Thursday, March 10, 2005

 

Erika Marie Eckart is a student at Loyola University in Chicago. She wrote & asked me if I would respond to some questions and I said I would. That seemed to surprise her. But her questions remind me that we’re not all reading these pages or my work with the same background. It makes sense every once in awhile to level the playing field some, so that’s my idea here: just to respond as directly as I can. I’ve interspersed my responses with her email below.

 

Mr. Silliman,

 

Sorry I haven't gotten back to you sooner. My computer has been down all weekend and I didn't really expect you to respond. It is super neat that you did, but honestly my pessimism deterred me from preparing well-thought-out questions. So here are the loosely prepared ones I thought up this morning.

 

While there is a lot of biographical information about you available, much is outdated. I've been trying to glean what I can from your blog (thanks for the tip about Cue magazine), but that hasn't been very effective. Could you give a brief description of what you've been writing and writing projects (i.e. editing, teaching) you've been involved in over the past couple years.

 

I don’t teach anywhere – I work as a market analyst in the computer industry and have done that & things rather a lot like that for the past 16 years. I have taught on occasion – and turned down a half dozen job offers over the years – but I’ve never been a career academic. I was a graduate school administrator for four years in the 1980s but that’s the closest I’ve come to settling down in a teaching institution. My terminal degree, as they say, is a high school diploma.

 

Between 1979 & 2004, I worked on a single poem, The Alphabet, the very final section of which I’m typing up right now. To date, I’ve published 13 volumes from that project, tho a couple have been just fragments of an individual section. Right now, I’m just getting started on a new, somewhat larger project called Universe. The first section appears to be called Revelator, but right now I can’t tell you much more than that there will be some 360 of these sections.

 

How do you feel about being described as a member of the language poetry movement? Do you resent been assigned a title?

 

Wistful & ambivalent. Throughout history, a lot of collective names – the Beats, the Fauvists, Language Poetry – have been coined by people who were interested in dismissing precisely the thing named. As is visible from the comment you quote below – which is, I think, self-evidently incorrect, even comically so – being “typed” allows some people to think they’ve read you when they haven’t.

 

Having said that, I don’t resent the title. The other people who have to carry that association are still my favorite writers in the universe. I do think it’s more complicated when someone who has always been a sharp & intelligent critic of language writing, such as Leslie Scalapino, gets called a language poet.

 

Do you feel that this quote from Carl Dennis honestly defines what language poets are trying to achieve? If so how do you react to his criticism? – "About language poets, I appreciate their concern to point out the way in which common language is constantly being corrupted by the discourse of political and commercial manipulation. I disagree with them to the extent they conclude that the only way to resist this corruption is by creating an opaque surface that forces the reader to labor in deciphering. As I write in my book Poetry as Persuasion, "In its suspicion of clarity, language poetry tends to limit its task to the undermining of conventional discourse rather than trying to reclaim ordinary speech for truth-telling. We may ask why the intelligence that is exhibited in the clear-eyed cataloguing of linguistic abuses might not be used to help purify more directly the language of the tribe, resisting demotic speech by trying to say as clearly as possible what the poet believes to be important."

 

I’ve always written more clearly than does Carl Dennis. The same is true for Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson & the majority of language writers, so called. Opaque surfaces are not antithetical to clear writing – indeed, they are sometimes its prerequisite, especially when confronted with a fetishized transparency. But not all language writers use opacity, and some who do deploy the device do so only sparingly. Dennis’ comments sound clear enough, but in fact what he’s saying is that he hasn’t read much of the work, nor very closely. So the purpose of his response is to deploy the devices of transparency into getting the reader to not question his assumptions. His is a defensive prose, but rather poorly executed I think. At least the cliché “language of the tribe” should warrant a hardy laugh. Do you think you could get away with that in an undergraduate paper?

 

A lot of my research refers to language poetry in the past tense (i.e. "it was a movement that..."), this conflicts with the intent of my assignment, to depict a school of contemporary poets that are working right now. I find this confusing because the writers that these articles reference are mostly still working. Why do you think it is often referred to as a historical rather than continuing movement?

 

I actually agree with that use of tense. I tend to think of language poetry as being a very distinct social phenomenon that had two distinct periods of roughly equal length, the first being 1970-78, a time when a group of 40 or so poets were interacting primarily with one another, each writer clarifying his or her thinking, then a second period starting around 1978 and continuing into the mid-1980s in which these same writers were communicating outwardly much of what had gone on before. By the mid-1980s, tho, so many other writers had either decided that they were interested in this or that aspect of language writing, or not interested at all, that its influence had become much more generalized even as it had broadened. After the mid-1980s, one might be a language poet rather in the way that Allen Ginsberg could still be a beat poet even when he sold his archives to Stanford University for a million dollars and was actively working to get students at the Naropa Institute to pay better heed to classic literature. But that’s really something very different.

 

All schools of poetry are inextricably tied into the social circumstances through which they arise. The experience of the Vietnam War was a major factor in the rise of language poetry as a phenomenon, for example, just as the economic expansion at the end of the Second World War gave rise to the Beats, the New York School & other modes of New American Poetry. The writers associated with language poetry were somewhat unique in acknowledging this dynamic in their writing.

 

Lastly I have to "define" language poetry and discuss' it's roots. I plan to define it through demonstration and comparison to lyric poetry, hopefully in that way I can avoid having to say this is what it is. Is there anything you think I should absolutely include in the presentation that I might not happen upon myself? Also do you know of any language poets living and working in Chicago, as this information may help students feel closer to this school of writing?

 

Sincerely,

Erika Marie Eckart

 

One of the interesting aspects of language poetry – something that was very specific to its period of time, prior to the internet – was that it was decidedly regional. If you look at In the American Tree, you will notice that there is really only one poet there who lives in a state that doesn’t actually border an ocean – Tom Beckett of Kent, Ohio. That aspect was an important element in those years – you could have face-to-face interactions with most of the practitioners just by visiting New York, San Francisco, Washington & San Diego. In subsequent years, Barrett Watten & Carla Harryman have moved to Detroit, Tom is still in Kent, and several of us, myself included, have switched coasts – but it’s still very much a blue state phenomenon.

 

That regionalization of course is one of the things that has changed dramatically about poetry in the mid-1980s. The huge social gulf between “the coasts” and “the interior” – it was even commemorated in 1990 by a conference of younger poets who declared themselves to be “New Coast” – has given way. There are also many more women writing poetry than there were just 30 years ago – language poetry in that sense was a transitional moment between the boys club of the New American poetries of the 1950s and today. And there are many more poets of various non-European national backgrounds active in the post-avant world than there were then. There are also many more poets period. Online magazines have become the norm – none existed even 15 years ago. But there have been no subsequent social formations of poets in quite the same way as the language poets. I wrote about that here in just the past couple of weeks & won’t repeat myself here, but these are all points worth considering. That’s the real story about what is happening in today’s poetry. Language poetry might be part of how we got here, but it’s not what’s happening now any more than it is the “unclear” writing of Carl Dennis’ imagination.

 

I hope this response hasn’t made your life too much more difficult,

 

Best,

 

Ron

 





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