Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I have never thought of myself as an experimental writer, but this project is clearly a step into un- (or at least under-) charted territory. My idea is to write briefly from time to time mostly about my writing and whatever I might be thinking about poetry at the moment. Other subjects (music, politics, etc.) may enter in, as they do in life. 

Blogs have been around for a while now, but to date I haven't seen a genuinely good one devoted to contemporary poetry, so it may prove that there is no audience for such an endeavor. But this project isn't about audience. The fact that the blog has the potential to carry forward the best elements of a journal and seems inherently prone to digressive, if not absolutely plotless, prose gives me hope that this form might prove amenable to critical thinking. 

I posted this note to the blog ten years ago today, though in fact I’d written it a few days earlier, on a PC available for public use at the Whale Watching station on Brier Island, off the southern tip of Digby Neck in Nova Scotia. In ought-two, there wasn’t a lot of competition for the PC and I was able to check emails, while also fiddling with an idea I had had about using Blogger as a medium for publishing critical thought. That thought I had had implanted in my poor brain by reading the ongoing blog of my nephew Daniel, in those days a philosophy-journalism undergrad at Hillsdale College, who was posting his philosophy papers online. Much of what I’d seen of blogging prior to that point was not unlike what one hears in snarky putdowns of other social media today, such as Twitter & Facebook, that it was largely the domain of teenage narcissism at its most puerile. One look at a serious discussion was all it took to disabuse me of that impression, and there was hardly ever an undergrad more earnestly serious than my nephew, a trait for which I love him dearly & respect him even more.

Contrary to what I wrote in that second paragraph, there were already intelligent blogs that either included poetry – such as Mark Woods’ woods lot, which continues to this day, and the long “dead” blog called Laurable by Laura Willey. But in the August of 2002 I’d heard of neither of these – Laura found me pretty quickly, as she was already on the Buffalo Poetics listserv, and generously taught me the rudiments of HTML.

Ten years is an eon in the age of the internet, and my blogging has changed substantially over that period. Some of those changes were dictated by external events – constant speed-ups at my day job cut into the amount of time I could devote to any other activity, including sleep & family life. Others were the result of the blog itself. I was able to articulate a set of concerns I had (and largely still have) about the state of poetry, and I was able to disseminate these concerns beyond the confines of my PC quickly and over a wider geographic distance than I had ever imagined. I have been amazed – and continue to be – at just how far my work has spread without all that much translation, and to this date still no books in a foreign language. Because – something I know now – I had not fully understood just how far the English language has traveled and that any poet in the US is being read, sometimes hopefully & often with suspicion (both of which are thoroughly deserved), anywhere English is the language of commerce, which is pretty much everywhere.

Even more changes have come about due the evolution of technology itself. Blogging as a practice has its purposes but it also has quickly obvious limitations. I find that I use Facebook & Twitter increasingly – maybe a third of the links on the lists thereof I post 3 or 4 times a month here first appeared as tweets or were shared on Facebook. I have no doubt that the next decade will see the technology evolve even more profoundly than the last. What does not change / is the will to change.

My intent in blogging in 2002 was to establish a mechanism that would allow me to think & write critically – and publicly – about poetry without having to pass through the slow & sclerotic mechanisms of literary-critical publishing, or the limitations of any urban talk series. The latter have proven very difficult to start & sustain as Bob Perelman, Louis Cabri & anyone else who has ever attempted such could attest. That so much critical discourse still gets channeled through the choking funnels of the MLA & AWP I take as a sign that the need for alternative media, such as blogging, continues unabated. I take, for example, the fact that the AWP rejected a commemoration of the forthcoming complete poems of Joseph Ceravolo at next year’s event in Boston as simply the latest bit of evidence that the AWP is interested first in careers, and only very incidentally in poetry or writing. The failure of the NEH to support archival preservation of poetry via programs like PennSound or the Electronic Poetry Center simply underscores the point that if poets are concerned about the future of our craft, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. A program like Ubuweb, whose own entrepreneur characterizes it as one big copyright violation going forward, does more for poetry than the whole of the AWP, and we should acknowledge that.

But if my intended purpose in starting a blog was to prod poets to discuss poetry directly without going through the normal institutional mechanisms to do so, I really failed to grasp what may be blogging’s greater long-term potential to erase borders between poets of this, that or the other national circumstance.

In my lifetime, there have been three or four profound transformations that are immediately visible in poetry. The first is that it is no longer the purely male domain that was the case in the 1950s, even if parity in the number of writers has yet to be matched by parity in institutional power, as VIDA’s periodic surveys are quick to point out. The second is that, in the US, poetry is nothing like the white world with a few token exceptions that it also was in the 1950s. The US itself is no longer such a place – even the GOP can point to their leaders of color – and poetry most certainly is not either. Though again a program like VIDA for poets of color would be quick to note that reviews, trade presses, etc. have yet to catch up, even as a few “star” quietists get put forward to demonstrate otherwise.

The third transformation, and the one I think may have the most profound long-term consequences for poetry, has to do with the question of national literatures, the Nation Question as my friends in the Old Left might have phrased it. When I was in tenth or eleventh grade in the early 1960s, we were required to memorize the nations of the world, of which there were roughly 120, depending on whether one counted Vietnam was one nation or two & the current state of “liberation” among the European colonies in Africa. In London, at this year’s Olympics, 204 nations were represented, with one athlete competing under the UN flag because of ongoing questions concerning the status of South Sudan. The UN recognizes a somewhat larger number, just over 240, of nations and “autonomous” communities. In 2013, voters in Scotland will determine whether to go forward as part of so-called Great Britain, a ballot that is being watched with interest by the citizens of Wales, among others. We can be confident that the end of the 21st century will be greeted by something on the order of 300 polities. This should be a cause for alarm.

All borders are by their nature petrified international conflicts, mechanisms that enable those on one side to compete with those on the other. The border with Mexico enables the US to export poverty and violence south even as it imports low-cost labor and mass quantities of unregulated drugs. The border with Canada "protects" the US from low-cost, equitable health care. All of the problems with the Euro and the future of the European Union are a massive case study in the problems of borders for a territory roughly of the scale of the United States that is disadvantaged on the world economic stage if it is forced to compete as a series of New Jersey-sized nations. The problems of Spain with its own regional political and linguistic minorities in Galicia and the Basque territories serve to remind us that fascist dictatorships have been all that made it or Italy gel.

No single phenomenon more thoroughly empowers capital than do borders. Marx’s admonition that there can be no socialism in one country merely acknowledges that the possibility of capital flight is sufficient to keep capital itself out of the reach of any given group of reformers to “regulate” the depredations attendant to its concentration into the hands of a few. If the auto workers of Michigan are too uppity, capital sends the work to the south. Or to northern Mexico. And if workers get too expensive in northern Mexico, the jobs go to China. And if they get too expensive in China, robotics will enable automobiles to be constructed sans any presence of an organizable workforce. This can be replicated in every industry across the globe, as Americans have been learning the hard way for several decades.

But the movement of capital, of business – and ultimately of jobs and economic futures – gets carried out in language and through many local cultures, and the transformation of poetry from a series of largely self-contained literary enclaves into a global writing is itself a profoundly complicated phenomenon. There are enormous advantages in 2012 to being an American writing in English, but these do not come about free of complicity with the processes that make these advantages real. Similarly, there are enormous complexities to being a non-American writing in English, as there to being a writer in any other language, especially those that are “minority” languages within a given national context.

Where once these different writings were going on simultaneously in splendid (or not so splendid) isolation, the rise of technology is rapidly erasing the boundaries that continue to keep languages & literatures apart. Again, advantage to the hegemon. But no longer is this simply an unambiguous advantage, like the State Department funding the export of Abstract Expressionism to Europe and elsewhere in the 1950s. There may well be tremendous opportunities for writers within any empire in decline, which is where the US has been since April 1961, when the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba articulated the first gotcha in the hallucination of infinite power that seems to attend any empire. But writers outside the imperial center may well be better positioned to recognize & respond to this chain of events, particularly if – as the devolution of the globe into a series of increasingly fragmented, individually irrelevant states would seem to announce – we are starting to move from a world of major powers into a post-national (but not post-capital) planet, a transition that itself could take centuries.

It may well be that no organization of human beings is capable of meeting the challenges posed by capital. If so, we are merely accelerating the day when the planet itself gives out the Big Cough of ecological disaster that will reset the clock again to Year Zero. In the meantime, being a writer in today’s world is all about location, location, location. And the net offers poets anywhere a new set of possibilities for reaching one another, communicating, and articulating our lives, needs, dreams. Specificity & context should be our watch words.