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,
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."
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)
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
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,
"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
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.
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)
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.