of town, like me. One guy read an essay. A young woman played the banjo and sang. Another pair of women performed a sort of comedy routine using an accordian. There was food. People ate, drank. sang, listened, laughed. Everyone went home smiling. No one wrang their hands about the "authenticity" of the event or its participants. We all had a good time.
Harold and Matt had inspired me. When I returned to Buffalo, where I live, having come here for a PhD in Poetics, and having abandoned that endeavor (I walked with my MA, for those wondering about my credentials), in order to do the work I do now, as a literary curator for a local not-for-profit arts center, I said to Aaron Lowinger, who helps me curate poetry readings, "Aaron, I hate the 'two poets reading' format. Let's stop it now and do something else. The only rule is that it has to be fun."
We came up with a new format and a new series, which we called "Big Night." Poetry, of course, is at the center of these events, but it is not the only medium present. There is always food. Geoff Gatza, a chef, donates his labor and for the cost of food and supplies (about 100 dollars) serves up enough food to feed 100 people. He does this out of love for the social, or the "loving social" that IS an important difference between academic and non-academic poetry readings. Many people come to hear these avant-garde poets just for the food. Some of them even walk away with an appreciation for the poetry. But food is not the only attraction to these events, which feature avant-garde film, video, music and performance art, poets theater performances, dance parties, art exhibitions, video installations--hell, we even invite fiction writers sometimes.
The effect of this is to have created a provisional, yet exciting and fun, community centered on poetry AND the loving social AND the belief that poetry benefits from its association with other art forms and withers when it isolates itself from those other forms, especially when it does so in conference and seminar rooms. We have had audiences of up to 150. Some even come from the Poetics Program, and they are welcome members of the community, though they are neither the target audience nor the sole reason for putting on these events. Students and poets come, teachers and artists come, musicians, filmmakers, parents, philanthropists, even the occasional rambling and disruptive drunk come. More importantly, we see different audiences at the different events, and we have also developed a core audience for primarily post-Avant poetry in Buffalo.
(I should note, that there is a LONG history of university-based avant-garde poetic and artistic activity in Buffalo, which at various times has extended into the non-academic community to positive effect, and that the longevity of that institution, combined with the efforts of outside organizations such as Just Buffalo and Hallwalls, has created a remarkably welcoming and fruitful atmosphere for all kinds of experimental practices in this small, snowbound city.)
I don't present this test case to toot my own institutional horn. I present it to make the point that there is poetic life outside the academy, and that it operates on a different order. Academic events differ in one key respect: the measure of success. Inside the academy, the measure of success can be set up as a neat equation: size of reputation of readers divided by the number of important audience members equals the ratio of success (this also works well in New York City). Outside the academy, the measure varies. For us, for now, the presentation of a broad array of poets, artists, forms, genres and media before a large, diverse and changing audience, all toward the end of making a vibrant, loving poetry social, are the measure. O yeah, and having a good time. Poetry can also be pleasurable.
The academy will never accept a social hierarchy or authority structure outside itself, so if you want to be outside, you have to actually BE outside. This means NOT deriving the benefits the acadamy bestows on those willing to make the compromise. It also means you don't have to sit through academic conferences ever again, unless you're into that kind of thing.