Wednesday, November 28, 2007
and thus they enjoy their ultimate reality
Monday, November 26, 2007
generosity to the work; humility before any artwork; illumination of details, features, or meaning; tracing of aspects; making tangible the historical texture of the work's production; a making evident of heretofore unnoticed registers of emotion -- none of these are the features of this criticism;
occasion of the criticism (the works of art) are largely an opportunity for the dissection of ideology;
joy, beauty, catharsis become "joy" "beauty" "catharsis"; they become less real
ideology remains ideology; it becomes most real: the last thing standing
if this criticism is unpleasant and joyless it is because the scalpel's blade is not intended as a "pleasantry" or an instrument of "joy"
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's essay, and Jennifer Ashton's response, and the multiple blogworld responses, have been in the back of my mind lately. I don't think I have too much of a definitive or polemical stance to take, but the issues and arguments seem to hook up with some other back-of-the-mind rumblings I've had, especially since the flare-up regarding the absence of women writing critical prose in the first Fascicle. I especially would like to explore what I think are the consequences of Ashton's seemingly hyper-limited view of the function of anthologies.
The crux of the overall discussion, it seems to me, is the debate over essentialism;
1) In "Our Bodies, Our Poems," Ashton argues that to make a claim for "women's innovative writing" is to set up a direct relation between one's gender and one's formal practice, which is self-defeating to any feminist project. And that while this may be obvious when stated, that certain practices and rhetorics promoted by poets on the behalf of feminism enact this very self-defeat.
2) Spahr & Young address a particular assertion of Ashton's, that there is now a level playing field in contemporary poetry publishing (which is one of the reason's why Ashton feels the gendered anthology or editorial practice is self-defeating now, but was necessary in an earlier period: it's a different battle, so different tactics are needed). Spahr & Young perform a head count regarding anthologies, presses and Silliman's blog to see whether or not the previous feminist interventions (which Ashton seems to suggest are not what's needed now) had made a perceptible difference; the head count suggested the field is still tilted towards men.
3) Ashton responds by saying that Spahr & Young's research and rhetoric performs the mistake that it claims to be countering: on one hand, wanting to move away from "too easily separated and too easily declarative identities", and on the other hand making a critical intervention based on an apparently easily separated and declarative basis of gendered identity (that is, man v. woman).
I think this summarizes Ashton's position: "The history of 'innovative' women's writing has gone, in short, from being concerned with the visibility of women writers in a context of discrimination to being concerned with what makes the poems of these writers distinctive as the poetry of women."
Basically, Ashton believes that to set up a uniquely feminine innovative poetry aesthetic (which she claims anthologies such as Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders are doing) is to entrap the writing of women within a kind of essentialism, where gender determines not only practice but also value.
In one of her footnotes, Ashton refers to a hypothetical an editor at Chicago Review brings up, of an anthology of women's innovative poetry being like an anthology of Chicago poetry:
"You could, he argued, think there was such a thing as Chicago School (a shared aesthetic) or you could think that there was particularly interesting work being produced in Chicago, or you could want to make visible a particular community of writers who happened to live in Chicago, but you wouldn’t be required to think that the geographical contingencies of their Chicago-based situation were somehow the essence of the writing. Well, yes and no. There’s a difference among these various ways of configuring the “Chicago” anthology. They all involve thinking there’s something essential to the poems, but some of the essences are more plausible than others. As long as you were mainly interested in the shared ideas or the existing community (maybe all of the poets talk to each other regularly about their work), then Chicago makes some sense as an organizing principle insofar as it’s an index of the shared ideas or of the community or of both. But the Chicago part would be nominal—no one thinks Chicago is what matters most about the ideas embraced by the Chicago School of Economics or that Frankfurt is the salient thing about the Frankfurt School. Just try to imagine an “Ovarian School” of poetry, where “Ovarian” referred to a group of writers who cared, say, about criticizing global capitalism and just happened to be women. That clearly isn’t what we mean by “women’s innovative poetry.” The fact that the poets are women is never negligible."
Aside: I hate when discussions devolve into a game of gotcha. You know, you feel like you're trying to figure out a position you can stand behind and you're doing so with someone who think they're playing chess (more of a grad school phenomenon). Or, you feel as though you're trying to sweep the deck of bankrupt notions of tradition and avant-gardism, to get to more timely, relevant usages, but it simply looks like you're playing shuffleboard.
Anyway, hopefully this isn't simply me playing gotcha, but: Ashton's entire argument seems to pivot on a one-to-one relationship between an aesthetic (emphasis on the singular) and a gender difference. So, to risk looking too cute, it seems like her argument about what she reads to be a gendered essentialism relies upon all anthologies of women's innovative poetry all performing the essential function of anthologies: to record a pre-existing, shared aesthetic.
So, apparently one reads an anthology of innovative poetry by women to find out what the "women's innovative poetry" aesthetic is. But I don't know who would produce an anthology for that specific purpose, or who would read an anthology with that fixed framework, or how such an anthology would circulate itself.
Reading Ashton's response, I felt various twinges of resistance to the neatness of her argument, which seemed to suggest:
Once she has this equation in place, the x in the first part simply becomes the series of guises that this hypothetical school utilizes to express itself, regardless of statements made to the contrary by the editors of those anthologies (such as Spahr or Sloan).
Ashton's argument is fairly neatly constructed, but only if her notions concerning the functions of an anthology are true; or, more exactly, if her apparently single notion concerning the apparently single function of an anthology (to establish a shared aesthetic) is true.
I think it helps to look again at what I quoted from her lengthy, two-page footnote, where she is most forthright about her anthology notion:
"There’s a difference among these various ways of configuring the “Chicago” anthology. They all involve thinking there’s something essential to the poems, but some of the essences are more plausible than others. As long as you were mainly interested in the shared ideas or the existing community (maybe all of the poets talk to each other regularly about their work), then Chicago makes some sense as an organizing principle insofar as it’s an index of the shared ideas or of the community or of both. But the Chicago part would be nominal—no one thinks Chicago is what matters most about the ideas embraced by the Chicago School of Economics or that Frankfurt is the salient thing about the Frankfurt School."
To go with the "Chicago" motif for an anthology, Ashton presents only anthologizing options in which "Chicago" is an absolutely stable term, or organizing principle. One would use the heuristic of "Chicago-ness" to talk about an existing community, or shared ideas, or common aesthetic, because anthologies appear to function in a similar fashion to yearbooks, a way of commemorating the existence of a school.
But what if Chicago itself is the term that one wants to complicate?
Let's say one feels, as a Chicagoan, that a limiting, conservative conception of what it means to be a Chicagoan writer is in circulation, at home and/or abroad; perhaps the unstated implication is, that to be an authentic Chicagoan writer, one must resemble this particular conception. Or, there is a circulating assumption that truly radical work is only written in NYC and San Francisco, and to be authentically radical, one must have some sort of connection to these networks and/or locales (maybe one or two exceptions are granted, but this SF-NYC genealogy would be taken as the norm).
One can imagine compiling a historically inflected anthology that stands as a basis for a resistance to these limiting conceptions: this wouldn't necessarily mean the anthology compiles a single, contrary conception. It could simply be a presentation of Chicago-based writing that doesn't fit the limiting conservative conception one perceives to be in circulation, and could then stand as a challenge to one's hypothetical opposition: either you have to revise your notion of Chicago, or you have to ignore this rich collection of material.
Or, similarly, one can counter a claim that all the important radical work is done in SF and NYC by pointing to one's Chicago-based anthology.
Or, one could put together an anthology with the desire for it to be a beginning to dialog and interaction, as opposed to being merely the representation of an existing community; then the anthology would be pointed towards a future Chicago radical writing practice by picking up strands from its present and past.
In all instances, Chicago is neither a nominal term nor an essentializing one.
I have a love/hate relationship with anthologies. I tend to absolutely despise the "this year's hot young poets" sort of anthologies. But then some of my favorite books include, for instance, the various anthologies Jerome Rothenberg has endeavored, solo and with collaborators such as Pierre Joris, Diane Rothenberg, George Quasha and others. And Imagining Language is among my holiest of holies, and is the minotaur at the center of one of my prelim fields.
Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders anthology is another of my favorites (I included it on my Poet's Bookshelf list for Peter Davis' sequel to that book). I don't know how one would read it as the positing of a feminine innovative aesthetic; one would have to pretend that each and every anthology is some sort of snowglobe that contains within itself a representation of the world in order to do that. But why pretend that?
Moving Borders exists in a world that already includes Allen's New American Poetry and Weinberger's Innovators & Outsiders; if one were to take, for instance, these two very masculine-heavy anthologies as central documents of post-war innovative poetry in the US, one would not necessarily possess a single, totalizing aesthetic, but one would likely have a particular view of 1) a genealogy of poetic innovation, and 2) the path of that genealogy existing through mostly a series of men.
It's less a case of a single, gendered aesthetic than an exclusive history of various aesthetics that presents a limited number of sanctioned entrance points, entrance points that suggest innovative poetry and poetics is a "natural" occurrence for men and a peculiar, occasional occurrence by women. I don't think that's the same as saying a masculine or feminine aesthetic. It does, however, contribute to the conditions by which terms such as "innovative" "masculine" "feminine" and so forth come to be defined more readily (or with less resistance) by men than by women. And that would seem to have ramifications on many levels.
One could argue that innovative poetry and poetics have moved towards discursive positions and themes that, in other periods, may have been deemed to be the domain of femininity. But if publication and circulation of these "feminine" discursive positions and themes are predominantly by men, then I don't know what is really being accomplished. I don't think that writing poems that may or may not skewer one way or the other on a contemporary imaginary continuum with "male" on one end and "female" on the other erases questions concerning access to publication, publicity, production or grants. (A devil's advocate could say that simply the patriarchal structure has simply learned how to talk about gender less insultingly, and to spread the wealth a little, but that by-and-large the structure itself, and authority, is still as patriarchal as ever, but better concealed.)
More male poets writing more "feminine" work can't be an answer to a closing off of access to women within poetry. It is, however, one approach to disrupting limiting notions or default assumptions like male = theoryhead and female = domestic lyricism. But I'm not sure that goes more than a half step towards a whole new series of hesitations and brambles.
Is that all anthologies like Moving Borders are doing? Just showing that women have an innovative aesthetic of their own?
I see Moving Borders as being along the lines of my imagined Chicago anthology: 1) it troubles the masculine-heavy genealogy that has been posited as the lineage of poetic innovation of the last 50+ years; in this way, it would be analogous to a Chicago anthology troubling a conservative-only or NYC-SF only genealogy; 2) by doing so, it also troubles any implicit assumption that women engage in innovative practice or theory only in rare, exceptional cases; this would be analogous to troubling any assumption that Chicago traditionally is the host of a limiting, conservative stance; 3) it gathers a series of disparate poets across differing geographies and temporalities, all of which have a claim to the descriptive term "innovative"; this would be analogous to a Chicago anthology pulling together various writers and aesthetics as entry or exit points: entry to various dissenting, more enabling notions, exits away from what may be considered a limited, hegemonic notion; 4) it is an occasion to see what the conjunction of "innovative poetry" and "poetry written by women" could look like: instead of replicating a pre-existing and/or essential "women's innovative writing" aesthetic, it instead gathers together two terms (innovative and women) that have not always been joined in this way; similarly, a Chicago anthology would be a way of seeing what bringing "innovative" and "Chicago" together would look like: not as the defining, final word, but as a salutary invitation to further variations or developments on this particular coupling.
Ashton seems to view anthologies as being the document of pre-existing conditions and relations and communities. Some anthologies may function that way, but many others serve a more radical purpose, one of which is not to replicate present conditions or tendencies, but to make itself be among the foundational texts that helps bring about new conditions and tendencies. When I interviewed Jed Rasula about the Imagining Language anthology he did with Steve McCaffery, he talked about the early guiding notion that the anthology would take Finnegans Wake not to be a strange, satellite text, as most literary narratives tend to regard it, but that the anthology would rather initiate a radical conceit: what would an anthology look like that treated Finnegans Wake as the central, ultra-canonical text, along the lines of The Iliad or the Divine Comedy? Part of my desire, then, in putting together my modest supplement to Imagining Language in the second issue of Fascicle was to practice my belief that such a radical intervention such as Rasula & McCaffery's can be the foundation of a larger, collective project that pushes its impulses in a variety of directions; that an anthology can be not only the final word, but also the opening of a theme: others can join in now, enjoying Imagining Language as an inheritance we would otherwise have to compile ourselves from scratch, or invent, in order to pursue alternate conceptions of tradition and linguistic practice. Such an anthology doesn't immobilize or warn against further invention, nor does it capture in amber a once live cluster of energy, but it is rather a document that presents itself as the future ancestor of a variety of further, future re-inventions.
I'm not saying Sloan's anthology is a precise instance of this exact same approach, but I am suggesting that the above may be one way of reading it. I'm saying that it can be read as evidence. 1) it can be present evidence that the story told in other innovative poetic anthologies is a massively incomplete story. 2) it can be future evidence for a story that one would like to be told, in the foreseeable future, of how "writing by women" and "innovative practice & theory" circulate as terms that suggest no contradictions of meaning; it can invent itself as the precedent for a desired future condition.
To cut to the chase:
I think part of what Ashton is arguing against is the setting up of an opposition between Innovative Poetry (which is produced mostly by men) and Women's Innovative Poetry (which is produced by women). And I think her argument is a good one in so far as it is a warning against one possibly self-limiting position that may be a consequence of an engagement along these lines. But I think she errs in saying that she has diagnosed a fatal flaw, because for her essentializing position to hold she must cling to a conception of the anthology that I don't think has any real basis or traction.
To further complicate things:
I think Dale Smith and Richard Owens both have very intelligent, incisive readings on the very real limits of number counting as a critical approach. That it can be a checklist of symptoms without really identifying actual causes; or, it can become the means for inventing convenient causes that bypass the actual ones, or of mistaking a deeper symptom as a cause.
For instance, I didn't find Silliman's review of Damn the Caesars to be very fair, or insightful, partially for the same reasons that I thought a particular line of critique of the first Fascicle wasn't all that fair: editors do bear responsibility for their journals, but that doesn't mean they enjoy absolute autonomy. Or, another way of saying it: people who are born into a demographic profile that is culturally privileged are also thrown into the world, as un-demographically-privileged people are. So, while they benefit from the system on many levels, it doesn't necessarily mean they endorse it, or control it, or even recognize it (which might simply be among the benefits . . .).
This is just to say that editors operate in a largely mediating faction between their own intentions and larger socio-politico-aesthetic-institutional forces (which can manifest themselves in the editor's wishes, tendencies of poets/critics/other editors/etc) that they can't really be viewed (either for glory or for blame) as being self-separate from.
Cut to the end:
I find anthologies exciting when they appeal to my more optimistic side that says "this could be the start of something new and beautiful in poetry." Moving Borders, New American Poetry and Innovators & Outsiders are among the anthologies I get excited about.
Friday, November 23, 2007
This last summer I taught two sessions of creative writing, and will be teaching one session again this upcoming summer. Overall, Duke is exceptionally gentle to its grad students in terms of teaching loads: these summer courses are elective on my part, and are basically a privileged bonus. It'd been about four years since I taught, and I think my approach, confidence and ability have increased by multiples; I think I'm definitely much less eager to assert myself as an authority, and (at least in the small creative writing context) might finally have developed the confidence to dwell in uncertainty, trusting myself and the students to move through and finally beyond intention.
During the regular school year, my departmental duties have been limited to a single TA or teaching apprentice position each semester. Next fall, however, I should be able to teach my first non-creative writing course. Right now we're supposed to be conjuring up two different course ideas and descriptions; my goals are 1) to have a course that will be of interest over an entire semester (to the students and myself), 2) to have a course that is grounded in American modernism (my major field) to some extent; 3) to have a course that intersects with the collection of issues and writers that I find myself returning to most often, issues and writers that (in the most part) don't overlap too much with others in my department. On this last one, I'm trying to find a way of saying I want to be able to offer to students texts and entry points that I don't think they'll get elsewhere in the department, and that this would be of more use and interest to them than for me to go over material others will be covering, likely much more expertly than I can.
So. I've got two rough sketches of possible courses & descriptions & very tenuous lists of possible texts. I'd dig any feedback or suggestions.
Course #1: The Old, Weird America: the Remote Past as the Dream Life of Modern Culture
In the work of many amazing writers and artists -- from Faulkner to “Deadwood” to Robert Altman to Gertrude Stein -- the remote past of the United States, like a corpse poorly fastened to the bottom of a lake, keeps popping up. Wade around in the waters of 20th and 21st century culture and you’ll see its face come to the surface again and again in all its profound, grotesque horror. This is a class that tries to fix these multiple faces of the nation’s past in a series of close-ups. We’ll move across multiple genres including fiction, non-fiction, film, poetry and music.
We’ll have some questions, such as: Why do artists and writers keep re-imagining America’s origins? Why are those origins so often rendered as seductive, compelling, violent myths? Does each era dream up its own distant past?
One hypothesis is, that by looking at the country’s inaccessible past, artists often end up seeing a haunted, often mythical version of their present. Another hypothesis is that these artists are calling attention to the fact that this country, like any other, was founded by monsters. Another hypothesis is that people simply like to tell interesting stories about their fears, desires and demons, and the country's past offers a large stage for these stories.
Less concerned, perhaps, with the kind of accuracy a self-respecting historian would seek, it seems all these artists and writers plunge into America’s past with a violent, creative abandon. In this spirit, our class will take on its own exploration of this compelling tendency.
Texts may include the following.
Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael
William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson
Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America
Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
Jerome Rothenberg, Shaking the Pumpkin
Ed Dorn, Gunslinger
Film & Television:
McCabe & Mrs Miller
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
Bob Dylan, The Band, Anthology of American Folk Music (compiled by Harry Smith), Johnny Horton, others
Course #2: Tongue & Type: Voiced American Literature
Exhibit A: When Allen Ginsberg wrote his great anti-war masterpiece “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” he did so by riding around Kansas in a VW bus declaring his spontaneous thoughts and impressions to a tape recorder.
Exhibit B: Jack Kerouac’s strangest novel, Visions of Cody, has a major section that consists only of a transcript of Kerouac and Dean Moriarty’s stoned, all-night conversation.
Exhibit C: Maria Sabina, a shamanic healer who lived in Huautla, a remote town in the hills of Oaxaca, could not read but still functioned as a healer who, guided by hallucinations from various local mushrooms (her "little children"), would perform rituals and chants that healed her neighbors.
Exhibit D: The mid-century American poet, Charles Olson, constructed perhaps the most influential poetics statement of the last fifty years, called “Projective Verse,” around his idea that the standardization of space on a typewritten page could function like a stave does for a composer; his theory was that this would allow poets to use not regular meter but their own breath as a measure for their poetic line.
Exhibit E: Among the contemporary artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s most acclaimed books is one called Soliloquy, which simply consists of every word spoken by Goldsmith over a seven day period.
Or, a different, more immediate exhibit: you are at a cafeteria. You throw your soda away, into a trash receptacle. Walking away, you look back at the receptacle, which is saying, to you (it seems), in writing, “thank you.” Isn’t that really, really weird? Whose voice, exactly, is saying “thank you” here? The receptacle’s? The cafeteria’s? The “man’s”?
So, I think the question is: what are we talking about when we talk about “the voice” of a text? How literally are we to take this notion?
In the last decade or so, people have begun noticing the incredibly rich history of “voiced” literatures in 20th and 21st century American culture. This class has two focuses: 1) to offer a survey of that rich history; 2) to explore how these voiced literatures may influence our usual notions about writing and reading.
We’ll both read voiced texts and listen to them. What sorts of texts will we look at and hear? Blues songs, ballads, chants, lectures, speeches, radio broadcasts, dictated poems, experimental sound poems, spoken word performances. This is not all.
Texts may include:
Lectures in America, Gertrude Stein
Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg
Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young
Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac
Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, Aby Warburg
Selections, Maria Sabina
Selected Writings, Charles Olson
Talking, David Antin
Fast Speaking Woman, Anne Waldman
Soliloquy, Kenneth Goldsmith
Films: Poetry in Motion, maybe: Cocteu's Orpheus (?), Welles' F for Fake (?), Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (?), Coen Bros. Barton Fink (?)
selected poems, essays and sound files by Allen Ginsberg, Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Christian Bok, Jack Spicer, Jayne Cortez, Helen Adam, Carolee Schneemann, Friedrich Kittler, Kurt Schwitters, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders, Eric Havelock and others.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Jake Adam York has interesting thoughts about "Ideas of Index," with Complex Sleep registering as one of several objects of attention, here.
Also, three poems from Complex Sleep, all from my suite of poems for Leigh, "An Emperor's Nostalgia," were fairly recently featured here, at Poetry Daily.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Warren Zevon, "Jesus was a Crossmaker" (Judee Sill cover)
Bruce Springsteen, "For You" (Hammersmith Odeon 1975)
Bob Dylan, "Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)" (St. Louis 2004)
Bob Dylan, "Trying to Get to Heaven" (Cardiff 2000)
Warren Zevon, "Boom Boom Mancini"
some people, "All the Tired Horses" (someplace)
The Band, "King Harvest/Long Black Veil"
Elvis Presley, "Long Black Limousine"
Richard Buckner, from "The Hill"
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
SWANS OF LOCAL WATERS
Their color is not a product of the water’s depth; their quiet is not lake’s. These are accidents floating in simple water, taking in nature calmly, in little sips; actions which, like literal swans and lakes, are sometimes scattered. What the swans look like: white, with feathers. It’s getting cold. Someone has made a fire. A flame’s identity depends on what it burns — identity is like a swan for it comes and goes as it pleases.
I don’t know how to talk about my biological father, so I am going to describe the lake: it’s blue, with swans. I can film it. There’s still a fire by the lake. The swans are safe in the water. It’s getting cold. Almost dark. I have a list of things that get more definite at night.
1) The shape of fire.
I remember posting it here at the blog, but it got erased at some point in my weird on-and-off again relationship w/ this blog. I thought I'd post it again . . .
Dear Michelle Tryhubczak and Timothy Roy,
Hi! Sweet! I’m really excited that you guys like my poem, and want to know my take on it. I’m pretty young for a writer (28), and have just now started getting some people paying attention to me. But not too many. So this is really exciting. I just finished school, and am working at a coffee shop here in North Carolina. I live out in the woods with my girlfriend, who is studying to be a political scientist. I’ll try to give you an idea of the things that were going on in my head when I wrote the poem the first, and second times, and what I think the poem is trying to say.
“Swans of Local Waters” is a poem I started writing while I was going to school at a place called College of the Ozarks in Pt. Lookout, Missouri. It’s a small school, a Christian work college, which means you work on campus, and that pays for your tuition; you can also, like my friends and I did, work in the summer to pay for room and board. It was a strange school, very strict – boys aren’t allowed in girls’ dorm rooms, and vice versa. It’s near Branson, Missouri, which is sort of the Las Vegas for people over 60. College of the Ozarks pays its bills basically by presenting a nice face to older people who visit and give donations: so no punky haircuts, everyone dresses sort of neat, no tattoos or weird piercings. They also have a pond on which they keep swans. It’s right on the main street of campus (Opportunity Avenue). The swans are angry, and sort of mean. Their wings have been clipped, and sometimes they’d try to fly away, but could only barely get out of the water, their little swan feet drag on the surface, and then they run out of room and have to quit. Some people would laugh when this happened. Most people thought it was terribly sad, and was maybe a metaphor for us as powerless students (at least I thought so, but that’s probably a little dramatic).
I’m not sure all of this has much to do with my poem. Someone once said that his movies aren’t about things, but that they are made of things: people, plates, cups, birds. So I’m trying to let you know where the swans came from. Also, swans are beautiful, and seem tragic; part of it could be because Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in history, whose beauty caused nations to battle, was reportedly conceived (according to some myths) when Zeus forced himself upon her mother, Leda. Zeus, like many gods in the Greek and Roman myths, would transform himself into a creature in order to deceive people. When he fathered Helen (and her twin sister), he disguised himself as a swan. William Butler Yeats has a famous poem about this, called “Leda and the Swan.”
When my girlfriend and I moved into this new house last month, I found my first draft of “Swans of Local Waters.” Here it is:
“Swans in Distant Waters”
Their colors are not subjected
to their own deepnesses.
Their silences are not the lake’s.
These are discolorations puddling about,
not-jubilant in the new day.
Theirs is a future without particulars.
Theirs is a little different.
Pablo Neruda is in the half-night.
His whole heaven is curling, clapping, completed;
more explicit then any actual life.
A world comes true again.
Neruda appears in the manner
of identity; that is, when and how he pleases.
Change speaks more than the utmost musician.
Late at night, identity becomes
definite: the shape of fire.
There is a single permanence of the world.
Trumpet its diction, singers, trumpet
its proper and capable reality.
Beanpole, candle, body of water: begin with a flourish.
So, anyway, it was pretty different when I first wrote it. Pablo Neruda is a famous poet from Chile, who’s dead now, but is very famous in some circles. I was reading a lot of Wallace Stevens when I wrote this poem. Wallace Stevens died in 1955, worked as an insurance lawyer, and wrote these strange, beautiful poems that often don’t seem to be about anything, but are full of wonderful things (like swans). One thing I really love about Wallace Stevens’ poems is that he always seems to be speculating about how things are, or could be, and keeps changing and letting his poems change; his imagination is like some sort of magical wand that makes things shift and change all the time.
I know I haven’t explained the poem yet! I’m still trying to get closer to where my mind was the different times I worked on trying to get the poem right.
After I finished at College of the Ozarks, I took a year off to recover, work at a candle factory, travel a little bit, work at various un-exciting places (cleaning condos, working at an ice cream shop, washing dishes, working as the night auditor at a motel), and apply to grad school. I decided to go to University of Arkansas, which I really loved in a lot of ways, but which frustrated me too: I thought a couple of my teachers had really narrow ideas of what poetry could be, and wanted to force students to write like they thought we were supposed to. Some of my poems were pretty weird, and probably not that good, but I still think some of the advice wasn’t helpful. For example, one of my teachers said that if it’s a good poem, you can film it. I’m still not sure if I buy this, because I think language can do a lot of things that film can’t, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be ambitious and weird and fail when we’re being creative. Failing is really good for a writer, it teaches her that the world doesn’t end if you mess up, or say something dumb. I felt a couple of my teachers wanted us to write poems that were guaranteed not to fail, poems that were kind of safe, and kind of boring (in my opinion).
In one of my classes we were supposed to bring in a nature poem. I was being sort of immature, and didn’t want to write anything, but decided I should turn in something (pretty soon I figured out that I could do just enough to get an A in most of my classes, and leave time to study the writers and ideas that I thought were interesting) (wait to do this until you get to graduate school, Tim). So I found a copy of my old swans poem, but I thought the first version sounded too much like a guy trying to sound like Wallace Stevens, and that it sounded too much like it was trying to be poetic (and I wasn’t sure why I had Pablo Neruda in there). So I thought I’d rewrite it, stealing my best ideas from my first draft, but writing it out more like I thought I wanted my poems to sound like now. I switched the title from “distant” to “local” because I thought that was more interesting, to talk about backyard swans instead of exotic ones.
I’ll try to go sentence by sentence.
Their color is not a product of the water’s depth; their quiet is not the lake’s. This was the first idea that made me want to write the poem; I get frustrated when people tell you that you’re just a product of your environment, or your genes, or your background. I come from a working class family, my parents were very hardworking – my dad was the head custodian at an elementary school, my mom was the night janitor. If you tell someone that, they get a certain set of assumptions. But my parents weren’t “typical janitors”, whatever that might be: my dad was president of his union, and put in a lot of time to get better pay and benefits for the other janitors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers (the state of Washington gives out two awards each year for union presidents that accomplish a lot; my dad got one); my mom was the union secretary; both of my parents were volunteer fire fighters; my mom was the head of the local Red Cross for several years; both of my parents put together toy drives each year for poor families (we were working class, but not poor) who couldn’t afford toys, and took the fire truck around to poorer neighborhoods and handed out toys, with my parents dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus; my parents taught CPR and organized yearly get-togethers for the elderly residents of the tiny town we lived in; and so on. My parents weren’t, and aren’t, merely the products of their genes, or backgrounds: they’re unique, imaginative, self-made. Now that they’re retired, they volunteer over 20 hours a week and run the Emergency Management System for their local town, train CPR and disaster awareness, and raise money for local fire departments.
Anyway, this is a long way of saying that there’s nothing in a lake that would prepare us for how beautiful a swan that lives there is, just like how people can become something beyond what their background, social or economic status, etc. can predict. Helen of Troy was conceived in a violent act, and armies fought over her, but she herself is usually portrayed as kind, and generous.
These are accidents floating in simple water, taking in nature calmly, in little sips; actions which, like literal swans and lakes, are sometimes scattered. The “these are accidents” comments directly on the first sentence, but is sort of ironic: since the swans aren’t the same color as the lake, then they must be accidents. After this, I do what I think a lot of poets do: I talk about the swans, but I’m sort of thinking about something else. But it’s not to be tricky. It’s because I don’t know how else to say it. Because I’m usually just thinking to myself when I’m writing, speculating: I try to write poems that are a little smarter than I am. Sometimes I say stuff just to see if I can make an argument for it. Here, I’m describing the swans, describing nature, but also thinking about how I’m talking about swans, and nature: if swans take in nature (the water) in little sips, and if those actions are sort of scattered (like swans and lakes are), then maybe we should reflect that in how we talk and think about these things. I think I was thinking about my teachers wanting me to not write scattered poems, to have these neat fulcrums and tidy endings, but then I’d think “but I don’t see neat fulcrums or tidy endings in nature”. So I’m trying to give myself permission to write a little wilder poems, a little more “natural” poems, not the poems that I think my teachers wanted me to write.
What the swans look like: white, with feathers. This is actually one of my favorite sentences, because I get annoyed when poets try to show off with fancy descriptions of things, like “oh, the luminescent sizzle of the bacon on the blue-black blank face of the skillet” and stuff. Some people like that kind of stuff, but I don’t. I know what bacon looks like, and swans.
It’s getting cold. I think here I’m just trying to imagine myself out there, looking at the swans. I always think it’s interesting to have the speaker of the poem, whoever it is, to be in the middle of doing something. In one poem, I have the speaker saying these philosophical things while he’s breaking into a house, stealing a radio. Another one is spoken while the person is flying through a windshield. I sometimes think about what language I’ll use in traumatic instances; it’s a way of preparing for them, I think. I’m obsessed with the famous last words of people. A famous writer of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde, has my favorite last words: “either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” Then he died. Wow.
Someone has made a fire. A flame’s identity depends on what it burns—identity is like a swan for it comes and goes as it pleases. It seems logical to have a fire, since it’s cold. But I was also thinking about my first draft of the poem, with a fire image: I liked that image, but I didn’t know how to get it into the poem. This happens a lot for me. I’ll be reading something, and I’ll like an image, and want to steal it and put into a poem, but I want to change it and make it mine, put a Tony Tost sticker on it. This actually is when I get my best ideas: I’ll be working on one thing, and come up with something really weird that doesn’t obviously fit, so I’ll have to revise or change or make up stuff to make those two different parts fit somehow. I’m always thinking about identity, and the “flame’s identity depends on what it burns” just kind of popped in there, maybe from being a fireman’s kid, seeing different types of flames with different material. Also, it ties in with the first sentences: here’s a case where the material does predict identity. You can’t guess what a swan will look like by the lake, but you can guess what a flame will look like, depending on what it burns. Actually, if I remember correctly, for a while the poem went like this: “A flame’s identity depends on what it burns—my name is Tost for a reason.” You pronounce my name like the food, toast. I thought that was a funny thing to put in a poem, because so many poets take themselves seriously. But ultimately I thought that even though it was funny to me, it kind of was distracting. So I remembered having Pablo Neruda come and go, and saying it was like identity (my personality changes every time I moved to a new place), so I put that in instead.
I don’t know how to talk about my biological father, so I am going to describe the lake: it’s blue, with swans. This is actually maybe the most honest thing I’ve ever put in a poem, and the only really autobiographical sentence in all of Invisible Bride. I usually just like to make stuff up in poems, and not talk about my life. I don’t like to get real personal with strangers; it seems rude. But this just popped up, as it does now and again. I never met, or wanted to meet, my biological father, who’s dead. I consider the man who raised me from before I remember to be my father. When this poem was published in a magazine, it didn’t say “biological” – a poet told me it was awkward, and so I took it out. But I put it back in before Invisible Bride came out, for two reasons 1) to make sure my dad doesn’t think I’m talking about him when he reads the poem and get his feelings hurt, and 2) because I think it’s more interesting sometimes to be awkward. But anyway, the idea of not knowing how to talk about personal, hurtful things, so you start talking about something else (like the weather, or poems, or baseball) seems really human and touching to me.
I can film it. Here I’m just making fun of my teacher, while acknowledging a little bit of truth to his advice: it’s easier to talk about things like lakes, thing that you can film, than to talk about stuff like childhood, or confusion. But it’s silly to make it a rule.
There’s still a fire by the lake. Here the speaker is still reporting what’s going on, noticing the fire (it’s identity dependent on what it burns) after talking about his biological father (probably optimistic that his identity isn’t dependent on that).
The swans are safe in the water. Here I’m letting all the kids back at home know that the swans aren’t going to catch fire in the poem. No swan-burgers tonight!
It’s getting cold. Almost dark. Again, reporting what’s going on, but also trying to set the scene for an ending, trying to figure some way to end the poem, especially since I already revealed more than I’d like to with the biological father sentence.
I have a list of things that get more definite at night. In the first draft, I had the line “Late at night, identity becomes/definite. The shape of fire.” I have no idea how I came up with that, nor remember writing it. But I liked it, and wanted to use it somehow. I hate to not use something clever, or sort of smart, either that I come up with, or that I find in someone else’s poem or story or song. And I really like lists, so it seemed like a good way.
1) The shape of fire.
I was actually going to try to make a list of things that get more definite at night, but couldn’t come up with stuff after fire (one of my favorite poems is “The Shape of the Fire” by Theodore Roethke, so that’s why I wrote it this way). The teacher suggested something like “the stars”, but I thought that was kind of cheesy, and plus stars are just fire anyway. So the incomplete list seems like an indefinite place to end the poem, but that was ok with me; I’m confused all the time, and the speaker’s trying to think of ways to talk about identity, and I’m ok with him having bits and pieces of speculations and ideas, but no big answers.
I hope this helps a little bit. I don’t have a short answer, really, like “The poem is actually about the president’s haircut”, or anything. It was really kind of fun to try and think through the poem and explain what I was trying to do; this poem is a little clearer than most of mine, and probably a little better than what I usually write. I’m glad you picked this one Tim, you’ve got a good eye.
Monday, November 05, 2007
That's a good question, of a specific example. Since this process I'm pointing at is one I believe to be still emerging and revealing itself, I don't know if there are canonical shorthand examples to readily point to, so I'll try to flesh out the process as I see/feel/think it.
In Joris & Rothenberg's Poets for the Millennium series underway at U of California Press, there's an amazing book of Selections by (and about) Maria Sabina, a shamanic healer who lived in Huautla, a remote town in the hills of Oaxaca. She functioned as a healer who, guided by hallucinations from various local mushrooms (her "little children"), would perform rituals and chants that were accessible to her in this state:
"On the Principal Ones' table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent.
One of the Principle Ones spoke to me and said: 'Maria Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work.' I exclaimed with emotion: 'That is for me. I receive it."
Through her access to an orally perpetuated tradition, one that included rites and rituals and techniques, she served a crucial role with her town, even working in concert with what we think of as a normal doctor.
Eventually, word of not only her effectiveness but also of her mesmerizing linguistic prowess spread, and people from outside her locale began to seek her out; these folks included Americans of varying ethnic identities. With graciousness, she allowed them to participate in and observe her rituals and chants; they came to her with complete sincerity and curiosity. (These weren't your stereotypical, vulgar ugly Americans.)
Eventually, Sabina (as well as other shamans) lost her access to the Book of Language. In Rothenberg's words, Sabina's "spiritual universe [began] to change (she tells us) with the coming of the blond strangers, a few at first, then in great waves in the 1960s." One of these inquisitors wrote that her "words make me wince. I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia."
In her oral autobiography composed with Alvaro Estrada, it becomes clear that the crucial shift wasn't the ethnicity of the newcomers, but that this practice which had evolved itself to a particular purpose was suddenly, violently disrupted, even under the banner of sincere, seemingly benevolent curiosity and spiritual eclecticism (it's quite an experience to be reading and processing this account, feeling this specific loss an hour earlier you didn't know had occurred, but that even as you mourn it you understand how you yourself are explicitly implicated, and that this tradition's very destruction is what is granting you the privilege of this knowledge and mourning).
So, the crucial shift is that these techniques, rituals and chants were developed for a specific purpose, of healing the body through spiritual mediation. The waves of newcomers, however, came largely to, fairly generically, 'find God' through the mediation of otherness.
So, the actual content, or 'information' has not been changed an iota, but the logic of mediation or framing has been altered with some subtlety (but, clearly, it has been altered profoundly). The outsiders were so immersed in their own culture's relegation of the spiritual, or holy, as outside the everyday and outside the body that I'm sure they couldn't even see the alienating mediation they were introducing to a specific tradition that did not function in the 'out there' of much Western religion, but a tradition that had evolved and adapted its techniques to meet the specific material and collective needs of a group.
One interesting aspect of this account is that the introduction of medical technology or practice is not seen as being the cause of disruption; likely, this is because the medical practice and shamanic practice adapted to one another towards the common, specific goal of physical healing.
So, not a technological determinism is involved, but a more subtle (and in this case, subtly violent) disruption. I think most of us can imagine how this alienating mediation would dilate outward from the sudden loss of this shamanic tradition, which not only perpetuated physical healing but also functioned as a vehicle for specific values and practices (including a sense of the interrelatedness of body, language, custom, ritual, and the holy). And, in the specific practice of healing actual bodies in an actual environment, the shamanic tradition would not only be a site of perpetuation of traditional beliefs but also a site of innovations, as rituals and practices were adapted to meet the gradually but continually changing conditions.
It makes me think of Kafka's parable about a religious ritual: jackals begin to enter the holy place and eat of the offering, but in time their trespasses can be anticipated and incorporated as part of the ritual practice. I would assume part of the story Kafka is telling is about the nature of time and ritual, that the trespassing could be ritualized because it occurred on the same temporal plane, and could be anticipated via the mediation of the jackal's appetites. It being a parable of rhythm. The same parable would be different if it involved tourists coming in to take pictures, unless their trespassing had some kind of seasonal or anticipatory rhythm . . .
Anyway, Sabina's story is a dramatic example of what I'm talking about, but I'm using it because it stands out so clearly. I think we may be so immersed in the view of culture *as* information, or tradition *as* separate from daily practice, that we can be blind to the introduction of these alienating features to cultures or traditions where it may not be the case.
And the kicker is that it's not just nostalgia that makes this process unappealing to me, but that the issue is also flatly political and economic. That is, the reason that a notion of culture or tradition as information has seduction or traction for many of us is that it is a notion that our contemporary logics of production and consumption have rendered as valid or even neutral. It seems non-hegemonic because, in our political-economic landscape, it sits there so easily and 'naturally.' It patches over the gaps between cultural norms and daily praxis.
One can imagine a situation where a culture (as outlined above) suddenly experiences a newly administered separation between its cultural, traditional practices and its daily life; this then seems to me to be a ripe conditions for the introduction of the logic of consumerism, where the newest TV or biggest hamburger is perpetually set before you as the promise of the satisfaction of your desires and needs.
Hopefully, I'll get a chance to push out my thoughts further on the still un-addressed question of the interrelation or discreteness of traditions.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
A Number of Paragraphs
in which I Attempt to Explain to Myself
my Inability to Embrace Varying Pronouncements
Emanating from the Blog of a Clearly Intelligent Poet
With Whom I Seem to Share a Number of
Similar Reference Points
One of Stan Apps' attractive statements concerning the relation of artist to tradition: "Because the avant-garde rejects the authority of precedence, earlier avant-garde writers must be viewed as contemporaries--as co-conspirators: never as relics. Similarly, history must be viewed as a variety of different opinions about the present, all of which exist only in the present and have no privilege over one another."
It's an attractive stance, but one I can't really embrace. Maybe at an earlier moment, or in a different situation, but as an American writer at this particular point of history, there seems to be a too-tiny gap between what Stan states and a kind of flattening out of all historical and experiential difference so that say Aime Cesaire, Gertrude Stein and Paul Celan now function as merely my American contemporaries and co-conspirators. Sort of fellow stylistic travelers whose common denominator is now my particular situation, which seems a pretty severe reduction, and a hyper-American move. For whatever reason, Randy Newman's "Political Science" pops into my head, where everywhere is just another American town, but one in which Hugo Ball is a buddy down the street.
What I'd like to make clearer to myself is an intuition along these lines: that what Stan and others read as the anti-traditionalism of an earlier avant-garde was (granting, for the sake of argument, its was-ness) in fact a technique and not a goal. That the goal was distance or separation from a stifling perpetuation of social and aesthetic norms from an earlier epoch, and that the project was to discover more apt social and aesthetic forms for a radically new moment.
A worthy goal now would be distance or separation from a stifling perpetuation of the social and aesthetic norm of unceasing newness and innovation, framing all experience and action as existing in an isolated, perpetual nowness, where the past is the refuge of the obsolete or, at best, a repository of peculiar fashions. A desired result of this would be to produced cultural forms by which a shared sense of time and history can be endeavored on terms other than those of hyper-consumerism and a-political co-isolation.
If we take distantiation as the lesson from an earlier avant-garde, as opposed to (as Stan does) anti-traditionalism, then I think it allows a different kind of access for a contemporary writer who turns to past figures as possible models: Cesaire's Notebook not as a rejection of traditionalism per se, or even a rejection of a stable subjectivity per se, but a rejection of the particular, institutionally prepared, "eternal" and "biologically determined" subject positions that colonialism had instituted and perpetuated: by making his present self signify as a site of flux and permeability in this poem, he is able to cycle through, see through, and refuse various subjectivities. Or, in the case of Stein, as I've written before, I don't see her as rejecting tradition outright but rather revising fundamental assumptions about the reading and writing acts to re-assert the role of what Dewey refers to as "the living animal," a profoundly historically apt move on her part.
If a contemporary writer believes (as I do) that we're currently in a moment of a vast dilation of American cultural and political and economic assumptions via the process of multinational capital, where what was once taken to be difference will now (and always as a 'now') be seen as a hodge-podge of particular present instantiations of globalization/Americanism (re-framed as an example of the vast buffet of stylistic options available to the contemporary consumer, and that globalization of the marketplace alone makes possible), I don't know how one can't see the rejection of the authority of precedence as not being symptomatic of this larger tendency. If American consumerism owns the present, and seems intent on owning the future as well, a refusal of precedent, or of tradition(s), seems to be a really strong home field advantage for this particular type of standardization.
I don't think a contemporary American writer can simply will or assert her or himself as co-conspirator of previous avant-garde writers. I'm sure that's not the most generous spin on what Stan is saying, but I think one of the most interesting questions is how a contemporary American writer can claim some kind of affinity with radical writers of previous (or distant) moments in a way that goes beyond the recycling of posture or gesture or style (evacuating the radicalness of the initial work).
I'm presently infatuated with the notion of making one's self a part of an ensemble with the projects of other writers; maybe this sounds a lot like Stan's co-conspirator model. But I think a substantial difference occurs when relation to tradition is invoked, as opposed to rejected. Unless one historicizes previous works, then one's present seems to be the only mode of mediation, and I don't know how one historicizes without invoking a relation (however complex) to tradition(s).
The relation I'm thinking of is derived from Fred Moten's notion of a Second Iconicity, which he differentiates from a Peircean First Iconicity, which is based on structural resemblance. The logic of First Iconicity would be that (the representation) x is structurally suggestive of (the real) y, and therefore can stand as its icon.
This is how I take the notion of a rejection of precedent as being the structural means by which a contemporary writer can claim a resemblance to previous avant-gardes. That the general outline of a defining act by a vaunted avant-gardist (say, Stein's "turn away from tradition") is the iconic representation of being-avant-garde, the x, and one's structural resemblance to that avant-gardeness is based on a perceived rejection of the authority of precedent: those who share this stance can be gathered as instances of y that the iconic x represents. It is a fairly stable, and fairly a-historical, notion as it seems to depend not on situation so much as structural resemblance as viewed through the prism of the present.
A First Iconicity can be represented by either an isolated figure, or a figure whose context serves as mere background. To demonstrate an affinity with that figure, one would need to approximate its stance.
Moten describes Second Iconicity as the noticing of an aspect, and that the ability to notice an aspect is like having a musical ear, and allows an improvisation of structural relation (as opposed to a re-constitution of a defining relation) and its effects, which are felt. For me, this introduces history and situation to a greater degree than First Iconicity (which I think can be more easily abstracted out of its historical moment in the guise of the autonomy of form, or style, or gesture).
So I'd like to claim the complexity of critical and emotional relation gained through distancing as being the aspect of forebears such as Stein, Olson, Cesaire: this is what I would like to develop my sense of improvisation with. So the x in this case wouldn't necessarily be a figure, but an aspect that may have a variety of structural manifestations in various historical moments.
I would suppose the only real difference here between what I'm saying and what Stan is saying is that he takes the refusing of precedent as the defining aspect, while I take distantiation. But that I also think this may be all the difference in the world, as the former can be asserted just through the framework of a "given" or uncomplicated present, while the latter necessarily includes temporalities different from one's own.
This depends, I suppose, on one reading a refusing of precedent (as read from one's present moment) as being defined by an artist or writer's work bearing little to no resemblance to the majority of works that preceded it; that is, that it occurs exclusively on the plane of form and style. In contrast, I take distantiation as a negotiation of relation to culturally dominant logics, a negotiation which may manifest itself as the emergence of unprecedented forms and styles but that that isn't the only way it may manifest, and that being unprecedented alone doesn't explain its radicalness.
A figure of Second Iconicity not only cannot be isolated away from its context, but its complex relation to its context is its actual outline. To demonstrate an affinity with that figure, one would need to 1) perceive the relation of its work to the norms of its cultural context (its means of distantiation); 2) perceive the norms of one's own cultural context; 3) endeavor work that may allow similar distance as instance 1, but in the context of 2, which may have totally different norms. So, 1 and 3 may in fact not demonstrate a First Iconicity (a structural similarity in isolation) but, in terms of relation, may demonstrate a Second Iconicity (a similarity in a certain aspect; in this instance, a negotiated distance allowing one to perceive the cultural norms of one's moment on terms other than those offered by the norms).
I don't know how much of a limb this is to go out on, but I take First Iconicity as being perceived by semi-objective structures, of the intellect. You can point, from the outside, at the structure of resemblance: the shared profile, or outline, or motif.
Second Iconicity is likely mostly perceptible as a structure of feeling. I think this is what Moten is getting at by conjuring a musical ear; the logic of relation or aspect can be felt, but not necessarily isolated.
Of course, the kind of paradox I'm getting myself into here is that the means of distantiation can only be endeavored by a certain (distancing) relation to the present, the shared aspect of which (to present and past structures of a similar, distancing feeling) can be felt but not beheld at a distance.
Convoluted, maybe, but I don't know if it's counter-intuitive.
The reason I tend to distantiation is because if the rejection of precedent was a defining aspect of a previous avant-garde (which I'm not convinced of, but anyway), that it has a radical force only when understood in its particular instances, and not as a generalized stance: I don't know if being anti-tradition can be claimed as an inherently radical or liberating move, especially as it seems to be so dominant in the contemporary moment. To posit distantiation as the aspect of ensemble requires one to historicize numerous and differing stylistic and formal relations, as opposed to asserting one logic of relation (rejection of tradition) as being the defining one, regardless of situation.
It might be too tidily dialectic, but it seems symptomatic that a severing off of the self from precedent can be a radical move in one moment and a completely hegemonic move at a later moment.
I've been arguing for self-distancing as being a goal that a rejection of precedent was developed as a technique to accomplish. Of course, self-distancing itself can be framed as a technique as well: just mere (creative or critical) distance from the norms or logics of one's present situation doesn't get you too far, but: I don't know if I can figure out the next step beyond it before getting there. So, I'll stick with distantiation as the (temporary) goal.
Ideally, the ability to accomplish some distance would not be merely a momentary jolt or shock (though I'm sure that could be a catalyst), but would rather be sustainable, and could be shared. In the realm of aesthetics, I think that would mean producing works that are not only distinct from current norms or logics (such as the norm of unceasing novelty, newness and innovation/obsolescence), but that are also works others would want to return to, and that are in dialogue with other works that it shares this aspect with. My own take is that means a certain facility with the chosen medium itself, as well as utilizing that medium as a means of creating this undefinable aspect of distance or relation I am talking about.
I would state, in a current epoch that seems to bracket itself as a perpetual now-point, that a re-imagining and exploration of tradition (understood as not being abstracted from history) (that is, not just a great big bag of styles and forms) is a very necessary way of refusing the endless now-ness that I find to be paralyzing.
The problem for me of considering history as Stan states, as a series of opinions about the present, is: I can't really wish away my implication as a white, straight, American male: isn't that the default, assumed subject position of authority? Of being unmarked by race/nationality/gender? Even my old class markers seem to fade away as I am fairly indistinguishable from my peers of middle-class background.
So to consider history, or the situation of others, as all being a " variety of different opinions about the present, all of which exist only in the present and have no privilege over one another": wouldn't this be, for myself, to assert an unmarked (aka, white/American/male/straight) perpetual and uncomplicated present as the constant in an equation of identity. For me to relate all other histories through the mediation of "the present" as it is currently constituted, from my privileged social positioning: not so avant-garde.
If there is such a thing as an "American present" it would be: one that is un-beholden to tradition, one that considers itself to be given and un-ideological, and one that mediates not only all other presents, but also all other histories.
That is, for me to have this stance, I think it would necessitate regarding all other situations and selves as variations on the "naturalness" of my unmarked American presentness: a contemporary, American notion of "the present" is not a neutral one.
(Anyways, this isn't intended to be an indictment of Stan, or a polemic against his positions, but an instance where some of his statements jump out to me as possible positions available to me but that I find myself rejecting; on one hand I see the attractiveness of them, but on the other hand I find it difficult to claim them for myself. I'm never quite sure what I think until I start writing, so this post is my attempt to figure out why I find myself moving away from and not towards many of his positions.)
I think, in general, that if one doesn't want to regard the cultural past as simply a collection of surface gestures and styles (i.e., fashions), where the only fundamental difference between an Eliot and an Anna Akhmatova is simply personal taste (whichever one lets me circulate more successfully), then I think one would want to place the styles/forms/works within their particular moment, so as to attempt to regard them in the strangeness and un-naturalness in which they were first produced and perceived. I'm saying, I think, that I don't want my present situation to be the only denominator.
Otherwise, I think I would simply end up regarding the cultural (and by implication, the economic/political) present (and, by implication, the future and past) as inevitable: given: natural. And then I would have no critical distance by which to regard or feel my own moment by terms other than those prepared for me.
Or, to enable the distance by which to not only recognize but also feel the ways by which images and norms circulate in such a way that it is so easy to regard the present or (especially) the future as being exclusively "my own" and not also, even more so, a collective, shared one.
(Also, I don't know anyone who wishes to regard past works and writers as mere relics: that's not really the argument.)
Flattening notions of tradition or history as variations on the present would be, for myself, as an American poet of my social (non)marking, at this particular moment, not really a spookily radical move but more likely a spookily normative one.
If I seem to have conceded to the "the avant-garde rejects tradition" argument, it's just that it simply doesn't matter that much, because: 1) even if, say, Stein, did simply write what she wanted and ignored literary precedent (which, as I've stated, I don't think is the case at all), but if she did, my argument is that it was to discover more apt or more precise forms and techniques (of expression, perception, engagement), not simply to do something different or novel, and 2) the contemporary tendency to regard engaging with a tradition to be simply a matter of either utilizing, revising or refusing forms or usages (on the plane of style, as a question of simple 'yes' or 'no') is symptomatic of the contemporary narrowing of what it is taken to mean to "engage with a tradition" of any sort; so, what were, in their moments, radical re-imaginings of the use or domain or scale of literary production (contesting the relation of poetry and a normative, disembodied, rationalized authorial self, or contesting the relation of poetry to history) now circulates as a storehouse of available styles and moves, a shuffling from one logo to another, all existing on the same, familiar, immediately accessible plane of the 'nowness' of choice.
More on this later, I'm sure, as I'm trying to get my thoughts together.