Interview with Gary Sullivan
Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
Gary Sullivan: I lived with my maternal grandparents, Bernadette and Harold Farley, for a while when I was two or three years old. Harold was a cook in a jail and Bernadette gave piano lessons to local kids. They were both involved in amateur theater, and read lots of poetry, novels, and art history texts. They both painted, as well. I don’t remember if they had a TV. They must have, but it was not on much, if so.
Bernadette had illustrated and hand-colored a version of “Winkin, Blinkin and Nod” that she used to read to me at night. That’s the earliest poem I remember. Harold taught me to memorize and recite “I’m On’y Thist a’ Idiot” by James Whitcomb Riley. He used to read me the longer poems: I still half-remember the one about a boy chased by bears.
I learned, at a very early age, that all art was part of daily life, and that everybody did it, and I could participate, too. Bernadette and Harold used to encourage me to look through the art books, to draw, memorize poems, and on top of that Bernadette gave me a piano lesson every day. I “composed” a song at her encouragement, which I still remember. It was called “Mouse on the Moon,” after the Richard Lester movie, which I obviously didn’t see, but the title of which would have been in the air around that time. The song was simple: C, D, C, D, C, D, C, D, C, D, F-Sharp. And repeat endlessly. The C, D part was the mouse walking along the moon’s surface, and the F-sharp was when the mouse stepped in a crater.
So, poetry began, and begins, for me, as part of a larger immersion in creativity, generally, in seeing or recognizing human endeavor as inescapable from the creative act. Most kids are encouraged to be creative, at least up through a certain age, but I think there was something about the way that Bernadette and Harold lived their life together, and the way they allowed me so easily into that life, that made a deep, early impression on me.
TB: Wow. That sounds wonderful.
GS: It was. But it was only a couple of months of my early life. My real home life was not like that, although my mother was very supportive, generally.
TB: Did your interest in cartooning develop early on too?
GS: That was somewhat later. Someone, maybe Harold and Bernadette, gave me a big book of the history of comic strips. I have no idea what age I was. probably six or seven. The “history” narrative made it all seem very important, and I still vaguely remember the design of the book, which had something severe, like Steve Roper and some other more realistic-looking character on the cover. I remember the cover was hot pink and lime green. Very much influenced I realize in hindsight by 60s visual art, no doubt a sort of Warhol/Lichtenstein combo. I’m guessing that Lichtenstein may even have been indirectly responsible for this sort of book, which in hindsight seemed like an attempt to legitimize “lowbrow” or popular art for high art people. That right there tells me it was most likely Harold and Bernadette who must have given it to me. They would have gone for that sort of thing themselves.
Holy shit! I just had a hunch to do a Google image search on “History of the Comic Strip” and here it is:
Here’s the blurb from the used bookseller about it: “Pierre Couperie, Maurice C. Horn, et al, preface by Milton Caniff, introduction by Burne Hogarth. Crown Publishers, 1968. Out of Print. Fine. Initially prepared in conjunction with an exhibition of Comic strips, held in the Louvre, Paris, this is a scholarly & well-researched history of the Comic strip.”
This book was so fucking compelling to me as a kid I can still feel something of a charge when I look at that cover. Since it was published in 1968, I’m guessing I would have gotten it in 68 or 69, so I was right, I was about six or seven years old. Based on my understanding, having read that book, that comic strips were the most important art form of all time, I started cutting strips out of the newspaper and pasting them into separate notebooks for “archival purposes.”
My favorite strips—and this hasn’t changed at all—were Peanuts and Gordo. Gordo was written and drawn by Gus Arriola, who lived in Carmel or Morro Bay, California, although Gordo took place in Mexico. I was growing up not far away from Carmel, in San Juan Bautista, and Gordo seemed like the most realistic strip, besides maybe Peanuts, which was kid-focused. My friends were all Hispanic, most of the people in town were Hispanic, it was a Mission town, and the home of El Teatro Campesino. University Press of Mississippi published a collection of Gordo strips in 2000, Accidental Ambassador, and I picked up a copy, wondering if my sole identification with it had been that it seemed like it could have taken place in San Juan. (San Juan was a big tourist destination, and Gordo worked as a tour guide.) It did seem like that, but, too, it really was a great strip—very visually and narratively inventive, and really great characters. It’s one of the great comic strips of all time, one of the first mainstream examples of art in the U.S. with both a multiculti and eco consciousness, and I don’t think many people remember it. Arriola, who is still alive, stopped doing the strip in 1985, when he was in his 60s.
I remember when I was in sixth grade, in Mrs. Whitehead’s class—she would die a year or two later of breast cancer—she asked us what we wanted to do when we were old and how we were planning to get there. I confidently said that I was going to be a cartoonist, and that I was archiving all of the comic strips from the paper. That was when I was ten.
TB: Who do you think of as your poetic/artistic forebears?
GS: I guess the most obvious would be Joe Brainard. “Sufferin Succotash,” the comic he did with Ron Padgett, which was published in Padgett’s book Tulsa Kid, is generally the model for the Elsewhere series, if not the “New Life” series in Rain Taxi. I discovered recently that a younger comics artist I really admire, Richard Hahn, who does Lumakick, was also greatly inspired by that same comic. So Brainard did make some headway into the comics world as well as the visual art and poetry worlds.
More generally, I tend to gravitate toward, become directly inspired by, people who either straddle two or more media or genres, people who synthesize various styles and approaches, and people whose output tends to change radically from instance to instance.
A lot of the plays I’ve written were inspired by the records of the Firesign Theater, the films of the Kuchar brothers and the plays of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and especially Charles Ludlam. I picked up his Complete Plays in 1989 and was forever changed by them, although I’d read one or two here and there before that. George Kuchar, in addition to being a filmmaker, was a cartoonist for a while—I have something of his in an issue of Short Change from the 70s. And of course David Ossman, from the Firesign Theater, was a poet, and used to interview poets for KPFA—Corinth I think published a collection of them.
But, who else? Jack Smith. I was actually asked to do animation for Mary Jordan’s documentary about Smith, which I think premiered this month, but it didn’t work out—I didn’t really have the time, nor the technical facilities to do even a short animation piece, although I gave it a brief shot.
David Bromige. That issue of The Difficulties you did on him was a great eye-opener for me—I first read it at Daniel Davidson’s house in the 80s—and My Poetry is one of my favorite poetry books of all time. I dedicated How to Proceed in the Arts to him because he really did seem like the main influence behind it.
The films of Monmohan Desai, and Indian cinema, generally. The music of Mohammad Abdel Wahab and Ibrahim Tatlises, the singing style of Asmahan. Bernadette Mayer. Mina Loy. Charles Bernstein. Dambudzo Marechera. Bob and Ray. Johanna Drucker. Nick Piombino. Michael Lally. Ted Berrigan.
Nada Gordon had a huge impact on me long before I ever met her: I carried around a copy of her book, rodomontade, which included her comic-y illustrations, for years after picking it up at David Highsmith’s bookstore in San Francisco in the mid-80s. Since we got together in 1999, she’s been a primary influence on my writing.
I couldn’t have imagined publishing a book like Swoon had it not been for having read and loved Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, Marachera’s journal excerpts in Mindblast, Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, and Lewis Warsh’s The Maharajah’s Son, which is a collection of letters he received as a young adult from his friends.
Dead Man, the first book I ever had published, was greatly inspired by Berrigan’s Clear the Range, James Sherry’s In Case, and Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor.
The list above doesn’t cover even 1/10th of everything that has inspired or influenced me over the years, but may be the most obvious—at least, the most obvious to me. How many of them would be comfortable or happy about how their example has been warped into my own, I don’t know.
TB: Could you speak to the role of appropriation in your work?
GS: Appropriation is central to my work. To some extent that’s simply because of the time in which I’m creating. But equally it may have to do with my having been a music composition major in college, and how that can warp your understanding of the other arts.
Western music while it does not literally begin with Bach, in some basic sense begins conceptually with him. Bach takes the then-new invention, the keyboard, and maps out the basics that would inform and define Western music for the next several centuries: I-IV-V-I. That’s the basic structure—the syntax, if you will—of most Western music up through most of the 19th century. Most Western music appropriates and grapples with this basic syntax--which is certainly not natural to music--is exploring variations on its basic theme, is exploring the interstices between I-IV-V-I. There are odd blips—Beethoven’s late string quartets, maybe—but it’s mostly pretty much I-IV-V-I. Not much different from the Beginning, Middle, and End you’ll be taught in most creative writing classes in the country.
Add to that the fairly heavy appropriation, in classical music, of national or folk musics, and you have a kind of situation where, if you’re doing a rigorous analysis of this stuff, you can begin to see it all as thriving largely on appropriation at one or on many levels.
I didn’t stick with music because, finally, I grew to hate it. The tyranny of that syntax—I-IV-V-I—was too much for me to bear. And the alternatives, such as I understood them at the time—Cage, free jazz, atonal music—felt reactionary to me. That’s not really fair, of course, but that’s how it felt. More to the point, I hated listening to any of it. My own inability to imagine outside of the I-IV-V-I box, or to see 20th century work as anything other than a reaction, had more to do with my own limitations than any real limitations in Western music.
Unfortunately, middle eastern music, Indian music, Javanese music, Japanese music—musics not having developed out of the Western I-IV-V-I structure—were simply not taught when I was studying in the 80s, and I didn’t discover them until a decade after giving up the discipline. Not that they don’t have their own structures they adhere to. But it would been vastly more interesting and generative to have studied music from around the world, rather than having had this one oppressive syntax drilled into you.
Of course, Debussy, I later discovered, had been profoundly changed by hearing Javanese music—a fact that seems obvious once you’ve read about it. But for whatever reason, that’s not how we were taught Debussy.
So I abandoned music composition and refocused on writing and comics and theater. But I think I took this sensibility, of having studied Western music fairly rigorously, and applied it to my understanding of literature and comics and theater. Language and image, for me, were therefore both expressive and material. I didn’t learn about the materiality of language from the language writers or the philosophers and critics they’d been reading. It’s just that when you study music at that level, and then turn to look at these other media, you might see them that way. Notes or melodies or chord progressions don’t signify in the same way that words or images do, and you get used to not having to even think about meaning—at least any sort of one-to-one or analogous kind of meaning.
So, if you start out from the POV that language is material, that means your approach making art with language is going to be closer to a collagist’s, or someone who understands what they’re doing as a kind of appropriation.
Even my translating project—rendering the German-language poetry of Ernst Herbeck into English—I tend to see as less a translation project than as an act of appropriation. I wouldn’t have undertaken it otherwise, as I don’t know German well enough to do a “proper” translation.
TB: What about Elsewhere?
GS: The images in the first issue are of things I photographed, and then drew from the photos I took. Using one’s own photo reference is not considered appropriation, but what I photographed and then drew were all pre-existing, man-made representations—statuary, masks, packaging, advertising, signage, drawings, other photographs seen in urban Japan. Re-presenting representations is considered appropriation.
Confusing the matter further: The words were all appropriated, as we understand that word, given that I didn’t write them. But they weren’t cribbed from books (or the Internet): they were seen on people’s T-shirts, on signage, on notebook covers, purses, and so on. Is that appropriation, or is it reportage, a kind of documentary? Especially in the context of a book based on a trip to Japan? Or do we maybe not provide a wide enough net for that word “appropriation”? Shouldn’t we talk about Bartok as an appropriator of Hungarian folk music? And of “Microcosmos” as an appropriation of Bach’s early keyboard studies?
I think the finished comic reads two ways: as a sort of “poetry comic” a la Brainard, replete with appropriated imagery and text, and as a travel comic, a la Josh Neufeld.
Hopefully it also serves to get a reader wondering about Otherness: I was consciously aware of the fact the visual representations were the result of me, a white Westerner, picking and choosing images to draw from images on public display by Japanese artists representing Japanese people, non-Japanese people, and fictional and mythological characters.
Simultaneously with that, the language I used was the product of Japanese designers and others taking on the language of Other—in this case, English, a language they did not have a complete grasp of, and so would have felt as unfamiliar with as I felt being in Japan for the first time. The thrill of speaking or writing in a language not your own being similar to the thrill of walking around a city not your own, maybe. So the comic can become a kind of funhouse mirror of who is looking at who looking at who being or thinking about whom?
As well as a sort of meditation on appropriation: Aren’t the Japanese “appropriating” English when they make T-shirts that say things like: “Profounds”?
To put it simply and maybe a bit reductively: Elsewhere is about me appropriating others’ appropriation of others.
So, appropriation, for me, is or can be a part of the process, but is also often the very subject and the meaning of what I’m doing.
TB: Maybe you could extend your consideration of appropriation by talking about your involvement with "flarf."
GS: Sure. Appropriation plays a significant role in two aspects of flarf: in the literal making of the work, and in the sensibility itself. I’ll address the second aspect first.
Everyone on the flarf listserv brings to the list their own prior experience, their own sensibilities, their own ideas. The average age on the list is not young: most are in their thirties or forties. Most of us had been writing poetry for years, even decades prior to the list’s official launch on May 21, 2001.
You can get a sense of some of the participants’ individual poetics looking through some of their pre-flarflist books. Drew Gardner’s Sugar Pill; Nada Gordon’s Foriegnn Bodie, Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?, and Swoon; Rodney Koeneke’s Rouge State; Michael Magee’s Morning Constitutional and MS; Sharon Mesmer’s Half Angel, Half Lunch; K. Silem Mohammad’s Hovercraft and A Thousand Devils (published after Deer Head Nation, but comprised of work written prior to the launch of the list); my own How to Proceed in the Arts (although there is one flarf text in that book) and Swoon; and so on.
But the list itself is dedicated to the exploration and articulation, through creative work, of another, particular sensibility: Flarf. Flarf’s closest relation, as a sensibility, is probably Camp.
Flarf is similar to Camp in that it sets aside any pre-existing sense of “good” and “bad” in favor of another value, or set of values. It does not, however, as some believe, favor “bad” over “good.” It simply does not make that distinction.
Like Camp, the Flarf sensibility becomes a lens through which to see the world, including historical and other seemingly non-related works of art. Though we never articulated this on the list, very early on after the list’s launch, we began to look at other things as being “flarfy.” The poetry of Tom Raworth? Not flarfy. bill bissett? Definitely flarfy. The Baroness von Freitag: Totally Flarfy.
This is a kind of appropriation. In the way that the Camp sensibility appropriates earlier works of art or other manifestations of creativity, so does Flarf. It isn’t “fair” to these earlier works, but then sensibility is not about being fair; it’s about looking at the world in a particular way, even rearticulating it.
But Flarf differs from Camp; what’s flarfy is not necessarily campy, and vice versa. A key difference, though hardly the only distinguishing element, lies in what flarf and the flarf sensibility emphasizes: Content.
Whereas Camp—and I’m thinking of Sontag’s famous essay here—emphasizes style or form or decorative elements over content, Flarf emphasizes content over form or style. There is, in much flarf, a superabundance of content. Often to an embarrassing or discomforting degree. In fact, to the extent that flarf can be said to be an exploration of “the inappropriate,” there would seem to already be an emphasis on content—although of course it is true that it is not just content that can be inappropriate, and that we are exploring the inappropriateness of various gestures, styles, and so on, as well. But content does get the bulk of concentration, I think.
That is not to say that the content is always clear in flarf, or that it all “adds up.”
The easiest example for me to point to would be my own plays. “PPL in a Depot” proceeds by accumulation of content matter or subject. The characters talk incessantly, as they do in most of my plays—and, in the plays of Mohammad, Magee, and others. One moment the characters are discussing “stacking,” the next they’re talking about a conspiracy theory involving rye, and finally, they’re discussing poetry.
My approach to these “conversations” is somewhat documentarian. I simply cut and paste from conversations on these and other topics that I’d found on the Web.
That said, the content is not so important, except perhaps to the individual play or poem. What’s important, to Flarf, generally, is that there is a superabundance of it and/or that the content becomes foregrounded. As content.
Many have seen a connection between Flarf and Language Writing. The connection, so far as I can tell—other than many of us having been influenced as much by Language Writing as by anything else—is in the extent to which we seem focused on decentering and exploring subjectivity.
But how we do that, and perhaps why we do it, differs significantly from the Language Writers. With the exception of Charles Bernstein, the Language Writers didn’t consistently explore subjectivity to the degree of, say, Kathy Acker. But there’s a reason for that, I think. Acker wrote fiction.
Fiction has always involved the writer taking on other subjectivities. Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith are not murderers, but they take on these subjectivities, exploit them, for their fiction. What Acker did, in the realm of subjectivity at least, was not terribly radical. What was radical about her work had more to do with the style. It’s not radical to take on another, or multiple, subjectivities in fiction, theater, narrative film, or comics.
But in poetry, it is still somewhat radical. We still seem to hold on to some perhaps Romantic notion of The Poet, and Language Writing, as a general trend, didn’t really go far in questioning this. Certainly, P. Inman, in his writing, may not be recognizable as Peter Inman, the person—but neither is that writing recognizable as anyone else. So it defaults back to being Peter. Ron, except in one poem I can think of wherein every line begins with “I,” is always Ron in his poems. Lyn is Lyn. My Life is not an experiment in radical subjectivity. It’s a memoir. It operates functionally pretty much as Joe Brainard’s I Remember operates.
But look at the poems in Deer Head Nation. Or, for that matter, the poetry of just about everyone on the Flarflist. I’ve noticed that most of the poetry from the Flarflist is first-person. It’s not abstract in the way that, say, Inman, or Coolidge can be abstract. It’s most often made up of first-person statements. Literally, it’s often things that people have written and posted to the Web, in chat rooms, on bulletin boards, on blogs, and so on.
We’re not the only poets now who are focused on combining and juggling multiple subjectivities. Rob Fitterman, for instance, has been doing a lot of this as well.
Rob gave a talk at the Poetry Project a couple of months ago on this very subject. As he likes to say, “I like subjectivity; it just doesn’t have to be my own.” To me, this seems like a perfectly reasonable approach to writing poetry. To, as Rob said, “plunder” from the multitude of subjectivities, of multiple voices out there, freely available on the Web.
But his talk was met with serious resistance. Part of the resistance was only in the words he chose to describe the act: “Plundering,” in particular, which has obviously politically incorrect resonances. Though, I just think he was being honest. It is plundering. No one expected their words to be rerouted, “hijacked” if you will, into someone else’s poetry.
Still, there were some who seemed adamantly opposed to the idea of using other subjectivities at all. There were numerous reasons. One, which came from a somewhat prominent poet associated with Language Writing—a poet whose work, I should say, I absolutely love—was adamant that this was an “easy way out.”
The poet, and perhaps that should be capitalized, The Poet had, he felt, a responsibility to produce the work. While he didn’t state this outright, my sense was that he may have felt threatened. If we value others’ voices rather than the poets’, then what is the poet’s worth or value? Certainly, it is not in the poet’s subjectivity. And this poet is, by and large, one who writes out of a fairly consistent, recognizable subjective space: his own.
So, though I’ve been talking largely about Flarf as a sensibility and how appropriation plays a role in that, there is the other issue, which is very easily summed up: We literally appropriate other text for our work. But not just any other text. A key aspect of most of the text we appropriate is that it is a manifestation of some other person’s subjectivity.
The poet John Thorpe, of course, was exploring multiple subjectivities decades ago in books like Five Aces and Independence, and I would assume as well in his essay “Poetry as Air Traffic Control,” which I haven’t read, but can guess at, having read his four published books of poetry.
But it’s significant, I think, that no one ever talks about Thorpe’s work or his poetics. They’ve been largely forgotten. Up until now, I don’t think poets were really ready to grapple with the radical shift in subjectivity that he seemed to be proposing. We’re ready now. And I hope this may mean that people begin to discover his work and example.
TB: Personally, I've no problem with appropriative strategies. So long as they're employed in imaginative ways. Flarf, when it works well, works as well as any other approach to writing. It's in the grand tradition of collage. As Nada Gordon pointed out in a recent blogpost:
"Maybe it's just a choice between the landfill of collective consciousness and the landfill of the 'individual' psyche?"
What's of particular interest to me is that questions of ownership within the flarf movement, within, I wanna say, the flarfocracy (as far as I know I'm making this word up) focus on who owns its history, on who did what first.
GS: If we’re talking about flarf as a search-engine or Web-based phenomenon, and even if we’re talking about it as an approach to or exploration of subjectivity, ownership certainly belongs elsewhere. Thorpe, Bernstein, DJ-ing, Alan Sondheim, and so on all predate the list’s launch in 2001. The only difference with us is that we’re a group of poets doing it together, feeding off each other’s energies & examples.
But flarf as an articulated sensibility—or I should say semi-articulated, as it’s still in process—I do see one reason for our wanting to own some of our history in that case.
That doesn’t mean that I believe that a cult sensibility—which flarf seems to be poised to become, if it hasn’t yet become one—can be owned by any one person, or even group of people. In fact, a larger, cult sensibility is not possible if only a handful of people own it. Everyone, rightly, has to potentially feel ownership, just as we all may feel like we know Camp when we see it.
I wrote a lot about flarf on my blog several months ago after noticing that the word “flarf” seemed to be getting around. What I noticed was that flarf was being used as shorthand for “Google-sculpting.” I felt that it was important at the time to talk about the word’s origin. Not because ownership was an issue, but because I felt it was important to distinguish flarf from Google-sculpting. Important because Google-sculpting, considering everything available on the Web, could look and sound like anything. Flarf, on the other hand, doesn’t.
Obviously, at least to me, Kasey Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation and Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat--which I’ll use as examples because they are the first full-length books that wholly come out of this sensibility—do not read like other people’s Google-sculpting. I was trying to explain why that was, and why in fact I preferred what they’re doing to what many others have done and are doing now vis a vis search engines, which is because what they do is filtered through this specific sensibility, a sensibility that I obviously share with them. It gives the poems a crispness, a direction, and ultimately I think an energy that makes them exciting in ways that most Google-sculpting isn’t.
In order to do that coherently, I had to backtrack a bit to explain what this sensibility is, and where it came from. It really didn’t come from me, although my own definition of flarf (e.g., “awkward, stumbling, fucked-up, not-okay” or “a poetics of dis-ease,” etc.) is one of two or three most often cited. It’s a shared sensibility, shared and articulated, expanded and limited, by everyone on the list over the last five years.
All of that said, I do think that it can be helpful to articulate one’s poetics, although of course it isn’t necessary. In the case of flarf, where right now I have a sense that most people think it means “spam” poetry (flarf was described as such on boingboing.net, the most popular blog in the world), I think it’s probably not a bad idea to articulate what you value, and why you value it. The thought of hundreds of people thinking I write “spam” poetry is sort of depressing, although I suppose ultimately irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, it’s equally depressing to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to “correct” everyone.
Ultimately, I think you may find yourself in the position of having to articulate your poetics at certain times in your life, even if only to say “my ‘I do this I do that’ poems.” But once you’ve done that, it’s really the writing itself that has to somehow get out into the world and make whatever case is to made.
I’m personally in a sort of funny position, in that my reputation, such as it is, precedes me. Things happen very quickly on the Web. My name and the word “flarf” have been ping-ponging together all over the Internet in the last six months or so. But I don’t have a book, besides the comic, that can really be said to have come out of the flarf sensibility. I’m too involved with my comic right now to figure out where to send out much poetry, let alone a whole manuscript, and no one is making it easy for me by asking for something. It’s a funny position to be in, because ultimately I do want my own work to speak to what I’ve been up to for the last five years … but, where is it?
So, in absence of a collection I can conveniently point a reader to, I fall back on the articulation of my own poetics. “This is what I’m doing: blah, blah, blah.” No doubt this begins to feel at a certain point like—as someone recently quipped on a related flarf issue—a “land grab.” Perhaps. But if I had a house I could invite everyone over to, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to be constantly clutching at the earth—if that’s not taking the metaphor too far.
TB: I'm confident that collection will eventually come about.
GS: I am too. But meanwhile I find myself in an odd, frustrating position where it’s easier to tell than to show, to use that old creative writing saw. No matter how articulate you may be about your work—and I’m not that articulate—the work itself is always a vastly different, specific, experience. And that’s what I ultimately want to leave people with.
TB: A final question, what do you consider most encouraging/discouraging about the current poetry scene(s)?
GS: The most encouraging thing to me about the current situation in U.S. poetry is the general lack of a definable center. Geographical or aesthetic. This has something to do with the Internet and how poets are connecting up, with each other and with readers. Certainly, the flarflist would have been impossible without it—not to mention my relationship with Nada, and our book Swoon.
But the Internet doesn’t explain the visibility, over the last 20-odd years or so, of the multiplicity of styles, concerns, approaches out there, or the fact that younger poets, by and large, are comfortable operating within this relative chaos. That has a lot to do with the multicultural movement of the last 30 or so years.
Though occasionally some dismiss the multicultural trend in U.S. poetries as “mere” identity politics, the fact is, the multiculti movement has probably had more to do with a radical shift in how we look at writing, how we approach the reading process, than anything else. For one thing, we’re far more keyed into the context out of which a particular poem or poetics arrives and into which it plays itself out, than we ever were before. And while the New American Poetry and Language Writing both worked against earlier canonical formations, it was too easy for them to simply be subsumed into the existing canon, without radically altering the mindset that values such a thing in the first place.
The multiculti movement was different. I’m not sure that its work is entirely done, but it does make—with poetries and poetics and sensibilities and concerns coming from such a variety of directions, and making themselves and their contexts unavoidable, undismissable—we seem to be at a point now where we’re actually reevaluating the very notion of a canon, the need for a single, or at least more unified notion of the “proper” context for poetry at all. Because it isn’t possible given this level of incoming air traffic, if you will, not if we admit to ourselves that much of this traffic is significant and actually relevant.
So poets and readers today do seem generally more comfortable with the situation as it is: decentered. The people who make a fuss as to what poetry should be doing, these people would have been more successful in convincing anyone of that say 20-30 years ago. Today, you come out saying poetry must do this, that, and the other thing, and it’s usually a recipe for everyone to ignore you as at best, nostalgic, at worst a crank completely oblivious to the actual state of poetry and poetics in the U.S. today.
Which brings me to the most discouraging aspect of the field of poetry: The pressure on all of us, inside the academy, or like myself, working outside of the academy, to answer to what is in the worst sense of the word what I’d call an academic mindset.
To be reductive: The notion that poetry is, or must be, good for you. Even I feel some pressure to answer to this, despite my general sense that it’s ridiculous.
When we write about poetry, and by “we” I’m probably mostly referring to the subset of poets who might self-identify as “avant-garde” or “experimental”—we tend to fall into the trap of trying to explain what we’re doing such that it puts people who are worried or who may feel guilty about participating in the field of poetry, given the state of the world, at ease.
Guilt, if it isn’t shored up by constructive action of some kind, is an utterly wasted emotion. Worse, it can easily lead to depression and paralysis. But it’s an emotion that many people continue to waste on poetry and poets with surprising consistency.
Dan Hoy’s essay on flarf is a great case in point. Without understanding the first thing this collective group is even doing (among the many errors of fact in the essay, he cites a non-Googled poem as the sole example of something he mistakenly imagines as having been Googled), he wants us—and the world—to know we’re guilty. Guilty of conspiracy with corporate algorithms, guilty of not following the lead of Cage and Mac Low, guilty, as the very title of his essay suggests, of “fucking around.” (Presumably, while Rome burns.)
As a poet in the U.S., or really as any kind of artist here not working in a super-popular genre like narrative film or pop music, you’re considered guilty until proven innocent. Pound I think saw that early on, in a statement he made about the importance of defending one’s poetics.
Really, I can’t imagine a more warped position from which to seriously pursue art: Having to answer to the schoolmarms of the world. I could be wrong, but I suspect academia is at the root of this approach to poets and the like. As an academic, your goal is to “teach.” Why teach? For the betterment of the student. Poetry—everything taught, really—must conform to some sense of betterment.
I don’t think there’s any possible way in which you could lower the bar for art any further than by dignifying that goal. Too, it puts artists in the position of being criminals. Ever fill out a grant application? Or write an artistic proposal of any kind? Or sit down to articulate your poetics? I’ve done all three at one time or another, and it always feels like I’m on trial.
If we pursued action against the people who are really destroying this country--not to mention the earth--with the zeal, with the sense of moral righteousness, and with the consistency with which we readily bring to the grilling of our artists, we might actually change something someday.
I was reading the transcript of a panel on poetry and politics recently. Finally, I just couldn’t believe the amount of time that went into thinking about poetry, strategizing poetry, as a way of grappling with Empire. In the middle of this panel, one person explained why things aren’t changing in this country: Because too many people, including those on the panel, feel that they have too much to lose in an all-out resistance to Empire. Okay, I get that. But what happens is that energy that might be used socially and politically gets rerouted, because we’re “not yet ready” to really deal effectively with the forces that be, and gets siphoned off into these ultimately inconsequential mock-trials of poetry.
There has always only been one successful form of social movement: That which is focused on specific objective or objectives, which are clear to everyone. If the goal is clear enough—women’s suffrage, civil rights, AIDS awareness—people can set aside temporary differences and get on board. Look at what’s happening right now with the immigration movement.
That goal can be anything. With respect to Empire, an immediate goal might be in making corporations, including those involved in the defense and oil industries, accountable for their actions. Having a goal like that makes it easier to begin to work through specific actions that must take place in order for the goal to be met. Anything seen as an obstacle to that goal will be set aside or worked through.
Arguing the relative socio-political merits of different kinds of poetry can be interesting and instructive, but has nothing to do with, say, the goal proposed above. Too, again, it runs the danger of criminalizing the wrong people, and ultimately alienating them from the social or political movement.
In order to meet any real-world goal, we have to set aside these differences and work together. A recent example: At one of the Poetry Is News festivals here in NYC, a poet said that the multiculti movement was in great part responsible for dividing poets from each other, from a common vision, and that therefore, we needed to abandon this particular approach to poetry.
I disagree. People can continue to express their differences or situations or whatever in poetry, and there is, simply put, activism, direct action, that everyone can be involved in, if everyone understands the goal and what needs to be done to meet it. Telling a bunch of people they’re wrong to express themselves in poetry is just going to alienate them. Good luck getting them to participate with you on, well, anything. Rather, if you want them on board, appreciate their aesthetics, their differences, for what they are, even if you don’t like the work, and focus on the larger goal.
I think we’re going to hit a point—maybe even soon—where we’re not going to allow ourselves to just watch in horror as the administration or corporations continue to commit one heinous crime after another. And we’re going to refocus all of this energy currently being waged against poetry, against ourselves really, and, crawling out of our current state of social and political paralysis, redirect it where it might—finally—matter.