Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wise Guys Meet in La Jolla
Clockwise from RS at rear of table:
Rae Armantrout, John Granger, Ted Pearson, Dustin Leavitt
(photo by TC Marshall)

Because I was in California for half of April, I missed the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House while I was gone. But the relationship of poetry & community was constantly on my mind, reading at UC (which still fails to treat me to the usual glut of alma mater literature, a mistake that SF State never makes, tho in fact I never actually received a degree from either), going past the house I grew up, the house eight blocks away that I owned prior to the move to Pennsylvania, visiting dear friends, including David Melnick in San Francisco & Cecelia Bromige in Sebastopol. I’m co-editing collected poems for both Melnick & David Bromige and had things I needed & wanted to discuss with each. Plus the primal pleasure of visiting dear friends. I was amazed, at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, to see that Steve Fama has a pretty good collection of my writings on prisons from my days with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), which is to say 1977 & before. Later in the week, Kathleen Frumkin & I sorted through the NY Times to find the crossword puzzle that listed “Pulitzer Prize Poet Armantrout & others” on April 13 (Rae’s birthday – did they know that?), plus the solution the following day, which was “Raes.” It was one of those deeply satisfying psychic journeys in which I traveled more than just geographical distance.

My first event on the West Coast was at the Center for Psychoanalysis in San Francisco, an interesting blend of resonances in my life given just how many psychoanalysts I know, how many therapists & the number of decades I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another. One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

Moment in the sense that the term, if it meant anything, named – there is lots to be said about the whole notion of naming here, all of it problematic – a series of dynamics that were occurring in different places at about the same time. I divided the anthology into two geographic sections, West & East, because I thought then (and still think today) that it is apparent that visibly different dynamics were occurring on each coast. It is not that the East Coast bore a relationship to the NY School and the West Coast did not – Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer, Steve Benson, to pick some of the most obvious, have strong relationships with some of the NY School writers. But, far more importantly, the face-to-face interactions of people in San Francisco, New York City & Washington had profound implications for the writers & writing in each city. For one thing, even as late as the mid-‘80s, there was far less geographic dispersion on the West Coast than on the East – the only Western poets in Tree who did not live in the Bay Area, Rae Armantrout & Michael Davidson, were both former Bay Area residents living in San Diego, where the absence of an ongoing indigenous scene kept them from having to split allegiances in a way that might have proven more complicated, say, in the LA area. On the East Coast, you had New York, DC, Boston, upstate New York & even Kent, Ohio. It was literally all over the map.

Nobody demonstrated the importance of face-to-face interaction among the poets in Tree than did the presence of Tom Beckett in the anthology. Because at that point in the mid-1980s, he’d had very little of that sort of contact. Given that the anthology was going to have limits – I did not include sympatico poets living in other countries, for example, such as Steve McCaffery or Tom Raworth – the inclusion of somebody who lacked that sort of in-person connection was the most controversial decision I made, at least to the other contributors, several of whom told me point blank, in person & by mail, not to do so. I don’t think this was about Tom’s writing, but simply the idea that he was not already part of the scene, however loosely defined, given that scenes¹ entail face-to-face interactions, that discussion over coffee or beer or tequila.

Thus when Bill Mohr complains, as he does toward the end of Hold-Outs, that Tree does not include any of the innovative poets then active in Los Angeles, he’s certainly right technically, but missing the point sociologically. The kind of close interaction that Paul Vangelisti & Ray Di Palma have had in recent decades was nowhere evident in the 1970s. Leland Hickman had not yet begun the process, evident in all his editing projects but explicit in Temblor, of connecting the best of LA with major post-avant writers throughout the English language, and indeed Hickman complained – especially with regards to his earlier editing projects – that he caught flak from LA writers generally whenever he included anybody from beyond the immediate environs of Los Angeles.

Given how radically the internet has changed the function of geography in the creation of poetic communities-slash-tendencies – how else imagine flarf as having a “major center” in Southern Oregon? – this may be the hardest thing for younger poets (i.e., those who have grown up with the internet as a given) to grasp about literary scenes just a few decades away.

One senses the tension in the negative take on community one hears in Johanna Drucker’s eulogy for conceptual poetics in the recent Poetry Project Newsletter, and referenced again in Tom Fisher’s assessment of the O●blēk Anthology in the Resisting Communities panel of the Penn conference. In these frames, community = elitism, whereas a generation earlier (i.e. my generation) it was taken – perhaps on face value – as the alternative to the rugged individualism of the New Critical-cum-Cold War aesthetics that had attempted to abolish modernism as just one more of those failed European –isms that rendered the 20th century as one long killing field.

In practice, this is impossibly complicated – Drucker, whom I’ve known since 1974, is hardly a member of a younger generation when she consigns conceptualism to a past that is at best theoretical. But she does speak to the alienation many writers no doubt felt that there was a post-avant poetics called Langpo, called Conceptualism, called Flarf, whatever, that one could exist apart from. The community she negates is one that emanates from the fact that there is power in numbers, but what she objects to is not the numbers, but the power. It’s an interesting position.

In San Francisco, still responding to this initial question at the Center for Psychoanalysis, I noted that in the 1970s & early ‘80s, there were many poets – Drucker among them – who had progressive critiques of language writing & that several seemed very adamant about letting you know that language poetry was not them. It was ironic, therefore, to see Jerry Estrin described as a language poet in his own obituary, or to see Leslie Scalapino lumped in with that very writing she so often seemed to be critiquing. The presence of Ted Pearson as a co-author of The Grand Piano – he is not included in In the American Tree – is a testament to that fluidity.² As I answered that question, I noted the presence of Beverly Dahlen, another perfect example of this phenomenon, sitting right in the first row of the audience.

Am I a language poet? In that sense, was I ever? The term, as has been pointed out repeatedly, was chosen by Alan Soldofsky & it stuck, rather in the manner that Herb Caen’s coinage of beatniks clung to an earlier generation of poets, none of whom fit the stereotypes that soon attached like barnacles to the term.

In the way that San Francisco Renaissance may describe any poetry – or at least any anti-Quietist poetry – written in that city between 1945 & 1960, language poetry is a phrase that appears to become broader, looser, more inclusive & less meaningful every year. Leslie Scalapino must have cringed to have heard herself lumped in with writers whom she was forever critiquing, but her criticism was always that of a friend. As were the critiques of Bob Glück, Bruce Boone & so many other writers who were attempting to clear some ground for their own literary efforts. They were not the critics who complained that language poets were Marxists (never true of more than a handful of us in any event), were theorists (ditto), or were, to pluralize a phrase as it was once applied to me in the American Book Review, “Stalinist thugs.”

I included Tom Beckett in In the American Tree precisely because I wanted to honor his writing & his commitment, and also to note the problematics of geography that applied to the poetry I was gathering, as well as to the whole notion of geographic limitation. If I made a mistake, it was not in his inclusion, but in my own failing to better explain it at the time.

And time, as the saying goes, is of the essence. I first put together In the American Tree in 1981-82, but it took another three years to come out, a result of the financial instability of the press that had first solicited it. Within a decade, the internet would arrive and the World Wide Web would be starting. Anyone who has come to writing since 1994 has to come to a world very different, in terms of the social structures that organize the composition, publication, distribution & reception of poetry, than the one that came before.

So here is my definition of language poetry in light of all this: it was the last large-scale aesthetic tendency in American poetics to rise entirely prior to the mode of electronic distribution. Conceptualism – of which there are several distinct types³ – is the first aesthetic tendency to understand that it exists in the age of electronic distribution.

¹ I’m making a distinction here between scenes, which are geographic, and networks, which are not, something I go into in more detail in The New Sentence.

² Another way of saying the same thing: Ted now sees his critique of language writing as part of its larger process. Or at least this is my reading of the shift over the past forty years.

³ Among the more obvious varieties – flarf, neo-Fluxus performatics (which may include “uncreative” writing), political-documentary interventions (which I’ve lately heard described as “academic conceptualism,” a phrase worth contemplating in its own right).