Monday, June 21, 2010

Your Favorite Vegetable?

Chris Piuma and I swapped some comments at my post about Juliana Spahrs post about a Shadow Poetics Program. Theres stuff on poetry, the academy, audience, accessibility, cash money, and vegetables that seemed worth parking up here.
Chris: So I saw her giving this talk, and it is nice to read it, rather than have to make it out from the horrible acoustics of Philosophy 301 at Columbia.

I think its something almost symptomatic of, well, something, something that kept cropping up at the conference, not only in her talk but also in, say, Stephanie Youngs and also in the conference as a whole—that her solution to the problem of an ineffective institution is to try to recreate the institution outside of the institution. A “shadow” institution. Rather than look outside of the institution for success stories.

(Youngs talk was about the possibilities of the reading series, by which she meant the institutional (academic) reading series. And while they were, perhaps, interesting or at least better possibilities than what is currently happening, it seemed to insist on the primacy and importance of academic institutions in a way that seemed alien to this semi-former-Portlander.)

Mark Nowak gave a talk on that same panel, about organizing in factories and how poetry workshops played a part in that, which I thought was very interesting (although/in that I would have liked to have seen it developed more, both theoretically and pragmatically).

But anyway. Im not even sure what benefit the academy has for poetry, other than supplying poets with a certain amount of money, and providing a certain type of scholarship which can help archive poetry and poetics. Im not sure a shadow academy is the best way of getting money into the hands of the poets in need.
Me: Hi Chris,

Thanks for weighing in. I’m all for alternatives to the poetic status quo, and appreciate Juliana’s effort to work out the details of a “third way.” I think she’s actually tried something like this with Joshua Clover and others … wasn’t there something posted about that a while back? [NB: Its the 95 Cent Skool, the 6-day seminar happening in Oakland next month. Rebecca Wolff responds to its statement of purpose (and others respond to her response) here.]

I shared your question about whether the distinction between poetry readings inside and outside academia is really as thin as Juliana makes out in her paper. Here in Portland, as you know, the readings that go on at Reed and Lewis & Clark are almost totally sealed off from the unfunded action in the galleries, bars, house readings, and cafés, often for the reasons Juliana describes, right down to the transport. While you can hear “national” poets in the mismatched chairs of a bar or coffeehouse with just a few bucks dropped in a hat.

Still, I see her point about how negligible the difference can be. Many of us in that café-and-a-mike scene hold various degrees, teach at or attend local schools, and aren’t so entirely cut off from the poetry economy that happens inside the university walls. (Think, say, of how the “right” poets—Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, a Philip Whalen memorial—draw us into the university setting quite comfortably, while “they” come to our stuff sometimes for the same reasons.) I should point out, too, that a lot of the churn in the poetry community in the time I’ve been here is due to people leaving for academic programs elsewhere. On the other side, the new arrivals are often freshly minted MFAs looking for a cheap place to live while they adjunct locally. So university everywhere you turn!

Also, despite the low price and easy access, Juliana’s right I think that the audience at the “pass the hat” end of the poetry spectrum can be just as insular and same-y as their academic counterparts. I don’t know that more ears turn out for free poetry at a coffeehouse than they do at a college seminar room. And if they do, I’m not convinced it’s because of the different community values (love and the after-party, as Juliana puts it) on offer outside the university setting.

I wonder, though, if audience size/composition is the right measure of the “permeability” Juliana’s interested in. If you have to “pay to play” the academic poetry game, then the grassroots pass-the-hat stuff wins hands-down on the permeability front, where the only cost of entry is the effort of showing up. The bigger challenge I think is getting people to show up, even when it’s free and parking’s simple. This is especially frustrating when you consider how readily folks tend to shell out for MFAs (even budget-strapped Portland State offers one now, partly because they’re such cash cows). Why pay for all that cow when the milk’s already here for free?

My hunch is that the problem’s not exactly the “permeability” or “exclusivity” Juliana takes on in her paper so much as a general indifference to poetry when it’s not branded in a professional degree package. It’s a cultural change as much as an institutional/structural one. Balkanization plays a role, too—it’s rare, even in a town as small as Portland, that all the non-academic poetry goers (the slammers, the open mikers, the journalers, the bridge walkers, the soul catchers, the experimentalists, etc.) feel any kind of affinity or need to unite. And, like Kasey points out in his post today, maybe there’s no good reason they should.

What galls, I guess, is finally the money, which you point out in your comment is the one place where academia beats the grassroots up and down. Why all this hustle to pay a visiting poet’s bar bill when two miles away, in a scene that’s not all that distinguishable from ours in terms of commitment, passion, knowledge about poetry, ability to “do poetics,” etc., there’s budget to house, fly, feed, and fete? Like so much in the culture right now, the really meaningful distinction seems to come down to cash money. In the meantime, we’ve got our free labor to expend on hats and blogs.
Chris: (I would like to excuse the following burst of incoherence on cold medicine.)

I suppose I just want to add that, personally, I’m not all that interested in “getting people to show up” or possibly even “exclusivity”.

(Steve Evans, I think it was, made a good point about how, basically, all decisions (who’s reading, where the reading is held, etc.) are decisions of exclusion, and the task is to understand and accept that you’re excluding who you’re excluding for a good reason.)

I’m not too worried if people don’t go to poetry readings. If people don’t need poetry, I don’t feel any urge to force it upon them. I don’t think poetry necessarily improves people’s lives—or, rather, that if it does, there are lots of other things that can do that as well, and there’s not necessarily anything an engaged connection to poetry can do which an engaged connection to, say, baking can’t.

I do care about people being able to find out about readings and having access to them. We made a lot of decisions in Spare Room to try to maximize accessibility to our potential audience. But we weren’t necessarily interested in creating that audience.

And if there is some sense of insularity or exclusivity to Spare Room events, I hope it is a welcoming one—that is, if you “fit in” with the interests and aims of the group, that you’d feel welcomed to the reading—but that it would still be exclusive/insular enough to be well-defined and meaningful. (And we had various events where we tried to relax those exclusionary practices anyway.)

While there might be some level of balkanization in the poetry scene in Portland (although not so severe—we had connections and events with other groups, and kept tabs on one another, even if we rarely attended each others’ readings—plus, of course, there was already Dan Raphael doing a lot of the leg work for inter-scene connections), what I always found interesting in Spare Room is how many people from other “experimental” disciplines ended up taking an interest in what we were doing, and how much we got exposed to what they were doing. I helped run a poetry reading series that led to me doing experimental dance to an audience of a thousand or so people! It seemed less balkanized along those lines than many other cities’ poetry/arts scenes.

“Why all this hustle to pay a visiting poet’s bar bill when two miles away, in a scene that’s not all that distinguishable from ours in terms of commitment, passion, knowledge about poetry, ability to “do poetics,” etc., there’s budget to house, fly, feed, and fete?”

Well, because that hustling” is meaningful in a way that having money handed down mysteriously from above isn’t. It’s like eating vegetables from your garden rather than ones of mysterious provenance that you buy at Safeway. It’s handy and convenient to get the vegetables at Safeway—but perhaps what keeps me interested in the possibilities of a poetry scene isn’t necessarily its handy convenience.

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