It is the imposing
of all those antecedent predecessions, the precessions
of me, the generation of those facts
which are my words, it is coming
from all that I no longer am, yet am,
the slow westward motion of
more than I am
There is no strict personal order
for my inheritance.
—Charles Olson, from “Maximus to Gloucestor, Letter
But the strange thing about the realization of existence is that like
a train moving there is
no real realization of it moving if it does not move against something and so that is what
generation does it shows that moving is existing. So then there are generations and in a
way that too is not important because, and this thing is a thing to know, if and we in
America have tried to make this thing a real thing, if the movement, that is any
movement, is lively enough, perhaps it is possible to know that it is moving even if it is
not moving against anything.
—Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition”
If anything of moment results, so much the better.
—William Carlos Williams, Spring & All
Once, in conversation with a friend, I said I wrote poetry in search
of a mother. He said
he didn’t think he wrote poetry in search of a mother, but that that was interesting. I
remember this today as I read Irigaray’s Sexes+Genealogies, as I have been reading An
Ethics of Sexual Difference, which both reflect her concern for the need to inscribe a
feminine genealogy—not as biological imperative, but as a cultural one, a philosophical
and political one—because we live in a culture, an era, where the feminine remains largely
uninscribed, where women have little influence in how we perceive our world—our
myths, images, institutions, our very notion of the subject, the language user. Once I’d
learned—when we were students of Donald Revell together—that poetry doesn’t have to
construct an identity (born of experience), that lyric “imitations,” or more likely
“renditions,” what passes in the main as poetry today, are but one objection (I meant to
write option) in the range of ways language can occupy space, I thought I was free of
thinking about poetry in terms of identity. Yet a search, as I thought I might have been
undertaking, for a mother is a search for a relationship out of which to render an identity.
Irigaray points out that a feminist genealogy needs to be created to exist alongside the
existing one. As a female inserting myself in a mostly male tradition: in which the
practice of writing poetry is rendered as a male endeavor—or in any case an endeavor at
which men (have) succeed(ed) at a greater rate than women—such a “search” on my part,
and such an ethics, made sense.
And still, I can’t get away from the “I” in my poetry. Though
that “I” is not me it can’t be
denied that using the “I” in language constructs an identity. A current poem I am
working on is an epic and an autobiography in the sense that it is a self-inscribed life of
To take this another way entirely, when I said to my friend that I wrote
poetry in search
of a mother, I remember distinctly thinking of Bernadette Mayer; the desire is not so
simple as to have been her daughter, as fruitful as that might have been. I don’t think I
meant, to move over into metaphor, that I was in search of a genealogy of mother-
writers—a not uncommon feminist project. I don’t consider my self a feminist, and I’m
wary of my making of that project.
Perhaps we can turn some of our attention toward our poetic parentages
(maybe we can
come up with a better term that that!) and see where that takes us in terms of the
questions of how we use language in the space (or the way?) we call poetry, and whether
that use has anything to do with identity (a location) and/or subjectivity (as a way of
making use of that location). Whether being a poet is always an act of insertion, that
poetics is a making and not a bearing; that corporeal metaphor again…
A problem with literary genealogy is that it’s sloppy with its own metaphor.
As this way
of history-making goes, the descendents of a given literary “father” (and I agree that this
has been constructed almost exclusively along patriarchal lines) are judged according to
their resemblance to that poet’s mode of writing, and conversely, moving in the opposite
direction, a given poet chooses his poetic parents according to what influences he sees (or
would like to see) active in his work. But this isn’t how families work at all! I don’t bear
any resemblance to my parents. My father has bright red curly hair, and my mother has
black curly hair—go figure. And in terms of values, attitudes, interests, etc., we have very
little (very little) in common. What makes us related, what makes us family, isn’t
resemblance at all, but direct connection, blood. And I certainly didn’t choose them as
my parents. In fact, I’d say that the most important aspect of our relatedness is all those
little behaviors that I didn’t chose and that I don’t see, but that nevertheless have been
inherited from them.
The same goes for poetry. Thinking in terms of poetic inheritances
and relatedness might
lend, for me, to thinking in terms of all the little ticks, lacunae, and excitements I’ve
picked up along the way. Or maybe it’s something altogether other than that?
As you point out, a search for a mother is a search for a relationship
out of which to
render an identity, and certainly parentage is a system of pointing. I am that son and the
son of this person, which is quite different from influence—a usual way of talking about
poetry—where “influence” is explanatory and moves in the direction of pedigree,
something that feels quite alien to my own sense of poetic identity.
So how do we think in terms of poetic parentage as a pointing and a
instead of as resemblance or influence? Maybe this is what makes our project not a
feminist one, or at least not a feminist one as that’s commonly understood, and makes it
something else? Or to take this another way, how do we talk about poetic inheritance
without replacing one dissatisfactory tradition with an alternative, also-so-to-be-
Inheritance is not about resemblances; it is not a selective lineage-making
drawn from the
threat or anxiety of influences, which suggests a (masculine) privilege on the part of poets
to select (and stand outside of) one’s situation. Instead, inheritance as a alternate model,
is a means of recognizing the situation into which one inserts oneself in ‘being’ a
poet—i.e. the conditions to which one may, must, or may not respond.
Circumstance is impersonal, inexplicable, and enters into the process
of making poems.
It is not comprised solely of one’s life and personal idiosyncracies, but also of the world
in which one exists.
Inheritance is a model of understanding the situation in which one writes
poetry that is
not based on genealogy, a model of literary lineage which takes genetics as its metaphor
and appeals to the notion of family but only to do something very different: a selection
made retrospectively and out of context.
One’s inheritance is a context in which one responds rather than, like
genealogy, a last
link in a chain of causality, where response is predetermined by what has come before.
Response arises from circumstance
Response is potential, latent
Response is potentially variable—not responding is a response
Response is unprecedented—only know when it happens
Necessitates re-evaluation, questions “what is poetry”
Predominant modes of production—
Seizure of power
As a history of responses
An obligation to a tradition & the continuation of that lineage
Influence, rather than inheritance; encourages propriety rather than departure
What counts as “response” is a basis for inclusion/exclusion
Not responding in this model is to not exist;
Encourages dismissal; questions “is this poetry or not”
Predominate modes of production—
Prominence earned, granted
Reproduction of existing structures
Given these two models that account for two ways of responding to poetry
as an activity
with a history and an immediacy, our project is to develop an apt critical vocabulary to
locate ourselves in terms of inheritance. In doing so, we will need to ask how to position
figures historically if we’re moving away from the model of lineage? Do we merely need
to locate predecessors in order to locate ourselves? Or do other factors come into play in
determining our inheritance? What in poetry constitutes responding to circumstances?
And when one removes the certainty that the lineage model provides, how does one know
that one’s response is taking the form of poetry and not something else? How do you
know whether a particular poetic mode/device is (still) a viable or efficacious response?
How do we make commitments to given writing practices without, by default, being
entered into a school or literary influence?
Constructing a school of influence—often rendered patronymically—is
affect of constructing a lineage. Rather, we hope for a model that accounts for invention
and for various contemporary responses to a circumstance without limiting these by
naming, in the way that the term Language Poetry inadequately invokes various and
sundry writing practices undertaken contemporaneously, that is, in response to
contemporary, and often localized, circumstances.
[Linda interviews Greg:]
L: Greg, how do you think being in Buffalo has affected your writing?
G: I’d say the primary change is in my writing practice – in that it
has become almost
entirely electronic, mostly email – the mode of production has changed. An enervating
L: Shift from what?
G: From hand writing in a notebook.
L: Is this because your location precludes other non-electronic writing opportunities?
G: Precludes, no, but it does encourage electronic writing. I’m
referring specifically to
core-l, and I’m doing a lot of teaching by email too.
L: And is your poetry writing affected by this trend?
G: um . . .[pauses] In terms of quantity yes, in terms of what I’m writing, I’m not sure.
L: What of the quantity?
G: It’s shut it down, blowed it up, turned it aside.
L: Is it because this [academic] context foregrounds these technologies
or because your
time demands have changed?
G: Neither, primarily. I think that the way in which it has shifted
into an almost entirely
electronic medium, a medium I’ve never used before – rather it’s a feeling of saturation:
there’s so much being done here, written, that there’s no point in repeating, there’s
nothing left to do.
L: In terms of poetry?
G: [nods] In terms of poetry, in terms of literary history.
L: Are you referring to your peers, other students here?
G: I’m referring to them, yes, and to . . . I’m left with all sorts
of dumb phrases: the
poetry scene, the poetry discourse . . .
L: [joins in litany] The community of poets at large . . .
G: I guess another way of putting it is I’m left with a feeling of belatedness
L: In your experience is that peculiar to being here? Did you feel that way last year?
G: I think to a degree it is peculiar to being here. What’s peculiar
about this place is it’s a
hot spot, it has its own history, there are a lot of like-minded people here.
L: Presently here, or here as an inheritance?
G: Well as an inheritance, but what I’m talking about at the moment is the present.
L: Isn’t that sort of a defeatist attitude: beaten by one’s own circumstance?
G: I don’t think it’s an attitude. An attitude is a chosen stance
towards a circumstance.
I’m saying this is a circumstance.
L: The circumstance promotes the “feeling” – belatedness – and to a
(“there’s nothing I can do”); if there is no “attitude” involved it can only be because you
are not responding to the circumstance, but are merely existing according to its dictates.
G: No, I disagree. Right now, I’m not quite sure where to
go poetically, so I’m in what
(I hope) is a holding pattern, until I find a new direction. If I were merely existing
according to dictates, I think I would be continuing to churn out the kind of poems I’ve
been doing before now, that kind that have lost their “umpf,” to use a critical term.
L: So it’s not a “lack” of response, but response . . .
G: That’s not yet generating new forms of . . .
[Greg interviews Linda:]
Greg: How have you responded differently to the circumstances
you’ve found your
writing practice/production in here in Buffalo?
Linda: Well (squints, looks pained) I don’t think the response
has differed from before
but it’s simply that what I am writing has changed. That is, when I came to Buffalo and
put together o going out, it was apparent that those poems in some way accounted for the
Southwestern landscape. In Buffalo, I haven’t encountered the vistas to which I
responded. My response in writing has continued to view, but here the view has been
G: What do you mean by interiorized?
L: Well, quite literally, I’ve looked into books, concerned for
example with etymology, a
G: Though this pre-dates my coming to buffalo, I too have found
myself shifting from
vistas (though I wouldn’t use that term) to books or scholarly topics. In my case to
Descartes, Spinoza, the Bible, sermons. I wonder what is at work in that turning inward
(turning scholarly) other than locale?
L: On the one hand there might be a reluctance toward expressing
an interest in seeing not the work one does with one’s life, but the fact of being alive as
evidenced in the language one moves through in making the poem. On the other hand,
there’s the desire to move through the materials in a way that, in terms of scholarship, is
derivative—in the way My Emily Dickinson is derivative.
G: What do you mean by derivative vis a vis inheritance?
L: In one sense, it’s derived from Susan Howe’s claim to the inheritance
Dickinson. In the sense that it “comes from a source” (OED), which also implies that it is
“not original,” though Susan’s work has a complicated relationship to that definitional
couplet. But on the other hand, derivative in the legal sense of being subordinate—of it
not being authorized. It won’t be taught at Harvard.
G: Do you see a connection between this turn inward toward “scholarly”
subject matter and the thinking/theorizing of poetry in terms of lineage and inheritance?
In other words, do you think you are creating and/or questioning your inheritance?
L: I think there’s only a connection in as much as the tools of
derivation are my
inheritance. Otherwise, I don’t see these two activities, my derivative writing practice
and my critical interest in problematic lineages created by feminist scholarship [and not
“my critical interests, created by feminist scholarship, in problematic lineages”] those
lineages that would grant me a location in the margins—I don’t see these two activities as
being connected—but I’m sure they are.
G: [cop-out] Let’s rephrase. How does one engage in
that kind of scholarly, derivative
subject matter without invoking this troublesome notion of literary genealogy?
L: By perhaps foregrounding one’s presence in the current situation
rather than writing
as a pointing to retrospective situations. The meta-textuality of a derivative writing
practice seems to enact that sort of locating—of the self in the current situation—in the
same way that Olson in the Mayan letters has a fit when, during his discourse on fish, the
“f” key on his typewriter breaks. One must foreground the materiality of one’s condition
as a way to be present.
G: Are there ways of being present in/to one’s circumstances without being meta?
L: Well, in fact, it would probably be more accurate to say writing
through texts rather
than writing about them. Texts as the condition from which the writing project springs.
G: How has editing Verdure changed your sense of your poetic practice?
L: In a sense, it’s slackened my aspiration. Editing is
a tremendous amount of work.
The experience has lessened my admiration for poets who write a lot and seem very
successful at getting their work published—for in comparison to editing, its pretty easy to
sit on your ass and write poetry. We recently received our first bulky submission from
Lyn Lifshin which, while it weirdly validated Verdure’s appearance within the horizon of
the poetry journal (which it is not), made it all the much more apparent that getting one’s
work seen doesn’t account for anything, and that location and what one’s does with it
emerges as a crucial component of one’s inheritance. It’s in the exchange of poems
amongst people and not amongst paper that inheritance is realized, made—which is how a
derivative writing practice can be an active presence.
So what are the circumstances (not be confused with symptomatic responses)
current moment? What now are the givens that underlie our poetic practices? What
constitutes in poetic practice a response, rather than a reflex? What constitutes a viable,
positive response to the feeling of belatedness or aftermath? How do you know you’re
not writing blather?