Edited by Joel Kuszai





Above the world-weary horizons

New obstacles for exchange arise

Or unfold, O ye postmasters!


The Poetics List was founded in late 1993 with this epigraph serving as its first message. I had been on email for only about a year at that time, but from the first was fascinated by the possibilities for group exchange made available by the listserve format. I remember endless conversations with friends explaining the mechanism: you send out one message to the list address and everyone subscribed gets the message almost instantaneously. And to reply, you simply hit "R" on the keypad and write your new message. My friends listened in something as close to astonishment as poets doing hard-time ever can. It was as if I were explaining the marvels of xerography to letterpress printers.

In 1993, most of the poets I knew who had email had those accounts provided by universities and the history of the Poetics List is marked by the change, within a few years, from the dominance of ".edu" (university) email addresses to ".com" (commercial) addresses. At that time, writing email was far more cumbersome than it is today. For the first several years of the Poetics List, most of the messages were written on-line using early versions of Pine or more primitive mail programs, with very limited editing tools available. Typing could be slow and the possibility of revision was limited - especially for those who chose to engage in the spirit of improvised list exchange by spontaneously typing their messages and immediately sending them out. Indeed, it is worth noting that a number of people on the list, working with email systems that had no text buffers, could not retype the lines prior to the one they were typing – making a post to Poetics more like a telegram than a letter. And indeed it was the telegraphic immediacy of this new writing genre that was so electrifying. Group exchange of texts had never been faster or easier.

Initially, I was amazed at how close the Poetics List mimed "live" exchanges in bars, cafes, readings, and apartments that so characterize the social environment of poetry. It was all here: the quick dismissals and the brilliant précis, the idle chat and the meticulous scholarship, the silly and the self-important, the smug arrogance and startling generosity, the noise and music. I never imagined that there could be a textual equivalent of the temporary and "in the air" exchange among poets that literally surround, and provides crucial contexts for, individual poems. Thanks to the Internet, the intensities of day-to-day poetry conversation, previously restricted to a few urban centers, were now available to a far more geographically diffuse group; indeed, poets living in those urban centers have been the least likely to participate in the Poetics List, possibly because of the many "live" alternatives available to them.

The Poetics List is not, of course, just a U.S. or North American phenomenon, but it should be acknowledged that, in terms of content and participation, the Poetics List is U.S.-centered. Nonetheless, the international access to the list is one of its fundamental dynamics and it offers something uniquely useful to those living particularly far from its geographic center, since for such participants, the information and discussion that the list provides would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. At the same time, the list has allowed a greater amount of exchange among English-writing poets in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the U.S. than previously had been common.

One of the central features of the Poetics List is the exchange of small and independent press information as well as announcements of poetry readings. Distribution remains one of the most difficult aspects of poetry book and magazine publishing; the list has provided an ideal site for publicizing, selling, and indeed giving away such publications. Over time, as more and more poetry emerged on the web, the list also became a prime site for announcements about web publications. Although such announcements are not included in this collection, the fact that the discussions presented here were accompanied by such information is a crucial frame.

Listserves like Poetics have inaugurated a new genre of writing that is a cross between letters and essays. Most of the pieces of this book were quickly typed prose improvisations that should not be mistaken for carefully revised articles. The unedited quality of the originals has been retained for this collection: enjoy the writing for what it is, keeping in mind the informal setting of the list environment.

The Poetics List, while committed to openness, has always been a private list with an articulated editorial focus and a restricted format. Initially, the Poetics List had about 150 subscribers and it has continued to grow to its present level of 750 subscribers. Because of the vastness of the Internet, I tried to make the list available primarily to those for whom it would be of greatest interest, realizing that the broader and more diffuse its participants, and the more voluminous its posts, the less valuable it would be a core group of poets and critics and readers who might be reluctant to stick with highly generalized or elementary discussion - whether on how to write poems or how to get published. The trick is to keep those who been around the block one time too many while entertaining the urgent concerns of those who just found out the block exists, perhaps because it’s not on the standard issue maps.

During the first five years of the list, individual posts of participants were sent directly to all subscribers and no one approved any specific post. Nonetheless, the editorial function of the list was promoted, or perhaps better to say cajoled, in other ways, including our editorial statement sent to all new subscribers and posted each month on the list. As I put it in the welcome message: "The definition of this editorial project, while provisional, and while open to continual redefinition by list participants, is nonetheless aversive to a generalized discussion of poetry. Rather, the aim is to support, inform, and extend those directions in poetry that are committed to innovations, renovations, and investigations of form and/or/as content, to the questioning of received forms and styles, and to the creation of the otherwise unimagined, untried, unexpected, improbable, and impossible."

Starting in the beginning of 1999, Christopher Alexander became the list moderator and editor; under a new format, subscribers were no longer able to post messages directly to the list. Unfortunately, as the list became bigger and more prominent, it became impossible to continue with unrestricted posting. Simply put, we were too easily open to abuse of the list by those unwilling to work within our stated editorial guidelines. I had made the mistake of holding onto the unrestricted format longer than it was manageable, at the cost of putting in jeopardy what the list, at its best, could achieve. The issue is significant in terms of the Internet as a whole, where endless chatter often produces little in the way of political or aesthetic exchange but, on the contrary, can be understood as a way of defusing or swamping any such possibility. The Poetics List has tried to find a way to enable greater participation in the discussion of the range of poetics to which it is committed. And indeed, since we initiated the moderated format, the size of the list has grown and participation among its subscribers has been more balanced. In one sense, it is not as open as a newsgroup or a chat list because some constraints are put in place. Without these constraints, however, I believe that the range and depth of contributions would be diminished. In the age of the Internet, more editing not less is required.

The Poetics List is one part of a much larger Internet project-for-poetry, the Electronic Poetry Center (epc.buffalo.edu), founded and directed by Loss Pequeño Glazier. Full archives of the list, plus of course much more, are available at the EPC. From 1997 to 1998, Joel Kuszai managed the list’s day-to-day operations, while at the same time working on this selection. Anyone who knows the list from its daily manifestations will have a shock reading the substantial and sustained collection of poetics Joel has culled from the far more chaotic "list itself". At this point in time, experiences with lists are common enough not to require a print equivalent of list dynamics; in any case, no print version could adequately reproduce the look and feel of the Poetics list or other long-time active lists. Instead, Joel has picked a set of works important not just for where they were said but for what they are saying. And, tellingly, he has picked a set of texts that are useful to him as a practicing poet and scholar: this is not the "best of" the Poetics List but something even more interesting, a reading of the Poetics List. Other readers would no doubt have followed quite different paths through the wealth of material available. In shaping this selection, from the early years of the list, Joel Kuszai provides a window onto an ongoing, highly articulate, intensely percolating poetics-in-the making that is a fundamental feature of the most engaging and active poetry of our time. If anyone wonders what today’s poets are thinking, what they are concerned about, what they value, this is a good place to start finding out.

– Charles Bernstein

New York, June, 1999


In a world where everything is about speed and convenience, where the casual stroll along the boulevard has been replaced by "surfing" at light speed to all reaches of the globe, it is perhaps more important than ever to stop and reflect, consider where we have been. This is especially true for the Poetics List, which, after more than five years and what I estimate to be 50,000 pages of written material, has entered a second phase–one as much determined by the successes and failures of the first as by the ideological intentions of the management. As such, this book represents both the beginning of something and the end of something else.

This is the first book–certainly it will not be the last–edited from the discussions in the Poetics List archive, stored at the Electronic Poetry Center (EPC). And that it is a demonstration of the beginnings, the so-called "early days" of the Poetics List, is quite obvious: the material for this book was mostly gathered from the first two years (and 10,000 printed pages) of the Poetics List. In a larger sense, however, the book represents what was for many the beginning of a new era–one barely imaginable from the words "information age" or "digital revolution"–though the information explosion had been underway for decades. Like all emergent technologies, the usefulness-to-poetry of electronic mail was not apparent until a few poets and writers gained access. At universities where e-mail was available on public terminals before modems were as common as toasters, this was truly a time of beginnings, of genuine hope and excitement. Many of the contributors to this book were graduate students in the early 90s and the technology–clunky and primitive by today’s standards–was new to all of us. Little did we know how the internet would change all of our lives, and forever change what it meant to be a writer in a community, in a community of writers, or in a community at all. Certainly it would change how one might participate in the community of contemporary poetry from distances as remote from New York as New Zealand, Thailand and St. Petersburg.

If these changes now seem to us an indispensable part of daily life, remember that it wasn’t always the case. Early in my days on-line, and nearly a year before the creation of the Poetics List, I remember Charles Bernstein, reacting to my enthusiasm about the possibilities of electronic mail, suggesting that he didn’t want his computer connected to so many other computers, implying that there was something–despite all the hype about virtuality–all too bodily about it. Despite his amusing dismissal of what would later become an important element of his teaching and practice, in a sense he was right. Greatly misunderstood is the fact that for all the ubiquitous deployment of energy-dependent, "non-physical" (virtual?) mental furniture, the internet is really an extension of corporeality, much like media we’ve grown accustomed to in the last century. Soon it will be hard to remember what it was like before e-mail–even further, we are the last generation for whom that is even possible. And discussion groups are another matter entirely. It was at the prospective meeting of younger writers, the now-infamous conference, "Writing from the New Coast," held at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the Spring of 1993, where I first heard of the world of electronic discussion groups, even though electronic communities such as The Well had existed for years. Joe Amato, one of the heralds of this strange new world, was passing out flyers announcing his "Nous Refuse" electronic community. There was something ministerial about his advocacy. What kind of community would this be? Would it be an extension of the conference, or more like a party-line, what would come to be known as a "chatroom"?

For many of us the Poetics List was our first encounter with e-mail and we were quick to put it to good use as a form of social architecture. The Poetics List provided the means to continue gatherings and conferences, such as the New Coast, a way to extend the opportunity to be involved to those who could not travel to the urban centers or difficult to reach places where such events usually take place. It provided the opportunity to speed up exchanges that would otherwise take months through the mail, to meet and correspond with individuals and large groups, and to listen in on or contribute to public debates usually reserved for those on conference panels. I saw it as a sort of anarchic meeting hall, a way to facilitate a kind of continuously running newsletter, a communitarian study of the contemporary. If it was decentered it was also a dispersed centeredness. Even the metaphorical name for the early discussion groups–bulletin boards–demonstrated how we perceived the place of that technology: at the center of a public space accessed individually. And if a member of congress can stand up and address an empty chamber on a Friday night, simply for the benefit of the cameras, certainly we can see the logic behind a midnight meeting of poets, talking their trade. Like the democracy of the witness in a meeting house, the bulletin board metaphor is only a cipher for that early optimism about this medium, which I shared. The optimistic manner of the public debate in some of the earliest exchanges on the Poetics List, even early interventions and dogfights typical of discussion groups, reflected the general euphoria about the redefinition of community that was underway. Hopefully Poetics@ carries some of the spirit of that time.

But the "good old days" have passed and perhaps the end of that childlike optimism is also reflected here. The public sphere of contemporary letters is both expanded and smothered by a space like the Poetics List. For all the optimism of the town hall meeting, the discussion list format can become more like a public soap-opera, with constant need to redress institutional (or otherwise "public") boundaries. This sometimes sinister theater of immanence, the spontaneous forum for publication, is part of what makes the Poetics List so great in conception but often so troublesome and problematic in daily life. The heightened tendency towards immediate exchange and the ease of the "reply" function enable both mindless chit-chat and a pandering to argument itself. While many have advocated that style of discussion list, and certainly there are plenty of them out there in cyberspace, the sometimes low quality of the conversation has been a limiting feature of the list, something which has made "editorial agency a necessary intervention," as one person put it recently.

A collection of writings about topics which I found to be relevant or representative of something that needed to be heard again, this book does not attempt to represent the list as a whole. It would be impossible to represent the play-by-play action on the list in any definitive sense and anyone seeking to view the historical list in its natural habitat should consult the EPC, where the complete record of the list’s activity is available to the public. At the same time, this book is not a "Best of the Poetics List" nor is it going to be the definitive book based on material from the Poetics List. There will be others with more specific topics, larger more inclusive books, on-line editions with much greater volume than the space limitations of this format will allow. One might imagine a book devoted to particular issues, or presenting the writings and exchanges of specific individuals. The massive scope of the source material in the Poetics List archives required that I make decisions from the outset about what kinds of material to exclude. I have not included any of the kinds of publication notices, readings, and other announcements of calendar events, though this feature of the list has been perhaps its greatest attraction. For what I hope will be obvious reasons, I have also removed, as much as possible, the daily drama of life on the Poetics List. My conception of this editorial project also necessitated that I remove the posts from their original occasions, including dates and e-mail addresses, though I can imagine many reasons for including them in a similar book. It would be ridiculous to try to catalog all of the things that I wanted to include but couldn’t. After making an initial cut to a workable thousand pages, my job suddenly became very difficult.

Working from one of the most complicated and various source texts, my goal as an editor has been to create a conversation, or series of conversations, out of other conversations–to illuminate the dialogical possibility of this new form of textual space known as the electronic discussion group. The emphasis in editing this book has been primarily the topics addressed in the various messages, not in the forum itself, even while self-consciousness of both the possibilities and limitations of this new medium is a recurrent theme on the list. On the other hand, this book is very much about the space where these writings and discussions occurred. It is as much intervention and critique as presentation and contextualization. As well, this book is intended as a contribution to the criticism found elsewhere in the world of contemporary poetics. It marks the introduction of a conversation about poetics into the electronic format and the return of that accumulated public criticism, what is called in one of the contributions to this volume, "a reading that is watched over," to the world from which it came.

Finally, some caveats and acknowledgments. The book has been broken into sections to give clarity and organization to that which exists in an unnavigable maelstrom in archival form. And given the initially electronic nature of the writing in this book, some difficulties inevitably arise when converting to the print medium. For instance, I chose to standardize certain typographical elements, such as would indicate book titles or emphasis. In most cases, however, the typography and eccentricities allowed by e-mail formatting are maintained. Also, the limited structure of the book format does not permit the inclusion of every post or person who may be referred to in these pages, and presumably that feeling of having missed something important is one quality of the Poetics List that is going to be maintained here.

I urge anyone with questions about the content of this book to consult the Electronic Poetry Center for the full Poetics List archive. I want to thank Charles Bernstein and James Sherry for the opportunity to edit this book, and thank them especially for their patience, generosity, and feedback concerning the manuscript. I also want to thank my parents, who have given me much more than my first community.

– Joel Kuszai

San Diego


Coeval with . . . to Ghosts vs. Martians


From: Joe Amato

Subject: coeval with…

i must admit to being taken by a sense of place, and corresponding dislocations… for me, whatever creative possibilites emerge from disruptions in place move me to thresholds---cognitive, emotional---that are often painful… in part because place for me IS the timing of space, a spacing in time replete with boundaries…

when i look out my window (in the spare bdrm. of my apt. where i’ve located my mac) i see an urban landscape that bears little resemblance to the suburban, woodsy, fifties territories of my childhood… nostalgia here is not the point–the point is that i feel a spiritual resonance with the geographies of central and upstate new york, while at the same time i have no intention of residing again in the city of my birth (syracuse, the salt city)… ambivalence more polyvalence–it’s a mixture of feelings, longings, desperations, impulses–in the blood, as it were…

hence looking into this window is yet looking out another, and vice-versa… "coeval with" your various readings of this post–but with a few things more, perhaps…

the issue has to do with regionalisms as well as (inter)nationalisms… i’m hearing, in the background (someplace) lennon’s "imagine," a song from my late teens, and i'm wondering what sort of cosmopolitan it is who doesn’t identify with such identities–which is NOT to say the lyrics… which, yes, translate into overarching sociopolitical exigencies…

fifty miles south of me the land flattens out like a drainboard… i spent a couple of lonely years in those directions, dealing with the death of my folks… but my solitudes where marked, thankfully, by having made a few best friends…

down that way, far as the (untrained) i can see [sorry] one generally witnesses endless orthogonal acres of single-crop farming–corn, or soybeans… this, for example and for me, is most definitely NOT nature...this latter may be problematic everywhere today, but whatever else it is, i don't quite identify it with non-diversity…

i have an eye for hill and dale and that sorta thing… variations against the Same, and in pixeled terms as well… but i’ll probably mself end up someplace in the suburbs, or fringe burbs… i’m hoping it won’t be entirely too mediocre, mall-ish… but there’s this thing about having the bucks, yknow, to move, and where–and i’d like a little tomato patch before i’m too much older…

i’m used to small pockets of italian ethinicity (being ‘second generation’ on my dad’s (sicilian) side) and little euro-pockets as well (being ‘first generation’ on my mom’s side)… chi-town does this for me at times, but the midwest, otherwise, rarely does… hence i'm east in many ways… my neuroses operating on the surfaces, the silent machismo of the midwest grates on me at times… and such regional, even moody judgments follow from feelings born of having found correspondences between my convictions, as i live them out, and my ongoing, provisional understanding–nothing arbitrary here, or innocent, or necessarily nice…

and yet i carry around a southwestern landscape someplace in my jeans [sorry again], a true-blue Western mythology probably as much a consequence of loving, in my child-adulthood, westerns (cinema and tv) as a function of more legislated attempts to establish an american ethos…

if there is yet an argument to be made in such terms… saturated though it might be with hollywood and jiffypop, my memory, altering, is something i live with and through…

if ‘i don’t know where i stand,’ exactly, i’m damn well gonna have to be standing someplace, metaphysically speaking… looking out toward the shifting horizon, trying to figure the when’s and where’s of things as i find them…


From: Kevin Killian

Subject: Carla Harryman’s Memory Play

… I’ll jump in & give my 2 cents worth on Memory Play [O Books, 1994]. I am an American actor who was trapped inside the darn thing for ten months in a workshop production here in San Francisco, and I’ll tell you, it took me eight and a half months before I figured out what it was "about." Harryman, the author, and Philip Horvitz, our director, were always mum whenever any of us actors asked, two Cheshire cats sitting there creamily on the sidelines, always replying only, "You decide." So finally I did. Hope you’re familiar with the film "Mildred Pierce," because "Memory Play" is "Mildred Pierce" with a happy or at any rate conciliatory ending.

However I may be wrong about this. Years ago I wrote a review of Harryman’s book Vice and stated forthrightly my belief that Vice must have been influenced by CH's constant viewing of the US cop show "Miami Vice." Two minutes later the phone was ringing and she denied it, saying she had never watched MV in her life! Consequently I know a little bit about "Memory Play" but don’t go by me.

I played the "Miltonic Humilator" and had a wonderful costume, designed by John Woodall, a kind of Worth gown and a huge Merlin type hat. I had to sing and dance in several production numbers, and taunt all the other characters; finally, defeated by my own love for the Pelican, I succumbed to a kind of Madama Butterfly swoon and killed myself-off stage. It was great, and Cris, you can see it on video if you have the VHS format ove there. All the other actors were good, and I was a bit abashed because CH and PH, realizing that the Miltonic Humiliator doesn’t really have very many lines in the published script, and perhaps not wanting to waste my talents, allowed me, no, ordered me, to make up my own lines.

I remember initially during our first workshop version of "Memory Play," that Kathy Acker was playing the part of the "Pelican,"—I suppose CH couldn’t secure Kathy for the ten months it took us to rehearse and present the play. But think of her saying those lines, her great, scabrous energy melting the proscenium.

Thanks for letting me put in my two cents on "Memory Play."


From: Peter Quartermain

Subject: Robin Blaser: "No Fixed Address"

Robin Blaser’s new book The Holy Forest, published 30 November by Coach House in Toronto, was officially launched with a reading by Blaser at the Western Front in Vancouver, 3 December 1993. What follows is the text of my introductory remarks…. For about two hours Blaser read to well over 200 people: a new work "Fax 1 (to Sharon Thesen)", followed by the whole of Cups, "Image-Nation 9 (half and half", "yellow ribbons", "As If By Chance", "Interlunar Thoughts", "Even on Sunday", "in the tree tops", "Image-Nation 24 (Oh, Pshaw", "Image-Nation 24 (Exody" and some others.

When Stan Persky and Coach House Press asked me to introduce Robin tonight I started marking up passages in The Holy Forest that I thought I might quote, only to discover that I was marking everything. These poems utterly resist predatory reading. I’m not going to take up much of your time, and to make sure of that, I’m going to read to you. For there is so much, and so little, to say. "a candy-wrapper with a phone number / on it suffices to call the largeness, and / the smallness." Of all the poets I can think of, none so quickly — in the space of two lines, three perhaps — draws the reader so into his language, into the world of the poem, into the imagination. The poems retrieve what we did not know we’d lost, but whose lack we mourn. They retrieve the reader’s imagination, retrieve imagination, reminding us of what it is, then, to read. Composing the good, the imagination invents its own landscape by seeing where it is.

The fact that we have lost our way in the holy forest does not mean we can shit in the soup. Or cut down the trees. Or lose our alertness. It is a place of terrors and wonders. It is the only forest we’ve got. And it’s unknowable. "transcendence," the poet tells us, "like ourselves is historical, even in dreams" (324). That’s why the truth is laughter.

Of course there’s another way to say this: in Allen Ginsberg’s words, we’re not souls, communicating, we’re just meat talking to meat. And that’s all we’ve got: "a lacunary system, a cosmos unsure of its postulates" (368). The absurd comedy of that condition is also an absurd nightmare, of course. But spirit begins in matter–as does our language and all histories.

There’s another way of saying this, too. Blaser says it with great wit:

If there’s one thing Harry learned

to love more than the sacred, it was

the sacred in ruins.

This is the only world we’ve got. There has always been a garden and it has always been among the ruins, a path, and a relief. If paradise is to be found anywhere, it can only be found here. The difficulty with Heaven and Hell is that it’s hard to tell the difference. Each, after all, is a source of light, and neither is a source of ease – the sense of paradise includes its loss.

But turn your back on the sacred, shit in the soup, and all hell breaks loose. Turn your back on the sacred and you force it into the violence of leashed imagination, which will burst its bonds and us in the process; turn our backs on the sacred, make the artist (as one poem quotes) the deodorant puck in the urinal of life (191), and WE erupt into violence, or we become dull grey, the poet tamed, our dreams our musics and our architectures our joys our sorrows our passions come home at last members of no more than a classroom education.

Blaser is the poet who makes a stink. He reminds us that we are creatures of language and it is our very nature to be in need. He is the poet of disturbance; our doom is that there is always more, and the only surety we have is the violence of our desire. What holds these poems, what holds the attention, is the strength of their passion and their love, their attention to what is. The mind / the poet / the imagination exfoliates , in-forming and out-forming, the dis-covery re-covery of what is and what-it-is-to-be alive. Mind as body, thought’s flesh. Making sense / making Sense / extending the perceived/able. the unseen is not beyond our vision. Blaser is a visionary poet, but not by that with his eyes on any world but this one. A great player of syntax, sound, and line break, Blaser always resists completion, every line always turns to another – or to potentiality, potence – never resting, but without display.

The event we are celebrating tonight, the publication of The Holy Forest, is major. I can’t think of another book of Canadian poetry which has been so anxiously and eagerly awaited, and which is so well worth the wait. It is an astonishing and wonderful book, the integrity of the writing, the refusal to pander to taste or to fashion, to kowtow to the demands of others, unmatched save perhaps by Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky. Please welcome (and honour) Robin Blaser.


From: Dodie Bellamy

Subject: poetry and visual art

I’ve been following the poetry and visual art discussion with much interest, since these past few years I’ve felt much more in tune with the visual art world than the poetry–or prose–worlds I come in contact with.

I was amused this morning when I read the following passage by Spring Ulmer:

> one of the reasons why I have come to love and respect poetry and the ‘poetry > world’ is because it lacks the elitism that floods the art world.

I feel like a shriveled up old skeptic beside Spring’s hopeful vision, but I don’t see how anybody could not call the contemporary poetry world, particularly the world represented by the members of this list, elitist. I don’t say that as a criticism. In fact, the elitism of avant-garde poetry, in a way, works in its favor, not financially certainly, but in terms of its growth as art. Outsiders’ fear of it keeps it pure. Since I write "experimental" prose, I envy this privileged position of poetry, in terms of the common person. Not being intimidated by prose, every dope in the world seems to think they have a right to comment on prose, making the most inane declarations, tossing off grating terms such as "plot development" and "character development" with abandoned zeal. A non-writer would have to be oafish on the level of Animal House, however, to say something equally idiotic to an avant-garde poet like, "Why doesn’t it rhyme?"

All of the visual artists I know are doing cutting-edge work, and most of them are on the level in their careers where it’s not an incredibly big deal for them to get written about in Art Forum, for instance. Hanging out with them is lots of fun because you get to go to fabulous parties and dinners at nice restaurants, paid for by their galleries. In the poetry world, in California at least, if you’re lucky, you get to juggle for a glass of $3.99-a-bottle Chilean merlot and a wedge of brie–and there’s no point, ever, really, in dressing up.

Many of the artists I know are doing work that’s involved with in-your-face sexuality, which is treated by (everyone but the NEA, of course) as interesting, but no big deal. That’s what I’m really jealous about, artists’ ability to do sexually explicit work and not somehow feel tainted or whispered about.

The conservatism in this country concerning literature is something that drives me up the wall. If there is a financial reason for the disparity between the more general acceptance of a visual avant-garde, I think it’s because a piece of art is bought by one person in one large wad, while writing, for it to make any money, has to be bought by tons of people. Because of mass reproduction, the very physical form of writing is populist.

There’s also something to do with most people not recognizing the materiality of words. With art, the viewer is always aware that it’s made out of Something. But, with writing, I think that, other than the most sophisticated, people do not see that it’s made out of words. It’s about Feelings, Truth, Experience. I’m currently reading Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, which was written in 1925, and it seems to me, sadly enough, that the contents therein would still be news to most people, including most writers. I recently was a co-judge for the literary applicants to an artists’ colony, and I was amazed how out of the 70 or so applications, hardly any of them, including the poets, showed any awareness that, bottom line, their material was language. The only "experimental" writer who submitted was Avery Burns, who I chose as one of my three choices. When the larger panel (who laughed at conservative visual art, and chose wild, interesting stuff), voted to reduce my choices from three to two, the panel’s decision was reached quicker than OJ’s jury, like instantly: no Avery. When I suggested that Avery’s work would mesh well with the avant-garde composers and visual artists, the response was that they couldn’t "relate" to his poetry. Like they could "relate" to music made from clanking steel objects.

Remember: wallowing in obscurity is good for the soul.


From: Wystan Curnow

Subject: Re: poetry and visual art


I was amused, too. Bemused. Actually I know plenty of NY artists who are ‘amazingly open, personal, and unpretentious’ but I also like my artists reserved, cool, and up with the play, here in Auckland but, you know, especially in New York. The city, seems to me, is more than it’s moneyed dealer/museum structure–calling it corrupt is a symptom of poet’s self-pity more than a cure for it–and US campuses are almost by definition islands of teaching/learning devoid of culture, in the sense of the culture sustained by major urban centres. University professors can be open, personal and unpretentious, but do they dress well? What are their tastes in art, music and poetry? So, one of the great advantages enjoyed by visual artists has been the cultural life of New York. I don’t know that the workshop culture on campuses is a key, because in New Zealand the difference between the mainstreams of the two arts is much the same and there are hardly any courses in creative writing here.

Jordan Davis said the view that any painting with words in it instantly fell to half the value it would have had had it not those words still had substance. For much of the 80s it was arguably the other way around. And certainly, the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, make a decent living installing words on gallery walls and even selling them to collectors and museums for good prices.

There seems little doubt that the prestige of literature (and of poetry especially) has fallen over the century, and that of the visual arts has risen. The process has accelerated over the second half. This has something to do with the rise of visual media generally. There is probably a connection, then, between the greater prestige of the visual arts and the more avant-garde character of its mainstream.

I was interested in George Bowering’s comment that in Canada the poetics of avant-garde were the mainstream. Even if he is exaggerating, and given that it’s not the case in New Zealand, I nevertheless suspect that internationally it is the US avant-garde tradition that is the more widely known and followed. Am I wrong? How this has a bearing on the art/poetry relation is that in the visual arts the mainstream is–and over the last 15 years as New York’s dominance has declined–an international construction.


From: Alan Loney

Subject: The Panic of Jane Stafford

Re: "The panic of O", Jane Stafford, New Zealand Books, Vol 4 No 3, September 1994. [Originally published as a letter to the editors of New Zealand Books.]

For the past 25 to 30 years some of "us", i.e. writers who have generally been considered to be working somewhere on the margins of New Zealand literature, have been on the receiving end of a number of, shall I say, negative adjectives attached to our work and the work of others that we respect, by "mainstream" authors and critics in book reviews. It is an impressive list, and maybe it would be best to start by exhibiting it, in all its glory, just so that we know clearly what is being discussed. Here are some of the more frequently applied: solipsistic, elitist, pretentious, obscure, empty, cognoscenti, private reference, no discernible thought, resistance to interpretation, provocative, smart-arse, clever, wilful, self-indulgent, contempt for the reader, ivory tower, writing for a coterie, intellectual, pseudo-intellectual, so-called postmodern, so-called "Language Poets", excluding the average reader, void of meaning, inaccessible, etc etc etc. Jane Stafford’s review of Murray Edmond’s The Switch and Michele Leggott’s Dia, both recently published by Auckland University Press, contains the first fifteen of these. They are now, after all these years, nothing more nor less than a set of cliched insults, and their purpose is invariably to provide excuses for refusing to actually engage with the work being so characterised.

Jane Stafford’s review of the Edmond and Leggott texts is argued, detailed, and attempts to get beyond the mere name-calling exercise that I have nevertheless stated that it includes. It is therefore to be welcomed as providing a genuine opportunity for reply in ways that the mere name-calling procedure does not. But these negative terms are so repeated and familiar in New Zealand poetry reviewing that it seems less a matter of deja vu, than of a kind of ventriloquism - where the dummy keeps on producing its lines long after the operator has vacated the premises.

Credentials and allegiances

Ms Stafford is at pains to establish a kind of credibility for herself, one that is based on credentials – "I teach a second year university course etc.". Ordinarily, such candour is to be welcomed. But one can easily compile other paragraphs, one of which might begin: "Murray Edmond is a lecturer in Drama at the University of Auckland, is convenor of the post-graduate Diploma in Drama programme, and lectures in a stage 3 American poetry course. He is the author of 6 books of poetry (several of them out of print) and so on". Another such paragraph might start with :"Michele Leggott is a lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand poetry, in American poetry, in Australasian Women’s Literature, with a Ph.D. from University of British Columbia at Vancouver. She has published 3 books of poetry (the first is out of print), and her major study Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers was published by Johns Hopkins University Press on the recommendation of Hugh Kenner etc etc". It’s not my purpose to pit credentials against each other here (that would at the least be silly), but to make the more important point that we all have credentials of one sort or another. In a field like "literature" such credentials do not automatically confer guarantees of appropriate information, approach, or judgement. We are all contestable when discussions about values are taking place.

Whatever else one thinks of the work of Michele Leggott, Murray Edmond, and, let’s be clear, Alan Loney and any others with whom we are perceived to have some sort of allegiance, what one cannot say is that they all write in the same way or that the works of each are easily able to be confused with each other’s – by any attentive reading. And yet the ‘critical’ reception of them by most ‘mainstream’ authors and reviewers is so familiarly uniform that, instead of getting genuine differential readings of these authors in reviews, we’re getting the homogeneous operation of an agenda, a false ideology which specifies these authors as a ‘them’ which can therefore, according to the normal functioning of ‘us and them’ patterns, be blithely treated by the same unexamined, unsupported and negative terms and gestures.

What that agenda is I don’t much care. What I do care about is the pretence that genuine critical reading is taking place; the pretence that those critics have some sort of ‘ownership’ of the scope, purpose and condition of poetry in New Zealand; and the presumptive judgment that their reviled authors are not serious about their life’s work as poets or writers; that they lack integrity and competence of almost any kind whatever; that they have no respect for the work and works of others who work outside their own writerly project; and that they have no other apparent motive for writing but to demonstrate to a small group of people who are equally despicable that they are cleverer than anybody else. These assumptions, running throughout Ms Stafford’s review, and through hundreds of reviews of poetry in this country in the last 25 to 30 years, are as cheap and unwarranted as anything she or anyone else directs at such writers as Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott.

A personal disposition or two

Ms Stafford’s review begins in a mode of reasonableness and with a proper pedagogical concern for students of literature who are having to learn to engage with unfamiliar texts. It reads like the kind of introduction that might prepare one for the reviewer’s own engagement with the work of the authors under discussion. Alas, it does not. What it leads to, almost inexplicably (‘almost’ as, one tends to expect this sort of response by now), is this: "Which is why I feel angry…". Anger? Why? What business has a professional academic to be ‘angry’ about texts to be discussed? Are they advocating the pleasures of child abuse? Are they suggesting people would feel better if they beat the hell out of someone rather than having all that pent up feeling floating around? Do they propose ethnic cleansing in their suburb? Wherefore anger? Ms Stafford establishes credentials, I would have thought, for being able to discuss these works. What she actually says is: "I’m trying to make a connection with it. I can’t." So. The reviewer’s credentials, i.e. her education, her qualifications, her personal predilections, her teachers, her colleagues, her peers, and her reading, have not at all prepared her for the works under review. One could very well be angry about that. Instead of acknowledging her situation however she has chosen to pour scorn on the poets, as if somehow they are to blame for it.

To take this point a bit further, there are other, telling, phrases that support my concern. Ms Stafford sees "a more sinister possibility"; "no discernible thought here"; "so old- fashioned"; "smart-arse elitism"; "got a nasty feeling"; "I’m damned if I’m going to"; "I have this nasty feeling"; "I find these two collections depressing" and so on. Why, exactly, is all this nastiness and bad feeling supposed to function as a proper basis for, or condition of, the elucidation of contemporary poetry for what Ms Stafford deigns to call "the less enlightened reader"? We are not told. It is assumed that the reviewer has these bad feelings in good faith. Ms Stafford has given no one any reason to buy such a proposition.

The ventriloquist’s dummy

Does this sub-title merely trade one harshness for another? Perhaps. But it points to a view of things, an agenda, a false and unquestioning ideology. This ideology asserts itself by using a body of clichés, shibboleths even, in order to obscure the meanings of others, and to deny their actual differences. … It is, additionally, usual for assistance from others – "A kind and more literate friend" – to be identified in academic writings. And rather than ask how much less literate is implied by that "more", I would rather know who is doing the talking here? Or, to put it another way, who’s the ventriloquist in this instance?

A not uncommon kind of contradiction that appears in negative reviews is exhibited in Ms Stafford’s aside (to whom, exactly?) "a little Saussurian reference for the cognoscenti?". It’s hard to take seriously the notion that such a statement is directed to "the less enlightened reader". If it is, how do they, outside of, say, an academic environment, understand "Saussurian"? This aside is also, I’m afraid, directed at a "cognoscenti", and a clear distinction is therefore implied, like it or not, between the author’s ‘cognoscenti’ and the poet’s ‘cognoscenti’ - ours and theirs, us and them. But if she is, say, talking to me (and, after all, I too am a ‘reader’), then I would say that she is not at all up with the play, either with Saussure (who dealt with spoken, not written language), or with Heidegger who said "It is in language that things first come into being and are" (Introduction to Metaphysics), or with Charles Olson’s reliance on the work of Jane Ellen Harrison for his assertion that myth (the stories that cultures, oral and literate, tell themselves about themselves) comes first from the mouth. I introduce these other writers here, not to show off my naturally immense erudition, but to signal that we all have such reading lists behind and operative within what we say. For all of us they are different of course, but we all have these alliances, allegiances and engagements to one degree or another. They are not the same kind of thing as ‘credentials’. If our ‘reading lists’ are too different, and I am suggesting that this is likely to be the case as between Ms Stafford and the poets she reviews, then little wonder that the reviewer finds it hard to connect with the work.

However, it is the outright refusals that I find the most interesting aspect of Ms Stafford’s review. First, the refusal to be (indeed the specific injunction not to be) literal – "Don’t be literal". If the literal is the first thing to be denied of unfamiliar writing, then it’s understandable that a reader might find a grasp of its metaphorical content hard to come by. If, as Ms Stafford maintains, "a metaphor should expand meaning" (tho I don’t accept this formulation myself) then it’s possible that the literal is one of the places from which metaphor can "expand". It is, in any case, a perfectly reasonable place to begin. That it should be precluded, requires more explanation than a list of other options, especially when, for instance, my own teaching experience suggests that it is wise counsel to keep the options open until they falter – in any given instance.

A further type of refusal is performed in the review when, in discussing Leggott, the reviewer writes that a particular passage "would be fine if I knew what the last two words meant". Those two words are "HYDROPHILE PURLING". It is not I think too churlish to propose the use of a dictionary in such a circumstance. ‘Hydrophile’ is derived from ‘hydrophilic’, a chemical term meaning ‘having a strong affinity for water’. ‘Purling’ has, as one of its meanings (and the others are pertinent to the poem) ‘flowing with a curling or rippling motion, as a shallow stream over stones’. According to Ms Stafford, she should now be in a position to regard the poet’s line as "fine". But by refusing to even admit meanings that are accessible to her, she has paved the way for yet another insult to be attached to the work, yet another opportunity for the ventriloquist’s dummy to steal the show.

Another line of refusal is the refusal to give the poet the benefit of the reviewer’s own insight as exhibited in the review itself. It is this extraordinary strategy that clinches my claims about ventriloquism. Two examples will do. In considering Edmond’s poems 43 and 44, Ms Stafford interrogates (properly) the text for meaning. Among her initial notes are language play, sexual content, parallels with other texts in the book, the presence in English of a large number of homographs – all good places to start in establishing a field of meanings for the poems. But just when this beginning is noted she cuts off the flow of elucidatory reading by saying "And it gets worse". Worse? How does a series of valid insights (tho preliminary ones, to be sure) add up automatically to a bad thing? In considering Leggott, the reviewer states that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is "an obvious figure" in the poem Dia, yet notes that the reference to "the Portuguese/wind" etc. "may be an allusion", and asks us to note her (Stafford’s) "tentativeness" in making the suggestion. Well, what I’ve already noted is the strength of the phrase "an obvious figure".

The most blatant refusal however is the reviewer’s refusal to even consider the poem "Micromelismata". ‘Concrete’ poetry is historically a particular moment, largely in Europe, but extending to Britain and the United States also, within a wider context of shaped poetry, going back to the work of George Herbert (died 1633) in England. Herbert himself knew of at least one predecessor for his work, an edition of The Greek Anthology, Theocriti Idyllia, printed by P. Brubacchius, Frankfurt, 1545. To insist that it is legitimate to reduce this tradition to a mere fashion of c.1972, to which no critic need return in order to speak of newer writing is, I am sorry to say, no more than an excuse for one’s own ignorance, and an attempt to blame the poet for the critic’s failure of nerve in the face of the material reality of the text. One is of course under no obligation to like or admire any given text, but one does, in public, have to deal with it in an open engagement.

What I am bothered about in these refusals is that just at that point when a genuine critical reading looks about to be achieved, Ms Stafford throws in the towel. Again, an opportunity to assist the "unenlightened reader" to deal with a strange looking text is waved away in favour of the agenda that requires that these poets must be belittled and insulted rather than read critically. And of course the problem with reading attentively, generously and critically is that there is the severe danger of having to change one’s opinion as the result of reaching genuine findings.

The news about elitism

As a lecturer in English at a university, Ms Stafford is a member of a small band of elite, specialist readers of literature. As an academic, she can claim uncommon status as an expert, and as a professional worker in the field of literary criticism. The number of people who get paid a salary in New Zealand for teaching literature at tertiary level is, in relation to the population at large, very small. Now, books of poems in New Zealand are typically published in editions of between 500 and 1000 copies, and are very rarely (except in the case of anthologies used for teaching purposes) ever reprinted. There are some exceptions above and below these figures, but 500 to 1000 copies is the typical range. There are, at least, 1.5 million literate adults in New Zealand. A thousand copies (let’s be kind to the argument) as a percentage of 1.5 million, is 0.066% of the literate adult population. Anyone who thinks this constitutes the democratization of poetry in relation to the literate population at large has, in my view, a lot of explaining to do. If that percentage was closer to 66% for so-called "mainstream" poets and 0.066% for the likes of Edmond and Leggott, I’d have to admit there was a point to be made along these lines. But, it isn’t, and there isn’t. What it means is that poetry is an elitist proposition per se, at any level at which anyone reads any of it. It also means that ‘the general reader’ or ‘the general public’ is not the target group for any publisher of poetry in New Zealand. Those of us who are involved with poetry in any way are all splashing about in the elitist pot together.

The subjectivity at the end of the world

The last comment made by Ms Stafford denies that ‘subjectivity’ is an interesting issue. What I have attempted to show here is that it is primarily the poets’ ‘subjectivity’ that has been on trial throughout her review. The list of insults given in my first paragraph says it as well as anything I can end with. They are nearly all solely applicable to people, rather than to texts. If poetry needs anything at all from critics these days, it is close reading, clear and attentive critical analysis. One of the characteristics of, as they say, ‘our time’, is that there are many more and various backgrounds – cultural, geographic, intellectual, and personal and so on – than can be neatly fitted or reduced to some monolithic sense of "mainstream", to which we are all supposed to conform. This does not mean, in my view, that anything goes. What it does mean is that a greater degree of care, of openness, and of courtesy needs to be operating in the field of public letters, if we are not to simply sit back on ‘us & them’ perches and merely hurl insults at one another under the privilege of having access to print.


From: Dodie Bellamy

Subject: Breaking the Rules

As as prose writer, I always feel fortunate that I never had a single course in prose writing (beyond Freshman comp), particularly how to write a short story. Sometimes in writing I think it is very useful to have something to write against, but it brings shivers of revulsion (Kevin recently reread Powers of Horror for his Blaser talk, so JK is on my mind) to think of me having this spectre of traditional narrative and plot structure and character development (this is much worst than the skin on the top of old milk, uurrrrghhhhfffffff!) to settle my stomach over. I’ve got plenty else to think about in structuring my work. I basically learned to write through imitation, and I often had no idea in the beginning why I was doing much of what I was doing in narrative. I saw somebody else doing it and I thought it was neat, so I’d try it. Particularly I copied techniques of a very talented schizophrenic woman in Bob Gluck’s writing workshop--transcending linearity was like breathing for her, while I was at home pulling my hair out over it.

Now I could give a theoretical rationalization for everything I do, but the theory came later (and deepened my work, I think)–again, I approached it always from a gut level. I read theory to find more neat things, most of the neat things I found were in art and psychoanalytic film theory rather than in literary theory. I usually feel much more akin to what’s going on in the art world than in the writing world, plus it was easier to seize and adapt neat things that were tangential to what I was doing.

I should be honest and say that Bob Gluck was guiding me through this process, but usually in his kitchen rather than in the writing workshop. Scooping salmon patties from a frying pan, he would give me gentle little nudges like, "Dodie, if you take the personal and push it as far as you can, it becomes universal."

In my own writing workshop I’ve had students who were amazingly well-versed in theory, but who wouldn't have a clue as to how apply that knowledge to their own work. It’s like teaching somebody grammar and then expecting them to speak English. It ain’t gonna happen that way.

"Learn the rules then break" them sounds like such a militaristic approach to innovation.


From: Patrick Phillips

Subject: Diane Ward’s Imaginary Movie

This is a reply to a personal posting. I couldn’t contact the person who sent it to me, so I’ve removed the name.

I suppose this may be regarded as a patient articulation, my take on Imaginary Movie [Potes & Poets 1992]. What filling out of the poem this accomplishes I deny. This isn’t my "goal." But my "goal" is to tend to some of the structures of imagination elicited of me by IM. I suppose by posting your note you had no idea I would respond, or attempt to respond, so fully. But, as it so happens, today is devoted to tomorrow’s class and you’ve done me a great service. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a great maze for you.

I too have to admit a dissatisfaction with the "pleasure of the text," that its giving is to say the least opaque, its color often as delightful as the package P&P put together. This grayness can be phonically supported by my take on her reading of the poem at the Ear Inn in NYC; it too being modulated to the point of evaporation, read through with only occasional, slight pauses at line breaks and with little audible support for the mental knots she ties. (However, she is very quiet and calm in personal conversation). This said, I still regard the text with a great pleasure, perhaps more with the "jouissance" that Barthes intended. Another Barthes statement on pleasure: "…pleasure in pieces: language in pieces: culture in pieces. Such texts are perverse in that they are outside any imaginable finality–"even that of pleasure" (bliss does not constrain to pleasure; it can even apparently inflict boredom)."

What I’m getting at here is that the textual evidence of IM may not have to partake in a paradigm of pleasure to emit, or engender a cultural artifact. Granted, the cultural/poetic artifact of suspended modifiers, non-substantiated prepositions, oscillating predicates et al. has long instigated a politics of text which by now is easily seen, or tolerated (that sometimes we critics/poets remain hostage to the tropes and the critical discourse that was intended as liberating). Granted the "freeze-frame" metaphor is only neat when tied to the title and then perhaps only tropic; and that the six line strophes (I say strophe instead of stanza because of the attendant personality in "strophe" which means, among other things "apartment" in Italian, whereas, stanza, among other things, means to "mental posture") only provide marginal support for the metaphor of movie, or for the internal poetic structure of each six line unit. This characterization of some the structures of the poem would in many critical circles be a pan, a thumbs down in siskel and eberteze. Yet, under my criteria and reading practice another, quite successful text surfaces.

I don’t "read" this text so much as allow it to sound out its own cultural relevance. This is not as passive as it may seem. This sounding invites a text which is an "imaginary form" which insists no matter how disgruntled I may become with the way the text sits on the page. Its imaginary form becomes a discussion between my imagination and the culture’s and the poem’s, a discussion which is often absent from the page entirely. This absence, or in effect ascribed culture, is what keeps me. Often this keeping is similar to the hostage taking as mentioned above, but it remains political in the slippage between those participants in the discussion. It is this slippage which is the field of intervention for me. This is the level of engagement. This is personal, it is ideological, it is social. You mention the social as a field of intervention. So often, even in O’Hara and Reznikoff, I feel the poem is a description of something material, a personalization which elementizes some margin running the gamut from imprisonment (I as the disenfranchized interlocutor of poetic/cultural condition) to oration (I as arbiter of the imaginary condition). This field of intervention I often find less entreating, in some ways less the jouissance, an more an effigy of the entrapped or of entrapment. As to the materialization of the social field of intervention Wittgenstein said "Psychology connects what is experienced with something physical, but we connect what is experienced with what is experienced." I ask what then does poetry connect?

Now is this "blackmail?" (the Barthesian blackmail of theory) I’m not sure. I’m also not sure what you mean by the poem’s and the theory’s autonomy; I’m not sure there has ever been such a thing as theoretical autonomy, certainly not technological autonomy. And when it comes to technology, not much can be left out. The theoretical apparatus evident here of course is not culturally bankrupt, certainly it isn’t grammatically bankrupt even if it is sometimes critically tedious. The fact that the theoretical apparatus no longer provides the surprise, and then perhaps the strangeness, needs desperately to be examined. But the condition elemented by the grammar emerges, or maybe the grammar elemented by the condition emerges. Sure the often "found text" quality of her work speaks to a possibility of a text made powerless by its automaticness, that risk that much experience-based art suffers (I’m thinking of Surrealism, Dada, Minimalism, even some Abstract Expressionism). But her insistence that this experience never be deflated, or deflected by appropriative gesture, be that through an acquiescence to theory, to the text, or to the culture, or importantly to imagination, speaks to the possibility of this text to reveal the often conditions of mind and society. No structure is independent here and each is spatially dis-posed and recomposed. [It strikes me that the form she has adopted may be an effort to channel the constant abridgment of this dis-position into a consumable form, a bite-sizing of experience, to effect more of a tension between elements and thereby permit more experiential hinges.] Another thing which may contribute to these pieces’ opacity is that they take on an epigrammatic tone and in that some morality which when viewed under a theoretical umbra disengages the personal from the textual, perhaps interrupts the very thing which makes an epigram work. But I’m not so interested in that as a stumbling block to the poems effectiveness. I am concerned with the experience of the poem which insists upon an ideology for its effectiveness.

"I can only hazard it" (85) aside from encapsulating the pronoun shift and the subsequent question of being in action, speaks not only of the hazard of this movement from "I" to "it" but also speaks of the obstacle toward acting and guessing, or thinking. These permutations are held in place (position is so vital here) by the shape of technology. The shape of technology here is much like "a place to put the eye" and the struggle between the technology as in human art and technology as in capital industry, but also the struggle between the personal and the social, the private politic, the body and the "apartment" it is in reveals what "color contends for, eye." The concept of a destabilized I shifting from definite to indefinite, viewer to view is always engaging the machine of that coordinate structure I – technology – eye. These places of contention are constantly destabilized by the visuality, but they always promote a imaginary bifurcation which is in-effect a dialectic. To go further would be to fill out…

Of course one of if not the most important features of this movie is its sexual composition. As a man, I can not put my finger on it without its touch being an additional technology for the text to contend with. Nonetheless, these "loaded fingerings" (79) bear the same shifts, the same constant limits, or positions that the text is constantly critiquing. This is not only the figural body of the text, but of an oppression which is spelled out in a "finite number of units," a real body. The transparency and caculability of currency, of surplus and exchange require this tension to be placed upon the body and upon the poetics. The internal is never exiled by the external, nor is it ever completely described by it. Most importantly, though, the internal the "inner" is not completely collapsed by or filled by "economic arousal" the text itself is evidence of this, not to mention Diane Ward’s existence. The text suffers its own visuality which engenders an imagination engaged with sexual conditions. If the mind/brain is the largest erogenous zone, what is the mind’s eye and what is this eye in the field of social intervention. What is its field of vision?

This is not so much ingratiation of the text, or a display of my enamored economy, as it is a stir of the pot of my considerations. It barely envisions only some of the concerns and even at that sometimes thinly. It would be good to hear any comments.


From: Benjamin Friedlander

Subject: "allowing to sound"

Pardon my abstracting from Patrick’s long message on Diane Ward the following passage. The message was addressed in particular to an unnamed interlocutor but was distributed to all of us on the poetics list. I deleted one set of statements from within the passage (marked below by ellipses within brackets) because I didn’t quite understand what Patrick was saying and because the technical character of those statements seemed to derive from the "reading" of Diane Ward’s Imaginary Movie–a book I don’t know–and so I was unsure how relevant they are to a discussion of poetry and poetics in general. And I put the word reading in quotes only because of what Patrick himself says, that is:

I don’t "read" this text so much as allow it to sound out its own cultural relevance. This is not as passive as it may seem. This sounding invites a text which is an "imaginary form" which insists [**on what? here is where I begin to lose track–b.f.**] no matter how disgruntled I may become with the way the text sits on the page.[**…**] This is the level of engagement. This is personal, it is ideological, it is social. You mention the social as a field of intervention. So often, even [**but why "even"?**] in O’Hara and Reznikoff, I feel the poem is a description of something material, a personalization which elementizes some margin running the gamut from imprisonment (I as the disenfranchized interlocutor of poetic/cultural condition) to oration (I as arbiter of the imaginary condition). This field of intervention I often find less entreating…

I return to this message because I would like to take issue with what I take to be an analogy Patrick is drawing between the two sides of two different distinctions. On the one hand, between reading a text and allowing it to sound (with the implication being that the latter discovers a world of discussion and interaction unavailable to the former); on the other, between two conceptions of the social poem, one that seems performative (Diane Ward), the other linked to modes of representation (O’Hara and Reznikoff). Unstated as such but governing Patrick’s remarks (or so I believe) is the twin association of (1) "reading" with "representation" and (2) "allowing to sound" with "performance." Is that correct?

My reconstruction of the argument is necessarily hazy because I’m unsure what this "allowing to sound" actually consists in, and I’m also unsure what sort of social engagement this "allowing to sound" engenders.

I’m all for the discovery of new modes of reading, and for rich phenomenologically tinged accounts of how the poem solicits the reader’s attention. I only recently re-read Nick Piombino’s essays from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and was struck with the depth and beauty of what he describes. His work in that area has not been taken up and I dare say a critical practice that took Nick’s theories of reading as its starting point would look different than anything presently being practiced. My problem in the present context is with the promotion of a certain sort of text and a certain sort of "reading" that defines itself by disparaging reading as such. To disavow reading would seem to me to dictate the terms on which the text can be approached. Speaking as a reader, my inclination is to cry foul. Also, however, I wonder what the actual value of this "allowing to sound" can be if it is only applicable to one kind of poem. If it’s impossible, for instance, to allow O’Hara’s poetry or Reznikoff’s "to sound," I wonder if the social engagement discovered in Imaginary Movie is not MORE rather than LESS restrictive.

But these are simply questions that point to a need for clarification. My other interest in all this is more pedestrian: What is the social poem? What ideas about the social poem do we entertain without reflection, and where do we see poets working to articulate newer or deeper ideas about poetry and society?

Patrick mentioned that he is teaching Diane Ward’s work and that his musings were inspired by that. By a strange coincidence, my own teaching takes me to a similar line of thinking. I gave my students Langston Hughes’s essay "My Adventures as a Social Poet" (from the recently reprinted collection Good Morning Revolution). In the coming weeks I’ll be trying to figure out how best to teach them Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, which in my opinion is a profoundly complex text, not at all a simple collection of voices and stories. After Reznikoff I’m taking up texts that are not poetry, but at the very end of the semester I’m going to try to incorporate Alice Notley’s poem "White Phosphorus" (from her book Homer’s Art) in a more general and historical account of the Vietnam War.

Anyone else working in this area? Any thoughts?


From: Juliana Spahr

Subject: Re: "allowing to sound"

Ben, I too was bothered by the separation of reading and sounding but felt it might be more just another example of the semantic confusion that seems to take over net discussions. (restrictive editing seems to have a direct relation to vocabulary confusions) in these discussions) But I like the larger question of where these take us–how does sounding allow reading; how reading sounding. I think you are right–Piombino is the place to look. Also Dahlen and Howe and at times the essays of Andrews.

But it is your question of what is the social poem that provoked me to finally reply to something on this list. I think the answer is the poem is the social poem. But that is my easily dismissed anti-Adorno (and the rest) optimism speaking that I’ve finally accepted because the whole thing doesn’t seem like it is worth much without it. I liked your teaching narrative mainly because I think I am using a similar area of concern to direct my class–moving from Heart of Darkness to bell hooks’ "narratives of struggle" to a study of contrasts between Cullen’s "Heritage" and Lindsay’s "The Congo" and Hughes "Weary Blues" and Smith’s "It A Come" to Apocalypse Now and the accompanying apparatus to Erica Hunt’s "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics" to Teresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee to Leslie Scalapino’s "Waking Life." I am trying to examine in just he most basic levels–what is testimony or struggle or opposition.

This has been in some ways the major question of the poetry of the 70s (it might get its most reductive play in the often drawn contrast between the work of Adrienne Rich and the work of, say, Nicole Brossard; Rich seen as the necessity of a narrative and standardized diction for political purposes, Brossard as the necessity for rewriting the language). We all know these arguments. But in some ways they weren’t really answered (or at least I feel that way; I am still confused if it necessary to start with the assumption of a standard in order to articulate a right, or a document of rights).

So I am wondering how these issues play out for others, especially in the context of the classroom (which is in some ways a testing ground). I am wondering where others locate the political assumptions of poetry. I am wondering how others fit the aesthetic and social concerns of theorists such as Brecht, Adorno, or more recently, Jameson’s call for mapping the postmodern into the poetic. And I am wondering, Ben, whether you think I have done a great disservice to your word "social" by merging it with my vague "political."


From: Benjamin Friedlander

Subject: the social poem

Juliana, first of all, no, your merging of "social" and "political" doesn’t do me a disservice. I admit I was impressed last year when Tom Loebel told me the two are quite distinct–impressed though I myself am hopelessly confused about the difference. Tom I guess had in mind a technical distinction that holds sway in political science (which I believe is what he studied before switching to English), but of course readers and writers of literature don’t always recognize that distinction. (Langston Hughes, for instance, in his "Adventures as a Social Poet," speaks of social and political issues–about poverty and about being black in America, but also about the Scottsboro boys, about segregation.)

Nevertheless, the very possibility of a distinction has proven useful. By speaking of the "social" poem, for instance, I would evade some of the cant that collects around the word "political." Also, I hope by returning to a vocabulary that emphasizes the documentary over the activist to reexamine some of our prejudices against the documentary (what you were referring to as "the often drawn contrast between the work of Adrienne Rich and the work of, say, Nicole Brossard; Rich seen as the necessity of a narrative and standardized diction for political purposes, Brossard as the necessity for rewriting the language"). For both those reasons I tend to prefer, like Langston Hughes apparently, to use the word social to refer to both the social and political, rather than using the word political to refer to the political and social (the latter choice being much more common these days–perhaps why you referred to the social as "my" word).

Second, as far as teaching is concerned, … I seem to be moving toward a course similar to yours. Like you, I’m asking my students "what is testimony or struggle or opposition," and trying to do so (since the class is composition) by engaging them "at just the most basic levels."

I’ve tried to organize the class around two overlapping sets of questions. (1) What does it mean to speak for "a people"? How is that different than speaking for yourself? Where do the two tasks intersect and where do they part company? (Here the principal texts are Testimony and The Souls of Black Folk.) (2) What does it mean for a writer to take music as a model for writing? (The Souls of Black Folk and DuBois’s emphasis on "the sorrow songs.") What does it mean if the writer’s words are not his or her own, or if they’re modeled on the language of the courts? (Reznikoff’s Testimony.)

Because I prize all the texts I’m teaching, I’m hoping (for myself–forget the students here!) not only to discover what the resources of the so-called "social" poem ARE, but to illuminate these resources as a continuum of values, not a set of mutually exclusive choices (here is where my students really do enter the picture–can I somehow escape my own didacticism in order to make these choices available to them?). Isn’t the subtext of the "often drawn contrast" between Brossard and Rich an attempt to proscribe certain forms of writing? And what kind of task is that? I mean, I love Nicole Brossard’s work, but doesn’t the sanctimoniousness of the sheer use of that work to criticize another’s make you want to prefer Adrienne Rich? (And isn’t that contrary preference the very essence of an oppositional poetics!) This seems to be a little of what was at stake in the upholding of Diane Ward as versus O’Hara and Reznikoff.


From: Patrick Phillips

Subject: The Socio-political Ward

The responses to my post have generated several questions circling the issue of "reading" as opposed to "sounding". They have also pointed to a tendency toward a lexical pile-up in my writing. I’d like to unpack some of my person to person considerations so that they may be more easily approached by a wider audience. I should say that I had initially sent my reflection on Imaginary Movie to one person in response to some of his questions and perhaps it was unfair to throw this on the List without some attention to detail. I also wish to see if I can give a sense of what I find social and political about reading around IM and "this kind" of text.

As to "I don’t ‘read’ this text so much as allow it to sound out its own cultural relevance," "sound" was primarily used to contrast a broad field of effects with "read" which in my response to the "unnamed interlocutor" referred to a once-through oral reading which was ultimately unsatisfying for him. There is, as Ben points out, a disparagement of reading here, but one which doesn’t so much devalue reading as place it in a broad relationship with the imaginary. "Sound" was a con-fusion of effects for me (and for others) – a pun attending to the metaphor of movie, an attempt to allude to a sonar-like (non-visual) means of finding the depth of a text’s cultural reference, and a wish to find a measure of intention, or of what utility the imaginary is when "reading" such references. These three characteristics of the rather unstable, and somewhat tired "sound" helped me locate the text and the imaginary in a larger matrix than "read." "Reading" still remains an area of contention. I’ll drop "sound" because it has a bad ring to it.

As this idea of reading and sounding may relate to Piombino’s "Writing and Imaging," my interest is to "parse" not the "symbolic value of images", but the social value of the "after-images" I find in reading Imaginary Movie. These are subtle, but valuable distinctions which I think may help get to how the text is for me is ideological and thereby social and political.

The distinction between image and after-image is made by Piombino as a kind of "shadowing" – "the image layered on and under, like the creation of an approximate sign." What I find so compelling about Imaginary Movie is Ward’s use of these "approximate signs." These after-images layered on and under a textual and imaginary horizon induce a soft focus between these lines. Ultimately I am interested in what these after-images do, how they interact and what is induced in the "reader" through this interaction. To say the text is comprised of after-images, not signs, but the collusion of approximate signs, promotes an idea of text more like an idea of imagination. Through the blurring of the distinction between language and a cultural imagination the text becomes, or aspires to, a visual representation of the imagination, an "imaginary movie." A reading becomes a viewing, a mix of motivated participation, reading as in "I read you," and unmotivated participation, a mind’s-eye view. What is key for me here is that this view does not consist of a "visual field" per se, that there is no object which occupies our retina, either elemented as word, or as imaginary object. There is nothing in our experience that is surrounded by nothing, wholly marked off and distinct. Or, as Merleau-Ponty says, a "visual field is not made up of limited views." Reading urges a participation in fields of reference which are limited views. Viewing has little of the demarcation reading requires, either in the viewed or the viewer.

To a larger experiential condition, I can testify that I have not read IM in five or six days. In spite of lapse, I am always remembering, always suffused with the elements of its experience, the viewings that Imaginary Movie clipped for me. From this experience I sense no distinct visual fields. The sexual takes place within the technological, the value of the economic within the exchange of testament. This, whatever it demonstrates for me, is social. It too takes place in this unframed field of approximate signs, of after-images, of the means toward communication and of the un-ending ends. What is instrumental for me here is that it is not the poem which foments the condition, but the experience that foments the poem. The induction into the functional resistance that awareness builds is social, as evidenced in some small way by my attempts to make it so through letters and postings. It’s often difficult to go back and forth between experience and culture this way with poetry that is declarative. I just now opened up "Testimony" into the "South" to a terrible child beating and I must say that family terror has a cultural oscillation we all continually suffer. I was quite uncomfortable with this portrait. Nonetheless what is the difference between this portrait of family violence and that on "911" except for the difference between exhortation (Reznikoff) and exploitation (911). (I am not ridiculing Reznikoff here!) My initial reflection was the horror of the "Die, God damn you!" And then I reflected on the reflection itself, something I cannot wholly do//separate in the experience of IM.

Finally, it is the reading, the response to the references in words like technology, "Industrial Hygene," in concepts of exchange and power, violence and sexuality, which is important in politicizing this social text. For me it is the ideology which contorts the reference enough for there to be a soft edge, a value placed upon the after-images so that these approximate signs are motivated. The conditions of culture here become their own critique and thereby our experience, our bodily experience maintains a level of this critique. By and in this there is a politicization of experience, which for me drops away at the moment of reflection. Reflection here is a kind of sustained being, this is what I meant when I said Imaginary Movie insists. To suggest in what it insists would entail this kind of explanation, or something more. One last thing. In my class, there were several different connotations of "political" which proved stumbling blocks, or at least obstacles for definition. Here I want to suggest that the motivation of the imaginary beyond reflection and into some level of sustainable critique is of itself political. Imaginary Movie accomplishes this for me.


From: Benjamin Friedlander

Subject: Re: "911"

Patrick, this is my first attempt to make use of the "reply" function of this system & to play with the so-called "chevrons"–I hope this doesn’t go through all wampy-jawed. Anyway, with that proviso, let me try to address your last two posts. In "THE SOCIO-POLITICAL WARD" you say, to explain your preference for Imaginary Movie over Testimony, "It’s often difficult to go back and forth between experience and culture this way [i.e., as you do "reading" Diane Ward’s work] with poetry that is declarative." Leaving aside for the moment your characterization of Testimony as being "declarative," and leaving aside also the distinction between "experience" and "culture"–I think I agree in principle with both of those assumptions but find them too limited in practice–the point seems to be that the reader’s options with regard to a critical engagement with Testimony are limited by the visceral impact of the work. Now, under the heading "911," you elaborate by writing:

> […] I have been reflecting on the social and cultural/ideological

> crossfire situated by Rezinkoff’s choice of "examples," his choice of

> line breaks, his use of language and have begun to wonder at what

> length we have to go to get to these cultural intersections that are

> quite different from the "experiential" brought to the fore in texts like

> IM. […] the social currents instigated in "Testimony" come from a dif

> ferent place, exterior, as examples, yet they are pervasive; we have to go > out to get at what’s in. […]

I gather you’re saying that the complexity of Reznikoff’s work (marked by the elaborate artistry of "choice," which hides as artlessness, the basic view of Testimony so far as I can tell from the little bit of the literature on it I’ve seen–Charles Bernstein’s recent Sulfur essay being a notable exception) corresponds in some way with the elaborate "overlays" (as I believe you termed them) of Ward’s Imaginary Movie. With this you’re establishing an equivalence of sorts between the two–a safeguard in some way from the charge that you are disparaging Reznikoff–while preserving the distinction you insist on between a text based on the "interior" and one based on the "exterior." Am I reading you right? That the "social currents" of Imaginary Movie are "instigated" (nice word!) from within, directed at the reader, who is the text’s exteriority, while the social concern of Testimony somehow enters the poem (as if it wasn’t there all along!) from this same place where the reader resides. I think you can see right away the problem I would have with that description of Testimony:

That the distinction between the outside and the inside of the poem doesn’t hold up once you begin to speak of reference.

That the mechanics of this reference–by which I mean the poem’s relationship with its exteriority–are not sufficiently explained in terms of "crossfire."

That the role of the reader as an intelligence, though it is assumed, is not explored. And that there can be no real understanding of reference without such an exploration.

That the very notion of "declarative" assumes a communication between individuals, and until we address the particular character of this communication in Testimony we will not progress very far in understanding just what sort of social concern this poem expresses.

That it is only by carefully observing how the poem utilizes our intelligence that we can begin to glimpse the intelligence of the poem itself (a formulation I prefer to, but for which you might substitute, the more vexed phrase "intention of the author").

What’s noteworthy to me is that you have gone to great lengths to provide this sort of "testimony" (if I might put it so) to the process of reading Diane Ward’s work, while relying in your characterizations of Reznikoff on more or less superficial impressions. I don’t say this to knock you–not at all–I’m struck that even the best readers of Testimony (Milton Hindus, for instance), despite the evidence of their own research, offer what seem to me superficial descriptions of what reading Reznikoff requires. Here again Charles B’s essay is an exception–and though I find his imputation of opacity with regard to Reznikoff’s language to be a bit bizarre, what he says about prying words open does I think speak very cogently to the composition of Reznikoff’s work. Well, let that hurried depiction of the essay stand for now.


From: Steve Evans

Subject: The Social Poem: for the record

The recent exchange of posts on Diane Ward’s Imaginary Movie and on the social poem has added a valuable dimension to my thinking this past week, so let me first register the gratitude I feel towards those who have participated. As the topic evolves, it appears that a hasty response I wrote privately to Patrick on 1 Feb. has come to produce a few effects–through its cited and implied presence at certain stages of his sustained posting to the list on 2 Feb.–within the ensuing discussion. I had hoped to avoid entering this space on what could be construed as a sour note, since my initial response to IM was not a positive one, but I think now that it would be better to trust that P’s indefatigable, meticulous, and generous (though I must add, also terminologically baffling) practice of "sounding" Ward’s work will more than compensate for whatever criticisms I first thought to advance.

The following two paragraphs, then, are "for the record." I have omitted one unsympathetic comment that concerned the presentation of the work by Potes & Poets Press, otherwise I have avoided the impulse to amend or elaborate these comments. Because I do, however and alas, have more to say, I will tax everyone’s patience with a second posting that will follow on the heels of this one.


Dear Patrick:

Just a quick note to see if I can draw you out on the title poem of the book you will be discussing on Wednesday. I read the poem this evening, aloud, and gave some thought to it. But I must admit, it felt more like anemic cinema than imaginary movie. Jen tells me that this book, and specifically this poem, has been an important one for you, and I trust that this means I am missing something. Technically, the repeated six-line stanzas struck me as only erratically interesting as a unit of composition: the stakes are low, mistakes are hard to discern (can they be made?). Less sonically engaging than, say, some of the work in couplets in Relation. A certain, quite familiar, indistinction at the level of lexicon: I’ll trade the whole gamut of pronouns (the deployment of which strikes me as tired even in Ashbery) for a few committing descriptives (but then I like Reznikoff and O’Hara because I like the social as a field of intervention). Though I can anticipate certain points of contact with a theoretical apparatus (most obviously, of course, feminist film theory circa Mulvey), which, patiently articulated, would "fill out" the poem, I am concerned for both the poem’s and the theory’s autonomy: there is a trace of what Barthes called "the blackmail of theory" (i.e. here’s an aesthetic object such as your theory predicts for) here.

Which is not to put you, or the poem for that matter, on the defensive. I’m just ticking down a list of resistances that are more likely to originate in my hasty and perhaps insufficiently attentive reading than in the text. What I could use is some "testimony" regarding the coordinates you’ve found to provide a thicker and more moving engagement with the poem. Estrin’s public/ private remark doesn’t help me so far: much too sweeping and indiscriminate to provide guidance (what isn’t appropriable under this rubric?). Ditto the concept of political (and for the same reason). …


From: Steve Evans

Subject: The Social Poem

I want to follow up on my posting "for the record" with a few thoughts that are perhaps a little more substantial. In light of the postings by Juliana, Ben, Ken, and Patrick himself, it would appear that the salient moment in my private reply to Patrick is the somewhat flippant graph of my own value-constellation represented by the claim that "I would trade the whole gamut of pronouns…for a few committing descriptives (but then I like Reznikoff and O’Hara because I like the social as a field of intervention)."Upon consideration, I think this largely gestural move on my part introduces some untenable polarizations (Ward vs. Reznikoff & O’Hara; lexical indeterminacy vs. social commitment). In brief, I throw down a gauntlet that I feel fairly certain non of us on this list would consent to run. But if there is something redeemable in this remark, it might be in the connection (albeit so enjambed as to be indiscernible) between "value" and the "social."

My thinking in this area owes a debt to Bakhtin/Medvedev’s The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, and especially to the discussion of "social evaluation" that is found on pages 119-28. I will excerpt just three claims made in this book. First, and mainly as a corrective to personalizing the theme of value, I would recall their statement that "the notion that evaluation is an individual act is widespread in contemporary ‘Lebensphilosophy,’ and leads to conclusions no less false. Evaluation is social; it organizes intercourse" (126). The second claim is perhaps more specifically relevant to our discussion. M/B argue that "social evaluation is needed to turn a grammatical possibility into a concrete fact of speech reality" (123), basing this on their premise that "the utterance is not a physical body and not a physical process" [something some of us might wish to contest, certainly], but rather "a historical event, albeit an infinitesimal one. Its individuality is that of a historical achievement in a definite epoch under definite social conditions" (121). Finally, because it serves to indicate their more general take on "value" and its relation to "formal" decisions, there are the following sentences: "Social evaluation organizes how we see and conceptualize the event being communicated, for we only see and conceptualize what interests or affects us [or as Stein says: It is very likely that nearly everyone has been very nearly certain that something that is interesting is interesting them]. Social evaluation also organizes the forms by which the event is communicated: the arrangement of the material into digressions, returns, repetitions, etc., is permeated with the single logic of social evaluations" (127).

M/B conceive of "social value" as the medium that pervades, supports, and constrains the generation of specific meanings from the field of linguistic (or grammatical) possibilities. It is their answer to the question of why such a limited number of linguistic combinations result in the production of "sense" (and thus to the opposition of narrow vs. broad band that Pat termed "reading" v. "sounding"). Zukofsky had, I think, something similar going on when he wrote: "Impossible to communicate anything but particulars–historic and contemporary–things, human beings as things their instrumentalities of capillaries and veins binding up and bound up with events and The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference. It is not infinite. Even the infinite is a term" ("An Objective" in Prepositions, 16).

My answer to Ben’s question of "what is the social poem" would then be: that poetic practice which proceeds by "particulars" as they circulate in the social medium of value. There are other media, other practices, other ways of fashioning the particular. There are words that wobble out of orbit and do escape having a reference (or at least first order reference, though they are usually recuperated at the level of the social through categories like "nonsense," "difficult writing," "writing elites do and I don’t under stand," etc.). To pick up on Juliana’s list of people thinking about this question, I think Bruce Andrews calls this "horizoning" in his Politics of Poetic Form essay (Roof 1990). In short, I recognize the "unframed field of approximate signs" (as Patrick so memorably puts it) as a possibility of writing, but as a possibility that the "social poem" as I understand it re- fuses to convert into an end in itself.

I would attribute Patrick’s provocative unwillingness to distinguish between Testimony and Rescue 911 to an unwillingness to conceptualize social value (though as Peter Gizzi pointed out to me, the word "rescue" does resonate in Reznikoff’s project, though more in a Benjaminian direction of "redemptive critique" than in the frame of network television, which is directly where my students took it also when I taught Rez’s book last semester). So many decisive levels of mediation are manhandled in this analogy that I doubt Patrick would "upon reflection" stand by it. Likewise, though, the concept of "reflection" as he uses it fails to distinguish between the hyper-presentation of a presence (i.e. contemporary barbarism ala Cops & Rescue 911) and Reznikoff’s preserving of an absent present through testimony (i.e. a project oriented to the redemption of historic and contemporary suffering, always particular in Zuk’s sense). The eerie affectlessness of much of Testimony couldn’t be further from the adrenaline-soaked stimulations of exploitation t.v. Nor is the "exhortation" dogmatic; it is ethical in any meaningful sense of that term.

I apologize for the length of this posting, which exceeds by several screens my own e-mail attention span …. It’s just that these topics are central to my own thinking, and to the values that direct that thinking: poetry and social emancipation.


From: Benjamin Friedlander

Subject: the social poem

Steve, I have what I suppose must be an antinomian streak that forces me, often against my will, to take issue with positions that in fact attract me a great deal. Something of the sort occurs now, reading your eminently useful contribution to the discussion of the social poem. Take issue with is too strong–to question, and so, perhaps, modify.

What you say about value seems both right and necessary. The implications with regard to our discussion are significant. That evaluation is a social form, an activity whose meaning and whose value, constituting an "historical event," is objective (in a sense that clarifies what Zukofsky and Reznikoff had in common as "objectivists," i.e., more than some sentimental attachment to Pound’s dictum "direct treatment of the thing"), that the subjective is therefore no less "objective" than those forms of evaluation which call themselves objective (i.e., that subjectivity no less than objectivity has a social content and a political form), that the individual is derived from the social and not the other way around–these are all helpful correctives to the "untenable polarizations" (as you put it) that at every turn threaten to undermine discussions of poetry, to turn discussion into an argument between schools. Not that there aren’t differences between Ward and Reznikoff–of course there are–but that the differences we have been attempting to identify as essential between their projects occur first of all within them.

To take one example: if "social value" is "the medium that pervades, supports, and constrains the generation of specific meanings from the field of linguistic (or grammatical) possibilities," then the "social value" of Reznikoff’s Testimony will be most directly evident in those places where his actions are ostensibly individual–his choices, his juxtapositions, the ways he alters the original material. The "social value" of the material itself, which we might naively assume to be an unmediated glimpse at the United States, is in fact measurable only by way of a regression to the archimedean point of individuality where the social first allows itself to be glimpsed. To take the social content of the poem as an unmediated view of the social field out of which the poem is lifted would be to forget that the social is mediation. (And in this forgetting the "eerie affectlessness of much of Testimony" begins to be felt.) The poem thus flips the relation we might expect to find between the social and the individual: "outside" the poem, the individual is a construct of the social; "inside," the social is a construct of the individual. This is not to insist, however, on a dichotomy between inside and outside–or rather, it’s to insist that the dichotomy occurs equally on both sides of the mythical boundary that the dichotomy is said to put into effect. NOT that Imaginary Movie works from within while Testimony works from without, but that in each work a dynamic is established between inner and outer, subjective and objective, social and personal. The singularity of the poem rests precisely here, in the character of the dynamic that governs the poem’s meaning.

Or if I might say that again, a little more simply, the distinction between individual and social has to occur within the poem, in order for the poem to be intelligible according to either category. That, in any case, is the logic of Bakhtin/Medvedev’s formula, which conceives of individuality as an historical achievement, a social form.

And it’s in light of this analysis that I feel drawn to question your definition of the social poem. Much as I share the values that your definition privileges–"poetic practice which proceeds by ‘particulars’ as they circulate in the social medium of value"–I wonder that the emphasis on "particulars" doesn’t attempt to establish yet another dichotomy between poems that only makes sense within them, here between the particular and the general. You refer, of course, to "other media, other practices, other ways of fashioning the particular" (but since these would have to be circulations in a "medium of value" other than the social, I wonder what they can be), and you refer also to poetic practices "that wobble out of orbit and do escape having a reference" (and you qualify this, but again I wonder what sort of work you are referring to–and I wonder also at the equation of particularity with reference). Nevertheless, I think the upholding of particularity as opposed to generality–or to be more accurate, a proceeding by particularity instead of generality–only makes sense if "as opposed to" is understood as occurring IN the poem. And if that’s the case, then the generality is as essential as the particularity. And isn’t that in fact the case in every poem? For surely there are no purely particularist or purely generalizing poetries …

This isn’t simply a matter of logics and abstract argumentation. Something occurs in Reznikoff that seems to both of us illuminating about poetry in general and the social poem in particular. For both of us, the specificity of Reznikoff’s content and the redemptive quality of his formal appropriations of that content are not only striking but exemplary. I would want to say, however, that too great an emphasis on the historical moment Testimony enshrines and on the apparent lack of mediation in the poem’s presentation of this moment blinds us to the insistent leveling of particularity that also occurs, and the shrewd, often polemical presence of the author in the ways this leveling is interrupted. It’s interesting that my students last week noted first of all–somewhat complainingly–the repetitiousness of the book, the endless permutations of violence and neglect was "predictable," they said. We spent a lot of time talking about courts and law and what testimony is in that context, and after a while they grasped that not all testimony is true. They began to notice, also, Reznikoff’s sarcasm, and the fact that not all meets the eye in these stories. Of course this only annoys them further since if there’s anything they hate more than the depressing it’s the subtle–Testimony being both. All of which is to say that the particularity has meaning above all because of the clarity with which Reznikoff organizes it conceptually.

I could say more about Testimony in this regard, but the message is long enough. A quote then from Charles Bernstein’s Sulfur essay:

"I’ve been told that Reznikoff disliked obscurity and would certainly not have wanted his work to be characterized as obscure. Yet Reznikoff, from the beginning, seemed to expect that obscurity was the likely outcome for his poetic work and seemed to accept that with remarkable equanimity. Perhaps he understood the nature, the social structure, of obscurity better than his contemporaries. Neglect, disregard–the socially obscure, the forgotten and repressed, the overlooked–this was his subject. Hiding in plain sight you may never be found: if sight is not to ‘See by but to look at,’ not to use but behold."

I like that.


From: Charles Bernstein

Subject: Community and the Individual Talent

I had a number of thoughts, over these past weeks of posts, about community, but I’ve misplaced them.

Every time I hear the words literary community I reach for my bivalent autocad simulation card emulator.

Poetry is (or can be) an aversion of community in pursuit of new constellations of relationship.

In other words, community is as much what I am trying to get away from – reform – as form.

So there are a spectrum of communities, from the closed community modeled on the family, to communities fixed by location (what might otherwise be called, for example, neighborhoods) or civic identification (the community bounding a literal and figurative commons or commonplace) or political ideology, to utopian communities that have either sought to form a new place or to remain open by refusing to be grounded by a place.

Literary communities have often been understood in terms of place – the "local" – as Michael Davidson writes about the emergence of a literary community on the West Coast in his book on the SF Renaissance, or in terms of scene (a local hub within a place) or group. Black Mountain remains crucial because it forged an arts community from writers and artists from many places. Most recently, the connections of writers within ethnic, gender, or racial groups have been designated as communities. Schools or movements have not usually been called communities, although Ron Silliman, among others, have wanted to insist that a shared aesthetic project among writers in different locations can best be understood on this model of community. It’s possible to speak of the "poetry community" in the sense of "the poetry world" (in the sense of "the art world") – but such a formulation immediately suggests that arts funding agencies are nearby (more commonly, one speaks of the "small press community"). I would say "poetry communities" but this begs the questions even as it suggests relief. Many poets that I know experience poetry communities, say scenes, as places of their initial exclusion from publication, readings, recognition. Being inside, a part of, is often far less striking that being left out, apart.

Communities, defined by what they have in common – a place, an ideal, a practice, a heritage, a tradition – cannot immunize themselves against what they do not find common. To have a community is to make an imaginary inscription against what is outside the community. & outside is where some poetry will want to be. That is, some poetry will want to work against received ideas of place, group, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, person, member, individuality, tradition, aesthetic tendency. One does not use collective nouns, or at least not without skepticism (if not anxiety).

Robert von Hallberg, in Culture & Value, argues for a poetry that reflects community values; this is what he calls a poetry or accommodation and also, for the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, a suburban poetry.

I suppose it has something to do with how comfortable you feel about the confines of family or nation (fine or confining). As the critic asked the poet who had slipped on the ice and was lying in the middle of the road – "Are you comfortable?" – "I make a good living."

(I take it Steve Evans comment in his introduction to the "Technique" in o.blek/Writing from the New Coast about his generational "hatred of identity" could also apply to a hatred of community, and perhaps that is implicit in his recent discussion of "hating society properly" and also "hating" tradition. Would this include a hatred of virtual, or for that matter unavowable, commuities? Echoing W.C. Fields famous repost to being corrected about his insistence that Jews were running the Studio – Catholics, worst kind of Jews – might we say: Virtual communities, worst kind of communities!?)

Any discussion of community would do well to start with the idea of institution rather than association. For the rules of our associations, one on one or one with many, is fundamentally an institutional matter (in the sense that Erving Goffman details in his many works). So that I would say the first fact about the "community" made possible through modems hooked up to mainframes that are teleconnected is that the access and protocols of this community are predetermined by the institutions that give us entry into them; for most of us on this particular list "membership" in the university "community" – (and for the few on commercial services bearing the insignia of ".com" at the end of their e-mail addresses, they have simply paid to have access to this already formed nexus.)

This is changing but that only makes more crucial the need to acknowledge the overlay of different institutional interests that mediate our interactions in these spaces. We don’t shed old institutional habits as we inhabit new institutional spaces so much as project our old ways onto the new spaces. A great deal of sociological analysis is sure to follow us here. But it is interesting to consider, what patterns of "who speaks?" in "live" group settings – meetings, seminars – are also present in listserv situations, which may at first appear to be free of the need to interrupt or speak up or find a temporary opening in the discussion.

For example, I will soon begin monitoring how long each of you spends online with Poetics@UBVM or whether and what you download. – The potential for monitoring such transactions, as well as doing various forms of statistical analysis of posts and activity, is part of the medium of our communing here. Several subscribers have noted that one of us has chosen to conceal his identity from the publicly available list of subscribers; am I right to "out" Chris Funkhouser of our SUNY-Albany node?

I have set up this listserv so that anyone can subscribe and I am automatically notified, but also so that the list itself is not listed in any directories of listserves. At some point, to keep the list at a scale small enough, or "common" enough, to work, will it be worth considering eliminating open subscriptions?

The idea of possibly hidden listeners is something a listserv invokes insofar as the communication is considered interpersonal, private in the way a letter is, or even a seminar or meeting; although we accept that we never know who buys our books (or checks them from the library). But perhaps the situation here is more like a performance, were we make our recits individually to an audience that is able to see one another, even if, when on stage, our view of the audience may be blocked by the kleiglights.

That, anyway, would bring to mind Rousseau’s preference for public meetings over and against public spectacles (theater): the public convenes to consider its circumstance, its common needs.

What is public space and why does there seem so little of it, as if the public had become a commodity no longer in much demand, but still available for import at high prices, free trade notwithstanding? (We import it from ourselves and the tariffs are high.) So little public space, that is, so much public spectacle.

This suggests the civic values of spaces like these: not reinforcing existing communities but taking up the constitution of social space.

If I resist the idea of a literary community, while working to support the "actually existing" communities of poets among which I find myself, it is because I want to imagine reading and writing, performing and listening, as sites of conversation as much as collectivity. I want to imagine a constellation of readers who write, to and for one another, with the links always open at the end, spiraling outward – centrifugally – not closing in.

At one point in these parts, posts – a message identified as from Lolpoet (Loss Glazier), echoed G.E. Moore’s shaking of fists at the skeptics ("at least I know two things that are real!"): "We are physical beings, not virtual ones." My heart sank, for it is our virtuality that allows for hope. V139HLA3 (at Buffalo it is an institutional privilege to have your name be used as part of your user ID), aka Martin Spinelli, wanting to put off the idea that this space of exchange is unreal, insisted, "We are really here with our real eyes at real monitors" …: yet, my real eyes do me no good if I aspire to something else than what I see, and what I want to monitor is neither real or unreal.

So my hope for electronic communication is not that it engenders virtual communities, but rather virtual uncommunities.

From: Sandra Braman

Subject: Community

I get a little nervous with extensive discussions about formation of community, actually, for it often seems to take the place of engaging in the activities in the doing of which we become one …

There are of course cultural aspects to the net community thing, as elsewhere. Native Americans (who are seeking sovereignty in cyberspace as well as in material space), for example, are concerned about the clash between net culture and their own. In most Native American societies, the most important people are those who are silent in public and sit at the back of the room, while it is the younger and less influential folks who make the noise. Obviously, this would be problematic in the effort to sustain their culture within the net. (There are many examples, actually, of the use of new information technologies in the sustenance of traditional cultural forms, but there are other examples, as well, where this is problematic.)

About four years ago, after attending a string of 7 conferences from Moscow in the former USSR through eastern and western Europe and Eastern and Middle US (winding up in Urbana), I was quite struck by the difference in terms and conceptualizations used to talk about what were often the very same matters facing the formation of communication policy. In the former Warsaw Pact countries, there is great and explicit concern about the possibility of civil society; in Western Europe, concern over the sustenance of the public in a time when media were becoming privatized; in the US, it’s all audience and, as individuals, we’ve moved from citizens to consumers. In the case of this list, from my perspective, one of the things that makes it a community is a sense of shared substance, including sharing with those who may not be speaking much. Silence and listening are the undervalued communications practices of our time .…


From: Susan Schultz

Subject: Community Games

The discussion of community that I’ve recently tapped into is interesting, from a mid-Pacific perspective, for what it leaves out–only proving, I suppose, that definitions of community are inevitably context driven, "community games," as it were. In Hawaii, the term "local" is a racial as well as a regional tag; to be "local" here is to be Asian-American, which distinguishes "locals" from native Hawaiians, and haoles (whites). It’s possible, though not easy, to be a "local haole," if you grow up here. Increasingly, that definition of "local" enters into local writing through the use of pidgin; Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at the Palhala Theater (Bamboo Ridge Press, 1993) is written exclusively in pidgin (except for a moment of affected standard English, meant to be laughed off).

A couple of weeks ago I went to a reading for the publication of Jessica Hagedorn’s fascinating anthology, The Death of Charlie Chan. The first two readers, Yamanaka and a gay Filipino American writer, Zack Linmarck, read in a language so local (and so infused with particular cultural references) that I had a keen sense of living outside of it (I’ve been in Hawaii for three and a half years now). And yet I’m reminded of what Charles Bernstein said a few days ago about uncommunities–I feel myself a part of this community precisely because it is one that acknowledges a multitude of contexts; even though I’m not "local" I do have investments in the community. I am both inside and out of the game, especially when I set about "teaching" local literature at UH. My feeling about this discussion group is similar; it strikes me that the community’s self-definition will change often, according to the particular contexts of our musings. Perhaps, to follow Gene Hult’s comment, we should turn to poems–poems that contain within themselves these shifts of context which are the community as it exists inside poems. It also strikes me as a potentially productive exercise to examine poems that do not seem to welcome us into their community, since that exclusion (gender, class, or race-related) is part and parcel of our definition.

As an aside on pidgin writing: I’m interested in the way in which local writing is (finally) catching on on the mainland. Yamanaka is widely published, as are Eric Chock and Wing Tek Lum, to say nothing of Cathy Song, though her work isn’t generally considered to be local–her audience, as she put it horribly in the pages of Manoa, is the workshop writer she was most jealous of. Garrett Hongo’s new anthology The Open Boat (a strange title for a collection of Asian American poetry–what DOES Stephen Crane have to do with it?) includes several Hawaii writers, and should make them more popular to a larger audience. But, although the use of an exclusive, non-universal language, pidgin, should attract the attention of "Language writers," the poems themselves are relentlessly conservative, more intent on mimesis than on any challenge to it. They buy into notions of "authenticity" that grate on literary critical ears.

In what sense, then, will a discussion group like this one welcome in the "multicultural" literature of places like Hawaii? How do we want to define multiculturalism? We need to keep in mind that "experimental writing" is also a context-driven phenomenon. What is experimental here isn’t in Buffalo, and probably vice versa. (Though Hagedorn’s anthology puts the Heath in the dust on that score.)

Anyway, I find myself piling on here. I’ll sign off for now.


From: Patrick Phillips

Subject: The Wobbly Social Poem

The exposure of a personal/public here speaks on at least a coupla fronts. One is as a formal gesture toward "the other" conversation on "community." Another, and the one I’ll attend directly to, is a notion of frame, or field. My desire, as Steve suggests, not to "conceptualize a notion of social value" is so bound in my appreciation of unframed field of aproximate signs that some people may see this as a destablization of particulars. That this destabilization could in turn lead to the demise of a critique, even my own sense (or lack thereof) of contiguity, and could thereby promote an ugly conjunction of "911" and Testimony. In the terms of the political question arises: How can a critical theory lack a particular ideological framework and is it this a lack of particularity that conjoins such things? Although the first part of the question is somehow more interesting it is the second part that I think has more relevance in terms of the "social poem." (For some reason this idea, the "social poem," seems anemic, like generic drug; something’s hiding in there.)

On the surface of things, like words, I "wobble out of orbit," often as a matter of course. In my wobble the terms of argument become indiscrete; however, this is not to say that this wobbling undermines my reference, nor does this wobble undermine a word’s reference. Here lies the kicker. At what point does this wobble become an element of theory distracted from the social discourse (a point brought up in Steve’s initial personal, now public post)? And at what point is this wobble a "social evaluation." My wobble is social, not theoretical. Its point of arrival is quite close to its point of departure. It would appear that this is an important point, one that in my book is an edge of confluence which resists conceptualization, but one which is constantly demanding it.

Here’s one of the reasons I included that "private" post. What I’ve just begun to try to uncover are the similarities in the expedient forms in Imaginary Movie and Testimony. What are the motives, how are texts, words motivated inspite and because of their wobble. Testimony veils a culture just out of reach both temporally (the turn of the century) and, spatially through the constantly mis-placed modifier ("The United States"). This veil positions the reader, creates a point of reference from which judgements are made and then, through "subsequent" portraits, those judgements are stressed in to a re-making. The coordinate structure of Testimony forces a de-limitation of reference points while never relieving the reader of a concise condition. This reinforced delimitation is in itself often a ethical and moral co-ordinate structure which in many ways could be likened to a "structure" of Imaginary Movie. However, the temporal shift that the reader must engage in is a relentless positioning. This situation, though the terms of its economic and social critique are current, becomes fused with the nostalgic. In other words, because of "its" reflective composition Testimony is a compromised dis-position. Just how Testimony resists falling apart in the echo of its own distance, or just how in its portrait is not of his grandfather, or of our grandparents, but stays here, now, is a matter of technique, economics and morality. It is also a matter of its instability. In that instability its reference is clear.

For Reznikoff, the wobble is stated in action, the unsaid, a testament of the given in the form of our activity. That for Ward this unsaid is in the abridgement of meaning, doesn’t alter this engagement so much as it alters the textual form it takes. What is stated in both texts differs dramatically from what is experienced in each text. The linguistic wobble in Ward is radically different from the conceptual wobble evident in Rez., but its object remains the same, its reference is clear. If we are to rely upon the term, or the area of definition as the condition of the "revolutionary word," a concept which for me remains highly suspect, we still have to engage those areas of ideology and the social which defy boundary in order to discover the term.

This doesn’t answer anything, but continues to set up a range of problems for further rumination


From: Steve Evans

Subject: the social poem: recitative

"A reading that is watched over" (as Ben puts it) seems not a bad definition of this list. It certainly revalues the participation of those, clearly the majority of subscribers, whose "presence" is otherwise referred in a more ominous direction by the term "lurking." But then, who’s to say angels/intelligences (at least the sort whom this list is likely to attract) don’t lurk? Rilke’s did …

Culling over the thread, testing my sense of what has been said to date, I find myself thinking of Juliana’s comment that "the poem is the social poem." By which Juliana might mean politely to say that "social" doesn’t really advance our thinking beyond the point "poem" has already brought it to. …

In which case, shifting the question to "what is testimony or struggle or opposition" seems a more generative option than the one I’ve noticed my own thoughts to be drifting into: i.e. placing an article before an adjective (the social) and counting the resulting abstraction as a cognitive gain. Truth is, everything that lead me to introduce the term in my note to Patrick is lost once that abstraction has occurred.

The Jameson of Marxism and Form has an interesting take on why this swivel (more determined than a wobble) between concretion/abstraction might haunt our mediations on society. He notes that "society is clearly not some empirical object which we can meet and study directly in our own experience: in this sense the neo-positivist criticism, which considers the idea of society an inadmissible abstract construct or a mere methodological hypothesis with no other kind of real existence, is justified. At the same time society–precisely in the form of such an impossible, suprapersonal abstraction–is present in the form of an ultimate constraint upon every moment of our waking lives [he’s clearly an optimist vis-a-vis the unconscious!]: absent, invisible, even untenable, it is at the same time the most concrete of all the realities we have to face.… (57).

That doesn’t seem a bad way of parsing the problem "society" poses for thought and linking it to the one it poses for (everyday) practice.

As for poetic practice, I will tempt the anti-Adornian in Juliana only slightly by rewriting an admirable phrase from Minima Moralia: "you must have tradition in you to hate it properly." In the context of this discussion, I would say: the poem must have society in it to hate it properly. Against one variant of the "necessity for rewriting the language" argument Juliana mentioned, I would add: society is neither reducible to, nor even "structured like" a language…. One could, hypothetically, "hate" the structures of signification, and one could (though not without paradoxes) even practice that hatred or opposition in one’s writing, but that would not be, in my definition, necessarily the same thing as "hating society properly."

But to get that word, "hate," to have the inflection I want, I’ll need a couple of stanzas from O’Hara:


Hate is only one of many responses

true, hurt and hate go hand in hand

but why be afraid of hate, it is only there

think of filth, is it really awesome

neither is hate

don’t be shy of unkindness, either

it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct

like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe…

The fact is that oppositional practices can stay clear of neither hate nor violence: that Reznikoff’s Testimony admits and re-cites (while refusing to turn into arias) scene after scene of hate and violation releases us into a comportment beyond fear and amazement, beyond the "awe" that O’Hara speaks of. Testimony refers us not to the unmediated traumatic occurrence, but to the comportment that might make such occurrences impossible: "why be afraid of hate, it is only there"–why be afraid of hate, in other words, when the absence of our ability to respond to it is what truly is fearful?

But Benjamin said it better in 1939:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are "still" possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge– unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable ("Theses on the Philosophy of History").

This opens the wider question of what view of history would be tenable, and what relationship Reznikoff bears to the history he writes and the history he, albeit infinitesimally, and from within the social-structure of obscurity, helped to make.


From: Benjamin Friedlander

Subject: Re: The Wobbly Social Poem

I want to reserve my right, as they say, to say something at a later date about the "intelligence" that reading calls upon, or substantiates. I’ve mentioned to Patrick already that for me the word alludes to those angelic orders which Henry Corbin says Islamic mysticism terms "intelligences." I’ve been reading Corbin nibblingly as a way of finding a new path into Olson’s poetry, which many of us here in Buffalo are now reading for the Creeley seminar. I want to say that there’s an angel of reading, and most of what is sort of stupidly accounted for as "self-reflection" really makes more sense when understood as a reading that is watched over. I want also to say that it’s impossible for me to think about the so-called "social" poem without reference to its opposite. Which would be, to my mind, not the antisocial poem (the antisocial is no less social than the law abiding), but the poem concerned with what’s trans-social, trans-historical, mystical, ontological. And I think this opposition is again one that only makes sense within a poet’s work, is not a means of categorizing the differences between poets. Reznikoff is an easy example of this–though not perhaps in Testimony–since in Judaism the trans-historical uses the historical as its referent, and Reznikoff’s ideas and imagery in large part derives from Judaic sources. (See, for instance, "Jerusalem the Golden.") But Olson too is a wonderful example of the social poem giving way to its opposite, only to be rediscovered in the most improbable manifestations.

OK. I save all that for later–or rather, I offer it as a possible direction. And in the meantime I wonder just what "wobble" means. Patrick?

> On the surface of things, like words, I "wobble out of orbit," often as a

> matter of course. In my wobble the terms of argument become indis-

> crete; however, this is not to say that this wobbling undermines my ref-

> erence, nor does this wobble undermine a word’s reference.

A habit of communication. But this habit would seem to be "revolving" toward an articulation that is itself revolution. That is, the undecidability of your immediate meaning demonstrates a stance that is ultimately opposed to the immediacy of understanding which communication seems to depend on.

> My wobble is social, not theoretical. Its point of arrival is quite close to

> its point of departure. It would appear that this is an important point,

> one that in my book is an edge of confluence which resists

> conceptualization, but one which is constantly demanding it.

If I’m right then I would have to say your wobble is social and yet in a wholly theoretical sense–theory enacted as a social relation. Moreover, your attempts to resist not only demand conceptualization, they can be intelligible only to the extent that we (your interlocutors) do conceptualize them.

Is this how poetry operates? That what poems "do" is intelligible only insofar as we accept this doing as a "saying." That what poems "say" makes invisible the fact that this saying is also a "doing." Here we return to Charles Bernstein’s comment on Reznikoff about hiding in plain sight. There’s a Blaser poem too that comes to mind:


Locked out, and at the same time locked

in the look-out what perfect rose could

I say or write the Nietzschean brilliance,

who knew that the best writers understand

form as what others consider content

We’re probably not too far either from the old "How does a poem mean?" line that I got in high school. But I too would like to write or say the perfect rose. And why has wobbling got to be so dramatic? What if this very sentence, held out to you as simply as a plucked flower, turns methodically on an axis, round some sun of meaning toward its point of origin?


From: Jennifer Moxley

Subject: Wobbly Institutions?

I think you boys must be getting a little saddle weary from all that wobbling. Those who muse around in definitions of community without self-referentiality obviously can "step away" long enough to question: are we in one? do we want one? etc… Most people on this earth are born into your vagary. And I think the likelihood of any significant change happening surrounding community is very low among our current poetic dissidents if we don’t feel "wrongly defined" only "wrong definitions" –changing definitions is easy, we’re poets, or are we? I noticed that M. Hult admitted he goes to the grocery store which reminded me of something I read about the new left in the 60’s, it’s not that anyone said to the women leftists, "you can’t speak," it is simply that the dynamic was such that even theorectically sophisticated women felt invigorated but shut down from participation. The way they were defined proceeded any definition changing they might have wanted to take part in. Being left out, cut off from the dominant modes of whatever, while remaining in a position of priviledge via class and gender, can sometimes make us forget to keep a keen eye peeled on the house that shut the door in the first place, and subsequently our shack takes on an inflated importance. I find it interesting that while we spend a lot of time opposing our enforced and chosen communities we still accept their terms. I think this is because it isn’t that we hate our communities, but rather that we hate that the possibilities they open to us (academic, poetic, love relationships, virtual and democratic communities) are rarely realized. I just hate that. But it’s like always waking up to a sink full of dirty dishes, you must say to yourself, at least I have dishes. We cannot extirpate ourselves from community any more than we can talk about the social as if we aren’t in and defined by it, neither can we give up hope that we might be able to risk humiliation and defy these spaces that define us.


From: Dodie Bellamy

Subject: Spicer's Martian dialect

... A quote from John Ryan:

Jack Spicer and I were both fluent in Martian. I was North Martian, and he was South Martian, but we understood what we said perfectly well. We were going down into the Valley one year, before Christmas, on a train, and Jack had to go take a leak. Jack and I had been conversing in Martian, being quite full of Red Cap Ale, and a guy from another table came over and asked me when Jack went to the head, "Are you fellows Australian?" Jack returned and greeted the man, "Sit ka vassisi von ka, sta'chi que v’ay qray." ("Salut!".) That’s Southern Martian. "Eiss! Sa schlein! Ja da lond, nar la loff." (That’s "thank you," in Northern Martian.)" (from KK’s Spicer bio--I am devouring the manuscript with great pleasure)


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Ghosts vs. Martians

Dodie’s comments re Spicer made me think about the fact that there are TWO categories of communicative Other in Spicer’s work. Martians is one, but ghosts are the other. What I want to know is What is the difference between these two realms for Spicer?

Am totally envious that you get to read that book while I, like the rest of the world, just have to wait.


From: Dodie Bellamy

Subject: Re: Ghosts vs. Martians


I have spent the morning bugging Kevin about what he sees as the difference between Martians and ghosts. KK seems to think that they are, in fact, metaphors for the same phenomenon–which particular term Spicer chose often depending on who he was talking to. KK said that Martians seemed to drop away after a while, and ghosts took over as the predominant image. KK doesn’t see much connection between the Martian dialect and this, seeing speaking Martian simply as a game that lovers play.

Have you ever made up a language with another, Ron? I have.

And, yes, I do feel lucky reading this book. But I also feel lucky about my long-term, totally passive exposure to Spicer’s work and world, which began long before KK started the Spicer bio. Early on in my writing career Bruce Boone would read me Spicer and discuss his poetry and Bruce’s vision of community. I remember Bruce having a party where a large group of us sat around his Noe Valley apartment and listened to a tape of Spicer reading The Holy Grail. And then there was the Spicer conference at New College. And John Granger’s striking talk on Spicer at Small Press Traffic.

And I’ve been particularly lucky in having met many of the people discussed in the Spicer bio. There’s something very gratifying about having myself developed as a writer in San Francisco, and being emersed in this historical community which still has traces in the present. Recently KK, Peter Gizzi, and I went to the memorial service of the painter Tom Field, who was part of the Spicer circle. As I was leaving, Joanne Kyger and a number of other survivors of that era took what remained of the wine and headed up to Tom’s room to drink because they could feel Tom there. Ghosts.


From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: Ghosts vs. Martians

like kevin via dodie, i’m not sure how much is gained by looking for differences btw ghosts and martians in spicer. in my spicer chapter i treat them as slightly different inflections of spicer’s felt affinity for otherworldliness(es) in his life: as a poet, as a gay man, etc. I’d say that there is in ghosts a resonance w/ keats’s negative capability and eliot’s anti-personality aesthetics ("what i am is by degrees a ghost"–letter to lorca in After Lorca), and in martians there’s a sense (through appeal to cavalcantian appeals to mars as the "real" god of love as opposed to venus) of bellicose agonism, which certainly characterizes spicer’s relationship to "the world"–and also, given the space-race fifties and sixties, to the concept of a fantasy/utopian projection where things could come true and whence "different" people came (somewhere over the rainbow, burroughs’s "language is a virus from outer space," sun ra, etc, "my favorite martian" as a mass cultural model for alternate masculinity). etc. i had some ideas about 8 years ago of writing something about the iconography of the space-race and the emergent gay male community of the 50s and 60s, but like so many other ideas i never did it, nor could i persuade any of my grad students to pursue it. auden has a poem abt the space race, doesn’t he?

Hermit Crabs Don’t Cry to Politics and Deviations


From: Charles Bernstein

Subject: Hermit Crabs Don’t Cry

On one of my frequent trips to the Folded Place inside the Ethernet’s Thirteenth Passage, with the new translation into Idiophone of Moses Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed in my left hand, I had occasion to jot down some rules of conduct (not so much community standards as uncommunity striations) into my Blake’s Newton Feelpad (TM pending) (a pad is after all a kind of home, or used to be). The Feelpad, as many of you will know (and I use the word "you" carelessly), is able to convert inner feeling processes into linguistic signs. The protocols of the Blake’s Newton Feelpad do not allow me to review the file before downloading directly onto your screens (and I also use the word "your" carelessly):

All of these proposed Listserve Rules will be enforced through a fully automated new version of the Youngman Listserve Program (Henney 33.95). As I am sure you will agree (and I use "you" loosely), Total Automation of rule enforcement is the only way to ensure fair and impartial Rule Maintenance:

1. Postings on Poetics@UBVM shall be neither in prose or verse. Rather, all postings shall conform to shifting character/line formats, announced periodically on the list. Initially, lines shall have at least 43 and no more than 51 characters; hyphenation is discouraged.

2. No messages shall be posted between :43 and :52 minutes after the hour.

3. All postings shall be made from "Dos"-type platforms; Apple users may post from "IBM"-type computers but the graphic orientation of Macs make these environments inappropriate for Poetics postings.

4. You have to sound 30 or show ID.

5. On the third Friday of every month, only short "chat" messages to friends on the list may be posted. For those without, or who no longer have, friends on the list, a message service will be available to provide names of friends as well as appropriate messages.

6. The Listowner will provide a name purging service to permit anonymous postings. Purged names will remain strictly confidential, although, at the Listowner’s discretion, they may be sold, on condition of continued confidentiality, to benefit the outreach services at Poetics@UBVM provided by Whitewater Development Company.

7. Subscribers to Poetics@UBVM agree to end all "back channel" communication. All communication among subscribers shall be sent to the list as a whole: no individual e-mail or conventional mail may be exchanged, no face-to-face verbal communications will be permitted (nonverbal communication is in no way restricted by this rule). At first, this may be difficult for those who live in the same area. But, over time, the enormous advantages to community-building will become apparent.

8. In order to cut down on those repulsive smile icons that are used on Other Lists to indicate humorous intent (as we used to say in Method Acting class – DON’T INDICATE) [Remember the one about the actor who asked the director what his motivation was to walk across the set and light a cigarette, to which the director replied, "your motivation is, that if you don’t, you’ll be fired"?] – where was I? even when I write I lose track of where I am – oh yeah, in order to cut down on those smile icons, and for other reasons that should be obvious to all of you (I use the word "you" inadvisedly), all irony (including sarcasm, schtick, mocking, jokes, and comic innuendo) will be prohibited from the list. This is a particularly difficult rule to enforce automatically, but recent, unpublishable, research, indicates that there may be genetic markers of sarcasm and our team of crack(ed?) computer experts are working around the clock to find programs to detect this "irony gene" in linguistic expression.


For those who have asked that this listspace move toward reality rather than float in talky virtuality, the following rule implementation procedure will be adopted:

If there is significant sentiment on the list in favor of these rules, they will not be adopted; if, in contrast, there is strong opposition to these rules, they will become effective immediately.

In addition, to bring even more reality into the system, between three and five Listserve Rules will remain concealed from all subscribers AND about one percent of all messages will be randomly deleted before delivery.


From: Robert Creeley

Subject: Chicken Chat

Ted Joans has now come and gone, to fact of modest audience, a quiet midweek night in Buffalo at the end of the school year, etc. He’s such an old time kind of poet, with a few books of his own to sell, satchel of personal belongings, arriving by bus from NYC at 7:25 AM, looking around very particularly. He proves a bridge over many troubled waters indeed, with stories of being recently in South Africa and countries there adjacent–moving as one can when there is no high exposure to deal with, sticking to the local and being handed on. He’s moved as a poet reading and talking in Africa more than any other, of any circumstance–can tell you the particulars of language in various places, the lore of their locating habits, imaginations. And so on.

After his reading we were still sitting there, comfortably, talking, with the chicken wings etc etc–I was saying to Ken Sherwood how persuasively attractive this curious place (right here/the so-called net (well named)) had been these past few days. As if I’d been waiting like kid at edge of water to jump, and finally had–and found it terrific! An exfoliating "self" of weird kind that literally "echoed" back and back and back in apparent "objectivity" that nonetheless was just plain Bob/or words to that effect.

In the early 40s when still in college I had job as copy boy on the Boston Globe, and recall hysteria of trying to keep up with the sheets of paper rolling off the bank of teletype machines: "late breaking" bulletins with endless revisions, cancellations, etc etc. Now I got chance to play "sender".

But, as Ken said, it’s a funny "place" and activity, as if one could really get lost "out there," be so "distributed" the focus, or locating response, were only endless reverberations of one’s own initiating act. That is, it’s instantly hard to hear anyone but one’s self–and the moves, as in a poker game or checkers, become too simply (for me at least) redeterminations of my "position" (hardly "intellectual") as I want to keep "playing"–and why not.

Seamus Cooney was saying some time back, think of what it would have been like had you and Olson had email. Help… Yet it would have saved all those drab hours waiting for the mail–as I did at times, crouched back of brush some thirty feet from where the mail truck would pull up. In some obvious ways, writing letters back then was even more of a singular act, a proposal of self simply, than what I am doing here right now– but on reflection it seems the same.

Carla Billitteri in last discussion of Olson seminar etc used sense of the "solipsistic fury" of his late work: "Wholly absorbed…"; "I live underneath the light of day…" Etc. I think of Wittgenstein’s essay/ lecture on ethics, wherein he speaks of will to make just one word that can be autonomous–self creating. It seems the same "fury"–familiar to all who read, write, or think no doubt. "Was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself…" Quien sabe, amigos.


From: Jed Rasula

Subject: Re: Olson’s "fury"

Re: Olson’s "fury" & Bob Creeley’s humanizing of it as a generic condition of readers & writers grasping for an autonomous word.

I think of other senses, archaic, mythopoeic, in which Olson would have worked the material, pressed out its ulterior sense. "Fury" is not merely an emotional state, but the name for the Erinyes, spirits avenging family violence. Their inception is curious, as they arise from the ground in the drops of blood spattered by the castration of Uranus in that primal scene of patricide. Colloquially the furies were appe aled to in cursing, and are thought of as even the personifications of curse. And Jean-Pierre Vernant has something interesting to add: "The Erinyes can claim the two extremes: What is ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ is also what is raw. They do not drink wine but they do eat men." (Myth & Tragedy in Ancient Greece, 158)


From: Robert Creeley

Subject: Fury

Carla’s note of Olson’s "solipsistic fury" gets misplaced here necessarily, just that I took it out of context, didn’t mark its company in her thinking ("stone," "double"), nor in any respect suggest what the preoccupations in her discussion were. At some point I hope one can read what she’s done for oneself–as I’m sure she hopes likewise. One’s trying to get to the place (what I’d call the context) where Olson finds himself–as in the early note to Elaine Feinstein: "Orientate me." ("The light is in the east," etc etc.)

Anyhow, thinking of Jed Rasula’s useful addition of the Furies (the English of the Latin of the Greek)–I like the fact that "fury" locates in "rage," and that certainly echoes: "rages, tears…" "And the thought of its thought is the rage/ of Ocean : apophanesthai…"

–Egocentrically it recalls my own (humanistic) "possession": "I rage./ I rage, I rage." The downside, like they say, of a state that is not simply (only) an emotion (as Jed usefully emphasizes)– but is a place one’s come into, as "Come into the world."

This one,

that one,

the other one–

I keep thinking of "seizure," a sense I get insistently in Olson –that one acts in/from such state. Paradoxically it’s the Greco/Roman that seems to have the problem with such "place," it’s so "irrational"–thinking, in contrast, of the dervishes still very active in Turkey (if often reduced to a kind of "entertainment" (or so attached) akin to pueblo ritual dances in the southwestern U.S.).

But here it all goes again–that endless digression! "Get on board, etc etc." I wish there were some damn way to get out/get in "here" so as to find the literal company one knows is "there". Somehow the note in the bottle–charming though that be–is, for me, still the parallel. Which means at best I’m in there too. Show me the way to go home! I’m TIRED and I WANT TO GO TO BED… (P.S. Just in Baltimore and they sure eat well –and no chicken wings in sight… Maryland Institute of Art (Joe Cardarelli) seems where it’s at. Anyhow "my Baltimore" is same plus memories of Andrei Codrescu, David Franks, and impeccable Anselm Hollo. "Scrapple" on the menu. All the trees had leaves! Barry Alpert in good spirits. Julie Kalendak’s going to Alaska. Onward!)



From: Michael Boughn

Subject: experiwhat?

Can someone out there explain how the concept of "experiment" relates to the practice of poetry? My own understanding of "experiement" is that it specifically has to do forms of thinking and practice associated with the accumulation of scientific knowledge, that is to say, the truth and falsity of theories and hypotheses. One forms an hypothesis based on generalizing from certain isolated empirical "facts", and then proceeds to test the "truth" or "falsity" of the hypotesis by submitting it to experimentation, i.e. looking for exceptions to the general rule.

Whatever it is we do as poets, I simply can’t conceive of any way in which the concept of "experimentation" can meaningfully describe it. … Innovative, maybe, or exploratory, or even weird poetry, but never, never "experimental". I know I may sound a bit cranky, but since words are our lives, we ought to be careful with them, especially when discussing our own craft.


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Motivation

What I like about Social Formalism is that it combines both the general thrust of the activity with the general thrust of the motivation for such activity, i.e., that these writings are/were motivated for explicitly social reasons, even where (as often enough was the case) the definition of the social reason would have been hard to get at beyond "general sense of dissatisfaction w/ the present condition of things"

What separates most of the writers in In the American Tree, for example, from poets now ages 25-30 doing superficially similar things on a page, is precisely that sense of motivation. Not that younger poets don’t have motivation, but it’s a different one, generally. And the fact that something like LangPo sits owl-like on the landscape is part of the problem any younger poet must thus face.

The impulse to write in the way that, say, Stephen Rodefer did 10 years ago, is not the same today. Even for Stephen.

I actually think that is why in the O-blek anthology we see such a "return to the lyric" as a mode. It represents precisely the draining of the "social" from that equation.

Which may be why, w/ the exception of Mark Mendel’s appropriation of Jenny Holzer’s sense of display for poetry, there are no literary devices in that collection that you cannot already find in The New American Poetry, In the American Tree or The Art of Practice.

"Experimental poetry" I think tries as a category to express the same combination of activity & motivation, but both terms in the equation seem too vague ultimately. And I do think that for many poets, esp. during the 1950s, the first term in that category carried with it some connotation of the "prestige of science" – Think of Bern Porter, or even Kostelanetz. Or Eli Mandel, who went from "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" (one of the interesting attempts at the American long poem during the so-called modernist era which has not made it even into the most retro canon as yet)to true crackpot science "curing gays of homosexuality" on the right-wing homophobe circuit before he died. Zukofsky has that same sense of wearing the lab coat at the blackboard. The Doctor will see you now.

What has always struck me about the negativity we see with the word formalism has been those people who presume it to represent an impulse toward stasis–the new formalists are a positive expression of this, but it could be found in inverted ways in Tom Clark’s attack on LangPo and elsewhere.

Every label expresses an agenda. Think of the terms for the apex of the M nexus: "Christian Language Poets" definitely throws them into some role as variant/tributary–definitely a subservient position. The New Mysticism says nothing of their practice as writers (which in turn is a slam on their writing). The Buffalo Problem may be cute, but in fact their work cannot be generalized to the larger Buffalo scene where, I’m told, they’ve largely disappeared … But if every label expresses an agenda, the hidden nature of that agenda is what would make the 17th generation of The New York School an interesting intellectual problem as such.

There are real strategic advantages to having access to a term whose meaning has become as vague as that, almost a protective covering. So when I see a label, I ask what does it say of the activity & motivation of those are labeled? "Poets associated with United Artists" seems to deliberately skirt some of these issues, tucked right under the name of the magazine.


From: Steve Evans

Subject: Motives & Devices

Ron Silliman’s recent posting on "motivation" raised some difficult questions about the current state of inter-generational relations within one sub-domain of oppositional poetry. I want to dwell on a few of the claims Ron made in his posting, claims that struck me as problematic and provocative in equal proportions. If possible, I’d like to rob of their "obviousness" certain assumptions that seem to have hardened along the seam where two generations, one established and one emerging, meet. Though I doubt the following remarks can achieve that goal, perhaps other people can find a way to move us towards it?

Ron makes three claims in the first five graphs of his posting, each of which pertains to the intersection of motivation/device/generation. I don’t have a "copy" function available to me, so I will reproduce these claims schematically before noting what seems problematic about them to me.

Claim 1: "what separates most of the writers in In the American Tree, for example, from poets now ages 25-30 doing superficially similar things on a page, is precisely…motivation."

For the sake of economy, in the following I’m going to use the shorthand G1 to indicate "writers in In the American Tree," and G2 for "writers now ages 25-30" (some of whom appear in o-blek 12: Writing from the New Coast).

Ron identifies the "motivation" of G1 as "explicitly social…even where (as often enough was the case) the definition of social reason would have been hard to get at beyond ‘general sense of dissatisfaction w/ the present condition of things.’" This segues into

Claim 2: the "return to the lyric" in o-blek 12 "represents precisely the draining of the ‘social’ from" the concerns of G2. Which in turn leads to

Claim 3: this "draining of the ‘social’" explains "why, with [one exception], there are no literary devices in [the New Coast] that you cannot already find in The New American Poetry, In the American Tree or The Art of Practice."

Apropos Claim 1: I see plenty of evidence in both volumes of the New Coast to suggest that G2 meets the minimal definition of "social motivation" provided by Ron ("general dissatisfaction w/the present condition of things"). If anything, the failure of the New Left and the impasses of identity politics seem to have increased that dissatisfaction, while the fact that G1’s claims for the social efficacy of its collective poetic project have only been partially borne out suggests the necessity of exploring alternate routes.

Apropos Claim 2: The ominous scenario in which the social is somehow "drained" away only makes sense if such devices as one finds in ITAT represent the exclusive means of criticizing existing social relations and evoking potentials for social transformation. Ron establishes a double bind for G2: continue to employ G1’s devices (in which case you’ll be labeled derivative and your motivation will be characterized as improper) or invent/adopt other devices (in which case you’ll be accused of permitting the "social" to "drain" away). I’ve been seeing variants of this argument since the mid-80s, and I’d have thought it was clear by now that there is more than one way to compose/propose the social in poetry, and that the employment of devices associated with the lyric genre does not automatically entail the abandonment of an oppositional literary and social project.

Apropos Claim 3: Does it make sense to compare the New Coast, an emphatically "prospective" collection of 119 young writers, to such retrospective anthologies as the New American Poetry and ITAT? (I leave aside The Art of Practice, though the fact that 10 of the 45 writers presented there also appear in the NC makes the attempt to set them sharply at odds untenable). I think the question of what devices these young writers will develop in their careers is anything but settled at this point. The suggestion that G2 has "returned" to the lyric implies that the question has already been settled in favor of a modest conservatism: in which case it remains to be explained why no three poets in the New Coast could be inserted into the NAP or ITAT without substantially changing the texture of either preceding collection.

I think the summary judgment that G2 brings forward "no new devices" is a conveniently veiled way of discrediting work that mobilizes a host of "devices" and puts into play a range of "motivations" that haven’t yet been codified (and, in response to the perceived "programmaticism" of G1, may not elect to use the strategies of codification favored by that previous generation).

There are other questions that could be posed here (why for instance the Apex of the M has been taken as the chief development requiring explanation in the past year or so, despite the fact that its version of repressive resublimation hardly accounts for the only instance of "collective unity"–as Ron phrases it in an earlier post–to be seen in that time; cf. "Chain" for instance, also "out of" Buffalo). But I have already gone on too long.…


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: G2

Steve Evans always has interesting and valuable points to make. I want to unpack a couple here.

> Apropos Claim 2: The ominous scenario in which the social is some-

> how "drained" away only makes sense if such devices as one finds in

> ITAT represent the exclusive means of criticizing existing social

> relations and evoking potentials for social transformation.

I didn’t (don’t) make any claim of exclusivity of devices for In the American Tree and the concept makes no sense to me. I could point to hundreds of alternative examples from my own generation alone that are equally social but well outside the positioned critique that separates out most of the Tree’s poets from the broader (less differentiated) terrain.

> Ron establishes a double bind for G2: continue to employ G1’s devices

> (in which case you’ll be labeled derivative and your motivation will be

> characterized as improper) or invent/adopt other devices (in which case

> you’ll be accused of permitting the "social" to "drain" away).

What other devices?

It is precisely the continuation of the same set of devices in increasingly modest forms that characterizes the broader poetics of G2, as Steve calls it in a curiously clinical abbreviation. It is that modesty, as such, that I was getting at as a "draining of the social"– and I accept the possibility that it may actually represent a much more complex ensemble of social phenomena, that may well include grave doubt over the possibilities of collective action (say), all of which would be well worth elaborating on at length

And I should note from the outset the obvious, that the choice of such forms need not limit any individual poet from achieving as much as anybody ever has. It seems clear to me that some of the writers in O-blek 12 – Lee Ann Brown and Jessica Grim for example – have already established themselves as major poets. On anybody’s terms.

>Apropos Claim 3: Does it make sense to compare the New Coast, an

>emphatically "prospective" collection of 119 young writers, to such

>retrospective anthologies as the New American Poetry and ITAT?

I for one don’t buy the "prospective" nature of O-blek 12 as anything other than as a stance. And a troubling one. The average age of the poets in O-blek 12 may well be 5 years OLDER than the poets in the Allen anthology, for example. And the aggressive placement of the "spirit" section at the front of the "technique" (i.e. theory) volume shows an overall argumentative structure that is more aggressive even than the Tree. What "prospective" seems to mean here is a reluctance to acknowledge or own its own position. At least the Apex folks don’t suffer from that.…


From: Steve Evans

Subject: G-ology

First, my apologies for introducing such an absurd notation as "G2" into list usage. I only intended it as a tool for grasping what felt to me like the conventional/abstract nature of Ron’s speculations on the work of emerging writers.

Having spent a significant portion of my fairly brief intellectual life trying to force discussions about the work Ron refers to as "Social Formalism" into a space not totally predecided by stereotype and phobic characterization, I get a little anxious when I think the whole labor of insisting on the specificity and value of a new body of work will have to be repeated (and to no less than the Social Formalists themselves). Ron & others: say it ain’t so!

But on to specifics. Marjorie Perloff’s remarks about the shifting tenor of political commitments among progressives in the U.S. make sense, but let’s not forget that the "burning political concerns" of In the American Tree were/are by no means self-evident: to accept Bruce Andrews’s "In Funnel" or David Melnick’s Pcoet as doing political work, one has to have a sense of the political rather more elastic than most people on the left had in the 70s or for that matter have today. To abbreviate a much longer discussion: it takes a highly developed utopian imagination to get from linguistic to social activism; from the "tyranny of the signifier" (a phrase that is laughable today but which articulated aspirations for social change for some people in the 70s-80s) to anti-capitalist struggle.

What I don’t understand is why this hard-won utopian intelligence (or say: set of reading practices) is not brought to bear on the New Coast. If you can read Rae Armantrout as "positioned critique" can’t you do the same for Robert Kocik?

I suppose that at some point, Ron, names will have to be mentioned to go along with generalizations such as "the continuation of the same set of devices in increasingly modest forms…characterizes the broader poetics of G2." I’m honestly not sure what’s at stake for you in such remarks.

On the question of "average ages" of NC and NAP, it seems clear to me that biological age doesn’t equal "age" in terms of the poetic field.

To clarify one general point in closing: I am not under the impression that a collective re-definition of what poetry is and does has as yet been articulated by G2, which is perhaps all Ron means to be saying. Given the way literary fields work in capitalist social formations, the failure to achieve such a collective redefinition will lead to a lot of interesting poetry disappearing beneath the ready-made rubrics that persist from the last time such a struggle was won.


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: G-ology

…Steve Evans’ intro to the Technique section of O-blek 12 seems to me the most heroic attempt to date to articulate a terrain for G2. I think that he’s right in that intro about the motivating "hatred of identity" that runs through the work, although his reading of the phenomena in O-blek is more broad and generous than that espoused in Apex’s "State of the Art" manifesto. I used those two pieces with my class at Naropa, which led to some lively, albeit inconclusive discussions. Certainly nobody has ever done a more aggressive job misreading and stereotyping a community than Apex’ broad swipes at G1 (& esp. LangPo):"an avant-garde dominated in its practices by a poetics espousing the priority of ‘language itself’ over all other relations." (p. 5)

Is that not a classic instance of labeling theory taking the misnomer "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet" just a wee bit literally? I’ve never once met a G1 who espoused that.

Or, later on the same page, "a participatory valorization of this disintegration…." Haven’t both Gayatri Spivak & Bob Perelman completely answered that in response to Fred Jameson’s only-slightly-more-in-depth reading of the poem "China"?

And, throughout "State of the Art," an entire series of presumptions concerning the social functions of innovation, as though everyone from M. Bertrand thru G1 were an Italian futurist celebrating the potentiality of the submachine gun. Talk about "phobic characterization"!!

I think what makes the Apex group stand out so much, especially at a distance (where, for example, it’s easier to forget [or ignore] that Alan Gilbert, Kristin Prevallet and Lew Daly, the editors whom I’ve actually met, are all lovely, charming, intelligent people, as full of complexity and caution as one might want), is precisely the directness of their address, which shoots right through even the "post"iness of its convoluted syntax. While Steve wants me to "say it ain’t so," the Apexers say openly that "a new understanding of our task as iconoclasts and not innovators will emerge." If I ignore for a moment how I feel at the lack of accuracy and generosity in their description of my cohorts in G1, that’s still an interesting and difficult claim to make and I want to know more. What distinguishes them as a group phenomenon is their ambition–it’s the most "out there" manifesto we’ve had in ages–even if their "ambition is to have no ambition" (as I think the British punk band The Gang of Four once put it, back in the swampy G1 days of 1982).

Besides, Steve, Chick Gandil, who organized the Black Sox throw of the 1919 series (he was the first baseman), and thus gave rise to the very phrase you use, used to live on my very block here in Berkeley. He worked with my grandfather. That’s at least as cosmic as discovering that I’m the reincarnation of one of Jackson Mac Low’s past lives. (Or that Jack Spicer and my father died on the very same day in 1965.)

> But on to specifics. (This is Steve "talking") Marjorie Perloff’s remarks

> about the shifting tenor of political commitments among progressives

> in the U.S. make sense, but let’s not forget that the "burning political

> concerns" of In the American Tree were/are by no means self-evident: to

> accept Bruce Andrews’s "In Funnel" or David Melnick’s Pcoet as doing

> political work, one has to have a sense of the political rather more elas-

> tic than most people on the left had in the 70s or for that matter have

> today.

At the point that David wrote Pcoet, he was either about to (or just had) abandoned his idea of ever finishing his dissertation (the one chapter he wrote appeared in the Maps special issue on Zukofsky), and came out of the closet to his students at Berkeley with a vengeance, platform shoes and glitter in his beard. There was absolutely no way that any one confronting either him or that text in those days could not see the text’s relation not just to the history of modernism but also to what was then known as "gender fuck" politics.

The argument for Bruce’s work is not dissimilar. Tho his idea of gender fuck is a little different.

Besides, one of the major thrusts of one strain of G1 was to counter the various modes of vulgar left critical/aesthetic practice. Bruce Boone, Bob Gluck, Steve Benson, myself and Kathleen Fraser were all once in the same marxist study group, and we had some TERRIFIC arguments. In every sense of that word. And every single one of the G1s who were politically active (not just through our poetry) dealt with these issues repeatedly.

>What I don’t understand is why this hard-won utopian intelligence (or

> say: set of reading practices) is not brought to bear on the New Coast.

I disagree that this is what’s goin’ on. Here the claim in Apex about "iconoclasts and not innovators" rings much truer to my ear. What I want to know is what the social content of that might be.

>If you can read Rae Armantrout as "positioned critique" can’t you do

> the same for Robert Kocik?

Yes, absolutely. I’m interested in examining the nature of each position. I’m not especially making the argument for my g-g-g-generation.

> I suppose that at some point, Ron, names will have to be mentioned to

> go along with generalizations

Oh, I still do believe in Lenin’s idea that the move toward "abstraction" is toward the truer layer of the concrete.

> I’m honestly not sure what’s at stake for you in such remarks.

I thought (still do) that if I prod a little, I’d get some interesting feedback from poet(s) in G2 (maybe even G3) who would further articulate the landscape, so that the "prospective" (i.e. inchoate) nature posed by O-b 12 might give greater rise to a new shared vision of a broader terrain. Frankly, I’d like to see less reactive criticism and more manifestos a la Apex (and from a broad range of positions). I find it interesting (very ambiguous word here, and deliberately so) that the most detailed response has come from somebody who positions himself as a critic and not as a poet, as such.

> On the question of "average ages" of NC and NAP, it seems clear to me

> that biological age doesn’t equal "age" in terms of the poetic field.


Actually, the question of age is a complex one all on its own. One of the real values of The Art of Practice is its inclusion of a number of poets generationally part of G1 who did not begin publishing until later than most of those in Tree. (I’m reminded, say, how late both Jackson Mac Low and Hannah Weiner were to publish regularly. When Jackson was my age, 48, he had exactly 6 books in print.)

But I do think that there’s a generational dynamic (different for each G) that focuses when poets are under still well under 35, and that to wait longer as a generation to begin to stake out a space is itself a notable step, so that the hesitancy implicit there must itself be looked at as part of the process (Think of Olson’s age in comparison to Creeley, Blackburn et al, or of Burroughs to Ginsberg & Kerouac, or of Williams to the Objectivists.)

>To clarify one general point in closing: I am not under the impression

> that a collective re-definition of what poetry is and does has as yet been

> articulated by G2

Yep, except for Pam, Lew, Kristin & Alan have at least made one stab.

>Given the way literary fields work in capitalist social formations, the

> failure to achieve such a collective redefinition will lead to a lot of

> interesting poetry disappearing

Absolutely! Several G1ers have noted in recent years how much the O-blek 12 formation of G2 reminds them of the younger writers who found themselves active around certain modes of the NAP in the mid- to late-60s. David Schaff, Bill Deemer, Harold Dull, d alexander, Lowell Levant, Ed Van Aelstyn, John Gorham, Gail Dusenbery, Stan Persky, Seymour Faust, George Stanley, William Anderson, Wilbur Wood, etc etc etc. But failing to distinguish their terms from NAP1, NAP2 proved unable, unwilling to set up the institutions that might have insured their own communities’ perpetuation into the future.

I am amazed and appalled that neither the Messerli nor the Hoover anthologies include the work of Lew Welch. In the 1960s, he would have come into almost any listing of the 24 or so most influential NAPpers. Such is history. You have to write it yourself.


From: Juliana Spahr

Subject: Re: G2

As to the Evans-Silliman exchange:

I appreciated both posts. But Steve’s I found especially useful for clarifying a lot of the problems that I had with Silliman’s original post. What I find most frightening about Silliman’s arguments is his reduction of everything in Buffalo or even elsewhere in the nation to a sort of spiritualism (it is the only grouping that he acknowledges as really having any seriousness) that finally isn’t representative of the larger picture.

For starters, as Jena made clear, neither of the editors of Chain are on the board of Apex of the M. Chain in fact is a journal that in many ways pursues an opposite agenda as that of Apex–it is anti-editorial, anti-grouping. The use of the device of the chain letter in the first volume was explicitly intended to expand community definitions beyond editorial privilege (Jena Osman and I wrote about the success and failure of this project in our "Editors’ Notes"). Also neither of the editors of the Technique volume are on the board of Apex of the M.

But while this is probably just a confusion on Silliman’s part, it also seems in some ways indicative of his blindness to anything going on in what seems to be called G2 poetry beyond spirit. Beginning the Technique volume with the Spirit section was something that went counter to my editorial wishes and knowledge (I wanted to open with the broader "word and world" section), but also I think should not be read as "aggressive." Peter argues that when he sent this volume off to the printers with the spirit section first, it was to try to offer some connection with the Presentation volume–both begin with Abbot and end Ziolkowski. I am willing to chalk it up to alphabetical accident.

But also I don’t think that any more than the twenty-one poets in the spirit section have much to do with spirit (and come on, even of these twenty-one, beyond a statement of an idea of poetics as being transformative, it is hard to see these poets as a unified group–Miekal And, Lisa Jarnot are hardly spiritualist poets that would meet the rigors of definition proposed in Apex–this confusion or expansion of the categories in this collection was an editorial intention).

Finally, to see the anthology as spiritualist is to do a great and serious disservice to around one hundred other poets. Just as to say that the anthology indulges in "increasingly modest forms" is to do a great disservice to a whole slew of writers (who are these people, Ron? Who is "returning to the lyric? What are their numbers in this volume? Who is draining the social? What is the social and why is the lyric not social?–these are all innocent questions on my part, I need more specifics to actually begin to discuss this topic which is one that seems very urgent to me). It is, to just list some names at random, unfair to Lee Ann Brown’s and Karen Kelley’s attention to sexuality, unfair to Kevin Magee’s mix of formalism, class struggle, and history, unfair to Myung Mi Kim’s attention to relation, unfair to Susan Gevirtz’s complicated feminism and attention to subjectivity, unfair to C.S. Giscombe’s attention to identity. It is also I think unfair to the overt political intention in the anthology to include as many women as men (something that other anthologies of alternative poetry don’t even come close to attempting and something that never seems to get mentioned in any complaint about this collection). Further, I am no longer sure any more, although I would have been a year ago, that a return to the lyric is a draining of the social. For starters, it is difficult to separate the social from any form. Susan Stewart’s recent work on the lyric has done a lot of change the way I think of this form.

Also, I don’t see the anthology has having a "reluctance to acknowledge or own its own position." It seems rather that there is a complication in the anthology of what it means to have a position (an identity, a school, a gender). Steve Evans’s introductory piece is good on this. If there is anything that sits owl-like overlooking a younger generation it isn’t language poetry anymore than it is the New York school–it is rather attempts at categorization, at bunker mentality. Much of the work of what might be called G2 reacts against this and in very interesting and innovative ways (Apex is an obvious exception to this in their editorial return to a concept of poetic discourse as war). Perhaps the reason such a collection seems such a strange beast to Silliman is that it is so different than the rigorous, mathematical model of ITAT. It is a collection of younger poets– all of whose writing will change dramatically in the next years. I prefer to think of the anthology as more of a phonebook than even an anthology (these complaints about the authority of this anthology that are happening in Joel’s post and in the discussion of anthologies at the beginning of the year are very alien to me–what authority? the whole thing was thrown together and knows it). The numbers will change, people will move, but it is an attempt at a demographic for the year. It claims no completeness. It doesn’t tell you not to read the books of the authors included. At best, it is a reference tool. At its worst, it is difficult to read because it includes so many writers.

All of this has put me in the uncomfortable position of defending something that I have worked on. But while I acknowledge a lot of omissions and other problems with the anthology, I also believe that a lot of the work in it is important. I stand behind this work by other people because it has meant something to me. I don’t find this work a repetition of language poetry nor does it seem to me upsetting that there are "no literary devices in that collection that you cannot already find in The New American Poetry, In the American Tree, or The Art of Practice" anymore than it upsets me that there are no devices in these anthologies that one cannot find in as inclusive a project as America: A Prophecy or maybe even the Norton. It is emphasis and idea and use of device here that is important. Not device itself.

I hope this makes sense. I would enjoy complaints and clarifications.


From: Tony Green

Subject: calling G1G2…this is mission control

Isn’t "the poem", lock schlock and barrel, constituted by a writer who has continuing relations with the body politic, like it or not – thrown-ness as in Jim Morrison (rr or r) & Charles Bernstein have liked to say – following Heidegger, I guess. Oh yes aesthetics happens somewhere else then where, old bean, huh? Aesthetics is a blind for social and money interests mainly.

Confucius never found anyone who was disinterested – & that makes questions for a whole tradition of separations and purifications in the name of art (i.e. Milord’s fetishized pictures and objets d’art, later property of boards of trustees of museums, or MS of Vergil, as sandwiched in plastic sheeting in Vatican to be literary. Poet’s letters, Palgrave and subsequent anthologies in the college market).

Jean Calais’s translations of Villon are all in vain….Everyone wants to be a big artist these days. There must be more in poetry than anyone has thought. Could it be that there is a real power in it/always ideologists want to bring it under their control, as instrument. Like music, it keeps on escaping ideological control clutches, saying more than it means to, or less. Let’s hope there is a real poet among the new writers, or even two. Surely "G1" or any G at all including G-6 (dead poets of circa Mallarme’s time will welcome them, by opening new readings to us, readings we had missed, but which may be what we have always really longed for. Belonging to no G in the U.S. (wrong age) but listening as a reader/user to several U.S. G’s with pleasure, excitement, appropriative glee, there is no reason to choose among generations, only to pick out the plums. This you learn in "art history", who says there’s progress between generations, so that no one can consider themselves righteous who can make use of "early" artworks? Does the saying of a poem work like a charm as entry to a space of thoughts and language issues and issues of living and the politics of living or not? No one can quite tell what will prove to be useful and sometimes it happens that a misprint retained does the trick. L= was marvelous because it accepted that conscious control of the way words got into the poem could be consonant with disorders that seemed to be the preserve of chance procedures or of lyrical speaking with tongues.

It did not only "displace" "personal poetries" (Downtown poetries various, variously remaining in some degree acceptable or with affinities) but also the hopes for the upsurge of deep image to recreate the body and the body’s politics. I look to see with interest which models from the recent G’s various will reappear as the mashed potatoes for the younger poets. I could see aspects of beat poetry being valuable as well as the "spiritual" poetries of say Robert Kelly or George Quasha.…

…This medium is great for filling in times like sitting in office waiting for next lot of exam papers to come in. Hello. American poets, it’s half-past four on an early summer afternoon, –- here is your wake up call.

"The difference is spreading."


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Flaming

I’ve found virtually every response to my last post really valuable and useful. Especially Juliana’s.

But I don’t want this to be reduced to a "generational debate" since I don’t see "winners" or "losers" but rather think I (personally) have a lot to gain from getting the sorts of insights that seem right now to be just popping out the various posts. Road maps to the writing are especially valuable.

Besides, if this is going to be Oedipal, I know which role that puts me in, thank you…

Some thoughts here on a few of Mark Wallace’s comments.

> 1) It is a standard hegemonic (not to mention racist and imperialist)

> move to take one piece of writing by some particular "group" (as it is

> defined from outside) as the example of what is wrong with that

> "group" as a whole, and then dismissing that "group" on the basis

> of that one piece of writing.

Yo, Mark. I’m not saying there’s anything "wrong" with the Apex cluster and am trying to read them, not dismiss them.

One of many valuable lessons I learned from Jerry Rothenberg about 25 years ago was that it’s very hard for any writer to read the work of people 20 years or more younger than him or herself. Writers of the NAP generation tended to cluster w/ regards to my own G1 into the following patterns:

1) Couldn’t read it, didn’t try

2) Wasn’t what they expected, so dismissed it outright, sometimes w/

great hostility

3) Tried to be generous, but didn’t really get it

(this was/is almost a majoritarian reaction)

4) Read it with interest, insight and made valuable responses to it

W/ regards to G2, G3…Gn, I’d like personally to aim for #4.

And would appreciate any help I can get.

>It is even hegemonic, racist, and imperialist to refer to them as a >"group."

What is the point of writing a collective "state of the art" if people don’t take it seriously as collective action? I’m not the one grouping them together. I will admit that to use a governmental/institutional frame such as a "state of the art" address does put one into some heavy metaphoric territory. They’re the ones who announced that they were the government, no?

Let’s avoid flame wars of hyperbole and character assassination if possible. It makes it harder to read the work.

> 2) "Make it new" was hardly a dictum put forth by someone interested

> in social liberation. Indeed, "make it new" is at least as effective as a

> capitalist slogan as it is as a call to radical change. And whatever the

> social effectiveness of the proponents of "make it new" in poetry (I

> think it’s unclear, but worth discussing) their success has been

> undeniable in terms of their marketing of that concept and their

> promotion of poetry that fits the concept.

Actually, Pound was interested in social liberation. But he had a profoundly fucked up idea of what that might mean. The other point about making it new and the promotion of a poetry that fits the concept is one that the New Formalists have already made. Interesting to see it here.

> 4) To see the "lyric" as somehow a force of social conservatism is simply

> HISTORICALLY UNVERIFIABLE. The lyric form, like the use of

> parataxis, collage, sonnets, whatever, is a possibility that can be made

> use of, or discarded, in a variety of historical situations.

I think that a social examination of the lyric is a great project to think about working on. I’ve even contemplated the idea of a book length study. Especially since the definition of lyric changes I think (part. in the late 19th century) as its differentiation from dramatic & narrative modes dissolves in poetry due to the arrival of other more powerful dramatic/narrative media, the novel, cinema, etc. Pound’s tripartite logopoeia, phanopoeia, melopoeia are an attempt I think to rescue that earlier distinction, essentially dividing lyric into all three houses of the poem. But the underlying question becomes, what is the social meaning of the lyric? In O-blek 12, as I read it, it seems a return to the personal and local, which in turn can mean a lot of things. I’d like to figure out just what those are.

In general, I think that all forms are amoral and can be used from any political/social position depending on the context.

> 5) I don’t think it’s at all clear whether younger writers are "returning

> to the lyric." But if writers are using lyric forms, the question to ask is

> NOT "what’s wrong with those writers?" but rather "what is it about

> the contemporary social environment that makes the lyric seem useful

> to some writers" or "what is it about the lyric that makes it seem useful

> to some writers in this social environment."


> 7) In fact, my objection to Lew Daly’s introduction to Apex of the M

> is… that it repeats the same Oedipal MALE model of thinking your

> poetry has value only if you can "overthrow the enemy." My problem

> with his introduction is … that IT LOOKS TOO MUCH LIKE THOSE >MANIFESTOS.

It wasn’t Lew who signed it. According to Alan & Kristin, they all worked on it together, to the point that even some sentences were collaboratively written.

> 8) But the idea that Lew’s work, however interesting or not, is a state-

> ment of MY poetics, or that of Steve Evans or Jena Osman or whoever,

Nobody ever said it was. Or Jena’s or Juliana’s or Joel’s or most anybody else in O-blek 12 except for the very particular few who actively commit themselves to some version of its argument. So people like Will Alexander and Elizabeth Robinson stand in an interesting relation to it, not a part of that declaration but obviously very sympathetic to its conception of a spiritual poetics. Not clear at all how they would stand w/ regards to State of the Art’s rather bellicose stance toward the past.

I have found people in O-blek 12 who themselves felt that putting the spirit section first in Technique "yolked" them into its general thrust and felt very much ripped off by that, precisely because they did not buy into the underlying argument and felt that putting it first created a sense of that. I’ve heard that from at least 5 contributors.

The value of State of the Art is that it makes explicit what O-blek 12’s editing structure seems to imply. Very hard to read it as an accident of the alphabet.


From: Larry Price

Subject: Anachronism

… I’d like to offer a reading of "anachronism." Actually, my take would be that the ANACHRONE is about as likely as the ANAMORPH (not at all). But I take my clue by returning to the morph, margin/center. Although I’ll avoid the hedge implicit in the term "problematic," the fact is that in 9 out of 10 times the term "center" is used, it probably doesn’t exist. However, this only means that the "margin" "center" differentially signifies must have a far more complex relation to group formation than a simple geometric model would allow. And it’s that fact of the possibility of brownian motion in there that I think needs to be addressed, as well as the converse aggregate narratives (only one among them being that of the center) that work as the ideological.

In fact with regard to time (baldly) or history (pathetically) there seems every bit as much tendency to "vibrate." However, there is also another morph, one which places language (in any generation) explicitly within the problem. That is, I’ve thought a great deal about Ed Foster’s introduction of Whitman into the discussion of, amongst so much else, parts and wholes, as he wrote, "discrete letters." It occurs that the issue revolves around the diacritical character of the medium. That and the fact that in the body (or at least in the experience of it) there is a zone (or at least the illusion of one) that does NOT experience the problem of open/closed form, a zone for which experience is analogical. Although the base activity may be digital (this is, of course, borne out by cases of neural dysfunction: those whose neural bridges cannot be closed (one form of schizophrenia) vs. those whose neural bridges cannot be opened (causing severe depression)), the curious twist comes because of the rheostat phenomenon in most of the experiences in the total sensorium; that is, Emotion A is not premeasured in its track from 1 to 10, but seems to traverse a continuum. It may be the simple complication by other emotions, thoughts, sheer digs from the body/far-flung reaches of the sensorium. Who knows? That fact is that it has implications concerning language, which, of course, is diacritical throughout. I’ll set aside the opposition speech/language and say the divide seems to come between the diacritical system of language and the bodily generation and/or experience of and/or within that diacritical system. The collision between (or chafing within) the digital necessity of a system and the body’s analogical (fact of or) yearning for integration within itself and/or other. Which is how I then read Ed’s use of Whitman vis-a-vis phonemics and syntax. However, I would resist the equivalence Ed asserts between Stein and Whitman. Stein, it seems to me, pursued something of the opposite, something like the "truth of language," leading eventually, I think, to Creeley’s (approximately) "I follow the words."

In any case, my point is that those two terms help to establish the perpetual sense of displacement (chronic OR morphic) that any writer "experiences."


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Exile on Main Street

Steve is quite right about the reiteration of recuperation from one generation to the next. Rae Armantrout once noted that every few years she gets to show another set of students that they did not invent the attitude captured in the Rolling Stones’ album "Let It Bleed" (the Stones didn’t invent it either).

About 10 years ago, McDonald’s had a campaign to promote its emerging breakfast menu (the idea of fast food breakfasts being one of the great market expansions of the past 15 years) that used the tag line of


which, when I first saw it, felt entirely inspired by the writing of Bob Grenier’s Sentences (just turn the W upside down), much in the same way that display ads in the 20th Century learned much from the use of the line break of WCW. Look at any newspaper circa 1910 and you will see the difference.

Grenier’s distance from critical writing since founding This magazine a quarter century ago has always seemed to me an attempt to avoid the exact kind of co-optation that that McDonalds ad already has accomplished for him.

Obviously it would be nice to think that you and I are not implicated in the atrocities that occur in Bosnia or Rwanda or East Timor. But we are. We are directly and personally responsible. Each one of us.

That has always seemed to me to be the most immediate lesson of the war in Indochina.

The problem of dropping out (or any other metaphor of purist disdain for the establishment’s use of one’s soul) is that there is no Out. Out is simply a safe place that In has set aside to keep Out from making too much unpleasant noise.

Ultimately, the problem of opposition is not one of how to avoid becoming a commercial. You can’t. Trying to do so just wastes time. The question rather seems to be one of positioning what happens when/as you do. Here the most tragic situations have been those who apparently thought it would somehow "solve" something. Brautigan for example.

I find it intriguing, to say the least, to see where Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel & James Sherry, three of the poets of my own G1-hood who I take to be among its most serious political thinkers (Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage is the most completely & directly political work any of us have accomplished, it seems, a project at once both of ambition and courage) have chosen to work. Certainly not the academy. None disdains the human drama of the marketplace. Sherry currently is employed by Phillip Morris, which ranks somewhat ahead of the Khmer Rouge in total number of fatalities caused over the past 40 years.

I’ve worked on ads that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Forbes, Fortune and other bastions of liberal thought. And I work for a company whose clients include both houses of congress, and the departments of defense and justice. Not to mention most of the corporations one might hold an attitude about. Including Phillip Morris.

I think that what I (or James or Tom or Kit or anyone) gains far more from exposure to that world than from abstinence. This is where I think the alternative approach has many of the same problems I associate with anarchism, which is another mode of the Out position. (Anarchy is not a political system but rather a transitional state…and always one on the way to feudalism it would seem.)

I think that we are entering a very dark time politically. And a very dangerous one. Experimentation would at best be a distraction. But who wants to be distracted in a burning building?


From: Paul Hoover

Subject: politics

Glad to see Ron’s post re: Exile on Main Street. There certainly is no "out" and you don’t have to be Marxist to see it. I had the pleasure to hear a lecture by Amiri Baraka yesterday: "So that since the U.S. is an imperialist country, with a monopoly capitalist economic base, the institutions raised on that base, as well as the philosophies expressed within them, are in the main expressions of imperialism." The only thing that matters is the economic base, and without the moderating influence of a competing morality such as the church or local community, our economic life is focused on selfishness. It is in the interest of consumerism, therefore, to destroy traditional values including religious and/or ethnic values ("peasant traditions" in WCW’s "For Elsie"). Relativism and indeterminacy (and alas the well-meaning avant-garde) apparently collaborate in this.

Like Lew Daly (apparently), I was raised in a German pietist tradition that argued against material possession and chose separation from the world. This separation worked primarily on the symbolic level, since inevitably one must trade with "Das English" as the early Brethren & Amish called them. My interest in poetry derives from that background. Good works, if not transcendence, through writing. But the desire for fame and office brings dominance back in, and we become little imperialists. Baraka was wonderful to hear and full of satiric fire. But the talk was given in an institutional setting (my working-class arts college in Chicago) on a grant from the Lilly Foundation and his fee for the day was $5,000. We all work out of an economic base that extends to poetic value. Inevitably, one poet is perceived to be "worth more" than another. Susan Howe and Nathaniel Mackey rise; someone else falls. We are currency, and what else is new?

It is possible to interpret multiculturalism as further ghettoization funded by the MacArthur and other foundations; it is masked, however, as "community building." Their goal is to bring enough marginal people into the high-tech middle class that revolution will not seem necessary. Meanwhile, as Andrei Codrescu wrote in a recent essay, the real revolution, the triumph of global capitalism, continues apace.

The American peasant, Williams saw in horror, has no traditions. Except perhaps his/her "television heritage."

The great ideological disaster of the last 25 years has been separatism. But how are potentially conflicting peasant traditions to live together? By cruising the same mall or watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Yes.

There will be two future cultures: those who primarily watch TV and those who primarily work in front of a computer screen. Everything will be mediated by light. For high art, one goes out to a "film."

Last night on TV (I dropped my cable and really miss it), I saw a story about an orthodox rabbi from California who likes to surf: good eye candy but under it a very cheap laugh. TV despises dignity, and consumerism hates seriousness. Peasant traditions still have some dignity left. We observe this dignity on PBS sponsored by some foundation. We are relieved and a little surprised that blood sacrifice of llamas still occurs in Bolivia. Disturbed by the violence, we turn to a sitcom.

We feel responsible for Bosnia because we imagine that we might turn our military dominance toward good works. But we are not at all in the post-colonial age. The control is still there, just not the troops. Nothing happens in Bosnia because powerful interests are a lot more committed to GATT, NAFTA, and consolidating global capitalism. They will deal with Bosnia only when it threatens trade, as we saw in the Gulf War.


From: Aldon L. Nielsen

Subject: latter day lateness

The term "late capitalism" is no more dependent upon the end of capitalism being already in sight than the term "late evening" is dependent upon evening’s in fact being over. It does, no doubt, indicate some form of faith on the speaker’s part that this will not turn out to have been "middle capitalism" after all. It is a form of wishful thinking, no doubt, but does not require proof that capitalism has ended or will next week.

I am still unsure how the general understanding that poststructuralist theories are "relativist" came about. To claim that value is produced by social activities, not inherent as a property in an object as such, or to argue that there is no transcendent a priori realm of truth by which human utterances may be measured, is not necessarily to assume what is popularly known as an absolute relativism. This is really more an argument about what truth and value are than a claim that it’s all relative. In Limited Inc, Derrida, sounding a bit exasperated, remarks that "from the point of view of semantics, but also of ethics and politics, ‘deconstruction’ should never lead either to relativism or to any sort of indeterminism." Derrida, and I only use him as an example because he is so often blamed for having loosed this relativism upon criticism, argues not against the value of truth; instead he reinscribes it in "larger, more stratified contexts." He does not say, anywhere that I can find in his writings, that there is no reality, no referent, but that one cannot refer to this "real" except in an interpretive experience. The antiessentialist position is generally easily confirmed by the existence of items taken by speakers of the language to belong to the same category that do not, at the same time, seem to share that "essential" characteristic. Thus, to use one immediate example, if Clarence Thomas is not "really" a black person, then the color of a person’s skin must not be an essential trait of social blackness; and if he is really a black person, then many of the cultural traits taken by people too numerous to mention as being "essential" to blackness must not be essential after all.

Admittedly a bad example – but it was Genet who once asked "what color is a black man?" and he hadn’t been reading Said, Fish, or Foucault on that day either –


From: Don Byrd

Subject: Experiments

Dear Charles–

I suppose you in part posted the list of experiments as an homage to Bernadette, and of course I wish her well.… And it is also a tribute to Tzara, Cage, and Mac Low, all of whom I would likewise honor.

Although, as you know, I sometimes–perhaps often–do not agree with you, I take your work very seriously. I find most of your moves in relation to the art generative–decisively so. And I have attempted to understand why you introduce these "experiments" in the context of your of your proposal of poetry as experimentation.

The use of that kind of experiment, when it was of use, was to rend the placid, rational surface of smug and placid rationalism. There was a powerful, even controlling assurance, that the world made sense. One half of Modernism was commitment to the revelation of precisely that sense– Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Shoenberg, Anglo-American philosophy from Russell and Wittgenstein to Quine and the Cognitive Scientists. It is sadly reduced but the drivel that comes from most Creative Writing programs to this day still basks in that now grim assurance that because I saw a blue jay on a maple branch take a shit, it most have some true and important connection to my thought of mortality.

The irruption of the irrational and its disruption of that smug sense of the world–whether from the Dadaist/surrealist algorithms of non-sense or from the failure to make it cohere by the like of Pound–was immensely satisfying and, of course, immensely productive.

The mode of production that had proven so successful in art was adapted in the 1950’s also to commercial production. The rational machine of the capitalist economy began exploiting its own material unconscious, thus, fueling unparalleled economic growth. The surface of the earth was increasingly covered with the chaotic residue of riotous production: the production of art, the production of consumer goods, the production of by-products that polluted the environment, the production of what Smithson called "the slurbs"–"a circular gulf between city and country–a place where buildings seem to sink away from one’s visionP buildings fall back into sprawling babels or limbos. Every site glides away toward absence. An immense negative entity of formlessness displaces the center which is the city and the swamps."

For the generation of artists born of the World War II– "born dead," Smithson says of them, everything they’d learned was wrong. The techniques of the artists who had interested them in art in the first place, whom they had admired and thought to imitate, turned out to be inappropriate to this new condition. Dadaism lives: it is taught at in the Harvard M.B.A. program. Surrealism lives: it is taught to computer programmers at M.I.T. (some might say, mathematics has proven so strange, that it is taught even in the math department). Our architects, our lawyers are modernist purveyors of chaos (to say nothing, of course, of the faceless committees which generate what we call the media). After a certain point, chaos no longer needed the help of art. To recall wild nature in tranquillity, to practice nihilistic techniques of art and thought, to do automatic writing, or to create chance generated art is a pointless gesture. The techniques that delivered fresh air in 1810 or 1910 contributed (though contributed insignificantly) by 1970 to a proliferation of incomprehensible energy. The Dadaists never managed to exhibit the degree of chaos that Smithson records in his snap shots of Passaic, New Jersey.

It seems to me that these experiments at this late date call us back to means that are as exhausted as the means of a poetry that still attempts to make "ordinary" sense of a world where one watch a blue jay crap and thinks of mortality or Aunt Minnie.

If we are going to experiment, let us experiment with all seriousness. Stephen Hawking concludes A Brief History of Time with these words:

"… if we do discover a complete theory, it should be understandable in broad outline by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that , it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God."

To be sure, there is something very slippery in Hawking and those who make similar arguments (this guy Frank J. Tippet who has a very popular reading of physics right now is a real hoot) in that they confuse their representations for the world (as many writers make the opposite mistake). But I cannot help but notice the disparity between Hawking’s hoped for result and the hoped for results in doing cut-ups of Being and Time and The National Enquirer.

It seems to me that if poetry is going to be taken seriously, it is going to have to ask more of itself. I would suggest that we take Parmenides, Lucretius, and Blake–Blake the thinker– as our models. It is going to be tough to teach the Workshop to do that, and we do not have much time, but we have time for nothing less. If no one writes a poem for fifty years that is okay. There was plenty of pass-times.

I do not mean that we can write like Parmenides, Lucretius, and Blake, but we might undertake the task of producing a world that offer the commodious possibilities for knowledge that theirs do.

The notion of avant-gardism and avant-garde experimentalism are profoundly progressivist. Even as the avant-guardists explored the most primitive recesses of culture and mythology, or the depths of dream and intoxication, systematic or random disorganization, the orientation was toward an expansion of consciousness into the unknown. The avant-gardists were the imperialists of the spirit, brothers and sisters to the colonists. The parallels between Walt Whitman’s adventures into the soul and the United States adventures on its passage to India cannot be dismissed. Just as the modernists traveled along with the colonizing anthropologists. It is not for us now a matter of judgment. The time is long passed, and we can say only that that something, which had been lurking in human possibilities, hidden, made itself powerfully manifest: it was beautiful, unjust, vicious, and inevitable, and now complete. One cannot imagine the usefulness of such a concept in a world devoted to sustainable uses of resources.

The best assessments of the ecological damage are produced by different models and do not give consistent results. It would seem that after this extended period of cultural sacrifice for the sake of developing representational techniques that are accurate and complete it should be possible to model the world environment with considerable accuracy. The various representations, however, give a remarkable range of results, and we do not have a science for determining which representation is the best. We have theories and theories of theories, but in this most significant of matters, where the stakes are all or nothing, we do not know any thing for certain. It is generally clear, however, that the present industrial- environmental practices cannot be continued indefinitely without causing irreversible damage to the world ecosystem. In 1990, the well respected World Watch Foundation estimated that present trends would cause irreparable damage in forty years. Even if we have five times that long we are already in the crisis.

Certain aspects of desire were regimented (often at great personal cost) in the service of an organization devoted to greed. Communism proposes a greater justice in dividing up the booty, but it too is profoundly progressivist. What was repressed and is still effectively repressed is in fact obvious: the finitude of the earth.

For a very long time in the West we tried to base knowledge on the notion of infinitude. The critique of that notion has left art almost totally befuddled and trivial.

Let us begin with the finitude of the earth. This seems fairly secure knowledge, the grounds for a new epos. Over a century ago, John Ruskin wrote:

"The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished form the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life, and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction."

How, Charles, do we get it all out of the poetry workshops?


From: Tom Mandel

Subject: notes on professions, academic etc.

It has taken me a couple of hours to read (at least partly) the extraordinary number of contributions to this list which have arrived in cyberlitterland over the last couple of days. My survival, i.e. time enough to pay the bills and make money enough to do so, depends on you cutting it out.

1. For 5 years during WWII neither the English nor any other allied power laid an intentional single bomb across the railroad tracks that led how many thousands of jews gypsies gay people per day? to doom. Does this make them thugs?

2. I was a grad student for 6 years, have taught in 3 universities, have worked for large corporations, as well as quasi-gov’tal organizations, and have written and lived poetry off and on all my life. Without question, and by metaphorical orders of magnitude, the most serializing, cutthroat, thoughtless and non-oppositional (i.e. slavish) environment I ever lived in was the academy. Lagging far behind is the world of poetry, although as poets move into the academy some of them unveil an extraordinary capacity to take on that local color (and others, on the other hand, retain the exceptional generosity of nature and act that will make you know whom I mean not to be commenting on). There is a strong sense of comradeship among poets somehow, at least I have always noted it, which mediates if not moderates the lust for… any response honor position the opportunity to make a living by your wit of words, whatever. This comradeship I think it is which allows a poet like Henry Taylor to write so meaningly about Jackson Mac Low, and which allows me to enjoy getting to know HT despite the zero in common of our work. Much more open, all the same, much more egalitarian, much more permissive of range has been the world of commerce. I remember how shocking, and somehow wrong, I found that fact.

3. The above is what James Sherry might call a "theory based on memory… not analysis" (that’s a paraphrase rather than a quote, but close I think). All theories are of memory (a term which we need not trivialize) and on the other hand, analysis (despite the brilliant series of posts by James which had me gasping with pleasure to keep up with) is a meaningless term, an honorific in any case, and a metaphor (understand by dividing : divide and conquer, really) of little application. Recursive systems (i.e. memory-based and developmental in whatever chaotic way) offer the ability to accumulate insight at some social level; they are what can get us beyond M. Thatcher’s "no society, just individuals" position.

4. What I say in point 3 is intended to make you understand that what I say in point 2 is true.

5. I’ve been fired from positions both academic and in commerce, in both cases (repeatedly, by the way) for the same reason, for having an idea. In commerce, at least usually, it was because the idea didn’t work. In the academy? Just for having an idea.

6. When I quoted Hugh of St. Victor on exile, it was not so that you (dear reader) should have your consciousness perfected by the right position, but that you might take in and "experimentally" share a response. Again, the goal is to accumulate and distribute some largest possible sense of human response. Nothing is more foolish than to spend one’s days distinguishing between on the one hand vulgar marxism and on the other hand a marxism appropriate to the changes in the organization of capitol. None of us can know at all what the structure of capitol is. For one thing we are part of it, for another only a bounded thing can be "analyzed" (but, see above), and it is not that. And, finally, why do we wish to constrain the mind to appropriate response, when it is the mind that makes that world of capitol. Make something else.

7. I now work for myself. That’s what I learned. If anyone would pay me, I’d teach for myself (I do seem to know a great deal; drop over some time - you probably know a lot too), but they don’t so instead packet filtering routers, virtual circuits, negotiation, managing payables and receivables, closing complex deals, usw. are my daily fun, and I do mean that. They call for no analysis. James, at least so I think, knows about such devices too. Having known each other for going on 2 decades, you might wonder why we’ve never worked together.

8. Grad student, quit school. But, I can’t tell whether Steve Evans or Patrick Phillips or Jeffrey Timmons or Eric Pape or others (very few women, very little evidence of a point of view of color, very little sense of a specifically Jewish pov, very little in any sense specific to anything whatever, informed by anything not on the other guy, yeh guy’s reading list. If you are on faculties, quit. Anyway, Ron’s right; your industry is heading for a collapse, it has lost all justification.

9. Paul Hoover’s position is overwhelmingly informed by work he has done to know, accept and make use of his own sources. Ditto Ron Silliman. These positions are without irony, unhidden in trashy even disgraceful joking that there is no relationship between your person and your position, as if these were different in some principled way.

10. We all have a responsibility, a political responsibility, to make something (dare I use the word?) positive, i.e. existent and contributory to the larger thing which is merely the contributory nature of all that is positive. This means pleasure in writing and a sense of the permission of form beyond theory as the only real contact we have with the unknown, i.e. with value. As above, this is a recursive procedure; it can be justified by nothing outside it. Without being local (i.e. Serbian or Croatian : bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet), it is endlessly specific. Attending to it is a discovery, uncovering, of more specificity.

11. Oh. In 8 above, you may think I’m being dismissive. Or glib, in advising you to quit. You have families, you have to have a job. Sure, no problem. Nor do I take the Platonic position that a slave is one by nature or essence : if not, he’d be dead. After all, I was fired, I wasn’t offed! I prefer the Jewish position, be kind to the slave. In the jubilee year, free all the slaves (what the heck, most of them will enslave themselves again). (of course, that’s only one of the jewish positions, i.e. positions in the rabbinic tradition - which is always what I mean by the term "jewish").

12. I knew a poet once who was quite wealthy - by marriage. He lived well, by which I mean in a bohemian manner and much like the rest of us, all young enough (tho some older than others) not really to notice, to accumulate, difference from where it sprung. In any case, this poet didn’t need a job. Yet, a time came when the poet wanted to work. The poet once asked me for a job, but I didn’t have one to offer. Some years later, the poet decided to enter grad school, got a Phd somewhere in the humanities, and then got a teaching job and began to live very differently from how we had all lived – in any case, we were all living differently, having gotten older, and that was no surprise. The poet’s poetry hardly changed at all.

13. Because of what I say in 11, that is why I have written mildly and without wishing to give offense. It is a subject, what responsibility is taken not to articulate a position correctly but to live a worthwhile life. Don’t you think it idiotic to imagine that the conditions no longer inhere for that possibility?

14. There is no such thing as silent prayer. "Oh Lord, bring the arrogant kingdom to an end, speedily and in our days." Anybody know the reference?


From: Susan Schultz

Subject: notes on professions, academic etc.

Since the discussion has lately touched upon issues of nationalism and the academy (albeit in separate "strands"), I thought I’d inject some comments about the ways in which the two are intimately related in the 50th state. One of the foremost advocates of Hawaiian (as in the ethnic group, not simply the citizens of the state) sovereignty is Haunani Kay Trask, head of the Hawaiian Studies department at the University of Hawaii. The issue of Hawaiian sovereignty is much at the forefront of Hawaii politics at present; activists demand everything from greater self-determination under the current system to complete secession from the United States. One group moved onto an Oahu beach for over a year and raised a large sign declaring the formation of a Hawaiian state; after much arm-twisting from the state government, which needs to at least feign sympathy, the protesters were moved into a valley, where they are at least not seen (from the point of view of the governor, that is). Trask, who was educated at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the loudest advocates of sovereignty and one of the most provocative. She’s recently come out with a book of essays, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism & Sovereignty in Hawai’i, and a book of poems, Light in the Crevice Never Seen, which is remarkable to me for its absolute conservatism of form and language (though Hawaiian words are sprinkled throughout). In one representative passage she points to the university as a colonial institution (from an essay, that is):

For Hawaiians, American colonialism has been a violent process: the violence of mass death, the violence of American missionizing, the violence of cultural destruction, the violence of the American military. Once the United States annexed my homeland, a new kind of violence took root: the violence of educational colonialism, where foreign haole (foreigners, white people–the two are the same!) values replace Native Hawaiian values; where schools, like the University of Hawai’i, ridicule Hawaiian culture and praise American culture, and where white men assume the mantle of authority, deciding what is taught, who can teach, even what can be said, written, and published.

Trask has been at the center of a couple of free speech issues in the last four or five years; most recently, a cartoonist for the student newspaper took her to task for a poem from her new book, "Racist White Woman." The paper was very reluctant to publish her response to him. Her claim is that the poem is about a specific woman, so that it’s not racist (and one of my students, an African-American, got very upset that some people have taken the poem personally rather than as a response to similar feelings that have gone the other way for too long). My sense is that Trask meant to evoke such a response ("woman," after all, is generic as well as specific). Here’s the poem, whose rhetoric is not at all exceptional:

I could kick

your face, puncture

both eyes.

You deserve this kind

of violence.

No more vicious

tongues, obscene


Just a knife

slitting your tight

little heart

for all my people

under your feet

for all those years

lived smug and wealthy

off our land

parasite arrogant.

A fist

in your painted

mouth, thick

with money and piety

and a sworn

black promise

to shadow

your footsteps

until the hearse

of violence

comes home

to get you.

Now imagine yourselves, if you are white, teaching this poem to a group of students almost none of whom are white, who’ve grown up in an educational system that has persuaded them that mainland values are better than "local" ones, and who are, therefore, many of them–well, the word ornery comes to mind. This past semester as I taught poetry from Hawaii and the Caribbean, I found myself repeatedly in situations where the overwhelming emotions of the moment made ordinary, rational, academic interventions seem fruitless. And which made my position of authority problematic, at best, since the students had an emotional investment in the material that was far greater than mine. I found that the best, or only way, to deal with it was to set the students up to debate each other, rather than to try to guide them somewhere I wanted them to go.

As for the poem, if turnabout is fair play, then where on earth do we go from here? This is what bothers me most; what is violent rhetoric in this case, is actual violence elsewhere. How can we address the nationalisms that live among us (including native American nationalisms)? How can we balance these against a larger American self-definition, whatever that may be? Yes, the world is Gattifying, becoming more and more international. But it’s also becoming more and more local. The idea of the Pacific Rim actually only includes Asia and America–what happens to the islands in-between, with their self-definitions at stake? And how can university professors (my classroom, at least in this case, WAS the real world) fruitfully participate in these debates? These are not rhetorical questions!


From: Steve Evans

Subject: Shake Those Dirty Hands

I appreciate the candor with which James Sherry and Ron Silliman have recently discussed their "positions" vis-a-vis corporate power, but I am as suspicious of the subjective titillations of "holding contradictory ideas" (which cd easily mean: deceiving myself about the meaning of my actions) as I am of fantasies of a "pure outside."

Ron suggests that he and James and Kit Robinson and Tom Mandel have "gained more" from their engagements with corporate capitalism than they would have from "abstaining" from the "human drama of the marketplace." Since I gather that Ron has "gains" of other than a financial sort in mind when he writes this, I would be interested in knowing more about them. Is it a matter of gathering intelligence (so to speak) that informs one’s oppositional work–one’s poetic practice, one’s political practice as a citizen, one’s critique? Is it a matter of actually exercising counter-agency within the arena of corporate power, or of obedience in one domain being converted into dissidence in another?

I have to admit that the politics of occupational complicity do not strike me as especially viable–which is another way, I guess, of saying that the contradictions incurred along Ron and James’s way(s) don’t strike me as strongly "positioned" ones. (By the way, I intend no disrespect to the personal resonance such contradictions may have for the few people who experience them.) Nor do the "dialectics of the credit card" go very far toward redressing, eg., North-South relations.

There seems to me a difference between saying: (1) our attempt to curtail or abolish the power of capital has evidently failed, and the available "choices"–given this failure–are for the most part unacceptable ones that I nevertheless have to accept; and (2) my ability to actualize a radically ungeneralizable trajectory is in fact a measure of my political acuity and a sign of my superiority to those who "abstain" from "complicity."

The vacuity of "dropping out" is not proof of the acuity of checking in. Both smack of extreme voluntarism in light of the structural exclusions of global capitalism.

One final point, the implicit contrast in Ron’s defense of market coercion (qua human drama) is to academia. Not overlooking the structural connections between the corporations and the universities, it does seem worthwhile to point out the obvious fact that whereas the corporations have no interest in Ron’s or anyone else’s poetic practice, the universities do (and where that interest is not pursued, it can at least be raised; which is not possible within the context of Philip Morris, etc.).

Having said all of this, I remain interested in reading more about James’s "rethinking" of organization, and in seeing more from Ron about the "gains" of dirtying one’s hands (one must adjust that metaphor, I think, in light of the great keyboard of techno-capitalism: clean hands?).


From: Susan Schultz

Subject: haoles

I’m glad to hear from a "former haole," Eric–though isn’t that in a sense part of the problem; can you imagine being a former African American or former Asian American? I’m not sure that the kind of discourse that I quote by Haunani Trask leads necessarily to ethnic cleansing, though it certainly bears resemblance with the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing. And that’s part of the problem teaching the material; do you opt with those who suggest that rhetoric is powerful but, paradoxically, not a call to real action? Or do you take it as a call to arms that is intended to include you? If there’s a more moderate position to take on the question, which I suspect there might be (being a foolish optimist), will anyone in the heat of the moment actually listen?

I just attended a lecture by David Lloyd on "nationalisms against the state." He talked about the current Irish situation, in which the Irish (whoever they are) are perhaps trading cultural power for economic colonization by the new Europe. The upside of Hawaiian nationalism, so far, has been the reemergence of Hawaiian culture outside the province of the tourist industry, which has "preserved" that culture by presenting it as a self-parody for the consumption of outsiders. Trask wants Hawaiian hotel workers to start trashing the hotels; doesn’t she face, then, the increasing poverty of her people for the benefit of re-creating an ethnic and cultural (in this case the same, I guess) identity? She wants and expects culture to do political work, which Lloyd is suggesting may not be possible in the face of GATT and NAFTA. Lloyd suggests that local resistance is possible without the ultimate goal being that of creating a new state on the example of the old, as he claims happened in Ireland in the 1920s. Trask agreed with him on this, which suggests (I hope) that "ethnic cleansing" may not be the result of resistance. The violence may come, instead, from above–as is happening in Russia? I don’t know.

Some afterthoughts on teaching: in some sense our horror at Gingrich’s being an academic seems beside the point. At the University of Hawaii one simply is the representative of the state, the nation, some sort of American canon. This implicates you in all sorts of things, no matter how liberal you are. Trask is right on this one. One can (as I and many of my colleagues do) cede authority in the classroom, present oneself honestly as a "professor from the mainland with such and such degrees), and then find that in that absence name-calling begins. I don’t know, it’s a confusing situation to be in. I suppose in the case of Baraka, which Eric cites, one needs to present a "fair" cross-section of his work, and then argue out what is of value, and to whom. But the ethical pressures are, in any case, immense, whether one includes or excludes such material (and several students called me on the fact that I’d xeroxed her–Trasks’s–"racist white woman" poem, but not her erotically charged celebrations of the land). At such a point the instructor’s discomfort with authority turns into a kind of nostalgia for it! And alternative authorities are created in the classroom, some of them overt, and some of them subversive, no matter how fair-minded you think you’re being.


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Universal Blisters/Individual Burns

Steve Evans wrote:

> anti-capitalism involves one in no necessary contradiction in education

> (necessary is the operative word here), whereas it most patently does

> in the various enterprises that have been named (Deutsche Bank,

> Philip Morris, C=O=M=P=U=T=E=R=L=A=N=D, etc.) as gainful employers.

> That is, you can universalize education; you can’t universalize capitalism.


One need not be a rabid Althusserian to sing a chorus of Ideological State Apparatuses here. If, as I’ve been arguing, it’s all one system, the only difference between town and gown is one of position within the same set, not "inside" vs. "outside" (There is, to repeat myself, no Out). The sole difference is that one of us is pretending that there is "no necessary contradiction" and one of us is not.

Conversely, capitalism is far more universal than education will ever be. If by that we mean pervasive, in every object we see. And are.

"Universal" in this culture means a white male who went to one of seven universities. (Brown, Steve, is one of those universities, even if it’s the low end.) Everyone else is ranked accordingly to how "un-universal" (and thuglike) we might be.

One of the great things about Hawaii is that the delicacy of that lava based ecology makes immediately evident how constructed even nature is. The vegetation came literally in the stomach of birds. And the commonplace birds of the 1950s are not those of the 1990s. Someone introduces a mongoose in one century and it becomes the rat, squirrel, possum, raccoon of the next, having that niche almost to itself. Even the nene goose, the state bird, is "indigenous" solely because its off-island origins have been lost. There are only a few hundred of these left in existence and the only ones I’ve seen "wild" were in a parking lot halfway up Haleakala on Maui, begging for handouts from tourists. Since the arrival of Europeans, everything in Hawaii has come through the introduction of capital, both American and more recently Japanese. The Hawaiin guitar came with agricultural workers from Southern California. The national issues tend to obscure all this, which is what Lenin thought they were there for.

Like Eric, I believe it was, I come from a white trash California family, though in a college town (where I am the only member in four generations to have crossed over the town/gown divide and gone to school). Which means no doubt that I have a lot of ambivalent (or worse) feelings about some of these issues. But one illusion I do not carry about is of the university system as anything other than a state subsidized process for training workers, without which the corporations would have to do it directly.

Have we forgotten that all of Chomsky’s early grants for linguistics came directly from the Defense Department?

An earlier generation of linguists was subsidized almost entirely by the church, in order to translate the Bible into whatever heathen tongue.

"Necessary is the operative word here" indeed.


From: Steve Evans

Subject: Universal Blisters/Individual Burns

Ron, you are in too much a hurry to dismiss what I wrote last night. I said anti-capitalism as a project does not interfere with any necessary moment in the educative process. I did not say that education is not deeply scarred and distorted within current capitalist conditions.

As for universal = white male Ivy League, please. You and I can both discern the difference between false universalism and true universalism. Brown is a patently and overtly anti-universalist University. One of the central campus battles in the years I’ve been here has indeed been over its practice of "need-aware" admission policies. Though consistently blocked, this has been a struggle to universalize access to the symbolic and real capital this institution generates.

I have no interest in "pretending" anything. I, in fact, don’t take this discussion to be primarily or importantly about myself (though I know what Tom Mandel would say to that). I am saying that if "capitalism is more universal than education ever will be" then all of us are getting burned.

Knee-jerk anti-universalism is one of the tiredest tropes of current (a)social thought. Try explaining to me an oppositional position on Bosnia that doesn’t involve universalistic claims of one kind or another. Try explaining why your position on identity politics as the real vulgar marxism makes sense without referring to universalization. In brief, what ever happened to that fibonacci series of yours? Gone with the Laclau-Mouffite wind?

It is fine, though exceedingly abstract, to say there is "no outside." But at Brown there certainly is (hence an "admission" process), and where you work also (hence hiring/firing). And on a different scale, there is very importantly an "outside" when it comes to distribution of resources under capitalist social relations. Illiteracy is a way of being "outside" the alphabet; starvation is a way of being "outside" the chi-chi supermarket. I’m "in"–I attend Brown (and yes there are people here–namely all the ones directly in my "field" in the Eng. Dept.–who oppose my research and teaching practices), I eat and read, I’m having a party for other people who also do these things later tonight. But I’m under no illusion that cause I’m here, everyone is. And I subscribe to the axiom that you cannot intend your own autonomy without intending that of everyone else (universalization).


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Re: haoles

One sentence here stands out:

> My problem with equating the poem with "ethnic cleansing" is that the

> Hawaiian sovereignty movement is a separatist movement, not an

> imperial one (as in the "former Yugoslavia").

This would seem to be a "classic" question of a group’s relation to power (the center). That which is at the center (or conceives of itself as a center) moves outward, imperial motion. That which perceives itself at the margin merely defines the margin (builds that border). Both seem to involve an essential(ist) xenophobia. Such is at the heart of every identity politics. The relative danger comes from the relation to power, no?

And at the real center comes that almost snow blindness of presuming it’s "just us." Hence prop 187 in California and the Bubba vote throughout the US in 1994, revenge of the white males.

Interesting how, given what a "boy" discussion this has been for the past week or so, nobody here at all takes the standard Bubba position, even while the range of politics and poetics involved seems pretty broad. To be a poet makes an internationalist out of many (at least here in the US–Dubravka Djuric has noted how many opportunistic poets in Serbia have taken advantage of the situation there to gather little fiefdoms of state power and how even the opposition Croat and Bosnian poets have quickly moved into nationalist positions that seem to have as much to do with what’s in it for them as it does the needs of "their people."

So what is this concept "my people"?


From: James Sherry

Subject: Re: Universal Blisters/Individual Burns

Having been through some graduate school, taught at NYU for a few years, worked as an independent entrepreneur, worked as a capitalist lackey, done manual labor painting outsides of high rises, written 10 books that made money and 8 books (poetry) that lost money, published 75 literary titles, run a non-profit distribution service, worked for the city of New York, and since I am always looking for work to do I figure I have failed at everything I have ever tried to do. In the light of this experience which I do not wish to describe as holier, simply that I have some direct experience of both sides of the fence that is being disputed as well as other fences of the labor market not described, I would expect that any honest look at the corporations and universities described in your letters differ little from each other in their most important respects. Generally universities treat workers worse and do less damage with their output while corporations treat workers better in comparable positions, but engage in risk taking to the extent that their output has a greater direct effect, good and bad, on the society, environment, and individual lives. They make together two of the many kinds of institutions we live with and any attempt to denigrate either type of institution is both narrow and irrelevant. The risks of corporate life now are great. The inability of universities to significantly amend those risks is pathetic. Read today’s NY Times re: Bass & Yale. Transnationalism is a fact. Can these discussions turn that situation around? Can we add an accent to it that will increase the benevolence of our physical and intellectual environment in an entire world? How do you expect to affect it? What is your program? What cooperation does this group offer?


From: Tom Mandel

Subject: Re: Universal Blisters/Individual Burns

James Sherry writes:

> …that a single world exists whose cultures are merging and their inter-

> section causes these clashes. The emerging world culture is not better

> or worse than the indigenous cultures that are being infected by each

> other.


1. No one occupies a position from where it is possible to see what multiple cultures are doing on a world scale, esp. not as the pictured fantasy involves the future, which it is in principle not possible to know.

2. That an emerging world culture (assume it for a moment) is "not better or worse than the indigenous cultures" is either not an empirical statement (i.e. it is an anthropologist’s position) or if it is one, where’s the evidence? One could certainly argue that the culture of the Roman Empire, for example, as it grafted itself onto and lived off of indigenous cultures all over Europe and the Med. basin, was a disaster for those cultures, tragedy for their people. I don’t think James can assure any "indigenous culture" anywhere that the global transformation he sees will be "not better or worse" for them.

3. Someone somewhere ought to formalize and describe an ailment of the intellect that he/she might call "the consolation of terms." Apparently, mere possession of a term like "culture" is sufficient to give its possessor a sense of having risen above the sombre cthonic clash of undescribed human interests whose stake and way in the world is being steamrollered. Get thee behind me terminology.

From: Wystan Curnow

Subject: Re-Academy

Tom Mandel wrote:

>Where are all these posts advising anyone that it is better to work in the

> corporate world (better for who and what)

> And Ron Silliman … quickly seconded this claim that there have been

> none such.

So I asked my secretary to go through the dept. e-mail files and to see if he could find any. And to have the report on my desk at his first opportunity.

The situation seems to be as follows: on Dec. 6 Ron fired off a post in which he said there was more collaborativeness in the corporate world than in the university world. I.e. on that score (what) the corporation would be better for academics (who). Also on the score of knowing what was really going on in the economy –a must for anti-capitalists. The following day, Tom, himself posted to the effect that the world of commerce was more open, egalitarian, permissive of range than the university world. And that when you got sacked from your job in business at least it was for a good reason. On Dec. l2 James Sherry, suggested that corporations treated workers better in comparable positions than universities.

Well, Tom & Ron, you do make some good points.

I’d like to hear more about the not WORKING for LIVING option. I don’t suppose there are too many on the List. About PRIVATE MEANS and how to come by them. There is not much history in this discussion, but I believe the Modernists, especially those expatriates living in Europe, had great access to such means. Is there a book on patronage and the avant-garde? I am, of course, aware that the issue for many is whether it is more dishonourable to work for business or the university, and that taking money from aristocrats or magnates as they used to be called, may be even more dishonourable, but isn’t the question: is it possible in this culture to be a full poet, to work for a living as a artist, important to the discussion?

Here there a few residences and fellowships which allow poets a year now and then (the residences are at the universities, and academics who happen to be poets can’t apply!), but the full-time artists I know are painters and sculptors. That’s a clear distinction, and a pretty recent one here: visual artists can live off their work, poets can’t. They need a day job (which is how Bruce Andrews described his university position to me).


From: John Cayley

Subject: Experiments

I’ve read through and felt challenged by the experiwhat? discussions on and off for some time now. Yes, it is quite wrong to fall into the trap of using the word glibly. Still, metaphors are there precisely to extend the range of words, to allow us to use them where they both do and do not signify what we previously agreed they signified.

I produce texts based on procedures and algorithms similar to those in Charles B’s splendid list. The use of such procedures is of course not new, but in this (the network) context we should be much more aware of the tools now available which allow us to make literary experiments using such techniques in ‘real time’. Until recently we’ve known about these procedures and when we’ve felt ludic we’ve sat down with siccors and paste. Now, with a little more trouble, you can learn a simple programming language and do the same. But once you’ve done this, the process of compostion, perhaps of writing itself has shifted to a new site. With a machine I can get feedback from the results of my procedures quick enough to adjust them according to non-arbitrary criteria. I can make my algorithms ‘learn’ more about the given texts and/or my responses to them. I can re-write the given texts so that they are better modulated by the algorithms. This is similar to experimental processes, isn’t it? Finally, and importantly, I can provide suitably equipped readers with as-it-happens-but-never-the-same-twice performances of the procedures which they can ‘read’ on their own screens.

>Don Byrd wrote:

> After a certain point, chaos no longer needed the help of art. To recall

> wild nature in tranquility, to practice nihilistic techniques of art and

> thought, to do automatic writing, or to create chance generated art is a

> pointless gesture.

All I can say is why so? I do not feel that I am making a pointless gesture. Even if all that was obtainable from such procedures was a more liberated approach to the literary experience, they would still be worthwhile. Personally I believe they are adequate compostional strategies with the potential to produce significant art.

> It seems to me that these experiments at this late date

>call us back to means that are as exhausted as the means of a

>poetry that still attempts to make "ordinary" sense of a world where one

> watch a blue jay crap and thinks of mortality or

>Aunt Minnie.


> If we are going to experiment, let us experiment with all seriousness.

I do undertake these (?) experiments in all seriousness. I compose the algorithms and choose or write the underlying texts. I intend to produce something that is fascinating, perhaps beautiful, and that has significant content. Apart from the form and content of the resulting texts themselves, I believe the processes are of theoretical interest (even when using very simple algorithims such as those in Charles’ list) in relation to questions of Language as Choice and Chance (title of a book on mathematical grammars by G. Herdan), and the nature of meaning (it’s strange resistance to semi-arbitrary processes). If it doesn’t work, I can go back to the writing board. It is precisely the late date of this practice that allows me to develop it in this way.


From: Marisa A Januzzi

Subject: discursive disruptions//whether poetry makes anything happen

Greetings from a formerly silent lurker!

With the indulgence of the list, I would like to revive the question of the political content of poetic form, implicitly continuing a discussion which arose at an MLA session called "Poetry: The Visual Dimension." Alan Golding gave a helpful paper about Susan Howe’s visual poetics, and during the Q&A, Marjorie Perloff asked "the big skeptical question" (I wish I could remember her exact words!), wondering about the connection between the disruption for instance of the linear form of the poem on the page and the disruption of patriarchy. And Bob Perelman accelerated the question by raising the specter of the "history of the avant-garde."

Since then I have been wondering why poetry can’t be construed as having political potential in a metaphoric mode. It seems to me that metaphors (whether formal or more simply rhetorical) not only express but also potentially restage political issues (as in for instance the work of Medbh McGuckian) in educational ways. When Mina Loy chose an open form for her notorious 1915-17 "Love Songs" (THE best since Sappho, she called them) the rhetoric of form and content immediately sent critics into a delirium of invective against free women, free verse, free love… in other words critics got the point before they "got" the poems, a situation which recurs every day in the poetry classroom where students and teachers can usefully confront prejudices in the guise of aesthetic questions.

Ten years ago I wrote an ill-thought-out essay about T.S. Eliot which earned me a ‘D’ from Kathryne Lindberg and caused this student (from a deeply traditional and right-wing family) to attend consciously to the question for the very first time. Although it now may sound nostalgic to say so, Williams and Olson (also on the syllabus) helped me out…and so did Kathryne, with a magnum of patience…

Language: the parent, not the child of thought? (Wilde)


From: Larry Price

Subject: Politics and derivation

Allen Ginsberg once noted that being an anarchist didn’t mean you could throw your trash in the street. Similarly, saying poetry won't feed the hungry masses has about the same meaning as saying a rice grower's fields won't scan or are overly committed to closure. The political can just as easily begin in the rejection of an easy forgetfulness, of saying, Since so many others DO (throw trash, etc.), what would be the point etc. of my not? That sense of resistance is not, I think, about autonomy only, but equally has implications for the intersubjective.

That said (and because I do think it has to do with form), I'd like to air thoughts about Duncan's poetics of derivation. Pushed by Charles Alexander’s note on THE OPENING OF THE FIELD, I also went to the shelf, to FICTIVE CERTAINTIES and to AFTER LORCA.

"I find again how Emersonian my spirit is. All of experience seems my trust fund to me; I must CULTIVATE THE MISTRUST THAT ALONE CAN GIVE CONTRAST AND THE NEEDED INNER TENSION FOR VITAL INTEREST. In this I stand almost heretically disposed to Olson's insistence on Melville's sense of inner catastrophe against the Emersonian bliss." [caps mine]

That poetry is a contagion does seem like a good place to start, but Duncan's sense of "back and back and back" seems too comfortably located:

"When I first decided to be a poet…this itself was a disordering of the world and its orders in which I had been raised...I had been preparing to enter that world…but my conversion to poetry was experienced…as being at war with every hope the world before had had of me...to give one’s life over to poetry, to become a poet, was to evidence a serious social disorder."

On the other hand, Spicer:

"Things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage…Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible -- lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay, they bring their equivalents into being."

Two senses of disorder, as also many more times than one real, which may be why devotion towards them must be so disordered.

So regarding form, it’s interesting to read Duncan’s sense of contagion as not being a resistive annihilating rod plied AGAINST convention, to read convention itself as having bred the contagion. The disorder that ensues is WITHIN THE TERMS OF CONVENTION. Whereas the disorder that is Spicer’s I read as issuing from the events TOWARDS WHICH his devotion runs. It’s difficult not to appear reductive, but, for me, that’s the divide in this discussion of form, new or otherwise.

Apex of the M to Thoughts about Engagement


From: Marjorie Perloff

Subject: Apex of the M

Dear Friends:

I was pleased to get the most recent Apex of the M and read the poetry with interest but I must say I was dismayed by the manifesto "The Contextual Imperative," put out by the editors.

Certainly, the post-language generation has every right to want to move in different directions–that’s only logical–but the slight on the L poets vis-a-vis politics seems entirely misguided. The editors write "language poetry, in reproducing and mimicking the methods and language of contemporary capitalism, ultimately commits itself to the same anonymity, alienation, and social atomization of the subject in history that underlie capitalist geo-politics." And they go on to compare the language poets to Reagan, Bush, and Quayle!

Come on now! Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, (the most "political" of the L poets) reproducing and mimicking the language of contemp capitalism!? Just the opposite was/is true–these poets have worked very hard and put themselves on the line to break down language so that it couldn’t function as the voice of "contemporary capitalism." At the same time, what about the editors? The sentence above is distinguishable from capitalist geo-politics? How can it be when it is a tissue of cliches. The very phrases "contemporary capitalism," "social atomization" "capitalist geo-politics" are nothing but buzz words of the type one hears/sees on TV every minute. Whose capitalism? Japanese? U.S.? Serb? what’s it really like? What "social atomization" precisely are we talking about? And let’s look at that language in, say, Silliman’s work and read it against Quayle’s and see if it really IS like that.,

And then what in hell is "radical transparency"? Literally, it means that language is absolutely see-through, which means what language you use doesn’t matter because you want to get behind it to the Big Ideas. But the danger of doing this is that you start spouting the language of those "ruling classes throughout Western history" poets are supposedly opposing.

At its best, Language poetry never valorized language "for its own sake" as the editors claim. Nor is it the case that theirs is the only or hegemonic way of writing. But if language poetry is to be attacked–and don’t we have enough attacks from the dominant poetic discourses already?– it had better be attacked in a more responsible way than it is here. That means informing oneself about what’s really going on around the globe and not just throwing out phrases like "Reagan-Bush" or "triumph of capital"? If there’s a blueprint for a new economic program let’s hear what it is. In specifics. But surely, in the heyday of Newt Gingrich it’s rather ineffectual to drop phrases like "triumph of capital".

A final question: who is to read the new revolutionary poetry (what it will be like remains to be seen) the editors advocate? Is poetry going to "deliver victims from the daily miseries inflicted by the politicians and the bourgeoisie?" How is this to happen? Certainly not via ignorance,as in the statement (page 7) about "wars of the West against Islam and in Asia." In Asia: Does China have no responsibility for ‘wars in Asia"? Japan? and Islam:are the Islamic countries really just innocent victims of "the West"?

I would think "revolution," poetic or otherwise, would require a little more analytic rigor than what we see here.


From: Tom Mandel

Subject: Re: Apex of the M

I originally began this as a private message to Marjorie Perloff, to tell her she’d hit the nail on the head in her comments on the Apex intro, meaning to quote to her what Hobbes said of Spinoza – I durst not have spoke so freely (that’s a paraphrase, source not being handy), being a Language Poet myself (wch when it happened to me meant being in a loosely-(un)defined and altogether anonymous group of abt 15-20 folks but now means being in an altogether over-commented and literally undefinable crowd of ?3-500?), but have decided to make the comment openly, wanting to add one or two things…

To go from the introduction of the Apex issue in question to the work gathered therein is an interesting study. Mostly what’s in the issue is the work of poets in mid-career, many of whom associated (i.e. are associated) with LP – how can this so-called manifesto claim them for a next or new way?

I believe the editors must understand themselves to have chosen these poets in mid-career as illustrative of their (the editors’) sense of where poetry needs to go now, as illustrative of the ideas in the introduction. Thus, the making of manifestos (manifesti?) and new movements is reduced from that of actually creating a new poetry to being a thoughtful editor. The surrealists too had their chosen forebears to bring forward (i.e. Lautreamont), but they were rescuing work wch had been neglected and even rejected not putting together a table of contents wch cd as easily have been found in Temblor in the late 80’s (obviously, somewhat different) or O-blek in the earlier 90’s. Moreover, the relative proportion of forebears (a few) to active perpetrants of the revolutionary new poetry (a triple handful) seems more appropriate than in the case of Apex volume.

Thus new tendencies in poetry as the acts of editors? Sorry, I don’t think so. It’s hard not to see in this volume a 2d chapter in a different town of the intentions of the editors of ACTS in SF who invented a term analytic lyric which they wished to counterpose to Language Poetry, then went around telling everybody that this was what they wrote. I remember asking Benjamin Hollander (along with David Levi Strauss, the editor of ACTS) what the term meant. Mostly, his answer was that it was what I was writing! (I and others, of course – I don’t mean they were vaunting me in particular) No thanks, Benjamin, I’m a language poet – i.e. my work, wherever it goes and whoever it attracts the attention of, is historically located in that tendency. If I write rhymed couplets I’ll be a langpo who does so (well,… that’s a little over-simplified, tho not as much as one might think: I mean it’s an ostensively defined term, supplemented with interpretations wch are motivated by a desire to see our work somehow together. there’s little else in common between say me and say Bruce Andrews who is a dear, old friend and comrade, or Ron or Lyn; in some sense I believe we will desire our works to be buried in a common historical grave).

The test of the Surrealist manifesto was the work of Breton, Eluard, Peret, Aragon, Desnos, et. al., not the validity of the ideas in the manifesto, somehow interpreted in the presence of some other test but absent the test of new work. I don’t for a minute doubt the gifts or motivation of the poets who edit Apex. It would have been better, however, to place the intro before a volume of new writers who simply blew one away (and, gentle reader, you cannot imagine how intently I – and most other language poets I know, tho not all surely – await this experience), where its rodomontade, its stuffy certainties abt historical directions/needs, its empty rejection of the exact social and economic matrix which enabled it (doesn’t anybody read the Communist Manifesto anymore? viz. its eloge of capitalism?) – in such a context, all these qualities would be irrelevant in the face of the experience of a new poetry. A new poetry. We always want a new poetry.