Saturday, January 26, 2008
My New Book of Essays
My first book of prose, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, is just out in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series, and I have to share the news. This is a project on which I’ve been working for several years, and I’m incredibly excited that it’s finally come to fruition. I got my advance copies about a week ago and have been cradling the book in my arms as if it were my baby. Which it is.
Noted poet and critic James Longenbach generously writes on the back of the book that “Orpheus in the Bronx not only extols the freedom language affords us; it embodies that freedom, enacting poetry's greatest gift—the power to recognize ourselves as something other than what we are. These bracing arguments were written by a poet who sings.” I’m grateful to him for the wonderful endorsement.
The essays in Orpheus in the Bronx argue against ideological evaluations of art as either bourgeois mystification or social critique, focusing on the one hand on the liberatory possibilities of the autonomy of art and on the other hand on art’s relationship to social context and particularly to questions of social identity. For some time it’s been the fashion to see literature as a social symptom, or at best an epiphenomenon, to think that social conditions and social identity completely determine the nature and value of a piece of writing. But art’s utopian potential lies exactly in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood.
The book includes, among others, a piece on the imbrication of homosociality and homosexuality in the libidinal economy of Jean Genet’s novel Querelle; an essay on Jorie Graham’s book Erosion which interweaves an admiring discussion of her poetry’s traversal of intellectual boundaries with a critique of the problematic relations between art and politics that her poetry often enacts; an essay arguing against the imposition of ideological or political agendas, particularly those of identity politics, on poetry; a somewhat polemical survey of the contemporary American poetry scene’s still all-too-operant binary between “mainstream” and “avant-garde” poetry which proposes the possibility of a third mode that I call, after Wittgenstein, lyrical investigations; an essay exploring the relationships of perception and conception, presence and representation, force and form in the work of Wallace Stevens; and “To Make Me Who I Am,” a longish, more personal piece on my development as a writer and a thinker, starting with my childhood in the tenements and housing projects of the Bronx. (An abridged version of this piece appears in the January/February issue of Poets and Writers Magazine.) The book also includes appreciations of individual writers whose work has meant much to me, including Samuel R. Delany, Alvin Feinman, and Linda Gregg. It concludes with an essay called “Why I Write,” which originally appeared on this blog, in which I lay out some of my motivations and ambitions as a writer, including the perhaps unfashionable desire to live forever in some form.