Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dear Mark

Mark Wallace suggested I post this email about the AWP to the blog, so that he and others could respond.
Dear Mark,

I started this as a comment on your blog, but it got too long to fit there politely.

Here's what I see when I gaze into the dark heart of AWP. I see poetry made to dance to the logic of other large information industries: grow the business, get accredited, "facilitate network opportunities," pass out cards—the woiks. Because poetry's so profitless, the mimicry still looks kind of quaint and "off"; because it's small, relatively speaking, you can still make out your friends behind the banners. But the pie chart's swelling—how long till you can't tell po biz from the models it replicates in its PFs & AWPs?

Beyond that, I'm troubled that I can't seem to come to terms with a poetry that looks like that, one that resembles so closely the conditions of our actual social existence. Why do I expect poetry to get a pass from changes that are shaking up the culture everywhere else, and that in other genres—music, TV, film, standup comedy—yield critical, vital new work? Am I going to poetry for information, or escape? Has the idea of an avant-garde itself become a form of escape? A marketing niche? A shelter from the storm of other options? Do Jon Stewart, or Sarah Silverman, or Thom Yorke, or the writers of The Wire, think of themselves as "avant-garde"? Is poetry becoming the place we go to park all our leftover hopes from the last mode of production?

Ron Silliman's post today on the Poetry Foundation questionnaire implies that the AWPs and PFs and MFAs aren't the future; they're misguided responses to changes in "the relationship between poetry and its possible audience(s)" that no one's got a handle on yet (not even the "post-avant.") He might be right: maybe the corporate model's not "where it's at." When I hear of other poets I like and respect attending the conference, approving the panels, listing poets met and books acquired, I wonder though: what do we do if it is?

Thanks for provoking these thoughts with your post. Enjoying the blog.



ma vie en bling said...

If the awp is networking it is just one aspect of social networking among many people do -- urban poetry scenes and readings also do this, as does the internet in its creepy way, etc. Humans with similar interests tend to talk to one another, or seek to talk to one another, and go to great lengths to do this, as loathsome(!) as that is.

But I think what many people find alarming, whether they state it or not, is that the AWP proves there is no fame or specialness to be had in poetry -- instead there are thousands of poets, each a star to 15, all the work lost in the din of all the work (which is physically manifested by the noisy crowded conference, a place where one is almost always lost and can rarely use the restroom). The two times I have been there I have been most overwhelmed by not understanding that the people around me were famous to themselves, and while I wanted our of politeness to respect their sense of importance, I was always tripping over it after forgetting. At the same time, those who were famous to me who were there (Alice Notley, etc) were not sufficiently famous to others, but famous to the 15 or more.

There are many thousands of people writing and publishing and wishing to publish, and if one is down with that, and down with the fact that the density of the numbers will create diffuse recognition for literary work, the growth of the awp could eventually feel okay. But if one is attached to a resistant individualism, or seeks a narcissist's load, or likes clear hierarchies or individual genius, it will be awful to see all these people who write all level with one another, common in their struggles and faults and bad fashion sense and needy social networking and tail-wagging and beauty.

And nearly as fascinating as the idea of the AWP is the yearly opportunity for people to feel superior for not going, which does provide those things the AWP denies (a sense of specialness, in partcular). For many years I enjoyed the benefits of AWP hating, and then I got the benefits of being one with a heaving, whitmanic crowd, and now I get to individuate and complain again. Yay.

mark wallace said...

Rodney, a lot to say about your insightful comments, and ma vie's great response.

For the moment, I'm thinking that we might want to distinguish between the corporate model and the (state) bureaucratic model. The corporate model doesn't automatically privilege long-standing institutions; instead, short-term conglomerations are built and torn down again in the face of the shifting sands of profit.

The state bureaucratic model is more one that hopes for institutional permanence, building a body of information and regulation designed to hold a society or some particular aspect of it together. It preserves its activities, but also controls them. It creates opportunity but limits that opportunity to those who can navigate its own mechanisms.

It could be that the world of literature used to at least appear to resemble more the small business/corporate model: individuals and organizations working together briefly to obtain successful results, then dissolving their partnerships and moving on. And it could be that AWP represents not the corporatizing of literature but the bureaucracizing of it.

But there is still so much of the world of literature that is not simply bureaucracy, even as it's definitely connected to such bureaucracy in all sorts of ways. I'd had to think again about what those things are.

And it could also be true, by the way, that this AWP moment could turn out simply to be a fad, and even perhaps in some odd way a legendary one. I'm not sure about the degree of permanence that it represents. "The AWP Era of the late Oughts was one in which..."

Time will tell, I guess.

mark wallace said...

I mean: "I'd have to think again about what those things are."