Monday, August 08, 2005
I got a PhD from Buffalo Poetics, not a creative writing program in that we never had workshops and we were reliant on our own motivations to find each other as readers of our work. Many people have many ideas about this program—that it is a school for only the strictest adherence to "language poetry;" or that it is a poetry mecca, some kind of ideal community; that it is an ultra-aggressive, competitive scene for cut-throat, ambitious poets… I have to say that my experience at Buffalo resembled none of these things.
Within the SUNY Buffalo English Department the Poetics program was seriously embattled, forcing many poetics students and faculty to bond together in simply trying to understand what in the history of poetics created such a cloud of suspicion over poetry in the Academy in the first place. For example, when Myung Mi Kim came to her professorship at Buffalo, she said she was expecting to find a place where some of these old battles had been worked out, but instead she found that it was a place where the battles just seemed to rage at the highest possible decibel. So the most competitive elements came in the form of defending a wide variety of contemporary poetic practices against charges of "flakiness," not "making sense," "not really KNOWING anything," etc, as they were being made by Romanticists, Identity Politicians, and scholars of the modern who had made huge investments in very traditional readings of, say, Dickinson or Whitman or Emerson. This "other side" (there came to be pretty distinct "sides") lobbed all kinds of charges at Poetics and these charges had to be answered regularly and very carefully, as they often pertained to faculty hires and admissions of poetics students. The "other side" had a whole vocabulary for contemporary poetics—most notably they made continuous pleas that the department needed a return to "nuts and bolts," which was posited as decidedly NOT what experimental writing concerned itself with. "Nuts and bolts" was presented as the exclusive domain of narrative and New Yorker-style poetry. I suspect this preference was largely based in a relative comfort with poetry that you can "get" on a first, casual, read-through. But …doesn't that kind of casual reader comfort actually function to HIDE "nuts and bolts" if by nuts and bolts we mean, mechanics, the parts that work together to make the meaning? It seemed to me that the "other side" wanted Poetry Range Rovers and poetics wanted to work on poetry engines and invent new ones.
(Certainly some faculty who were not poets, nor "poetics" as such, were very much in favor of the poetics program and found the critical thinking going on in poetics exciting and rich, namely James Bunn, Neil Schmitz, Jill Robbins, Joe Conte… )
There were students and faculty alike who could very easily swagger into an almost delighted tizzy when given the opportunity to exclaim how much they *hated* poetics. But, being the wanna-be undercover operative I am, I came to frequent those crowds, and found that "stupid" "ignorant" "don't know the first THING about poetry" "windbag" "total bullshit" and "self-indulgent" were the most common phrases for referring to poetics students, faculty, and the program in general. Over time I began to realize that what these students were reacting to largely concerned notions of manners and propriety. My first inkling of this came when I began showing these nay-sayers some experimental film. In time I noted that it was precisely when a film directly addressed film as a medium--whether by addressing the camera, complicating or multiplying the narrative, relying on visual quotation, using the actual film in a different way through color treatment, emulsion, etc--that the nay-sayers would respond rather viscerally as if someone had come right out of the TV and told them to FUCK OFF, STUPID! Film and television addressing its medium was deemed rude and insulting, and assumed to make the viewer feel bad/stupid "by design," and this is what was "self-indulgent."
In terms of tradition and the study of poetry and language, I found many of these folks had more affection for what seemed to them to be the obvious and only purpose of poetry: that it be "good language," well written, displaying a mastery of correct usage, as if to say the litmus test for any poem was its eloquence or exacting. Contemporary provisions were made for Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde and Def Poetry, I suspect because they also "made sense" more immediately and, moreover, provided an outlet for bad feelings. I think many of the nay-sayers in question were actually VERY afraid to let go of the idea of poetry as an outlet for feelings. I also know that many of them wrote poetry but showed it to no one.
Ultimately, the labeling of poetics students as "self-indulgent" seemed hypocritical. The model of poetry as the righteous-teddy-bear-for-the-self-in-all-its-anger may serve as a linguistic attempt to meet primal scream therapy half way, but then what? What are the political or aesthetic strategies gained for the future? Where is the hope? Audre Lorde’s activist life may have done something for her social causes or for activism itself, but her poetry didn't do anything for the medium of poetry. It is a record of her life in line breaks…so what.
If poetics nay-sayers find empowerment in taking poetry away from concentration of its specific medium, language, and away from its history as an engine of/for thought, and away from analyzing the social forms that poetic thinking has critiqued in the past, only to be deployed as either a display of disciplined standardization, or a rhyme-based argument about one's feelings, then I suggest there is a great deal of money to be made in writing self-help with line breaks. That is at least half of what passes for poetry in these circles. But poetry, at its core, the poetry which still has much to teach us, does not find its end as the engine for righteousness and-or teddy bears. Poetry is bigger than the self. Poetry is bigger than teddy bears. (which, by the way, does not preclude it from still helping or expressing or engaging concepts of "self." Nor does it preclude anyone from hugging it in bed.)
The truth is I came to feel genuinely sad about these nay-sayers, because ultimately all they wanted was to be married and safe and confident that they had always driven very straight on the road of erudition. "Contemporary" media generally threw them off, and they did what they could to disparage such things. But more than that, they did harm to poetics and to poets all along the way.
With other "poetics" students, I felt *some* competitiveness, but not because anyone suggested there was only ONE way to do Art or Poetry or Writing, as Kevin Killian experienced with his Video Arts friend. The other poets in the program were generally not so dogmatic about HOW to do things. The more slightly dogmatic critical approaches seemed to come from the poets I felt were more conservative, like Graham Foust and Peter Ramos, whose work and feedback I appreciated (and who I believe would not mind being called "conservative" in a discussion of aesthetics). Peter told me once he felt it was ridiculous if poetics people wrote poetry without knowing all the traditional forms. He did NOT write in traditional forms or insist that anyone else do so, but he was pretty disgusted, I gathered, that so many people in Buffalo knew very little, if any, detail of the old forms, yet deigned to challenge the forms writing could take. Graham said pretty explicitly in his "Rust Talk," which can be read on line through EPC webzines, that he felt many poets in Buffalo were just doing sloppy Susan Howe imitations. While I cannot claim objectively that he was 100% wrong, I felt rather that the poets I knew and read in Buffalo were all taking risks, raising all manner of challenge to what could count as poetry, performance, sense, story, etc., at times, albeit, with no palpable success. But those years in Buffalo, for many, were an opportunity to push their praxes as far as they could. While I disagreed with some of what Graham said, I must admit it has stayed with me as an anxiety I do not mind having. But in the grand scheme of things literary-academic, I defend the right of poets to TRY anything, to risk personal foolishness for the sake of advancing the medium or in the hopes of addressing some problem with language, media, and ideology. Even if the TRY-ing involves deploying a strategy learned from Susan Howe, or whether it be imitative or dull or offensive, I defend the right to live out one's life poetically even if you seem to suck at "moving" audiences with your writing. I defend that right wholeheartedly.
Rather than competitiveness I would characterize my feelings as irritation. To me, Buffalo was simply a place where a wide variety of poetic strategies were being tried out and my fellow students were a constant source of irritation in that they were always bringing up stuff I never thought of, stuff I didn't always want to think about, stuff I thought I had worked out, sometimes stuff I thought was irrelevant.
This irritation, embraced, continued and continues to challenge my judgment in the realms of poetry, poetics and politics. I did find myself, at times, feeling that the program might be infringing on the poetry of some of my classmates and friends, and myself, too, for that matter. I felt the pressure of big ideas, plans, and projects emerging more and more as we were regularly called upon in seminars to theorize on/about the poetry we were reading. When criticism in prose becomes one's primary mode of reading, writing and planning, it can start to seem like poetry doesn't exist if there isn't some 'thing,' or some point, or some continuity holding it together. But Poetry is not an argument; argument is not a necessity.
I also realized in the process that I was not necessarily very well read or book smart compared to the average PhD student in poetics. I felt lost in some conversations, like they were all over my head. What was great about this, in the end, was that I decided to embrace my mediocrity as a student and commit even further to the medium of poetry as I understood and experienced it. I remembered that I didn't come to a PhD in Poetics because I wanted to be the quintessential academic; I got a PhD in Poetics because I am deeply committed to poetry and to sharing with others the attentiveness and joy it can bring.
I am not bothered by Whitman reviewing himself. For me, this kind of writing is akin to writing a statement of poetics. Poetry is difficult, and a statement or meditation written adjacent to one’s poetry can go a long way in attempting to engage an imagined audience. With love-happy, idealist Whitman in particular, I can imagine him believing that nothing was too much to publicize his grand vision. His vision of America for all Americans was often represented in the public press as pornographic in both its themes and extended form. A true believer in radical democracy, Whitman would probably have rather left this for every reader to read and decide for his or her self, and the more scandal and talk in the public press, the more likelihood of gaining new readers.
If the question Conrad & friends are struggling over ultimately regards self-promotion, I would recommend keeping in mind Ashbery's line "to be a famous poet / is not be famous at all" or words to that effect (I am at my day job, without my Ashbery books). In other words, if you are spending your time writing or making art that is not readily understood or digested by the average zombie-critic and-or the passive entertainment-seekers, or people looking to make money off you, then you are in a minority. Whitman was a queer roustabout in 19th century New Jersey with a vision and access to printing. Just because he is famous now doesn't mean he was greedy or amoral then for writing about his own work. First, it is never immoral to write about your own work. Second, it is not immoral to publish your own work. When I get anything in the mail from other poets, I consider it a gift and I am grateful and flattered to receive it, even if I don't like the actual poetry much. Poetry is work. There is ever a dearth of small press outlets for emerging poets. If you have something to share, share it.
Now, if the question concerns sycophantish coteries that develop around people who are considered to have power within the small world of experimental writing, and you find that those groups regularly attract young poets who are all too ready to sacrifice their own work for the security of acceptance, some readings, a chapbook or two, and a pat on the head from someone they probably fear----then I say, sure, that sounds gross, but does it really mean much in the end? Just cuz some cowards can't face the future without an authority figure to kowtow to, doesn't mean shit once we’re all dead.