Tom Orange
Situation : Distinction : Emergent-Emerging Writing


        An essay written by Paul Valéry is titled "Le Situation de Baudelaire," translated in the Collected English Works as "The Place of Baudelaire."  Our translators may have taken liberties here, for if Valéry wanted to say "place" would he not have said "lieu" or "endroit"?  "Place" comes via Middle English and Middle French alike from Latin "platea," a street or courtyard, whereas both the English and French "situation" are straight from Latin "situ," place.  Why this detour through etymology, which seems either way to take us back to, or puts us back in, place?  Because in talking about place(less Place) I want to think less about place as location and more about place as situation, placement, a manner or posture, a stand or a way of situating oneself in a place.  In some ways it will be impossible for me to avoid place-as-location altogether, since I am ultimately concerned about the place of contemporary poetry, what takes place there and how I place myself in relation to it.  But a place(less place) is for me less a place without place, or a place that is nowhere, a no-place or utopia; rather, a place less place, place with its placeness subtracted and leaving as the remainder: a situation, a situating.  This then would be the place of contemporary poetry, its situation.

        But to speak of contemporary poetry is already to demarcate too vast a place.  You have to give this situation more specificity, but the proper vocabulary escapes me.  The term "avant-garde" seems presumptuous if not anachronistic; "experimental" writing, all writing is experimental; "linguistically innovative" risks eliding visual, semantic, and other material and perceptual innovations; post-so-called-language writing, with all the requisite and multiply-embedded scare quotes that would require so much qualification as to foreclose other more fruitful discussion...

        Perhaps then it's best, given the historical specificity our conference organizers have chosen, to talk about emergent and emerging writers.  In an essay entitled "Emerging Avant-Garde Poetries and the Post-Language Crisis" (which, as you may gather by the title and from what I have already said, I have some problems with), Mark Wallace uses the word "emerging" exclusively.  I prefer to use "emergent" and "emerging" together because the former has a feel of facticity, of accomplishment to it, while still also carrying the sense of "continuing emergence" that the latter is more limited to.  And there are certainly people here who I think "have emerged," if not fully, at least with a great deal of accomplishment, which never ceases to inspire and humble me at the same time.

        Now Wallace does some very useful things in his essay, one of which is to identify several key points of crisis for emergent-emerging writers.  The essay was first published in 1995; certainly many things have happened in just three years, but still it strikes me that it is always de rigeur for poetry, criticism, theory, to be in crisis, at least since Mallarmé, who gave his lecture "Crise de Vers" to an all but completely befuddled Oxford audience just over 100 years ago.  And perhaps the status of our own "crisis"ˇhas it passed, did it ever exist, how do we place or situate ourselves in relation to it?ˇcan be subjected to more discussion this weekend.

        For Wallace, the crisis goes beyond an emergent-emerging writer's effort to establish an identity, to continue working in the face of sheer adversityˇthese are givens for many writers under many socio-historic conditions: perhaps moreso today, perhaps not.  Additionally, Wallace argues for other factors contributing to the crisis, factors that I find less compelling, for example: 1) the emphasis placed by some members of the movement on critical writing as a supplement to poetic production, which suggests that emergent-emerging writers must of necessity take up similar critical engagements; 2) access to better funding mechanisms afforded to Language Writing that are presumed to be lacking today; 3) a strong, localized infrastructure of dialogue, publishing and distribution, also taken to be lacking for emergent-emerging writers.  While I don't dismiss the relevance of these factors outright, I think sufficient counter-arguments can be mountedˇalthough this talk is not the time or placeˇin each case so as to render them less tenable.  Suffice it to say that Wallace's compulsion to make these claims inheres in his decision to take Language Writing as the paradigm for current experimental or avant-garde writing practices.

        Perhaps most spurious of all claimsˇand here I agrees with Wallaceˇis that emergent-emerging writers are doing nothing that has not been done before.  In one of the recent Philly Talks, Ron Silliman asks,

what is it about language writing and all that has come after, that there has been no moment nor movement that has crystallized in anything like the same way poetry did in the early 1970s?  For all the anthologies of young writers, many of them extraordinarily gifted, what do we find in the way of work that is actually new?  I think this must be the challenge that now faces every young writer. (np)
        To which I respond no, Ron, the challenge is to radically question the assumptions inherent in a statement such as this, which uncritically privileges the "new" in a directly forced and untenable opposition to the "derivative," continues to inscribe Language writingˇwhich is itself in many ways "derivative" of what came before itˇas the paradigmatic moment or movement in innovative writing, and finally, fetishizes the very notions of "moment," "movement," and "crystallization" as definitional to any writing practice that can or wants to be considered "successful."

        The most salient observation Wallace makes in regard to the crisis for emergent-emerging writers today concerns the multiplicity of theoretical and practical engagements currently embraced by emergent-emerging writers and the dangers that such multiplicity can bring with it.  Such multiplicity makes formulating even the most broadly-based consensus of poetic concerns and interests extremely difficult.  With no clear opposition in sight and no clear political or aesthetic agendaˇand unlike Language writers who, if not actually possessing at least presented themselves as possessing such unified agendasˇemergent-emerging writers appear directionless, ungrounded, in short, to lack purpose.

        I think this is a very real and legitimate issue, one that demands a carefully considered response.  For it is true that, if a diversity of concerns and interests is something that distinguishes emergent-emerging writers, then there is a real risk of what, for lack of better terms, I would call: unrestrained pluralism, proliferations of heterogeneity for its own sake, writing as an excess of, hence without, distinction.  (While this may sound like a version of the "slippery slope" argument, what I am describing is an upper bound or limit case: neither difference nor identity can exist in a pure state, one unadulaterated by the other, and "distinction" as I am constructing it is doubly-bound, a mark of identity and differeance.)  Still, a deliberated and self-conscious pluralism can and should be central to emergent-emerging writers both individually and collectively; the problem then becomes how to forge marks of distinction while still retaining the kind of pluralism I've tentatively described.

        At the risk of drifting too afar into abstraction, perhaps some brief examples will help illustrate the point I am trying to make about distinction and pluralism within the emergent-emerging situation.  Distinction is placed upon any writing situation both from within and without.  Current writing, for example, can be and often is distinguished as "post-language," "spiritualist/gnostic," or, more geographically, "xth-generation New York School," "West Coast," "New Coast," etc.  Such distinctions are both necessary and dangerous.  For example, Scott Pound notes in a recent issue of Open Letter how works by Lisa Robertson and Dan Farrell, both produced at roughly the same time (the mid-90s) in the same place (Vancouver) by the same publisher (Tsunami), nevertheless create "language environments" which are "radically distinct" from one another (39).  Here one essential level of distinction, namely that of situation as time + place (distinction as discernment of the socio-historical situatedness of writings), works to obfuscate a deeper and perhaps more profound level of distinction, namely that of unique and heterogeneous "language envirnoments" (distinction as differentiation of writings irreducible to a site-specific condition of production).

        As another example, I would point to the current wave of anthologies now vying for consumer attention.  Such anthologies are essential to anyone attempting to keep up with emergent/emerging writing.  When I come across a writer whose work I am not familiar with, I go to such anthologies where I can be told a great deal not only by the work itself but also by the presence (and/or absence) of a given writer in one or more anthologies as well.  Thus anthologies represent an enormously powerful mode of distinction: while offering a body of writing (i.e., a discernable writing situation) in one handy package, they also riskˇand in doing so stake a claim toˇdistinguishing certain bodies of emergent-emerging writing from others (i.e., differentation of this writing situation over an other).  One recent anthology, we are toldˇby Silliman no less!ˇshould not at all be read as "In the American Tree: The Outtakes" or "Language Poetries: The Next Generation" (371), which preemptorily calls all the more attention to how it in fact can be read; another anthology claims that its writers affiliate with New American Poetry, the New York School, and Language Writing, yet "without...sharing in [the latter] school's agenda for poetic hegemony" (Schwartz 2), thus implicitly posing along with diversity a corrective counter-hegemony of its own in the same breath; and a third anthology, by virtue of its title, presents an anxious nostalgia for the kind of distinction that the Donald Allen anthology offered to poetic producers and consumers now 40 years past. (Jarnot)

        Finally, a more personal example.  A friend in Toronto introduces me to other writers there as "an American poet making good in Canada," and at once I am flattered and alarmed by the distinction and the situation in which it finds and places me.  I've lived in the States for all but the past three years, but only in Canada have I begun to emerge as a writer.  My publications appear in Canadian journals or with a Canadian academic affiliation.  A Zukofsky book on my shelf may identify me as an American, next to a Robert Kroetsch or Bill Bissett book which might be more of a Canadian distinction.  As a result, I end up finding jointly in London Ontario, Toronto, and Buffalo, a place(less place), a situation or placement that supports and conditions my work moreso than any one place.

        And I think the key for emergent-emerging writers today is to be concerned less with place than with situation, situatedness, an awareness of situating conditions.  Wallace writes that "the kind of cultural environment that faces emerging writers as they attempt to define their practice calls for a slowly developing, careful articulation that at the same time it seems to prevent" (my italics), and that the "commonality" that emergent-emerging writers share "arises from, more than being imposed upon, the circumstances in which these writers find themselves."  Where Wallace speaks of "circumstances" I would of course say "situations" and insist that we not allow (to use his words) our cultural environments to prevent slowly developing, careful articulationsˇor (to use my words) our situations to place us or to impose themselves on us. Rather, that we place ourselves in situations with considered deliberation.  In a recent essay in the Chicago Review, Jed Rasula writes that

literary history is not really about priority but about agency: not who did it first, but who coordinated doing with knowing, poetry with poetics. The terms of succession are contingent upon the fact that the known has limits, and going beyond the discernable limits (even if only to rediscover something previously known but obscured by the more recently and prominently known) is "experiment." Experiment is whatever is at hand when the next is not self evident. (29)
        What Rasula calls agency is for me the deliberated placement of writing in a situation; his discernable limits of the known involves distinction as I have attempted to describe it here; together, the situation and distinction of emergent-emerging writing must work towards the seeing of what is at hand as a way of gesturing towards what is not yet self-evident.

Works Cited

Jarnot, Lisa, Leonard Schwartz, and Chris Stroffolino, eds.  An Anthology of New (American)  Poetry.  Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1998.

Pound, Scott.  "Environment as Process."  Disgust and Overdetermination: A Poetics Issue, ed.  Jeff Derksen.  Open Letter 10.1 (Winter 1998).  37-43.

Rasula, Jed.  "Ten Different Fruits on One Different Tree: Experiment as Claim of the Book."   Chicago Review 43.4 (Fall 1997).  28-37.

Schwartz, Leonard, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster, eds.  Primary Trouble: An Anthology  of Contemporary American Poetry.  Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1996.

Silliman, Ron.  Philly Talks 3.  With Jeff Derksen.  Locust Walk, PA: Kelly Writers House,  1998.

---.  "Afterword."  The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets.  Ed. Dennis Barone and Peter  Ganick.  Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets, 1994.  371-379.

Wallace, Mark.  "Emerging Avant-Garde Poetries and the Post-Language Crisis."  World Wide  Web.  URL <>.