Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

Laird Hunt, Rebecca Brown and Thalia Field were discussing “The Poetics of Prose” on Tuesday morning, although from my bailiwick at the rear of the auditorium it felt more as if Thalia Field had decided to take on genre once & for all as having no true value beyond “getting in the way” of whatever you need to write next. She was, so to speak, taking no prisoners. It made for such a lively discussion – one student after another clung to the questioner’s microphone in the middle of the audience trying to see if Field would bend even a little – that I forgot I was supposed to step outside at 11 o’clock to take a call from Jordan Davis. My bad, Jordan.

Certainly anyone who has ever written a work that gets mangled & muddled by the institutions that surround literature is going to sympathize deeply with Field’s frustration, if not necessarily the moral terms into which she was casting her jihad against genre. I won a Pushcart Prize for Fiction in 1979, although in fact I have never, to this day, written any. It was nice to receive an award & all, but I made them take the word fiction off my work in the paperback edition. The work that received this curious honor, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, one of the satellite texts of The Age of Huts, has neither character, plot nor even, for that matter, verbs. But it does appear as a single block of print that might be read as a paragraph. Which apparently is all that is required to be an award-winning author of fiction.

Then, three years later, UC San Diego offered me a visiting lectureship to come and teach fiction there. This appeared to be a result of the books Ketjak and Tjanting, works that have verbs for the most part, tho plot & character never really darken their doors unless, as Bob Perelman once theorized, the repetition of sentences in these poems is understood as plot. I insisted that UC let me teach a poetry course before I said yes. Did I feel guilty saying yes, knowing how many thousands of hardworking, dedicated, intelligent fiction writers there are who haven’t been getting such support for their work, either in the way of Pushcarts or teaching jobs? Yes, for about 30 seconds. It says something about the state of fiction – or maybe just the state of fiction in that little pocket of time 25 years ago – that someone could garner jobs & awards just by virtue of reaching the right-hand margin.

Elizabeth Willis, one of the shining presences at Naropa this week, rose up from the audience to note that genre distinctions are a necessity for institutions such as the New York Times Book Review as well as for bookstore managers. Since I’m teaching Povel this week, a book that received a poetry award that led to its publication but which has been reviewed almost exclusively as a novel, I wondered about that. It might be a bit much expecting bookstore managers to read the product before stocking their shelves, but what would the New York Times lose by the disappearance of easy categories besides the ability to know that it was dissing poetry as ever? Later, I pointed out to Elizabeth that, back when Small Press Traffic was primarily a small press bookstore on 24th Street in Noe Valley, it divided its stock into three sections: men, women & fiction.

The discussion also reminded me of an experiment I conducted in the mid-1970s when I was invited to give readings within a two-week period at the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison¹ and at UC San Diego through the Visual Arts program where David Antin was teaching. I gave the same reading in each institution, centered around the poem “Berkeley,” a text that predates anything in The Age of Huts, even Ketjak, that was written using found material, every line in the text beginning with the word “I.” At UCSD, the students were appreciative and wanted to talk afterwards about how I saw my work vis-à-vis the likes of Roland Barthes. At Folsom, I got an enthusiastic response from African-American prisoners, more so even than from the students at UCSD, and a more polite but muted response from the white cons. Talking with the prisoners afterwards, I learned that the blacks, mostly urbanites from either LA or the Bay Area, heard what I was doing as a kind of verbal jazz. They hadn’t heard anything quite like it, but they could relate it to something they knew & understood – they had a genre category for what I was doing. The white convicts at Folsom were mostly displaced cowboys from the central valley. Their preferred music was Merle Haggard, not jazz, and they really didn’t have any clue as to how my writing might fit into their world.

The students at UCSD heard my writing as theory-savvy in some way – that accounted for their positive reaction there, but I suspect that on other occasions it has been every bit as much a turn-off to other student listeners. Certainly an awareness of theoretical debates later proved to be one of the great crimes that I & other langpos were charged with, mostly by professional academics, but also occasionally by some poets who had consciously rejected the academy themselves. Theory-savvy text is not (or was not then) a category among urban black felons, but they had their own set of categories & I happily came close enough to one to fit. But the white cons at Folsom had a different set altogether & there wasn’t any slot that seemed appropriate.

So in this sense I don’t think that categories or genre are a plot by Times editors, curriculum administrators or the buyers at Borders or Barnes & Noble. Rather, all of those institutions are trying to work with & shape, however ineptly (& it’s pretty profound), categories that begin with readers, as such, that come out of their own life experiences, which will differ dramatically according to their backgrounds. At some level, they’re not much more than an awareness – it can be quite vague in the absence of a specific text to identify & type – of the ensemble of cognitive frames we carry for any literary or textual phenomena. Some of it is learned, of course, but not necessarily always in school.

It’s not unlike the question of the relationship of a blog like this one to so-called serious critical writing. There no doubt are some readers who don’t trust a text that hasn’t been refereed by representatives of a critical journal. I’ve been pretty clear over the years that I tend to think of refereed journals as second-rate repositories of critical sludge and that direct discourse by poets amongst each other is really the only critical writing of lasting value. Which is to say that all the Fred Jameson texts in the world will never have the impact of a single copy of The Mayan Letters or Call Me Ishmael. Now there are some writers – Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPless all immediately jump to mind – who successfully address both worlds at once. That’s a phenomenon worth studying on its own, but I would suggest that it’s a success that comes not through denying the differences between genres as Thalia Field seems to desire, but rather through acute sensitivity to the active dimensions (and limitations) of each.

 

¹ That way minimum security prisoners could attend & so could those in maximum security. Had I read in the minimum security library, the prisoners assigned to higher levels of security would not have been able to be there.

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