Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rethinking Poetics: Some Post-Conference Thoughts

I just returned from the Rethinking Poetics conference held last weekend at Columbia University. I spent several days, both during and after the proceedings, engaged in sometimes heated discussion with people about the event's merits and shortcomings, and now several comment streams on Facebook continue to dispense the fallout.

I won't talk about the specifics of the panels or the particular issues that aroused the most controversy (or lack thereof?), except to say that as with any conference, there were some panels I found interesting and some I didn't. What I'm most struck by are what seem to be the two prevalent types of overall post-conference discontent as expressed by both those who were there and those who weren't. I think these reactions point up two very different desires/anxieties within the larger poetic community, one having to do with its design as a group event and one with its execution on the level of individual presentations.

1) That it was too exclusively academic, and "exclusive" also in that it was perceived as invitation-only (though I think this was more a factor of insufficient pre-publicity than of any exclusionary intent on the parts of the organizers)

2) That the talks were themselves unsatisfying in various ways, including that they were either too academic, or not rigorously academic enough; that they were either antagonistically wrongheaded in being over-committed to a narrow poetic vision, or too centered on broader things like ecology or sociology instead of "poetics per se"; that particular trends or concepts were under-represented, or that (often the same ones) were over-represented.

Some of these objections are inevitable with any conference, but I think this one, for some reason, touched a particular collective nerve. Based on my own and others' experiences of the event, I think the whole thing raises two crucial questions:

1) Is there a coherent or even usefully diffuse "we" within contemporary poetry? Should there be? Or has even experimental poetry splintered into different communities with aesthetics and objectives that are irrelevant or even antithetical to each other? Further, if the latter is the case, what are the divisions that mark these different communities? Are they academic/non-academic? generational? stylistic? something else?

2) If there is still something like a "we," what rudimentary definition of "poetics" would satisfy a significant percentage of its members, at least as a starting point for continued discussion? Is this even a desirable goal? Is the problem with "rethinking poetics," when "poetics" is posited as a concept across which multiple subcommunities are supposed to be able to hold some coherent conversation, that it hasn't been sufficiently thought in the first place?

One anecdote, I feel, demonstrates the difficulty in question. At one point during the conference, Marjorie Perloff admonished the organizers for not involving other representatives of poetry within the academy: namely, the creative writing community, for instance the Columbia MFA program, which, as she pointed out, was "right down the street." I sensed that the suggestion was widely perceived as ridiculous (partly, of course, because increasing the number of academically aligned participants hardly felt like the solution to the problem many sensed with the conference's makeup), and in fact, I admit that this was my own feeling at the time. What could someone like, say, Richard Howard possibly have to contribute to a meeting like this one? And why would he ever consider it? In fact, I still feel this way, but upon reflection, this feeling provokes uncomfortable further reflections. Yes, the values and priorities of the "mainstream" creative writing industry and those of the experimental community are so fundamentally at odds in so many ways that the thought of a room full of half one, half the other, all struggling just to figure out why they were even bothering to try connecting with each other in the face of their obvious antipathies, does seem absurd and gratuitously painful--or, alternately, in what might be a "best-case" scenario, like a recipe for the worst kind of compromise built on a platform of bland eclecticism or "hybridity" (which, based on several of the presentations at the conference, it seems clear "we" all oppose). But one could ask, as I guess I'm asking right now: how is that not already the case?

As far as I can see, the current experimental poetry community, as represented both by the participants in the Rethinking Poetics conference and by those who have been commenting on it before, during, and after its proceedings, is full of exactly the same kinds of prejudicial conflicts and bad-faith rapprochements (I was, two days ago, accused by someone, perhaps justly, of being myself an "accommodationist") as those that mark the mainstream/experimental schism. Sometimes the conflicts are dramatic and pronounced, sometimes they're sublimated, but we all know they're there.

And yet, of course there is still "community." Eco-poets and conceptual writers, abstract Marxists and Wittgensteinian neo-idealists, all often have perfectly satisfying friendships with each other, brought about by their mutual involvement in the poetry community, despite what is sometimes their complete lack of sympathy or even tolerance for each other's poetics. Sometimes, of course, they hate each other's guts, but that can also be said about members within a single movement. So my point is: maybe we shouldn't expect that "poetics" can be the coherent and cordial object of discussion across subcommunities which are, after all, often defined by the radical difference of their poetics from each other. Maybe the best we can hope for in the way of mass convocation--if we must have mass convocation--is a provisional and occasional space of conviviality in which we recognize each other as driven by a related passion (e.g., for "poetry" considered in the broadest sense), but make no attempt to reconcile, define, or even discuss our incompatible poetics. Something, that is, like the AWP.


Matt said...

"What could someone like, say, Richard Howard possibly have to contribute to a meeting like this one? And why would he ever consider it?"

calling it "rethinking experimental poetics" might have been a good way to solve this problem.

rodney k said...

Hi Kasey,

Great reflections. When I think of the glue that still holds together the Humpty Dumpty of experimental poetry, the first thing that comes to mind for me is its shared syllabus of "greats." Whatever debates go on at these conferences, I doubt there's a lot of time wasted disputing that poets like, say, Stein, or Oppen, or Scalapino, or Coolidge, or Mayer, or LANGUAGE poets or whoever aren't worth reading and talking about. Whereas if you invited Richard Howard, the shot clock might run out while you worked out who's worth including on the community canon.

What impresses me is how huge the "we" that acknowledges that syllabus has grown. It supports a bigger weight now than a single social configuration or tidy set of academic programs can comfortably handle, which I don't think was the case all that long ago. (Brent Cunningham and Paul Hoover have both written about this "inclusion phenomenon" in the context of AWP).

The part of your question that asks whether Humpty Dumpty needs to stay together, and fly to conferences to socialize with the King's men, is a good one that I'd like to think more about. Resources--of time, money, audience, review space, publication venues, readerly attention, etc.--seem like a good argument for keeping things together, but it's sort of a hollow pragmatic one.

Thanks for posting your thoughts.

David Need said...

Movement politics are necessarily brutal and franchise oriented seems to me. When people start talking about a "we" I wonder if they understand what social self is. We are already a we, and any unison is episodic.

Anwyn Crawford said...

As a current MFA poetry student at Columbia - not so much "down the street" as across the bloody lawn - I'm really disappointed that I've only just found out about this conference, several days after the fact, from a friend in Australia, no less. Goes to show how non-existent the channels of communication are if the news had to bounce around the world and back again before it could even cross between departments at the same university.

It's a real shame, and I think the organisers of this conference did themselves and everyone else a huge disservice by presuming that MFA students and faculty simply wouldn't be interested. I'm very interested in experimental poetics and I know I'm not the only student in the program who is.

Rather than presume that the MFA program represents some kind of dull-witted "mainstream" that would have nothing to contribute to your discussions, you might try next time a little bit of genuine open-mindedness: young poets are, if nothing else, keen learners, and you've just denied them an opportunity to be exposed to practices and theories of poetics which might well be of great value to their emerging practice.

Bryan Coffelt said...

I wish there was a directory to all the different notes people had from this conference. Any chance you could link me to anyone else who's blogging about this?

Marjorie Perloff said...

Since my remark about a possible rapprochement with the Creative Writing Dept at Columbia was felt to be somehow "ridiculous"--what would Richard Howard have to offer? asks Kasey--let me note here that teaching in that program currently are Tim Donnelly (the book review editor at Boston Review), Mark Bibbins, and Marjorie Welish, who might as easily have been at our conference. These US versus THEM routines just don't work.
Marjorie Perloff

Jeremy James Foxtrot Thompson said...

unison may be episodic... but then we're left wondering how many episodes are left in the season, and if, in the end, we'll have any idea what the series was about.

Jordan said...

It's perfect that the post-convention dialogue is taking place on Facebook. Why mess with perfection and open up a dialogue here?

A true rethinking of poetics would investigate the general problem that education in poetry has become simply the training of the sales force -- something the poets Perloff lists could discuss just as fluently as the apparatchiks Golston gathered.

Hiding Place Man said...

Re Jordan's comment above... Jonathan Skinner announced -twice that I heard- that he was live-Facebooking the conference. Awesome news, I guess --for his friends.

Anonymous said...

What I thought was most interesting about the "where is the Columbia CW program?" moment was that no one asked the same question about Poetry Project. Was anyone but Mike Scharf there from their org chart (or recently retired, like Anselm etc)? So it's really interesting that there was such an absence. But it's just as interesting that no one felt compelled to call it out.

All of which is by way of saying only that it doesn't really work to suggest that the inclusion/exclusion principle traced the line of experimental/traditional, and that the reasons folks weren't there — and how that made people feel — may be more complicated.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Marjorie, of course you're right that Welish and some of the other writers you mentioned would not have been at all out of place at the conference, and, more importantly, I agree with you completely that the anti-MFA attitude expressed by many in the experimental community is outdated and deleterious--especially as many in that community are themselves increasingly affiliated with creative writing programs of various types, some of which programs are, for better or worse, adapting their philosophies and curricula to reflect this.

Although I didn't develop it as fully or clearly as I could have, my real point was--or should have been--that just as there is one community which identifies itself with the term "poetics" as a marker of intellectual and aesthetic difference from what it perceives as another, more vulgar/careerist/irrelevant community, that community which it thus perceives as "other" perceives it and its particular identification with "poetics" in turn as pretentious, arrogant, and hostile. So with respect to someone like Richard Howard, my emphasis should have been on the "why would he ever consider it?" part.

But this is not to say that I think the solution is a simple "meeting of the minds" between experimental poets and the creative writing industry. My indictment is meant to be double-edged: I think a) that there continues to be such a thing as a retrograde, conservative poetry "establishment" which ought to be challenged; and b) that the community which has for the past few decades fashioned itself as the logical challenger of that establishment is increasingly inadequate to the task. This is all the more true because, as you say, the old "US versus THEM routines just don't work." They don't work, not because there isn't a real "us and "them" (though it is true that those two categories are increasingly blurred), but because neither "us" nor "them" can sustain any convincing claim to greater relevance to or impact on the larger culture. The two strategies most often used by "them" and "us" to secure more relevance/impact have typically been based on a) academic and/or commercial tactics of adapting to the dominant culture via humanistic sentiment and professionalization, and b) alignment with a historical avant-garde tradition of resisting the dominant culture via political protest and defamiliarization. A quick look at the different "camps," however, shows both that these divisions are impossible to maintain between them, and that meither of the main strategies is working very well at any rate for either "side." Put crudely, poets aren't making any real money, and they're not changing the world (at least not through their poetry as such).

Stephanie said...

what Jane said

phaneronoemikon said...
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phaneronoemikon said...
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rodney k said...

"The two strategies most often used by "them" and "us" to secure more relevance/impact have typically been based on a) academic and/or commercial tactics of adapting to the dominant culture via humanistic sentiment and professionalization, and b) alignment with a historical avant-garde tradition of resisting the dominant culture via political protest and defamiliarization."

Isn't there a Strategy 3: Claim it's "your" poetry and not "theirs" that'll be read 50, 80, 100 years in the future? Isn't this usually the first one pulled out of the avant (even 'post-avant') kit bag when the going gets rough?

Property Press said...

To echo Jordan here: it is indeed perfect that post-convention dialogue is taking place on Facebook. And if the alternative to this dialogue at conference panels or on Facebook just is AWP—which no one needs to be reminded is no alternative at all—then perhaps the question of “us” versus “them” needs to be dropped not to accept AWP as commonsensical reality or necessary farce but rather to revive it more energetically by reframing the antagonism beyond the limit of all poetry communities whatsoever. If it is even possible to conceptualize an “us” versus “them” today, just as often as not—AWP might stand as some evidence of this—poets are already on the wrong side. But at least they (or we) are winning.

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments and perusing the names of the people invited to the conference, one is struck by a redundancy which perhaps prevents from the outset a "rethinking"--rather than a search for possibilities for "rebranding."

Despite a huge presence in the academy and the appearance of poetry by various "experimental" poets in mainstream journals--despite an immense network of self-described "experimental poets" throughout the publishing, academic and critical worlds, despite the invitation of many of the expected ("the usual suspects") poets, many of whom have well respected academic posts and publishers--the idea that there is something "experimental" existing among the poets is rather a stretch. That is, they are recognized as "experimental" by themselves, and promoted as such, to the point where their "opposition" to the "mainstream" is not unlike that of the "loyal opposition" in Parliament. Given the "success" of their "experimental" "programs" in the worldly sense--professional, careers, etc--why would there be any need to "rethink" anything to do with "poetics"? The main question would seem to be that of "rebranding"--changing the names and descriptions slightly of the various "types" and "Methods" and "poetics" of the various "experimental" poets so that they seem ,indeed, "fresh,seen and heard anew"--with a bit of promotion, indeed, one might even get a sense of there being at some point to come--of an "urgent rethinking of poetics in view of the changing ecological/economic situations of our times." Since the poets are ALREADY experimental, all that need be done is a "rethinking" the applications of the experimental poetry to the "urgent call of the times." This would show that, as Bill Clinton put it, "I feel your pain"--that the experimental poets are indeed concerned citizens, but bringing instead of the usual normative language of the mainstream to bear on the disasters, contributing an "experimental" approach--"fresh, new"--"introducing a new language to the discussion"--and so "outshine, outperform" the stodgy old cliches and quietudes, platitudes--of the "midcult" mainstream poets. That is only one possibility, to be sure--though it has a precedent in the "Enough" speech by Charles Bernstein re the anti-war poems of the "Poets Against the War," which for Bernstein are couched in the same language as that used by president bush--leading Dr Bernstein to call for "staying the course" with "our" 'complex, ambiguous" "experimental" poetic language.

When so many have so much invested in the poetics they already are practicing for some time now, with quite some appreciable signs of success--why "rethink" something that "ain't broke"--when al that need be done is rebrand it, to bring it up to date--to make it seem even cooler, more sophisticated, more hip than it already was as "experimental" poetry. (And have another conference to discuss al this--)

phaneronoemikon said...
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shelley said...

"Or lack thereof."


JS said...


In response to "Hiding Place Man" . . . I did NOT announce that I was "live Facebooking" the conference proceedings. It was more out of boredom (not at this particular conference so much as out of fatigue, having just come off a series of poetry events I attended throughout the spring) and out of churlishness at having to sit indoors with the glorious summer outside, that I turned on my iPod touch (I don't have an iPhone) to discover a miraculously free Wifi connection. So I decided, to make the time pass faster, that I'd post a snippet from each speaker, as the panels progressed. After lunch, Joshua Clover (presumably having checked FB in the interim) announced that I was "live Facebooking," an announcement that Steve Evans echoed the next day. In fact, I missed the first panel on the second day, was too busy thinking about my own presentation to continue posting, and I actually found the ensuing presentations, later that day and on Sunday (most of which were speed-read papers) hard to follow, or too hard to excerpt on the fly.

In any case, I posted all my updates (and post-RP comments) on the ecopoetics blog:

michael said...



Anonymous said...




D Hadbawnik said...

i am SO glad that I avoided this conference like the plague.... given the reports i've heard.... not that it took more than a few milliseconds of reflection to realize beforehand that a conference titled "rethinking poetics" would have little to offer...

aren't these things more about the performances anyway? i mean, last year it was the eileen myles talk at belladonna, this year it was the marjorie perloff remarks, and someone calling someone else a 'fuckface' over and over again... (and by 'performance' i mostly mean that; not the talks themselves but the outraged reactions to them, the stirring up of controversy and confrontation, so the maginot lines can be redrawn on facebook and in blog comment streams afterwards...)

i mean, spare me!

but thanks for this report, kasey, and the thoughtful follow-up remarks...

Brian Stefans said...

I'm sure I don't have much to add to what has been happening on Facebook and elsewhere -- I really have not been paying attention -- but got caught up writing this after reading your blog post and the comments stream this morning.