Thursday, June 24, 2010

Response to Comments on "The Academic Compromise" Post

Several thoughtful comments to my post the other day–from Brandon Brown and Konrad Steiner and Juliana Spahr in particular–that I wanted to respond to. You may want to read them before proceeding.

Dear Brandon, Konrad, and Juliana,

Hugs back, and thanks for the responses. I think Brandon hits on something crucial here regarding the "similitude" proposed in Juliana's comparison. I'll get to that in a minute.

First, Juliana, my point was not to attack you personally, and I don't think I did, though I admittedly used some harsh adjectives to critique the tone of the passage, and perhaps could have chosen a few other passages from other writers so it didn't seem as if I were responding solely to your paper (NB: links to blog itself. I don't see a permalink link, so scroll down for J's paper). As both Jonathan Skinner and you noted (JS on FB), we are more in agreement than not about many things, and much of your poetics work speaks for itself.

However, that image of the unmatching chairs stuck, sticks, in my craw, and I felt I had to address what I see as a kind of tone the academy often takes towards we in the community of those unmatched chairs. I wasn't there, and I didn't hear you speak that passage aloud, so I have only what you wrote as a basis on which to make a judgment. What I "hear" in that tone is someone in the academy speaking to others in the academy about what is outside the academy. I hear someone making a joke about something that I and many others do either for a living or out of love or both. You may not have intended this, but from here it sounded derisive.

Which brings me back to Brandon's point about the similitude thing, which might be more like a question than a response, and which is probably something about which we might all have a great conversation over coffee or the internet sometime. Or maybe now?

What could be read into Juliana's 'similitude' is a question like the one I was also proposing, which might read something like this: The "loving social" of the poetry reading outside the university is proposed as an "alternative" to the presentation of poetry outside the academy. If that is the case, if it is to be a true alternative, then what other forms besides the 'two poets reading' format might it take?

(But for whom and to whom are we asking this question? If we are asking it to the audience inside the academy, are we not asking the authority structure itself to develop a set of acceptable alternatives to its own formats and structures? and in so doing, are we not also implicitly accepting the authority of those institutions? I am reminded of being at a poetry conference in Cuba in 2000, where all of the poets were invited to a q & a with the Minister of Culture, who praised the Cuban lit mag Azoteas for being an act of resistance. It was a model of resistance, he said, which is why we have given them space in the House of Letters Building in Havana. An Argentinian poet/editor then asked the bold question, "If they are housed in a government building, then what, exactly, are they resisting?" The minister's response was predictably evasive, "We must resist hunger, and scarcity, and capitalism....")

I think the world outside is presenting alternatives to the academic model and can and will continue to do so. However, I think the academy authority structure tends to be blind to these alternatives so long as they question or reject its authority. Which is ok by me, but I think within the academy the acceptance of authority is such that there is a common (not shared by you, Juliana, let me be explicit) belief that if something is of value, the university will eventually discover it, and that if they don't, well, then it probably wasn't that interesting in the first place.

Ok, sorry, I am being more critical than I intended to be. I work closely with local universities in ways that are very fruitful, so I should point out some ways that this works, too. Universities do have the means, but they don't always have the knowledge of contemporary poetry to be able to program effectively, especially if they don't have a poet/organizer on staff with those interests.

I have had a great relationship with Buffalo State College over the years wherein I bring about four writers per academic year to campus to meet with students. They read or answer questions or give a workshop or a talk, depending on what is needed. The university pays for this in a way that I cannot. I bring them the writer, they give me the money that pays for the visit, and then I get to present a writer I could not have otherwise have afforded to present in my series (or one I could, who I can now pay a respectable sum for their work).

I have also worked closely with the Poetics Program. Sometimes we plan events together, as we have similar aesthetic interests, other times we split things up. Poet/critics do their critical performance at the university and their poetry performance in the community. A useful model, I think for everyone, as it utilizes the strengths of all involved and everyone seems to benefit.

Maybe the more fruitful (and friendly) question to ask is, What would you like to see happen at poetry readings that you don't see now? Where would you like to see it happen? What do you hope to see a reading accomplish that you don't now? What are some alternative formats that the poetry reading might take? What do we value in the "loving social" that we can build on in the poetry community?

Poetics is, etymologically speaking, "a making," and so I think our energies are always best spent by making stuff and putting it into the world, be that stuff poetry or reading series or essays or neo-benshi performances or whatever. What the academy chooses to do with that stuff is up to them.

Love to you all.


Anonymous said...

Having read Juliana's paper, I think you are missing it's point--and imputing arguments that you substitute from a much bigger ongoing dilemma, arguments she doesn't make.

She doesn't argue against the "loving social" or come anywhere near mocking it. In fact, it seems to be a central and positive attribute for her. But what she does point out is precisely the ways that the academic structure overlaps with or infects or colonizes or fruitfully works with or might work better with the "alternative" structure.

It's easy for people outside the academy (and maybe even easier for the guilt-ridden within it) to simply *claim* non-academic reading series/etc as pure and alternative and free of power or least they're not that big, icky, complicit machine, right? But nothing works that simply in this culture of hierarchy and capital. If there is power, it will have effects.

The easy rebellion is to set up an strict dichotomy and pretend that the "good" bears no imprint of the "evil." A much better approach, I think, is the one that Juliana took: Dissecting how both operate, noting strengths and failings, ultimately and *strategically* focusing on the good intentions behind the social processes and on how to further them.

One might disagree with the ideas she comes up with, but dissolving everything into camps of power-perverted academics and noble, community-minded rebels, doesn't really get us anywhere. Especially when, demographically, at any given reading, in any given community, it's nearly impossible to decide who is who.

Anonymous said...

My paper was written for a conference of mainly academics in an academic setting and thus was about the academy. It is not a paper I would have written for an audience at say Just Buffalo. So that is why it did not take up this question of the community reading series that much. Not for lack of interest but for lack of audience.

Sorry about the chairs. The image seems a little endearing to me rather than dismissive.

I like your stories of fruitful working with higher education. This seems crucial. I keep thinking that there an endless series of possibilities and limitations here and we might all benefit from some specific talk about what works and what not. At moments, higher education has more resources. These are often taxpayer resources (even at private schools) and they should be put to do “good” for the larger cultural, not just university culture. So rob the coffers. Or take back what is “y/ours.”

If I had to say “talk with” an audience of say Just Buffalo about the sort of work or thinking that poetry does outside of the academy, or if I could get Brandon to agree to talk with me at the next reading, my questions would be your same questions:

“What would you like to see happen at poetry readings that you don't see now? Where would you like to see it happen? What do you hope to see a reading accomplish that you don't now? What are some alternative formats that the poetry reading might take? What do we value in the ‘loving social’ that we can build on in the poetry community?”

I don’t yet have the answer. It would be, I hope, something that we would all have to take up.

I’m interested in Stephanie mentioning Rubin’s work in her talk (

And I’m wondering what we might learn if we spent some time thinking with some of these relational art practices (even if in critique of some of them). I see your dinner story as something similar. (I remember at JB readings back in the day that there would be this delicious huge platter of wings at the end of the reading and still the audience looked like the same audience at the Wednesdays at 4 series. Glad to hear it has changed.)

I’m also interested in alliance.

And I’m thinking back to a reading Rita Wong did at that Vancouver conference where every poem she read had a politicized claim of alliance.

And I’m thinking a lot about how C A Conrad uses poetry in his engagements with the political sphere.

I’m thinking also about that Paul Chan film where he interviews Lyn Stewart about reading poetry to a jury that Joan Retallack mentioned at that conference.

And I’m thinking about Mark Nowak’s various sorts of workshops with auto workers in Detroit and South Africa and him performing his work for the Sago mine community and etc. (long list here of Mark’s work here; I’m studying him.)

And I’m thinking about Haunani-Kay Trask saying that poetry is a crucial part of the sovereignty movement in Hawai‘i.

Last weekend Kaplan Harris had this list of benefit readings that he had seen advertised in Poetry Flash. It ended in the 80s. I keep thinking about that with sadness.

This is just a start. But these all feel like the sorts of thinkings with poetry that probably can’t happen in the akademy or that maybe need both the akademy and the kommunity. The loving social of the community supported art though might be best suited for this sort of work, best suited to take loving in a new direction.


p.s. Can I just say, because I’ve seen so much of it this week, that I worry that the endless attention to the academy as the problem somewhat distracts every one in their individual selves (no “us” here) from more important sorts of thinking together. In other words, talking endlessly about the academy as one single evil thing takes up our time to talk about other sorts of issues that matter more. How about the question of an anti-racist poetry community? How about seriously acknowledging some of poetry’s already existing ties to activisms and supporting them?

konrad said...

"that if something is of value, the university will eventually discover it, and that if they don't, well, then it probably wasn't that interesting in the first place."

It would be sad if the extramural community is seen simply as a realm for extending the reach of the academy, or alternatively, as being an R&D department or raw materials for scholarship.

For six years i co-curated experimental film events in the Bay Area, first for a non-affiliated, non-profit institution, SF Cinematheque, then starting a completely independent and UNfunded screening series. In each case we had strong alligiances with academies (SFSU, UC Berkeley/PFA, Cal College of Art), and civic institutions and non-profits (Yerba Buena Center, Artists Television Access), and other organizations (Arab Film Festival, Third I South Asian Fest, SFIFF).

The intramural/extramural dichotomy can get overstated, which i think is what everyone is saying here, but that still leaves the questions of how in a practical way the two zones relate.

A great example actually involved Jonathan Skinner himself giving a talk before the screening of a film. This film by Cathy Cook on Lorine Neidecker had been brought to my attention, and together with funding from Small Press Traffic, SFSU Poetry Center, kino21 (our no-profit screening series) and Artists Television Access (all volunteer org) put on the event. Total crossover audience packed the space.

This put forth as an example, just to add to Juliana's amd Mike's, of that cooperation that recognizes how the greater community includes and exceeds the academic world, not the other way around.

Whether or not there is any significance to the "matching chairs" figure (just a metonym for underfunded?) or the "better at loving" figure (love and strife are well documented in and out of the academy), it seems that there is only benefit from recognizing the mutuality, even interdependance of intra and extra-mural scenes. Maybe with a little trust, the intra- can give up a little of its authority to partner more productively (and without any sense of cooptation) with the extra-.

In answer to the question of what would one like to see, my personal interest has always been to see more artists of different media come together in the same audience. Big Night does it, kino21 did it, Late Night Snack did it, the reading series at 21 Grand does it ... but it doesn't really happen in the academic series, does it? That's a programming question. It's also my sense of a direction to go to continue to exceed boundaries.