Friday, February 29, 2008

Defining "Post-Avant-Garde" Poetry

This is a considerably revised and expanded version of a piece that I originally posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, where it incited a quite extensive and vociferous response. I hope that the discussion here, should there be any, will be more calm and reasonable.

I appreciate the attention (including reasoned and productive disagreement) the original piece received from Robert Archambeau, Christian Bök, Joshua Corey, John Gallaher, and Paul Hoover, not to mention the two citations on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. This revision has benefited from their thoughtful discussions.

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The phrase "post-avant poetry," which was either coined seriously by Ron Silliman or parodically by Joan Houlihan, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world. (I’ve never seen the phrase in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both.) It’s used with the assumption that "we all know what that is," but the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to pin down a term much-mentioned but seldom specified, with the caveat that Stephen Burt makes in a postscript to his essay on what he calls “The Elliptical Poets”: “People who follow the arts like to talk about schools; often they prefer talking about schools and trends to talking about individual poets and their poems” (48). I hope that this too-broad discussion is not taken as a substitute for discussing actual poets and actual poems.

"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries, particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet Elizabeth Willis writes in her artist’s statement in my anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, “part of what’s so interesting about the current moment is its refusal of an overtly oedipal relation to literary traditions on either the right or the left, and a willingness to construct and invent not only new kinds of poetry but new ways of reading.”

These poets don’t form a movement, let alone a school, but something more like a set of tendencies. As Stephen Burt writes, “Whether a school exists, or where its boundaries lie, seem…questions both less profound, and less durable, than the questions we ask about each poet and about individual poems. At the same time individual poems may respond to their historical moment and invoke their stylistic [formal, and thematic] affinities with other poems” (50).

Poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of the work in her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant (along with such journals as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Verse, and Volt, and such publishers as Ahsahta Press, the University of California Press, the late lamented University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series, and Wesleyan University Press), such writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Though many of these poets have projects and even systems (the book, as distinct from or even opposed to the individual poem, is important in much of their work), there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and there are many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation,” and much sense of post-avant poetic community is produced online), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf, which poet Kasey Mohammad has defined as “intentionally bad poetry that involves Google search text results,” a deliberate anti-poetry based on what Dan Hoy has called “poetics of awfulness as a style,” is probably not “post-avant,” but I don’t understand it well enough to discuss it.) And no doubt I’ve missed a lot—there’s a lot to miss.

In his 1997 article “The New Modernism” (reprinted in his essay collection Fables of Representation), poet and editor Paul Hoover writes that “Compositional complexity and a renewed emphasis on abstraction are the cornerstones of the new modernism. It has some of the difficulty of modernism but little of its commitment to history and myth. [RS: I would disagree with this. I would say that it has a different relationship to history and myth, not relying upon them as sources of authority but as fields of what Foucault called the archaeology of knowledge.] In its love of the fragment, mosaic organization, broken sequences, and appropriation, the new modernism also resembles the old. What differs is the gender and ethnicity of the poets involved” (138). That is to say, the new modernism is much more diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity (though not necessarily of class) than the old modernism ever was or wanted to be. Hoover’s category of “the new modernism” is much more broad than my notion of the “post-avant-garde,” as he traces out two branches. The first branch includes “poets like Ann Lauterbach, Marjorie Welish, Michael Palmer, Jorie Graham, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nathaniel Mackey, Donald Revell, and Bob Perelman [RS: this seems an odd assemblage to me, at least in terms of professed and apparent poetic lineages] whose work contains figured abstraction and, at times, sustained lyrical argument and are influenced by the romantic lineage of postmodernism including Ashbery and Duncan.” The second branch includes “poets like Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Charles Bernstein whose origins are in Gertrude Stein, objectivism, and Charles Olson and employ a more discontinuous compositional program” (139). I would call this a distinction between romantic and anti-romantic Modernist lineages, between a lyric postmodernist mode and an anti-lyrical postmodernist mode. I would place most of the poets I consider as “post-avant garde” within the former lineage and mode, however much they query and sometimes explode (from the inside) romanticism and lyricism.

Poet and critic Stephen Burt’s invention of a school of so-called Elliptical poetry, including such diverse poets as Lucie Brock-Broido, Forrest Gander, August Kleinzahler, Thylias Moss, Karen Volkman, and C.D. Wright, has been much talked-about, including in a symposium in the journal American Letters and Commentary. Burt writes in his 1999 essay “The Elliptical Poets” that “Elliptical Poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities (in one or more “I” per poem), but they suspect the I’s they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how [a] little can go a long way. Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone” (41). Burt goes on to write that “All [Elliptical poets] want to convey both metaphysical challenge and recognizable, seen or tasted, detail. Ellipticism rejects: poems written in order to demonstrate theories; prettiness as its own end; slogans; mysticism; straight-up narrative; and extended abstraction. [RS: Contrarily, I would say that one distinguishing feature of post-avant-garde poetry is its interest and even its investment in exploring abstraction as a mode and a theme, something that Paul Hoover touches on in the passage quoted above.] Ellipticals are uneasy about (less often, hostile to) inherited elites and privileges, but they are not populists, and won't write down to, or connect the dots for, their readers; their difficulty conveys respect.” (This last assertion is echoed and complicated by Rebecca Wolff’s comment noted above.)

Burt’s Ellipticist poets seem to have in common only a set of surface effects: they all write flashy poems. Indeed, many of them have queried if not rejected their assigned membership in this school. Cole Swensen, for example, asserts in “Elliptical Poetry: A Response,” that Burt “is listing traits that have been present in various innovative writing communities for decades and attributing them to a very narrow, and relatively both conservative and recent, group of writers” (American Letters and Commentary 11, 1999, 66).

And I am not sure what makes these specifically “elliptical.” My Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “elliptical” as “a : of, relating to, or marked by ellipsis or an ellipsis [in turn defined as ‘a: the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete, or b: a sudden leap from one topic to another’]; b (1): of, relating to, or marked by extreme economy of speech or writing (2): of or relating to deliberate obscurity (as of literary or conversational style)” As Burt describes his “Ellipticist” poets, none of these definitions seems particularly to apply, at least no more than they would to any number of poets from John Donne to Emily Dickinson to John Berryman to Ann Lauterbach (whom he does not mention).

In “Shearing Away,” an earlier version of his essay that appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of the British journal Poetry Review, Burt admits to having made up this soi-disant “school.” Later, in clarifying what he means by “school,” he writes that “Ellipticism counts as a school of a movement in the way that ‘metaphysical poetry’ or ‘confessional poetry’ count as movements, not in the way that ‘language writing’ or the Black Arts Movement or New Formalism (each of which had manifestos) count as movements; the so-called [by Burt himself] Ellipticals (like the so-called metaphysicals) need not have signed a manifesto, or appeared in one place at one time, in order to share the aesthetic goals I have described” (49). I would say that they share at most aesthetic tendencies and styles, rather than goals, which are always difficult to decipher in any case.

As Cole Swensen points out, “Historically, a school is based is based on more than observable surface similarities….Sometimes, in fact, the members of a given group have differed widely in their works’ appearances, approaches, and other immediate aspects, and have based their affinity instead on much broader aesthetic issues, as well as, at times, shared social and political convictions and some degree of shared experience. As the term has been used throughout the century, a school is a spontaneous and accidental situation that laces people together as it laces art into individual lives….using the term at this point in history does imply those extra-textual affinities, which I’m not sure are appropriate here” (op. cit. 65). Swensen also points out the ways in which Burt’s map seems “if not to construct, then at least to arrange [the] territory before it sets out to guide us through it” (ibid.): it draws factional lines in advance through a future that hasn’t yet arrived.

In a recent review of Matthea Harvey’s new book Modern Life, critic David Orr concurs with Burt’s description, but he frames it in pejorative terms. Orr writes that Harvey works in “a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (‘The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four’), quirky diction (‘orangery,’ ‘aigrettes’), flickering italics, oddball openings (‘The scent of pig is faint tonight’) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent—basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode.” While this description is true of many writers (any mode has its better and its worse practitioners, and mediocrity is the norm in any field of endeavor), I don’t find it fair as an overall evaluation. In fact, Orr’s review of Harvey’s work is quite positive. As he points out, “if it’s relatively easy to write passable poetry in the style du jour, it’s never easy to write good poetry in any style,” which seems to me much more to the point.

Some of these writers have been called “third way” writers by Ron Silliman, who has written that “Younger poets today I think have more of an opportunity of learning from all worlds without having to sign up & pick sides. And that in turn will itself impact how writing gets done, going forward.” However, Silliman distinguishes what he calls “third way” writing (among whose practitioners he numbers Forrest Gander, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass [RS: I can't see Hass's avant-garde inclinations], and Ann Lauterbach, as well as the much younger Graham Foust), which exemplifies “a post-militant American poetics,” from “post-avant” writing, saying that “third way” poetry is dependent on the dichotomy between what he calls post-avant poetry and what he pejoratively calls “School of Quietude” poetry: “the Third Way has always struck me as predicated upon the existence of the other two.” This indicates that he still maintains a distinction between vanguardist and rear-guardist contemporary American poetry, one that I believe no longer applies.

Critic and poet Calvin Bedient, whom Joshua Corey has called “one of the most passionate advocates of a return to lyric modernism in contemporary poetry,” has briefly referred to this kind of poetry as “soft” avant-garde, as distinct from the hard (and didactic) kind still associated with (what remains of) Language writing. I have called some of their work, after Wittgenstein, “lyrical investigations” in the introduction to my new anthology Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, to which I will devote a later post. (You didn’t think I’d let an opportunity for self-promotion slip by, did you?)

Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don’t just discard the self as some kind of ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative, often breaking story down into its component parts. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle (poet Cynthia Cruz calls much of this work “the broken lyric”). They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical project of Language poetry, engaging the dialectic of what critic Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity and what, earlier, W.H. Auden called enchantment and disenchantment without settling on one side or the other.

In Stephen Burt's words, they are “trying to figure out how to incorporate both lyric and non- (if not anti-) lyric impulses, and trying…to put modernist fragmentation together with Romantic expectations about voice and form,” and without any preconceptions about what forms such a potential synthesis might take. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism, that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions of artistic "progress" or "advance," though they are fascinated with the processes of poetic construction. As poet Robert Archambeau has recently written, “The post-avant seems to have very little interest in making grand claims of any kind: not only does it eschew a sense of heroic poetic progress, but it eschews big political or spiritual claims.” Perhaps this is a reflection of the postmodern rejection or at least suspicion of grand narratives and transcendental signifiers.

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This cross-fertilization has been happening in American poetry for a long time, but there are many people on various “sides” who either don’t see it or vehemently oppose it, perhaps because it undermines their own carefully constructed identity formations (which many of them conceive of as having been forged under fire). Hardcore avant-gardistes, as well as hardcore defenders of a narrow and reified “tradition,” are at this point both ideologically and aesthetically backward: they’re still fighting the poetry cold wars. But as editor Christopher Beach writes in the introduction to Artifice and Indeterminacy, his “anthology of new poetics,” “any such unqualified agenda of poetic and institutional identification [as Donald M. Allen proclaimed when he pronounced that all the poets included in The New American Poetry shared ‘a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse’] would seem inappropriate and somewhat naïve; we have seen the blurring of such clear distinctions as those between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ schools of poetry, between institutional structures and avant-garde communities, between insiders and outsiders” (vii).

The avant-garde isn’t the advance guard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. The armies have been disbanded, though many of the officers have yet to inform themselves of the fact. There are, of course, many people who haven’t yet passed through the avant-garde and never will. (It would be nice if some of those people would at least read Eliot. But then, it would be nice if some of those people would read Keats.) But once you have passed through that avant-garde door, there is no forward march, no destination or telos, just an open field. In the somewhat exaggerated words of philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, “there are to be no next things. The time for next things is past. [RS: nice paradox.] It [is] like coming to the end of the world with no more continents to discover. One must now begin to make habitable the only continents that there are” (The State of the Art 217). Visual artist turned poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who might or might not accept a characterization as a “post-avant” poet, writes in his post "The End of History" on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog that “Language Poetry put the period on the end of the modernist sentence. If you're playing an innovative game, after Language Poetry, there’s no more deconstructive work to do. That project has finished. The next step then becomes a reconstructive project that sees language as a whole again--moving information--but, like certain strains of postmodernism, acknowledges the cracks in the newly reformed linguistic vessel.”

Only because of the backwardness of literature in comparison to music and visual art can self-appointed avant-gardistes still feel themselves in the forefront of artistic morality. In other areas of artistic endeavor, the idea of vanguard art, art in step with the progress of history, and the conviction that some artistic practices are more correct, even more virtuous, has been rather thoroughly abandoned. Goldsmith wryly notes that “I often use [William S. Burroughs collaborator] Brion Gysin’s quote from 1959 that poetry is 50 years behind painting.” As philosopher and literary theorist Daniel Barbiero writes of “the willingness of contemporary poets to use a spectrum of devices without undue prejudice” (87) in Telling It Slant, an anthology of “avant-garde poetics of the 1990s”: “To anyone who has followed the visual arts during the past two decades or so, or academic music in the decade prior to that, the notion of an avant-garde [RS: however or even whether one would define such a thing at this historical juncture] without agonism will not seem very strange” (ibid.). Arthur C. Danto (as I have indicated above), in such books as After the End of Art, Beyond the Brillo Box, and The State of the Art, and music critic Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, both make this point about, respectively, visual art and music. Ross’s book includes a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies” (341). This image of a spatial expanse rather than a road leading to a definite future destination, even if one not known in advance, echoes Danto’s geographical metaphor in my preceding paragraph.

Obviously, experimentation and innovation will and should continue, in the sense of trying something out to see what happens, of engaging in poetic endeavors without knowing or attempting to predetermine the outcome. Poetry is always at least in part a foray into the unknown, a project of finding out what happens in the process of participating in its happening. But the sense of a forward march, of a correct path to the future and a virtuous method by which to reach to that future, is gone, or at least no longer valid. To what destination are the arts, is poetry, marching at this very late date?

My partner Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist who maintains a brilliant and wide-ranging blog, tells me that the same phenomenon is occurring in the social sciences where, for example, the dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative research are breaking down.

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As Joshua Clover writes in “Poem, “We lie down in categories/And wake up in concepts” (The Totality for Kids 6) So it’s important to remember that the poets I have described are very diverse and individually distinctive. That’s what makes their work interesting and worth discussing. But their work broadly and variously shares common characteristics that make it a significant area of contemporary poetic activity. There are doubtless many “post-avant” poets who would not recognize themselves in this description. Some would even vehemently reject my description (practitioners of flarf might do so), and some wouldn’t consider themselves “post-avant” at all. Paul Hoover points out that slam, spoken word, and performance poetry constitutes an almost entirely separate world from that of print poetry, aesthetically, conceptually, and materially, with its own networks and institutions. Given that particularity, I don’t attempt to discuss it here.

Some established poets whose work maps out or creates this third space are Michael Anania, Paul Auster (though I don’t know if he still writes poetry), Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Killarney Clary, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Forché, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, C.S. Giscombe, Peter Gizzi, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Ann Lauterbach, Timothy Liu, Jane Miller, Michael Palmer, Suzanne Paola, John Peck, Dennis Phillips, Bin Ramke, Stephen Ratcliffe, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright. Many of these writers are included in Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, edited by moi and just out from Counterpath Press, with generous blurbs from Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff.

Some “emerging” or less-established poets who work in this space are Christopher Arigo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jasper Bernes, Laynie Browne, Brigitte Byrd, Julie Carr, Jeff Clark, Joshua Clover, Joshua Corey, Cynthia Cruz, Jocelyn Emerson, Amy England, Lisa Fishman, Graham Foust, John Gallaher, Michele Glazer, Noah Eli Gordon, Matthea Harvey, Brian Henry, Joan Houlihan, Christine Hume, Catherine Imbriglio, Julie Kalendek, Joanna Klink, Joshua Kryah, Joseph Lease, Malinda Markham, Mark McMorris, Rusty Morrison, Jenny Mueller, Laura Mullen, Amy Newman, Geoffrey Nutter, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Tracy Philpot, D.A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, Rebecca Reynolds, Brenda Shaughnessy, ‘Annah Sobelman, Brian Teare, Karen Volkman, G.C. Waldrep, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Tyrone Williams, Sam Witt, Andrew Zawacki, and Rachel Zucker. Many of these writers are included in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of all the poets whose work I enjoy who write “that kind of poetry” (as Joan Houlihan writes that editors refer to it), but just the starting point for a discussion of a phenomenon much mentioned but rarely defined or described, one that Joshua Corey proposes as “the new American mainstream, retaining whatever oppositional force it still possesses only through institutional memory—though it still stands strongly enough as a bulwark against the laziness and anti-intellectualism of the genuine mainstream of American cultural life.”

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The stormy reception the original version of this piece received at the Poetry Foundation web site indicates that there are many people who believe (or act as if they believe) that we still live in the stultified and stultifying poetic culture of the Nineteen Fifties (in which there was still more going on than people choose to remember or credit), and cultivate a sense of themselves as rebels against a monolithic literary orthodoxy that no longer exists, if it ever really did. As intellectual historian Peter Gay points out in his book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, if the bourgeois audience had really been as monolithically or rigidly philistine as they were and have since been portrayed as being, then modernism would never have become successful, let alone institutionalized.

Many maintain this sense of themselves as marginalized outsiders, if not downright victims, no matter how comfortably ensconced they are within what Louis Althusser (a highly problematic thinker who nonetheless produced some useful ideas) called the ideological state apparatus of higher education, or just within the literary world in general. (It also needs reminding that, closely entwined as they are in the current American situation, academia and the literary world are not identical.) As the wonderful poet Michael Anania once said to me, if you continue to cultivate a sense of grievance and victimization once you become successful (or if you were never an outsider to begin with, as is the case with many people who identify themselves as transgressors and subversives), then you just become a jerk. (He used a stronger word, but I’m trying to be polite.)

I close with a quote from poet Brenda Hillman’s essay “On Song, Lyric, and Strings,” about the nature, place, and role of the lyric in today’s “post”-everything world, from which I also quote in my introduction to Lyric Postmodernisms):

“Current aesthetic quarrels and conversations between poets are real enough, and the aesthetically abstract or non-referential lyric poetry may have a different readership from poetry that announces its purposes in more narrative styles, but these issues should concern poets far less than keeping poetry alive in a culture of appalling greed, a culture that doesn't read much of anything, a culture that does business as usual in a time of Enron and retributionist wars.”

Would that more people could keep these wise words in mind.


Works Cited

Beach, Christopher, ed. Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Burt, Stephen. “The Elliptical Poets.” Reprinted in Jerry Harp and Jan Weismiller, eds., A Poetry Criticism Reader. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.

Danto, Arthur C. The State of the Art. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.

Hoover, Paul. Fables of Representation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

Wallace, Mark, and Steven Marks, eds. Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two Posts on Creativity, Quality, and Taste

Cultural anthropologist (and my much-loved partner) Robert Philen has two recent posts on his always fascinating blog that I think will be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The first, "A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality)," he points out that while "In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential," at the same time, though "There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of art...art and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities"--qualities that can be analyzed, evaluated, and judged.

In other words, the democratization of creativity is not equivalent to a democratization or leveling of judgments of artistic quality: as Robert writes, "the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other." The aesthetic world is not flat.

Robert's second and more recent post of interest is called "In the Long Run Our Culture Has Good Taste," in which he points out that "People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past." We are very aware of the ephemeral dreck (my phrase, not his) of our own time, but that of the past has fallen away, and all that remains or tends to be remembered are the high points--Frank Sinatra's soulful ballads, not his duet with a talking dog.

As he points out, and this is a way in which the two posts are directly related, "Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts."

I encourage everyone to read these stimulating and insightful pieces.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Five

I am now posting the last of the presentations from my AWP panel on gay male poetry post politics. Like Aaron Smith, Brian Teare questions the idea and the desirability of being "post" identity politics, though he frames his critique in terms of the possibilities gay liberation held out of a new kind of community. He also writes of the problematic, if not vexed, relationship of the words "gay" and "poetry," largely through an exploration of the friendship between Robert Duncan and Thom Gunn, two poets often seen as opposites on the poetic spectrum, and of Thom Gunn's struggle to reconcile being a poet and being a gay poet, or at least being a poet who is gay. For Gunn, being gay and being a poet had the same source, and yet vexed each other in proximity, but finally he found a way to reconcile them. I think readers will find Brian's thoughts very stimulating and even moving.

And now, here's Brian Teare.


“I can disown no link of this chain from my conscience”: Thom Gunn, Robert Duncan & the Inheritance of Gay Poetry

Can the epithet “gay male poet” signify in a “post-identity” discourse? If we were to accept the suggestion that ours is an art born during an era post-identity politics, should we also no longer be “gay poets,” but rather poets, unqualified by any marker of our participation in a specific sociopolitical realm? If we were to accept it, would we count that as achievement? Or would it be a loss? Would it signal the assimilation our Gay Liberation forbears deeply did not want? I mean: would accepting “post-identity” status imply an end to gay politics as it has lived in and informed contemporary poetry and poetics?

All in all, the title of our panel suggests a chain of contradictions; given the useful conversation they generate, I’d like to suggest we embrace these contradictions fully. After all, the Gay Lib and activist models from which identity politics emerged could almost be said to be contradicted by the institutional structure of the academy: roughly speaking, the former aims to unite a community by active participation in a common discourse aimed at widespread change, while the latter aims to individuate a community by initiation into a common discourse aimed at changing each student. As a product of both activist and academic pedagogies, I’m as loath to abandon one for the other as I am to privilege one over the other.

Indeed, to embrace this contradiction means: I don’t think identity politics is or should be a theoretical project we have finished with. At the same time, of course it should be critiqued. Of course we could and should do better. Of course our vision of justice is inadequate to the growing economic and legal inequities of our increasingly globalized times. Of course we need to rethink the shape and contours of our relationships with each other, both in and outside our communities, in and outside of our nations. And thus it goes without saying that I think the gay community at large has given up far too early on the wide-reaching implications of a community-minded politics.

I’m particularly fired up about this topic because I’ve spent the past eight months researching and writing an essay about Thom Gunn and his development as a gay poet, and a large part of the essay is taken up by his relationship to Robert Duncan, who was a crucial mentor in his development as a gay man and as a poet. About this relationship— which might seem unlikely to some whose notions of literary lineage and aesthetic camps is conservative—I have a little story.

In later life Gunn relished recounting what happened when Elizabeth Bishop lived in San Francisco for a year—1969—and during that time met Robert Duncan: “They got on terrifically well,” he tells Christopher Hennessy, “They would talk and gossip together and laugh” (Outside the Lines 18). Obviously delighted each time he relates the story of what is supposed to seem like an unlikely friendship—“the poetics behind their two projects were fundamentally opposed in a way that their personalities were not”—Gunn spins it wittily, subsequent accounts differing only in the ratio of summary to scene and specificity of detail (Shelf Life 129). In one version Bishop baked Duncan a wicked batch of pot cookies “because he didn’t know how to inhale” and “both afterwards described with glee” how, as a consequence of her recipe, he’d been “reduced…to a mass of giggles on the carpet” (ibid.). In others, Gunn “asked each of them separately what they thought of the other’s poetry, and each of them said the same thing: ‘Oh I can’t read it. It means nothing to me at all’” (Hennessy 18). However, each version is in fact pretense, a disguise for a pointedly didactic parable concerning “literary reputation” and tradition, and the moral Gunn draws from it never varies: “You do not have to choose between Bishop and Duncan any more than you have to choose between William Blake and Samuel Johnson” (Shelf Life 130).

It follows from Gunn’s example that we do not have to choose between gay identity and poetry any more than we have to choose between Mark Doty and John Ashbery, Essex Hemphill and Carl Phillips. However, doing this research taught me a surprising fact about myself: though I had, for all intensive purposes, figured out gay identity in relationship to my own life and writing, when it came time to write about gay poetry, a strange thing happened: I wrote one third of the essay, and then found myself blocked. The words “gay” and “poetry,” when put next to one another, simply canceled each other out. This is the paragraph that blocked me:

“How and why does conflict arise when ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ are made to stand together in twentieth and twenty-first century literary critical discourse? Even now, the presence of ‘gay’ and ‘poetry’ together suggests a paradox: for at its most descriptive, ‘gay’ is neither apolitical, ahistorical nor morally neutral, even as, at its most politicized, ‘poetry’ can never not refer to specific traditions whose tropes and values are paradoxically alleged to transcend historical time. Even if they are bound as much to upholding cultural norms and values as they are to underwriting large historical shifts and flux, even if these terms often come to represent ideological stress points within literary critical discourse, their presence together still has the power to unsettle what assumptions we hold both about what it means to write and read poetry and what constitutes gay identity. In fact, what’s most interesting about the proximity of ‘gay’ to ‘poetry’ is how each must shift definition to accommodate the other.”

To unblock myself, I went to the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley in order to read Gunn’s notebooks. I was hoping for a little posthumous mentoring, and strangely, I received exactly what I’d hoped for: I found that Gunn had once asked himself the very same questions I was asking, and though his conclusions naturally differed from my own, I learned from his example. Here’s the draft of an essay he wrote on May 4th in 1980:

"Very few poets have ever set out to be Gay Poets. The dedication of poets is a large one, perhaps one of the most enormous—as our subject matter we aim at nothing less than everything and the idea of our initial dedication settling for anything less…

"Why settle for part of the world when you can lay claim to the whole of it? When I started writing poetry I wanted to be Shakespeare, and from my reading of the lives of poets I don’t think the ambition is an uncommon one./Of course, I rationally knew it was unlikely I could be Shakespeare, but I wanted the best, and to have accepted a smaller ambition would have been to want less than the best. By now I know that I will never be Shakespeare, but I also know that I can be more than one kind of poet. A career, if it is to be a happy one, can be a series of breakthroughs into fresh territories, and to limit oneself permanently to one style or subject matter for more than one duration of an individual project would be stupid. I am fully aware of the usefulness of literary classification.

"To miss the gay elements in say Marlowe’s or Whitman’s work has resulted in not only unbalanced views of them but in [illegible word] misreadings. but to treat them exclusively as Gay Poets is also unbalanced…"

Remember that this is just a draft—and though he took the essay through several drafts, he never finished it. And though I can’t in all honesty disagree with his basic premise, I do disagree with him when, in another draft he claims, “To be a poet is more important than to be a gay poet.” Given the fact that I don’t want to choose between these identities, I can’t help but bristle at his willingness to judge. However, he does continue to think about this subject, and in another, undated journal entry from his Sept 28, 1981-Oct, 1983 notebook, points to an essential contradiction within his own experience, one that in fact mirrored the one that had brought my own essay to a halt:

"Why is my impulse to write poetry so closely connected—
so much a part of—my sexual impulse? When I feel one, I
feel something very similar to the other. I don’t like this too
much—I mean I like it somewhat, but I feel it necessary
sometimes to steer my energy into nonsexual subjects almost
by an act of will, since I don’t believe all the important parts
of life are sexual. And when I succeed in doing so, I’m quite
often successful. Yet it does, even then, derive from an energy
that is sexual energy—it’s quite the same kind of concentrated
excitement that lights up everything in a limited area (as a flash-
light lights up everything in the circle it makes).

I wonder where this comes from…I wonder how many
other poets this happens to…It’s my limitation."

I am moved by the juxtaposition of these two journal entries, carrying within them as they do one of the same contradictions we’re addressing in this panel. Gunn, at this point in his life, was still very much wrestling with yoking gay and poetry together, though he’d already published Jack Straw’s Castle and given an interview to The Advocate and marched in Gay Pride Parades and taken a whole lot of acid. And again, I’d say that his academic training at Stanford with Yvor Winters and at Cambridge with F.R. Leavis left him completely unprepared to integrate into his poetry what he learned from Gay Liberation.

*

Enter Robert Duncan, who became most important for Gunn in the late ‘60s. He credited Duncan with helping him expand his sense of what could be accomplished in poetry; he credited Duncan with practically inventing a way of writing about modern homosexuality, publishing as he did the ground-breaking essay “The Homosexual in Society” in 1944 in the journal Politics and risking a great deal in the process. His mentoring, both as a poet and a gay man, helped Gunn to open up his neoclassical forms so that they could include direct street experience, sexual aspects of the movement itself—Gunn himself later said so. Though it should be noted that this passage from “Homosexuality in Robert Duncan’s Poetry”—an essay written in the late ‘70s—does still include a kind of assimilationist thinking that Gunn would after the AIDS epidemic drop from his rhetoric, it gives us a good idea of how useful Duncan’s example was for Gunn:

"Duncan started with little modern American precedent for
speaking openly about homosexuality. There is now a way
of speaking about it, and we may thank Duncan’s continued
example more than any other that it is not a specialized speech,
it is not separated from the heterosexual’s tradition. It is due
more to Duncan than to any other single poet that modern
American poetry, in all its inclusiveness, can deal with overtly
homosexual material so much as a matter of course—not as
something perverse or eccentric or morbid, but as evidence
of the many available ways in which people love or fail to love."

(The Occasions of Poetry 134)

For Gunn and Duncan—born in 1929 and 1919 respectively—did find Gay Lib a shock. As Duncan reports in an interview:

At the beginning of the gay liberation readings, Thom Gunn
and I were sitting there, and the new writers were reading
poems that were hair-raising; and Thom said, “I feel so old-
fashioned and embarrassed, I don’t mention anything but
love.” (Bernstein 108-9)

Indeed, throughout the ‘70s they both clung to a more universal notion of poetry; and though Gunn would later revise his thinking, this definition of poetry came for Duncan at the expense of a more expansive sense of community. Nonetheless, this fact is useful; it illuminates the very contradiction of our panel, and helps us answer the questions with which I opened this talk. As Bruce Boone writes in an essay called “Robert Duncan & Gay Community: A Reflection”:

"Is it possible, one wonders, without rolling back advances for gays in the form of rights, social cohesiveness and a greater, earned sense of self-esteem—to push out the boundaries of our identification so they can apply less narrowly, more generally? ...the corollary for gays: how to go beyond separatism without negating its advances?" (81)

I’d suggest that this is the inheritance left the twenty-first century gay poet by the gay poets of the twentieth. It suggests not the impasse I came to in my thinking, but rather a wider range of possible relationships to history. It implies that though poets like Gunn and Duncan were bound up in the historical categories that defined the times and communities in which they lived, they were not necessarily bound by them. Interested in literary and sexual communities and ways to construct and sustain them, yet often tangential to prevailing political and/or literary ideologies, they chose to move differently through history.

But I’d like to end this talk at another point in Gunn’s journey. It is 1989. He has just finished writing The Man with Night Sweats. He has survived the opening decade of AIDS, though most of his friends did not. Duncan has died of kidney failure. In short: his community has disappeared around him. And yet what rises out of this experience for Gunn is an altered sense of the value of community and a no-longer ambivalent commitment to gay poetics. Here’s a notebook entry from the summer of that year:

"july 2

The next book to be about my idea of aliveness—not of getting on with life, mostly, but of the intensity of lives in past and in present. The gay revolution—its essential subversiveness & emphasis on the individual—to be clarified, if I can, by instance and anecdote, all the more in that so many of those who have been a part of it are dead and will die soon. If we are a dwindling minority, all the more reason to state its values, to emphasize the libertarian aspects, the euphoria, and the way we have tried to “make it up as we go along”…

"The tragedy of loss—which has been inevitable anyway, though who would have dreamed so dramatically—is so great because of the essential optimism of the enterprise…The possibility—what is sketched out at the end of the sixties and embodied in the seventies is still alive, and it is up to me to record it, as well as I can. I would like to be able to address such subjects as: the Parades, the same-sex union as a (unsolemnized) marriage, bathhouses, the Castro, gay political power, etc. I am not good at dealing with such straightforward didacticism, and will probably have to do what I can indirectly as heretofore, but I’d like to…"

What hits me hardest about this entry is that, while it clearly articulates the aesthetic values that Duncan stood for—subversion, improvisation—there is room both for what Gunn’s relationship to Duncan evoked—subversion as a furthering of tradition—and his own extension of the form of that relationship toward others, the sense of gay community and sexuality being “Our Dionysian experiment,” as he calls it elsewhere. This is the mature thinking that prepares Gunn to write the deep gossip of Boss Cupid, and it serves as a grand summation of his evolution. It’s also the thinking that so beautifully and simply resolves many of the conflicts in suspension for Gunn since 1980, when he attempted to write his essay addressing the contradiction of being a gay poet: “To be a poet is more important than to be a gay poet.” It’s not that in 1989 he might not still in some small sense agree with that statement, but that the paradox, the tension between “gay” and “poet” simply disappears by virtue of his lived experience. After his fruitful, reciprocal decades-long relationship with Duncan and the communal devastation of AIDS, his experience renders the question academic, suggesting that perhaps some conflicts in value might only get resolved off the page, and that Gunn in the end accepted that, when struck full force by the passage of time, when mired in its radically relational context, the thing to do is give—and give way to others.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Michael André and Burton Hatlen. “Interview with Robert Duncan.” Sagetrieb. 4.2 & 3 (Fall/Winter 1985): 87-135.

Boone, Bruce. “Robert Duncan and Gay Community: A Reflection.” Ironwood. 11.2 (Fall 1983): 66-82.

Gunn, Thom. The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.

__________. Poetry notebooks. BANC MSS 87/1. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

__________. Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs and an Interview. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Hennessy, Christopher. Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Four

I am now posting the fourth presentation (including my introductory remarks) from my panel at the most recent AWP conference.

Aaron Smith began his lively presentation by sharing photos of Daniel Craig (slamming body, fugly face, in my unhumble opinion) emerging from the sea like Venus (Venus as a boy, as Björk sang) wearing only a Speedo, one lovingly enhanced with a giant hand-drawn cock and balls. He then read a poem by pioneering gay poet Joe Brainard called, appropriately enough, "Sex," which I also reproduce here. The lovely and talented poet Randall Mann had promised to take his clothes off, but remained disappointingly clothed, though he did ask a provocative question about why so many contemporary gay male poets avoid writing about sex (Timothy Liu and Brian Teare are exceptions, as is Aaron himself), a question I've asked myself about my own work, which is full of desire but not much actual sex. I replied that for a lot of socially and financially comfortable gay men, they are born insiders and then this thing happens to them that pushes them from the center to the margins, and they then spend a great deal of energy trying to get back home to the center by asserting how safe and normal and respectable they are, with their good taste and their well-groomed dogs, and how they just want to be like everybody else (which most of them are, except for the alcoholism and the crystal meth addictions) (sorry, bitchy comment). I remember someone at a meeting of the mostly undergraduate gay student group during my brief sojourn as a PhD student at Harvard saying that gays weren’t any more artistic and sensitive than anyone else. I responded, “Yes, and that’s the problem.”

Gays may have inalienable rights which they insist on. (“What do we want? Gay rights. When do we want them? Now.” Good luck with that.) But one thing they apparently don’t have anymore (unless they're Republican legislators) is sex, since that, buttfucking, blowjobs, rimjobs, and even handjobs, is what disgusts straights to have to think about, though, perversely, they seem to enjoy disgusting themselves by imaging variations of gay sex novel to most gay men I’ve ever met. (In the heterosexual imaginary, lesbians don’t have sex, except perhaps as a prelude to getting all hot for a man to come along and give them what they really want and need.)

I’d like to marry my partner (if only to have access to his health insurance, which I sure need, what with my HIV and my chemotherapy, and my slew of other medical problems). I’d like to have a kid (kids in the plural would be too much to handle). I’d even like a dog, though we’d have to fix the back fences first. But I am definitely not like everybody else, nor do I wish to be. As Alan Parsons Project sang, “I wouldn’t want to be like you.” I’m not even like all the other boys. Aaron Smith’s presentation delightfully affirms that sense.

And here is Aaron's presentation.


Sex

By Joe Brainard (1969)

I like sex best when it’s fast and fun. Or slow and beautiful. Beautiful, of course can be fun too. And fun, beautiful. I like warm necks. And the smalls of backs. I’m not sure if that’s the right word: small. What I mean is the part of the back that goes in the most. Just before your bottom comes out. I like navels. I like under-arms. I don’t care for feet especially, or legs. I like faces. Eyes and lips and ears. I think that what I like most about sex is just touching. Skin is so alive. I like cold clean sheets. I like breasts and nipples. What I’m a sucker for most is a round full bottom. I really don’t like that word bottom. I think underwear is sexy. I like hair on heads, but hair on the body I can take it or leave it. Skinny builds don’t turn me on as much as normal builds. Probably because I’m skinny myself. I have a weak spot for blonds. I like to fuck sometimes but I don’t like to be fucked. What I really like is just a good plain blow-job. It’s rhythm that makes me come the best. I don’t think that, in bed, I take a masculine role or a feminine role. I guess I must be somewhere in between, or both. Sex-wise I’m not very adventurous. I am sure that there are a lot of things I like that I don’t know I like yet. I hope so. So—now you have some idea of what I like in bed.

***

Recently at a gay publishing party a friend told me that he wants his new book to be about something other than cock because that’s all that gay men write about. While everyone around him nodded in agreement, I was thinking: Can you please tell me which poets are currently writing about cock, because those are the poets I want to read? I couldn’t help but sense an undercurrent of conservativism in his statement. As if gay sex has no place in the pristine rooms of contemporary poetry, a sense that we have already done that. I wonder—this early in the 21st century—is there really nothing else we can say about the gay erotic? Can it really be as simple as: If you want to know about gay sexuality, see Ginsberg. If you’re a voracious bottom, see Sharon Olds.

I don’t think that all poetry written by gay men should be about sex. There are some gay men who don’t have sex (none of them are at AWP), but it does raise a red flag when the very thing that is an integral part of my experience as a gay man is the very thing I’m being told not to write about. I’m also suspect of the thinking that somebody else has already said everything that needs to be said on my behalf, as if there’s a collective “we” that gets the final word. I recently found the new anthology: The Best American Erotic Poems, and among the contributors was Billy Collins. Billy Collins is heterosexual, yes, but when Billy Collins starts making the cut as one of the leading voices concerning the erotic in America, I worry that it’s going to be a very long, dull century in verse. I want to clarify that when I talk about sex poems, I’m not only speaking of pro-sex sex poems. But I am also speaking of poems of sexual dissatisfaction, poems that are as complex and as distinct as the sex lives of gay men. Where are the poems about sexual incompatibility? Poems about sexual boredom? Poems about open sexual relationships because one or both persons isn’t satisfied?

If there are defining characteristics of a gay tradition, I would like to suggest that some of those qualities are playfulness, candor, a wild devotion to the inappropriate. My friend Matt always says that you just can’t shock a group of gay men. Even here, at AWP, I see how the gay men at this conference talk to each other, the language we use, the fun we have. I think that’s what needs to be in our poems. We gossip. We drink. We fuck. We quote movies and talk about so-and-so’s arms. We discuss Heath Ledger, and then joke about how all those silly queens must have clutched their pearls when they heard the news of his death. In the gay community, it’s never too soon to be inappropriate. I’m sure somebody already has a new Brokeback Mountain joke they’re just dying to tell. I don’t think our openness, or our humor, or the nuts-and-bolts of our sex lives are clichés that we need to move away from in our poetry. I think these qualities, like it or not, are part of our tradition. Let the general poetry community turn their backs on what they will, but don’t let trends divorce us from a rich and important tradition. I caution poets against listening to the voices that say we’ve heard enough about sex (or about discrimination or about coming out or about AIDS). And furthermore, if we get to choose subjects that we’re tired of, then I would like to suggest that the witty, straight-white-man poem be the first to go.

In many ways we are fortunate to be gay writers in a discipline that for the most part accepts us. Gay men are widely published, widely read, and generally as respected as our straight colleagues. But how much of this is real acceptance? Or is it merely objectification, or a rarified part of the culture buying books, or tokenism. Can the gay man who chooses to write about cock still get published, find an audience, get invitations to read, get taught in classes? When I think of gay identity becoming palatable to the point that we don’t have to worry about being gay on the page, I have to admit I panic a bit. In a country where gay men really still have so few rights, can our lives already be that passé or predictable in the literature? It’s not that I want us to be discriminated against, but there’s a power in writing the poems that the majority of poets can’t write. I’ll completely own this as my personal aesthetic, but I am drawn to poetry that makes me squirm, poetry that exists in difficult spaces. I’m drawn to poetry that provokes reaction. I think of Lucille Clifton, who says, You can’t play for safety and make art. So when I think that we don’t have to worry about gayness on the page, I see it as an opportunity to throw our legs up in the air and scream a little louder. And then write poems about it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

For all who are interested, my piece "All Kinds of Favors Fall From It: Some Thoughts on Becoming a Blogger," has recently appeared on the National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass blog. The piece, which traces my accidental and somewhat circuitous path into blogging, and some of my experiences being in but not of the poetry blogosphere, can be found here.

No, I'm not ashamed to blow my own horn. If not me, who? If not now, when? The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And other such platitudes.

I will now try to get some sleep. More will follow on my AWP panel on Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics. But not right now.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Three

As promised, I am continuing to post presentations from my AWP panel of the same title, in neutrally alphabetical order. Christopher Hennessy's piece presented a dialogue if not a polyphony of gay male poetic voices all addressing the question of what gay poety is and what it can or should do. Brad Richard's presentation questions the question itself, wondering whether there is such a thing as gay poetry and whether and why being gay and writing poems (including writing poems about guys) constitutes being a "gay poet," writing "gay poetry." As he wrote me before the panel, "I think the main thing I've learned from this is how little identity politics, from a gay perspective, has really meant to me, even when I've written 'gay' poems. I'm interested in painting, war, and guys--but I couldn't just say that." So I will say it for him, via ventriloquism.

Brad's presentation ends with a beautiful poem on a painting by Thomas Eakins, which he discusses in his piece. However, the poem is a full-page composition, and I have no idea how to reproduce its formatting in Blogger. It is integral to his piece and so I must reproduce it, but please note that the original is written in stepped-down triplets loosely corresponding to William Carlos Williams' triadic foot as used in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," among many other later poems.

And now, my good friend Brad Richard.


“The Burden of Connectedness”: A Few Remarks on Identity, Poetry and Possibility

In an interview, the artist Paul Chan has talked about what he calls our shared “burden of connectedness,” a phrase I find interesting, although, as I think you’ll see, I want to pursue some connotations he may not necessarily have had in mind, connotations relating to identity and poetry. Chan has in mind our cultural and political connectedness in a world in which much of our experience occurs through mass media. For him, this entails a responsibility to all things, past and present, to which the media connect us. He calls this a terrible burden, because we have to find ways to yield to this connectedness without becoming desensitized by it; furthermore, he believes that we inevitably end up trying to protect ourselves from the burden, in our attempts to escape from it, whether through analysis or fantasy. But if I understand him correctly, art is one way of dealing with the burden, of being sensitive to it in a way that creates “a space for the kind of not-knowingness that holds the promise of something to come.”

For our purposes, I’m interested in considering identity as both difference and connection, or as connection through difference. Part of the burden of identity, then, is that it allows me to experience connections and similarities while also making me aware of difference. And if I choose to take identity into consideration when making or experiencing art, then it would seem to be both part of the burden and a way of being sensitive to the burden, of sharing and bearing it. But what of the differences to which I also know I am connected? Aren’t they also part of the burden I’m taking up in writing or reading a poem? In that case, identity may have to yield to that vital not-knowingness Chan speaks of, to the extent of not taking itself for granted, of questioning itself and allowing itself to be questioned in the context of connections, of something to come, of possibility. And in that case, identity may always be post, always after, always subsequent to—and also, because of our connectedness, always antecedent to that which it has not yet become. To make a rather obvious connection, “Je est un autre,” and that other, to me at least, is possibility.

At this point, I should confess that I have never felt bound to or, if you’ll pardon me, felt I identified with identity politics or poetics. I’m very aware of the ways in which being gay has shaped my perceptions, interests, and politics, but, particularly as a poet, I’ve always been more interested in what is possible than in what is—even if what is possible is that which is also past. This brings me back to the word post, which, of all the words in the title of this panel, is the one with which I most strongly identify, as it denotes both an historical acknowledgment and a sense of possibility, factors that I find playing ever larger roles in my own work. For example: a few years ago, I became obsessed with a painting from 1885 by Thomas Eakins, called Swimming. At first, I was obsessed with it because I couldn’t decide what it meant, or if I even liked it. In it, six nude men and a dog are swimming or sunning themselves near a rock ledge, somewhere in an idyllic America. Surely I felt connected to the subject—but what exactly was the subject? And what connections was I bringing to it? The more I looked, the more I felt a burden of connectedness that was also alienating me, making me different from what I saw. As I spent more time with it, and researched it and began writing about it, I realized, in part, that I had been trying to make the painting mean something in terms of myself, of my own experience and identity. Eventually, as I learned and imagined more about the painting and the men in it, I yielded to the burdens I discovered—burdens of war, democracy, desire, art, poetry, and history. Here, then, is the middle section, “Is it democratic?” from “Three Essays on Swimming.”


2. Is it democratic?


Listen: you won’t hear hammers slung on steel,
or calls of stevedores at the docks;
no bickering in market stalls,

the ragman’s plaint, the newsboy’s cry,
trolley’s bell, cop’s whistle, screams
of a child crushed by carriage wheels.

And no gunsmoke, no drumtaps:
it’s twenty years since the war.
Here, the air is fresh, and no noise

distracts these men, these citizens,
from bathing in freedom
imagined at an abandoned mill.

Even the diver—George Reynolds,
9th New York Cavalry Regiment,
Congressional Medal of Honor

for taking Virginia’s flag at Opequon—
dives unheard, silence the anthem
uniting these isolatos.


• • •


June 18, 1885: two hundred fourteen crates
arrive at Bedloe Island in New York,
Liberty as yet unassembled.

Erect, she will be robed and crowned,
bearing her torch and message;
millions will crawl inside her

as she stares across the Atlantic.
Now watch as Jesse Godley turns
his bright body away, face in shadow

as he calls our gaze to the picture plane
and no farther, staring where the diver’s
body shatters shade and reflection.

Or will, soon enough: composed,
so long as we look, their bodies’
arc holds them in place, in a place

not paradise, not even home,
barely natural, their freedom
imagined in a place abandoned.


• • •


Man-made, the foundation of layered rocks,
the stream widened by a dam,
the pigments ground and blended,

the idea that they were naked
for us to look at them now,
if we like, if we let ourselves

believe we really see them
as they meant to be seen.
Or as we mean to see them,

wanting to watch Laurie’s hand
touch Jesse’s thigh, feel Ben
reach up to Laurie, as if touch

would connect us, would signify
noble kratos and loving demos,
akin to daiomai, “I divide.”

—Or: it’s an act, every work of art
an act that excludes, but holds us
watching, with them all summer.


• • •


“very democratic, but all decent behaving” :
Whitman, watching “squads of boys”
bathing by the Harlem River,

“glittering drops sparkling,” “the dark
green shadow of the hills,” boys laughing
and diving, their “movements, postures,

ahead of any sculpture.” Whitman watching,
Whitman listening, democratizing,
sits alone “under an old cedar

half way up the hill,” believes his boys,
“[a] peculiar and pretty carnival,”
rehearse for him an art unknown,

figured in their live, loud bodies.
Chaste motifs of an August day,
echoes of the poet’s artifice

assembled, whose bodies hold
their silence together.
Listen:

Friday, February 8, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Two

As I wrote in my earlier post, I will be posting the presentations that my panelists gave at the recent AWP conferenc. The presentations and the discussion after the panel made me question some of my positions about identity politics and poetry, so besides the general opportunity to hear some very smart and talented gay male poets discuss their reviews on the issue, it really stimulated and challenged my own thought, which I found invigorating.

Obeying the law of the alphabet, I will begin with Christopher Hennessy's untitled piece, which started off the conversation on a high note. Once again, I encourage people to check out his blog, ]Outside the Lines[ , which approaches the question of the relationship of identity and creativity from many directions, and never with a sense that the answers are already known.

And now, here are Christopher's remarks:


Gay poet D.A. Powell has pointed out that queer poets are “doubly displaced,” both gay and poet identifiers fixed outside the mainstream. It’s a location poets like Powell fully inhabit and one I’d like to consider today. Powell said, “In the America of the 21st century, the poet is a displaced person. The queer poet, doubly displaced. (Thanks America, for nothing.) If there can be a useful consequence of living as a second-class citizen within this growing empire, it is that the range of possible subjects and forms expands also.”

Let’s think about what the word “dis-placed” means:

1. To move or shift from the usual place or position, especially to force to leave a homeland: millions of refugees who were displaced by the war.
2. To take the place of; supplant.
3. To discharge from an office or position.

Each of these definitions speaks to a loss of power of some kind, but, on the contrary, for gay poets to be ‘displaced’ gives us a perspective and experiences that can, if we hone our craft, strengthen our work. But how ‘displaced’ are we?

When I started to think about what I would say today, I found I kept coming back to the idea of normal as a location, what it means to be ‘normal…what it means to belong to the club, what it means to want to belong--and more importantly for gay artists, what it means to resist that, to proclaim difference rather than to mumble or even pretend normalcy. What do we create outside the borders of normal that we could not create, or would not create, if we were ‘like everyone else’? The key to these questions lie in what aspects of our identity specifically keep us displaced, keep us from being normal. even at a time when homosexuality is losing its stigma. (A hint – it’s the sex, of course. More on this later.) I think these questions are crucial to understanding where we go from here, as it were.

In order to have such a conversation, I’ve ‘brought together’ several of today prominent and promising gay poets to join me in a sort of conversation.

David Trinidad: I guess it's always felt like the things I shouldn't or couldn't say are the things that I must say. For instance, putting one's sexual identity on the line felt like a risky thing to do in the 1970's; it also felt like a necessary thing to do. I think it's still risky, especially since gay poetry has become (since the late 80's) more coded, more conservative, as if it's trying to pass (I think of gay men getting married, raising babies) as straight. I always feel (whether it's true or not) that there's something unacceptable about my poems — they're too gay, too campy, too middle class. And that unacceptability is a big part of what makes my work (I hope) distinct.

CH: I think it’s important David has noted the possibilities gay people now have, the relative safety we enjoy. Are gay poets trying to pass as straight? I’m not sure. We may no longer face persecution, but what about assimilation? I worry that being safe means the risk-taking, the boundary pushing, the edge-exploring will fade. Looking back, I’m thankful for the crucible of growing up gay because I think it’s really affected me, in positive ways, as a writer.

Frank Bidart: To grow up gay in America is to know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical to the fictions desperately asserted by institutions that imagine their authority proceeds from God or nature. To know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical, period. That's a good start for a writer.

Joan Larkin, co-editor of the anthology Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: We are not just-like-straights-except-for one-thing. We are different because--often from an early age--many of us experience and see the world differently. Not separately, but distinctly--both the inside story and the outside story. It's often the gay writer who's taking risks for the entire culture. We're really good at that. From early childhood, many of use are faced with situations...we are forced to deal with....One of the daring things we do is write poems. Finding some way to tell the truth is part of staying sane. that's why our poems are often risky. And disturbing.

CH: In the past, we’ve had to create new metaphors, coded our language, disguised our desire, turned to myth and history and art as subjects in our poems when we wanted to talk about our differences--all strategies that refreshed the tradition, I think. And it’s about more than that--it’s about putting us in a position to see the world differently.

Mark Doty: Queerness invites us, every minute of our lives, to question our assumptions about what a man or a woman is, a mother or a father, a citizen; what is desire and what are the institutions we build around it, what does it mean to be desired, or the one doing the desiring? The position of questioning can keep an artist alive. I hope to never lose a liberating degree of distance from conventionality.

Alfred Corn: A contestatory stance: this is a good vantage point for an artist. We can see what the mainstream takes for granted, and we may call those axioms into question. Where there is no conflict or contestation, art is banal. Conflict comes to gay people ready-made, and we have to make use of it, in order not to be overwhelmed by it.

CH: I agree. Of course, it’s not always easy, but I feel like if we have something unique to offer poetry, something that informs our individual voice, whether we want it to or not, we have a responsibility to the poems to utilize it, to understand it. (Understanding that ‘it’ is why I do my interviews!) But as society accepts us more and more, do we risk becoming ‘normal’? I would argue not yet and perhaps never. Because let’s be honest, a big part of what makes us different lies in sex, desire and our relationship to the body, since this is what most explicitly and most fundamentally makes us different. Sure, our love is no better or worse than heterosexual love, our sex and relationships no more or less messy, our right to love and lust no more valid. But because of a history of repression, oppression, and sublimation; because of seeing the body as a site of death and disease for decades after celebrating it as a place of transcendence; because physically we do things that are, shall we say, a creative use of our bodies, because of all of this, gay writers start in what turns out to be a frustrated place--a burning desire to speak about our love and eroticism but not knowing how to do so, and not being sure it’s even safe to do so.

Alfred Corn again: When I contemplate the nature of sex between men, I find a counterpart in the art that gay men produce--a special searing intensity, the DMZ between pleasure and pain, synonyms for which might be "ravishment" or "rapture." Also, the ability to play both sides of the tandem, to understand both entering and being entered. Art has its analogues to these physical / psychological states.

CH: I think part of our work can be to analyze those ‘analogues,’ to understand how our desires get translated in our texts. I like what Alfred says but of course that is only one way our lives, unique and varied as they are and always have been, offer the work. How else might our experience affect our writing?

Carl Morse, co-editor of the Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, talking about the anthology’s poems: Some of these experiences require recasting of the language--since no one has ever talked about them before--and these poets have done a lot of that. Gay and lesbian poetry refreshes the language. So much of this writing gets away from "polarity vocabularies."

CH: I’d like to think that our perspective on sex and desire gives us permission to expand the boundaries of poetry, to push what the lyric, for example, can accomplish. In the Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou anthology The World in Us, the editors argue that our most important contribution is “the liberation of the libido.”

J.D. McClatchy: Over the centuries, the homosexual temperament has seemed especially suited to engaging the themes of bafflement, secret joys, private perspectives, forbidden paradises, hypocritical conventions, and ecstatic occasions.”

CH: I think it’s important to note that McClatchy says “suited to engaging the themes,’ not just ‘suited to themes.’ So for me, that means our talents lie not only in what we write but how we ‘engage those themes’, that is, how we convey our experiences onto the page. Well-known British poet and author of seminal texts on the history of gay poetry Gregory Woods argues that modern gay poets “have reflected the peculiarity of their social status by adapting correspondingly peculiar linguistic strategies.” For example, in his A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition he explores how gay poets employ paradox. “Once one finds oneself to be para doxa, freed from the ‘logic’ of linguistic common sense and the ‘natural’ urges of the syntax we have been taught, all kinds of poetic dialects struggle to unfurl the tongue."

Our own Brian Teare: Though we often speak of experimentation exclusively in terms of what a poem does with syntax, the line, or the page, there are as many conventions about subject matte--and how we feel about certain subjects--to be tested. For instance, writing a good lyric poem about enjoying anal sex: that too is a resistance, a test of what poetry can do.

CH: I always think of Ginsberg in this respect. I read a review of his books once in which the critic said: “No other writer of his generation defended homosexual desire as a fit subject for poetry as effectively as Ginsberg” and doing so within “a vision of the world in which the asshole could be, rather than a source of shame, something deeply holy.” I think that’s an important function for a poet--turning a subject inside-out, upside down, from shameful to holy. But I wonder if today’s poets are interested in that function, taking advantage of our ability to speak about those experiences that make us different?

Rick Barot: We're now in an amazing moment where artists can describe gay desire without having to camouflage it as something else. That desire can finally be an open subject matter, and this freedom has given us some recent writing that is scary, truthful, beautiful, and profoundly new.

CH: True as that may be, I think with it comes yet another problem, created, perhaps, in part, ironically, because of the levels to which Ginsberg pushed poetry. It’s that a deference to difference often times means that those gay writers who embrace sexuality in their work, depict those elements of our lives explicitly, are forced to worry if we’ll be seen as abandoning the poem’s needs over a “personal” (of god forbid political!) desire to ‘make a statement’. Or maybe that’s just me. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from writing the poems we must!

Our own Aaron Smith: I've felt like being overt/explicit in subject matter in "mainstream" poetry has been an uphill battle. It seems like since the late '80s early '90s there has been such a backlash against confessional poetry that anything narrative, seemingly personal, and/or sexual gets lumped under writing that is just for shock value. The writing is defined by that quality and not assessed for its craft, skill, and overall project. And so many writers are afraid to write personally for fear of being labeled a confessional poet.

CH: I personally hope we continue to embrace our differences as well as our similarities, no matter how post-gay we become. On that note, I’ll give the last words to J.D. McClatchy and Rafael Campo. McClatchy tells us why the difficulties of our history give us urgency and necessity to express our differences.

J.D. McClatchy again: [Speaking about the poets in his anthology of gay love poetry] Because their desires have been deemed dangerous, and their lives made difficult, they place a unique value on true love….Pleasure has been wrung from pain, illumination wrested from bitterness and fear, the moment of transcendence stolen from complacent hours.

CH: And Rafael Campo tells us how the triumph of our tradition gives us the permission and inspiration to write out our lives.

Rafael Campo: I realize that the gay literary aesthetic is one of hope, ultimately, where art is not simply a monument that displaces the truth of our existence, but rather is an insistence that we exist. At once edgily transgressive and universally humane, both painfully fractured and joyously restorative, queer writing is more than its artificial accomplishment in the eyes of critics; it is a document of persistence, an act of beauty, and the very breath and heartbeat of an imaginative and ultimately indomitable people.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Gay Male Poetry: Post Identity Politics?

This will be the first of two posts regarding the panel I chaired at this year's AWP conference (the second that I've attended), which was, like last year's, wonderfully exhilarating and utterly overwhelming. I lead a very isolated life here in Pensacola, so to have the chance to hang out with so many writers was an amazing experience. The trip has practically bankrupted me (I will never stay in a Hilton again), but it was worth it.

As I noted in my previous post, my panel at AWP was called "Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics." The presentations of my panelists made me decide to add a question mark to that title.

This post will present an expanded version of my remarks at the panel. I have asked my panelists to send me copies of their presentations, and a subsequent post will discuss their wonderful contributions to the panel.

1

When I told a friend about this panel, he said, “No one sent me the memo that racism, heterosexism, and class struggle had ended and thus we can now put that silly business [of] the politics of identity behind us.” I told him he should check his mail more regularly, as lots of people have sent out that particular memo.

But in consideration of his quizzical response, I’d like to emphasize that the “post” in “post-identity politics” doesn’t mean “We’re over all that now,” though there are various people who do say such things. It just means that gay identity politics has happened, more than once and in more than one form (gay liberation, gay civil rights, Queer Nation, just plain queer). My friend also asked, "What does post-identity politics mean?" That’s one of the questions this panel is intended to address if not answer: Where are we and what do we do, what (or who) are we doing, now?

2

A large part of gay identity, at least for men of a certain age, and for men who didn’t grow up in major metropolitan areas (or did but were too shy, awkward, repressed, or just too young to strike out on their own in the big city), has been the product of books and magazines. My gay identity was formed by books like C.A. Tripp’s The Homosexual Matrix, Dennis Altman’s Homosexual Oppression and Liberation, an anthology called Out of the Closets (which included photos of men dancing together in a bathhouse! wearing just towels!), and another called Lavender Culture. And by issues of Blueboy and Playguy I bought on the sly during my ninth-grade lunch hours. For me, the gay world was a world of words and pictures in glossy magazines.

Gay male literature may be divided into pre-Stonewall riots and post-Stonewall riots or, to put in another way, closeted (or at least taking the closet as a given) or uncloseted (or at least informed by the realization that the closet door had been opened). Despite the presence of predecessors such as Robert Duncan, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, and even Walt Whitman, the emergence of openly gay male poetry is concurrent with the emergence of the gay liberation movement in the late Nineteen Sixties and early Nineteen Seventies. Such poetry was dedicated to the affirmation and celebration of a newly articulate gay male identity in the face of a massively homophobic society. Such poetry made possible the emergence and development of a gay male poetry that took such an identity as a starting point, not a conclusion or goal, let alone a given.

My sense that there was or could be such a thing as gay male poetry was largely shaped by groundbreaking anthologies like Winston Leyland’s Angels of the Lyre and Orgasms of Light (whose frontispiece featured a drawing of a huge, erupting penis), and Ian Young’s The Male Muse, which didn’t have any pictures at all. But while I was very turned on by poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Sweet Boy, Gimme Your Ass” and “Please Master,” even at sixteen I was aware that they weren’t good poetry. Someone I was on a panel with at the old Outwrite gay writers’ conference in Boston over ten years ago talked about not feeling able or allowed in his youth to write poems about the boys on whom he had crushes. I never had that problem. My problem was how to take those feelings and turn them into things I could recognize and respect as poems. I wrote a poem in college called “A People Without a Language Cannot Be Free.” That was my one “gay liberation” poem, the one time I consciously wrote as “a gay person.” I threw that poem away a long time ago, and I don’t even know what the title assertion meant, though I have at various points read things about the possibility or necessity of a gay language. I don't know what that means either.

3

A column rather provocatively called “Gay? Who Cares?” that appeared last November in the Los Angeles Times reported that “‘Society is beginning to say that being gay is not such a big deal,’ [demographer Gary] Gates says. ‘What that means for gays is that homosexuality won’t have the centrality to their identity it once did. Being gay then becomes one of a variety of an individual’s competing identities.’”

This has always been true for all gays, and is true for all identities as such: no one has only one identity, at any one time or over time. It’s something, though, that gay men who don’t fit the mold of the financially comfortable, buff, fashionable white man have always had to be consciously aware of. Certainly for black gay men, gayness has not only been an identity distinct from their other identities but often in conflict with or contradiction to them.

Though I don’t think that writers or their work should be defined in terms of social identities or subject positions, I have much less trouble being considered a gay writer than a black writer. This is because being gay was a chosen identity for me (I may have been born homosexual, but I decided to be gay), whereas being black was an imposed identity, and one that came with a great deal of unpleasant baggage. Perhaps because I was rather out of touch as a youth, I had no such negative associations with being or becoming gay. Quite the contrary—the gay world I read about in books seemed infinitely preferable to the world of the Bronx ghettos in which I grew up. And I’ve definitely had a much easier time as a gay person than as a black person, even as a writer: the expectations placed on a gay writer are much less restrictive and eagerly enforced than those placed on a black writer.

For a writer like James Merrill, a white upper-class man, and thus as central as can be in American society and representation, homosexuality is a displacement, a marginalization, and his poetry enacts the negotiation of that displacement of centrality, that forced march to the margins (though he takes his sense of entitlement with him). But for me, as a poor black man, and thus the incarnation of otherness and marginality, the adoption of a homosexuality imaged, by both black people and white, as “white” was a move of displacing displacement, a move towards centrality and “self-ness”: a difference from difference that did not quite (any more than my education did) make me “the same.”

4

The Los Angeles Times article I quoted above goes on to say that “As the challenges associated with coming out diminish, so does the primacy of the identity that that act of self-discovery and self-assertion once forged. It means that the culture once associated with gay identity becomes less distinctive from the mainstream.

As the recent spate of state referenda banning gay marriage demonstrates, homophobia is alive and well in these united states. But nonetheless, we are living in a very different world than the one in which Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, and Jack Spicer, or James Merrill and William Meredith, to take poets from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, lived, or that in which pioneering gay liberation poets like Antler, Paul Mariah, and Charley Shively, or less explicitly political though quite explicitly gay poets like Joe Brainard, Ed Cox, Kenward Elmslie, and John Giorno lived. “Gay” is part of the texture of daily life, and there is a disparity between the still-prevalent political rejection of the idea of gayness and a widespread quiet acceptance of gay people themselves, even in Pensacola, Florida, where I’ve lived for almost seven years on what’s sometimes called the Redneck Riviera. I like to call it Redneckistan. Just as one can live an openly gay life (or at least a relatively openly gay life) in a number of ways and places than would have been possible even twenty years ago without making it a statement of identity, similarly one can incorporate one’s gayness into one’s writing (however one would define either gayness or the incorporation of that gayness) without making that the definition of one’s work.

So we come back to the questions in the panel description: What does it mean to be a gay male poet today, after gay liberation, the somewhat domesticated gay rights movement, the revived radicalism of Queer Nation, the AIDS epidemic and ACT UP, and intellectual interrogations of “queerness” and identity itself? Contemporary gay male poets can take their gayness for granted on several levels. They also can explore, question, and even explode that identity. This panel explores just what the words “gay” “male” “poetry,” in themselves and in conjunction, mean to four smart and gifted writers.