Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Orono '70s (Part 2)

A few other ‘nots’ of the ‘70s that emerged from the panels I attended:

+ Poetry was NOT just poetry. It was “sticky” (Eileen Myles’s phrase) and adhered to other art forms, political engagements, and social movements more easily than it does in the newly independent Slovenia of poetry today. Performance art, conceptual art, Marxist politics, queer identity, punk rock, and feminist theory were all perhaps distinguishable but rarely distinct from emerging poetics, at least in the papers I saw. (“When I thought of poetry in the ‘70s,” said Myles, “I always thought of it in relation to something else.”) Was this a feature of the era—the links between the poem and the “not poem” so intense the two blurred? Or does that sense of “adherence” arrive retroactively, on plenary sessions at future Oronos? For three days in Maine at least, I sort of bought it, this idea that “I’m not just a poet” was a more intense and necessary statement in the ‘70s than it is in poetry today, where you can say something like that—and many do—but there’s not the same feeling that you should.

+ “Avant-garde” was NOT always avant-garde. This inelegant koan arrived almost entirely from two panels I attended: “Queering the ‘70s” (Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Eileen Myles) and, right before it, “New Narrative-New Sentence-New Left” (Robin Tremblay-McGaw, Kaplan Harris, Rob Halpern). One take on this idea came from Eileen Myles—that the ‘70s was an era when “avant-garde” was still a “gay man’s game,” as she put it: not a series of formal commitments and innovations so much as an elaborate code for signaling without saying. As the closet began to collapse with her generation, the need for the code dropped away, and many younger gay writers turned to other forms of expression, creating the conditions for the '80s phenom of the “gay universalist” (Myles’s phrase; my shameless reduction of her reading).

New Narrative
writers, too, found the avant-garde as it had come to be practiced in late-‘70s poetry circles around the Bay too “arriere” for the new social energies and fears they hoped to chart, creating a sort of deliberate “not poetry” with their turn to a different kind of narrative. K. Lorraine Graham was asking the other day for “particular poetics statements” from New Narrative and 3rd-generation New York School writers. While I’m sure they exist, part of the point I’d think was to maybe not do poetics in the patented “poetics statement” sort of way; another silence to attend to when screwing the avant-garde into the mason jar of the ‘70s. The reasons for “not poetry” deciding to be “not”—and for innovative and highly political literary forms that explored new social identities to feel uneasy within the mantle of the existing avant-garde—seemed key to the meaning and import of the ‘70s. The silence speaks. (The arguments for this reading of the '70s arrived mostly via Robin Tremblay-McGaw and Rob Halpern's papers, as well as the particular way of doing poetics Kevin Killian performed in his subversive essay on John Weiners, transsexualism, and Myra Breckinridge. Apologies if I'm a little off in the details.)

+ Just one more ‘not’: not quite sure how to put this into a neat lavender heading, but it had to do with the papers I heard that called attention to code, alternate forms of signifying, or ‘extra-literary’ ways of meaning that condition but don’t necessarily find direct expression in the apparent content of the poem. Whether this was an accident of the panels I attended, or something significant about the ‘70s—where poetry reached out to conceptual and performance art with a special intensity—is hard to puzzle out. I’m thinking especially about:

  • Bern Porter’s Wastemaker (1972), an assemblage of ads, typeforms, and pictorial elements that might be read as an instance of “blank” signifying—the signs calling attention to their status as signs—but under Kasey’s close reading bloomed into kind of a silent autobiography grappling with gender, consumerism, science, and painful personal reminiscence. It asks you to “read” its story in a peculiar, non-narrative way that risks being mistaken for non-sense if you don’t care to work its visual code.
  • The Grand Piano plenary reading with Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, and Barrett Watten. Each read a section from The Grand Piano, but interspersed with passages from a stack of different books on the table in front of them. While this on-the-spot interleafing went on, another panel member might be writing, or might start reading his own passage, apparently a reenactment, if I understood Lytle Shaw’s introduction rightly, of a game the group used to play in the ‘70s, where someone would write while another read aloud from a book pulled from the shelves. I would have missed this game-like quality of the project’s intersubjective structure if I hadn’t seen this performance.
  • My own paper on Hannah Weiner got me to the conference thinking about Weiner’s idea of “knight’s thinking”: her attention to the communicative structures that get missed in normative “linear communication.” Weiner’s own fascination with codes and visual signs connects with the elisions, compressions, abbreviations, and excisions of the clair-style, which asks the reader to be especially alive to the interruptions of the “off-code” or not fully said.
  • Bill Howe gave a very interesting paper on Robert Grenier's Sentences, and the impossibility of imagining a “complete text” of the cards that embraces all the staggering variety of ways to read through them. If I remember right, Howe argued the actual words on the cards take a back seat to the conceptual project of probing or defying the state of being “complete.” So the work's meaning takes shape against the act of imagining what can't be there.

Another key “not,” of course, was in the panels I didn’t attend. There was a “financial” ‘70s, ably covered by Jasper Bernes, with David Harvey I guess as its presiding saint. A Coyote's Journal ‘70s, a No More Masks! ‘70s, a Black Arts '70s, a William Bronk ‘70s, a DC Poets '70s, a Bishop/Walcott '70s (!)—even Orono’s most heavily empaneled era, the Ashbery ‘70s— all whizzed just past my ear. Steve Evans said they wanted to make sure every panel decision at the conference was one that would break your heart, and they succeeded. Of the “just out of the frame” ‘70s, the two most present to me at the conference were Hannah Weiner’s and Bern Porter’s, but that’s a post for a future time. Does all this cloudy info still by 2012?


tmorange said...

rodney, some thoughts on yr thoughts:

"Poetry was NOT just poetry" -- lisa howe's paper on the zine "bikini girl" showed this admirably as well.

"'Avant-garde' was NOT always avant-garde" -- i heard a lot of this in different forms as well, a real challenge to formal innovation or narratives that would assert its primacy.

"if I understood Lytle Shaw's introduction rightly" -- this technique, which the GP performance reenacted on some level, is described by bob perelman in the marginalization of poetry pp 31-34.


rhalpern said...

Dear Rodney:

Thanks for so generously sharing yr Orono!

I thought I’d chime in here around New Narrative and its conscientious positioning as “not” being avant-garde poetry. (This is also in response to K. Lorraine Graham's recent blog post, which you link to.) I think there are many traces of a New Narrative “poetics,” not all of which are built around negation (that critical “not” you rightly point to). Robin’s already drawn attention to Robert Glück’s “Long Note on New Narrative,” and my recent talks have focused on Soup #2 (1981), which as an entire issue offers an beautifully illustrated and nondiscursive poetics “statement”.

Hope it's cool to recapitulate a few points from those talks briefly here, as they seem relevant to some recent threads.

Soup #2 focused specifically on what editor Steve Abbott named, perhaps for the first time, “New Narrative,” which he situated in productive tension with an ascendant Language Poetry. Abbott glossed NN in his editorial statement as being “language conscious, but arising out of specific social and political concerns of specific communities.” He continued by noting that NN “stresses the enabling role of content in determining form rather than stressing form as independent, separate from its social origins and goals.”

Bruce Boone’s work in particular offers a poetics that links NN writing with leftist politics and gay community building. In his trenchant critique of Language writing, called “The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism” (in Soup #2), Bruce writes:

“It’s not that the current language writing movement doesn’t succeed on its own terms. It excels on that terrain—abstraction, language experimentation and so on. But it isn’t what you would call an engaged writing and as a movement it suffers from some serious defects for this reason. And for the same reason, it gives you the feeling of being rather distant from life. It’s as if the genuine intelligence you feel there ends up eluding life, not participating in it or embracing it.”

While this strikes a negative chord (NN as anti-LangPo), this is only a point of departure for a more positive position, where NN finds expression on its own terms. The stakes of Boone’s critique of language poetry in Soup can’t be adequately understood without taking into account 70s Gay Lib, Feminism, and New Left coalition building. His argument goes on to posit the critical importance of narrative—the importance, that is, of mapping one’s relation to the social while at the same time potentiating new relations, at a time when relation itself was (is) being systematically occluded (reified). Boone emphasizes the importance of cause and effect, subjectivity, emotion, and affect for any aesthetic practice engaged in political struggles. This is another instance of poetry being NOT just poetry in the 70s (poetry’s insufficiency as an autonomous practice).

Then there’s Boone’s postscript to Robert Glück’s 1979 Family Poems, which may be the best place to begin thinking about a New Narrative poetics: “ …the poetry of the 70s seems generally to have reached a point of stagnation, increasing a kind of refinement of technique, without yet being able to profit from the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new movement writing of gays, women and third world writers. Ultimately, this impasse of poetry reflects conditions of society itself."

To profit politically and socially from the energies of new movement writing of gays, women, and third world writers meant more than just rehearsing the familiar terms of an emerging multiculturalism in conventional language and form. This finds expression from another angle in Boone’s 1979 essay on O’Hara, “Gay Language as Political Praxis,” as well as in his queer manifesto, “Toward a Gay Theory for the 80s,” which together offer a beautiful constellation where a coherent new narrative poetics can be discerned. This poetics finds various social impetuses, while critically resisting an emergent identity politics.

Then there’s Boone’s first book length narrative, Century of Clouds, where that poetics finds its concrete elaboration and performance. (And Steve Abbott’s “Notes on Boundaries, New Narrative,” in Soup #4, provides another crucial "statement" to this end.)

So, yes, I think there is a coherent New Narrative poetics, a poetics that is conscientious of being NOT avant-garde poetry, but "not just" that. This is another version of that 70s poetics you pointed to: never autonomous, but rather alloyed to other projects, concerns and forms.

Hope I haven’t exploited your comments box!

Thanks again for yr reports.

Much love, --from Rob.

konrad said...

Relating to these concepts of negation that are brought up in Rodney's posts, and Tom and Rob's remarks, i'd just like to make an arcane observation. It's a minor point.

There are two kinds of "not."

The familiar kind of exclusionary, "Law of the Excluded Middle" kind of not, which sets up a binary. Not This but That. This not seems to create camps, to drive the rhetorical opposition between NN and LangPo tendencies.

And then there is a more open not, which is a unit of differentiation, asserting "not only this" as Tom almost formulates it, or "not that but something else." This is a non-specific negation, an "open negation" as it were.

Rob's insightful quoting of Bruce Boone offers an example of this second kind of not, maybe just as the conference itself offered up many alternatives none of which were 'exclusionary negations.'

I just want to point out that not can slip back and forth between these two meanings, almost unconsciously. But politically (in terms of drawing boundaries and scoring points) it's important to know the difference because it's the exclusionary not that typically asserts privilege, value, and dominance.