Thursday, May 31, 2012

On numerous occasions, I’ve made the point that the recognition of community – starting implicitly with the Black Mountain poets & the New York School and continuing explicitly with Langpo – is exactly that which distinguishes the post-avant from its predecessor, the avant-gardist late modern. Having taken community as an antidote to individualism, it is disconcerting to see the category figured negatively either by one’s peers who are not reactionaries (Johanna Drucker is one of writing’s most positive forces, for example) & by those who come immediately thereafter (as were the “new coast” poets of the O●blēk Anthology). What third term might exist that would untie the knot created by conflict between the endless competition that is the hallmark of individualism & the social elitism of inside-vs.-outside of any community? If I have a frustration with the post-Langpo / pre-Conceptual poets of the past few decades, it is largely that no such third term has been forthcoming, merely a sense of alienation toward the two pre-existing alternatives.
Listening to the talks of Poetry Communities and Individual Talent, I’m struck not just by John Paetsch’s use of “ collectivity” or “collective” as a potential third term, but even more profoundly by just how much this conference is not about community so much as it is about credentialing and canonization: credentialing the speakers – all intelligent & well-intended in their work – and canonization of the figures of their work, most often by foregrounding a previously overlooked, misunderstood or controversial aspect of the writing itself. But the core fact of the conference was that of younger academics talking on panels moderated by their elders. Of 22 speakers who presented papers (the one on Prynne is mysteriously absent from the PennSound record), only a few – Damon, Dworkin, Karasick & Schultz – are known primarily as poets. Only a few – Paetsch, Jessyka Finley, Kaplan Harris – fully address the construction of community itself (or, in the case of Spicer, the refusal of same). None of the speakers, moderators included, is him- or herself free of an academic context.
In a city such as Philadelphia – where the likes of CAConrad¹ & the late Gil Ott have worked for decades to create the very community from which Kelly Writers House draws – the absence of poetry-beyond-the-academy anywhere in the conference is like a bath of ice-water over any viewing from the outside. In the introductory remarks – the only portion of the conference I have not posted on this blog – Katie Price even apologizes for the presence of non-academics on the Penn campus during what must have been homecoming weekend.
Almost as absent from the conference are poetries after language poetry – some exceptions include Kaplan Harris on Mirage #4, Dworkin & Damon – and nearly entirely uncommented upon is the community physically present, one manifested by professional category (something that once might have generated a discussion of grad students & junior faculty & the role of class in labor & social relations). The lone exception to this final horizon is Bob Perelman, who in his response to the conference overall nonetheless characterizes the event as a “temporary, discontinuous community that we have constituted provisionally,” which hardly seems accurate given the firmly fixed borders & tiering of commentary.
Perelman’s counter strategy is to offer as many alternative definitions of community as were raised, “that it can mean anything from very positive to very problematic things.” Using Objectivism –a famously arbitrary category – rather than Langpo as his example, Perelman shifts from Reznikoff to Niedecker to Zukofsky, so that “a category like Objectivism becomes quite a comic bureaucratic fiction.” What Perelman doesn’t do next is to talk about the personal & professional motivations of the people in the room, except that he seems obsessed with not keeping them from their drinks.
Perelman’s unwillingness to name the elephant in the room reminded me of some tweets Seth Abramson has been making of late about the work he is doing on the history of creative writing MFA programs, where Abramson argues that Langpo created a boogeyman of MFA programs back at a moment when, in 1972, only 12 such programs existed in the entire country. The AWP Guide to programs offering graduate degrees in writing presently lists 193, and its total membership of programs is over 500. What was it that Langpo was arguing against some 40 years ago?
Not having read Abramson’s still-in-progress research in detail, I don’t quite know where he’s going with this. But I wonder if he recognizes the dramatic shift that was occurring right in the early 1970s when the end of the draft suddenly froze the humongous growth in the academy overall² that had previously offered poets like Ted Berrigan, Jerry Rothenberg & Anselm Hollo the prospect of careers as the visiting poet at different institutions every year. The rise of the MFA as an academic phenomenon occurs first in that decade as a partial answer over how to keep English departments flourishing (or perhaps just alive) in a period of major graduate program retrenchment. Still I have to concur with him that specificity is ever the friend of accuracy, and thus that a reduction of the politics of language writers into a simplistic anti-MFA stance is one way of transforming history into a misrepresentation. This too was not discussed at Penn, though Harris’ work suggests that either he may do so elsewhere in his research or that he at least is thoroughly capable of doing so.
But to the degree that the focus of the Penn conference was on poetry & community, the relation of these panels overall to the topic at hand was forensic, rather than participatory. That seems to me an opportunity lost, and that sound you hear is my own teeth gnashing.

¹ Why there isn’t a panel on Conrad, or Conrad & Ott & the question of community in Philadelphia poetics, is one of those unaddressed questions that hangs over the proceedings like a vulture eying carrion on the Schuylkill.
² Because the dramatic growth of the academy over the previous decade had everything to do with student deferments and the not insignificant detail that not making “adequate progress” toward a degree could mean death. By 1972, the Selective Service was no longer inducting draftees into military service, although the actual apparatus of the draft had yet to be dismantled. My own induction into alternative service as a conscientious objector that year was overturned when the Supreme Court refused to let the Selective Service induct COs when it was not inducting soldiers.