SOME PRELIMINARY NOTES
Some things are maybe best not transgressed.
There is such indignity in speaking for others.
I will not ask my fellow experimental writers to embarrass themselves by attempting to characterize my allegedly conservative positions on transgression, literary politics or other such matters. The comments I made at A Tonalism are comments on writing within a tradition, largely about the politics of writing, and why I think a certain humility is in order when trying to shift registers into the politics of living. I’ll say more about this, no doubt, but for now I just want to say that I don’t want to start anything at A Tonalism that will diminish the quality of that space for other contributors. Therefore, I will blog in my own name here, despite my extreme reservations about how such things contribute to a poetics of personality. Hopefully this will start to settle any confusion about how I appear to have "suavely come around" to certain positions.
Some thoughts or positions I’m interested in discussing include the following: someone walks into a room and screams “I can fuck all night.” The room is full of experimental poets. Moments earlier, this someone was introduced as an experimental poet and knows that the audience is full of experimental poets. How is this transgressive?
I would contend that it is not very. In such a context, you reinforce everyone's sense of how progressive they are that they can tolerate such an aggressive and yet totally mundane idea. If that is politics, lord help us.
Now, I have been accused of condemning such poetics as not having political efficacy, of saying an art movement that has no political effect in the larger world is not meaningful.
In fact, it is the other way around. I’m alarmed that given all the political dissent and resistance going on globally, that more American experimentalists seem to have little connection to any of it. Several have said to my face, “Oh but nothing ever comes of it” or they think it doesn’t have much import if eventually it comes to an end. Others seem to think looking at some nutty mixed genre stuff on the page will help them “imagine” what kind of world is possible. But, it seems to me, there is a long discourse on that topic by activists and revolutionaries, some of which I think are sufficiently “intellectual” to seduce the theory-heads. I know I haven’t exhausted what can be gained from those sources. Is it possible to say going to poetry for one’s politics is about a suspicious as going there for “the news”?
Personally, I have met in my life many radicals of various stripes, some well-known and others not, some crazy, some remarkably sane, all impressive, many successful beyond all odds. They have inspired my own involvement in movements and in my personal interactions. Many that I have met have found a way to reclaim a form of life, a dignified if not utopian life, and they have done so in away not sufficiently understood by “cultural studies” types, especially those primarily interested in producing criticism.
The radicals who have inspired me have challenged powers that I feel are far more repressive than those of political correctness. In many cases, these real radicals (not progressives) act out of sheer necessity, perhaps. Still, I consider my own involvement in struggles against repression far less valorous. And my poetry though often written out of compulsion is a relative luxury. For this reason, I do not make any claims about my poetry in terms of politics. In my poetry, I do not wish to appear that I am speaking in the name of some “progressive” movement or idea, that I am performing a radical speech act when in fact I know that whatever a poems “achieves” it does in a certain context, at a certain time.
Such times are often in contexts we cannot control. It was quite by chance that I had Douglas Messerli in an undergrad writing class and yet I am indebted to him for having affirmed my love for odd ball texts and for gradually expanding my horizons whenever I later visited the Sun & Moon book store. It is possible a book of experimental writing accidentally ends up in the hands of someone who “needs” it and their life is changed. This is certainly a micro-political event.
That does not mean, however, I don’t think about politics and that those thoughts don’t influence my poetry. They do. But I don’t hold any hope for what such moments will mean to a reader.
When I have criticized a lack of politics in avant-garde movements, it is really their lack of connection to the often radical political contexts to which the historical avant-garde has been tied. The artists were often quite involved in those movements or refused to take part in movements that they felt undermined the object of their critique. For example, art movements organized around opposition to representation and mimesis were often connected to political movements that challenged the legitimacy of representational politics. Others simply, refused to make demands of their opponents, to win some gift, and attempted an autonomy from the mainstream.
Now I will run the risk of hypocrisy and say something about American experimental poets.
Overall, in the US at this time, experimental poets are classical liberals. They value free speech often over free living because they rightly fear state reprisals. Their politics are often quite rearguard. They lament events in electoral politics instead of challenging the validity of electoral politics either as they occur or as they are conceptualized. They want kinder, gentler politicians to run the state more efficiently and with fewer intrusions into their lives. Those that claim radical politics often feel this can only mean “overthrowing” something once and for all. They rarely acknowledge the dignity of those who have found a third way between reform and political revolution.
Social movements, especially those with anarchist elements, especially in the wake of neoliberalism have attempted to find solutions to their dilemmas outside of the state, outside of some appeal to authority. Many simply realize that making a demand of some authority ultimately keeps them tied to an untenable system. The landless peasants movements in Brazil, various segments of the anti-globalization movement in general, the worker-controlled factories in Argentina sought a kind of autonomy. The Zapatistas never sought either to takeover the state or to seize the means of production. They sought an autonomous zone, as autonomous as could be, and only tenable through the support of other local movements abroad, so tied in solidarity to those seeking a similar solution, whether meant to be final or not.
Other more aesthetically driven micro-movements such as the Security Camera Players performed Alfred Jarry’s UBU ROI and George Orwell’s 1984 in the cameras are more suggestive to me about what is possible in the way of using art as a contestation. It is also quite funny. It is not, however, the whole story. Probably not even the best model for the sort of poetry that interests me.
It is equally valuable to see one’s own experimental writing as a “technique of the self” or as place to recharge before reengaging with the larger community. This is especially true if one has spent time among social movements and found them to be more satisfying personally than spending an afternoon in an auditorium while a world famous avant-garde poet (also independently wealthy) laments that he or she cannot get grants from the state of California.
Why do we need poetic vanguards? To create a turf? And don’t vanguards have a tendency to impose some hegemonic thinking (some tendency at the very least)? Don’t they sometimes suggest things like, “If you don’t get it, it’s because you’re conservative or unhip or not very smart.” I’ve had all three said to my face over the years.
Why do poets need turfs and why must they defend them so thoroughly? Why not challenge the whole notion of turfs even in some recondite manner such Laura has done with the A Tonalism.
Lastly, I would like to address the fact that I have been called an anarchist. Really I only aspire to such a thing. But I should say that I am not interested in the 19th Century notions of individualism that many anarchists held. I have however very much an interest in anarchism’s late 20th and early 21st Century confrontation with post-structuralism, autonomist marxism, micropolitics, radical feminism. So there is truth to the charge, but I won't be speaking for anyone here except to convey perhaps my sense of the terrain: postanarchism, posthegemony, deeply unconvinced about the role of science in capitalist modernity, and reasonably sure we need to think a bit less about the “politics of demand” or “the politics of recognition” and more on the “politics of affinities.”
To, those who argue that experimental poetry creates a political vision, helps us imagine another society, I can only offer this quote from Gustav Landauer (the link between Nietzsche-Anarchism-and-Poststructuralism):
"One day it will be realized that socialism is not the invention of something new but the discovery of something actually present…”
Of course the most inspiring examples are not molar, not state-oriented, not connected to notions of “universal liberation” as guys like Negri-Hardt often seem to want. (I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way, but you know, I “wait without hope/ For hope would be for the wrong thing” as TS Eliot says.
Landauer also said this:
"One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but those are idle talkers and credulous idolators of words who regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another."
Plug in “party”, “vanguard”, “mainstream” for “state” and maybe the language will start to suggest some intriguing possibilities. Or just find out what the real radicals said and did in the first place and go from there.