Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cahiers de Corey / 2

To briefly examine the terminology, there is such a state as "postmodern," and we are using it as a word of praise. It means being of one's time, however jittery and out of sorts it may feel; a postmodern poetry presumably takes its energies from our neither-nor place in history, our post-postness. Being post-post doesn't mean your work is without substance or grounding; it's quite the opposite. We have always wanted the magazine to represent the best of the new, which for us tended toward New York School and language poetry, as well as much beyond. We have always been tolerant of difficulty and are sometimes shocked when perfectly accessible writing is condemned for its difficulty. We have never been programmatic. We publish work of so-called opacity and transparency.

For much of our lives as editors, the inside in American poetry was utterly distinct from the outside. You were "experimental" or you were not. At my first AWP meeting, in San Antonio, in the 80s, I heard Donald Justice stir up a roomful of Iowa School poets by attacking the "charlatan" Beats, "juvenile" New York School, and the "fascist" Black Mountain poets. Before he began to speak, he asked that the ballroom doors of the hotel be closed and guarded. I had known there were oppositions, but I hadn't realized how keenly the insiders felt the threat of change. At that time, outsiders had no role in the academy, so they congregated at places like St. Mark's Church, Beyond Baroque, The Poetry Center at SFSU, and Chicago's Body Politic. This was true throughout the 70s, 80s, and much of the 90s. Everyone knew what it meant to cross the boundary into academic territory, which unfailingly relied on the received mainstream dominant--for example, the free verse poem of personal epiphany. Those differences have been blurred by the tremendous growth of creative writing programs, the desire for many of the so-called Iowa school poets to join the innovative camp, and the marginalization of independent boheman sites. Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality. At the Palm Springs AWP, 2001, Maxine Chernoff and I walked around looking for someone to talk to and found only Aaron Shurin, who was equally alienated by the Carolyn Kizer / Yusef Komunyakaa program dominant. Now all of that is changed. If you want to locate the avant-garde, you can find it the Nassau Suite at the Hilton, second floor. I don't exclude myself. I'm on two panels at the forthcoming meeting in NYC, one of which I proposed on contemporary Vietnamese poetry. The other is Newlipo: Proceduralism and Chance Poetics in the 21st Century. I'd like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation's oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?

I agree with Josh that New American Writing has always convened the "austerities of Language poetry and the ironic 'personal' characteristic of the New York School(s)." In an recent email, I wrote, only half in jest, that Maxine and I have been attracted to the personal characteristics of the language poets, Bernstein's wit and Hejinian's memoirist tendencies in My Life, as well as the abstract obliqueness of the New York School, as seen especially in Ashbery and Guest. As time goes by, the two camps seem all the more of a blend. There are postmodern lyric motives in Palmer, Robinson, and Armantrout, among others, but I don't believe they're specifically Californian. That late Barbara Guest look of the page, suggestive of Mallarmé, is practiced by tons of postmodern coconuts; she was born in Florida and lived most of her life in the Northeast. Our magazine, which publishes all of the above and has been described as "New York School," was published for much of its history in Chicago.


At 11:23 AM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Paul,

I hope that you are well. Thanks for these stimulating and thoughtful posts.

With regard to the question of insiders and outsiders in the poetry world, according to his biographical note on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog (http://poetryfoundation.org/harriet.), for which I have now begun to write as well, Christian Bok "is currently a Professor of English at the University of Calgary," which would make him not just tenure-track but tenured. According to Wikipedia (and references on his blog to his academic postion), Kasey Mohammad is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Philosophy at Southern Oregon University--again, not just tenure-track but tenured.

So, despite the fact that Ron Silliman has labeled me a "School of Quietude" poet (and apparently not a good example of the mangy breed), both Bok and Mohammad are much more academic insiders than I am, as I have no academic teaching position.

In addition, Bok has won the Griffin Prize, a highly prestigious (and lucrative) and hardly avant-garde oriented award. The boundaries of "inside" and "outside" are very porous, and many insiders have a will to feel themselves outsiders that is not supported by the facts of the situation.

Take good care, and thanks again for these great posts. I think that the idea of a post-avant mainstream is very interesting and has a lot of truth to it.

all best,


At 5:54 AM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Paul,

Thanks again for these great posts. I wanted you to know that I have written a piece for the Poetry Foundation's Harriet group blog (http://poetryfoundation.org/harriet) called "Orwellian Me" (long story) that engages the isssues of the changing tides of mainstream and periphery (pardon the mixed metaphor) and inside/outside that you so eloquently address here. I cite this post and also mention your terrific Norton anthology, with links to both.

Take good care.

peace and poetry,


At 8:18 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


Thought I'd post here two comments made at the Harriet blog, directly related to your posts there and here.

Kent Johnson

Paul Hoover wrote:

>I'd like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation's oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?

An interesting commentary, Paul. And I think you make a clear observation here: "Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality."

(Though I wanted to ask: Don't you think your Norton anthology helped impel, a small bit, this w(h)ither-the-avant-garde crisis now well underway?

A little anecdote: I remember back in 1990, I think it was, talking with Bob Perelman at the MLA (after I'd given a talk on the role of the "book review" in Langpo community-formation, something along those lines, and Bob had come to my panel after interviewing for a position). And I said to Bob that it seemed strange, even shocking to me, that a prominent Language poet such as he should be seeking a job in academia. Bob was very congenial, and I can't remember his reply word for word, but I do recall his alluding to the pressing necessity of a "Long March" into the academy, that its institutions were a contended, strategic front in the struggle for a radical poetics, that this was "where the fight is now at." Something quite close to that, in any case.

Well, things change really fast, who can predict anything anymore, and as with China, so with Langpo and its young Red Guard...

I am confused, though, Paul, by your suggestion that Flarf may represent the "indigestible poetics of the new." What's indigestible about it? Flarf seems to me something like a poetry version of grunge (except flarf was inside the machine, so to speak, from the get-go, and its "rebellious" hipster practitioners were/are mostly thirty or forty-somethings.



So now that everyone seems to agree that the "academic habitus" will exert some kind of evolving force (however refracted its operations may be) on avant vision, risk, and praxis, what do we say should be done?

The "collapse, " as Paul Hoover puts it, into institutionalized sites of production, is now nearly complete--so complete, its state of affairs has begun to seem natural.

Can we begin to outline some of the ways these social conditions preclude or deter counter-practices that might point poetry, whatever poetry is, beyond the "Inside" (as it's been called here) that so many seem resigned to inhabiting?

And is there perhaps something fundamental in the very *mode* of standard poetic production and presentation that offers itself to institutional capture and containment? A mode that the avant itself takes for granted and practices eagerly, in full consort with the "traditional" poetry it ritualistically critiques?

Are there ways, that is, of stepping outside the obvious frame of authorship and the cascading determinations it enacts, and to initiate, instead, provisional practices (individual and collective) that might complicate the usual expected rules and power flows of the literary field?

I think there might be some little-tried pathways, myself.


At 8:19 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Dear Kent: Sorry to be so slow in getting around to a response on your comments about the influence of my anthology Postmodern American Poetry on what appears to be the joining of the two streams, avant-garde and academic. To some degree, the anthology probably did contribute. It's used in classrooms and thereby has an influence. But it wouldn't be adopted if professors and writing teachers weren't interested in the history and ideas it represents. Before 1994, when the anthology appeared, few works of its kind had been published by a mainstream press. The New York School anthology, edited by Ron Padgett and David Lehman,was published by Random House, and Anne Waldman edited at least one anthology published by Bobbs-Merrill. But Norton, as the canon-maker,is a different matter. Three other anthologies of the same literature appeared at the same time: the Weinberger, the Messerli, and the Joris/Rothenberg. The millennium was approaching, a good time to do a little summing up, though I don't remember being conscious of its approach at the time. My anthology was not motivated by a desire to marry the avant-garde to anything but itself.

In a recent email to Reginald Shepherd, I noted that one distinction between his recent anthology, Lyric Postmodernisms, and mine is that a substantial number of his contributors appear to have attended MFA programs and several poets thereafter the PhD. Only three poets in my anthology received the MFA degree, and I'm sure of only two, Barrett Watten and Bob Perelman, both from Iowa. The other, Alice Notley, was a fiction student at Iowa when she met Ted Berrigan. She may have dropped out at that time. The names of Barry and Bob be a surprise to some, given their contribution to Bay Area language poetry. Roughly ten of PAP contributors, of 103, had the PhD.

Maxine and I have M.A. degrees from University of Illinois Chicago. I was in the first class of the writing program headed by Paul Carroll; Maxine's degree is purely in English. I've wondered since what it means to have that kind of background: M.A., state university, the midwest. If I'm not mistaken, Harvard speaks to Harvard, and an Iowa MFA means that you relate easily to those of a similar experience. All by way of saying, the outside isn't what it used to be. As a result of its negotiation with MFA programs, neither is the academy. The question then may be, by way of a baking metaphor, who has done the folding and stirring in? Do the rules of economy dictate that money and institutions eventually hold the all the power? Or have Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian so changed the world that the University of Chicago and University of California presses has succumbed to them (done the folding)? Sorry to use that example, as I admire what Charles and Lyn have done. But you get the idea. I have always held to the latter, that important ideas rise up from ground level (small presses like Hogarth and New Directions at its inception), to which power must eventually accommodate itself. But the avant-garde of the modernist period didn't have to behave collegially in an academic hallway, on their way to a tenure proceeding.

Your Christian Bok example is enlightening. I wonder if it says something about the enlightened state of Canadian letters these days. I noticed at the recent AWP, where I served with him on Sharon Dolin's Newlipo panel, that Christian comfortably employs the word "avant-garde."

Having said all of this, it's an eternal verity that bourgeois culture changes culturally and intellectually to the rhythms of the avant-garde. It remains to be seen if concepts of the new will continue to thrive as the assistant professor level. My guess is that they will, given that Kasey Mohammad and Christian Bok both have tenured university positions.

How lyric poetry relates to this conundrum needs further discussion.

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


Thanks for thoughtful reply.

I may work up some thoughts in response, and post them here and over at Harriet where the discussion began.



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