The Dirty Dozen
"The best things can't be told because they transcend
thought. The second best
are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to
that which can't be thought about. The third best are what we talk about."
- Joseph Campbell
There's nothing worse than a summertime flu - the light-headed in August, not the heat its the fever five day gripecast. Nothing worse except perhaps the dehumanization of all culture & the inflammatory tribalism among those who might resist it. Six or seven corporate behemoths throw the human heart in shrinkwrap & sell it back. What is permitted or even thinkable is now pretty much dictated by the global boardroom. The only people who won't take dictation instead take on their unfair share of obscurity & ostracization. Poets at their best create language expansive enough to outgrow any cellophane categories. Poets at their worst abandon their role as seers in order to snipe at one another from behind the cloak of some pontificatory identity. This abdication happens a hell of a lot.
I'll get to why, but first, so what? I mean, who cares about poets ignoring their responsibility so they can play the petty office politics of the most irrelevant art? Who cares if the nations of writers & artists splinter apart? If nobody looks at work as generative, or even at all? If the readership calls it quits. If you want to make poetry even more diminished keep it up. If you want to do your part in relegating progressive notions to the dustbin of history's forgotten lies, bring it on. Selfishly, like you, like anyone, I'd prefer to be read than not, or at least prefer the poets in Lungfull to be read - that was true a few years ago too. What wasn't operative a few years ago however was the horrifying inhospitality of New America &, like it or not, the commensurate duties everyone's been handed.
Luckily, all the cash that would've gone into my 401k went into the magazine, so the only thing I lost in the crash was my day job. Other people aren't so lucky. The only job opening I've heard of in the past few months is at the local bagel store. They need someone to fill in for the Arab-American man who worked behind the counter. He was attacked & almost killed on his way to open at 5 in the morning last week. If you get attacked, if you get drafted or arrested, if yr on the no-fly list, if yr disappeared, if state or independent terrorists get you, you won't have time to write yr little poems anymore will you? & if yr the last one left, who'll be around to listen?
The stakes keep doubling. Every poem in this magazine, like everything in the world, is abt September 11, even ones that don't explicitly touch it. Even those that were written before that morning & are only now appearing. The opening piece in this issue was written half a century ago in France yet connects directly to our new alien environment. A year ago I made a list of words that could never be used again without immediately conjuring that day & all the events that have followed. This list went on & on.
For a moment in September people forgot about pettiness. There were a few exceptions - one person kept riding me over why I hadn't gotten back to him about his submission from August. But mostly we were trying to find our way through the new now - is it enough to just be a poet? My husband's dead & you want to read me a poem? We're bombing Kabul & you think this spoken word number might help? I was talking to Anselm Berrigan the day after a Big Demonstration against the permawar. "I feel like I'm protesting every day," he said. "But who notices?"
A poem, especially one that doesn't make claims to be political, propagandistic or didactic, is an act of defiance. An explicitly political poem is playing one of the roles poetry is expected to play & triggers everyone's preaching to the converted, how nice for the poet filter before any message can leak out. In this poem I explain to you why terrorism/intolerance is bad. In this poem I explain to you why mean people suck. Great.
But all poems are political. To the degree a poem refuses to be reconciled with itself it expands, through cognitive dissonance & the semiotic field generated by each phrase, what can be perceived. This expansion, if it works, takes you to a place beyond control. & thus beyond organized politics good or bad. A poem or project that rises to the new demands of the crisis will make people aware of the first person plural, of the me in you, the inherent self-destruction in any apparently outward destruction. You can be proud of a piece that's great, but you better make the the piece point to something beyond yr own greatness, pal. Similarly running a magazine or a reading series or a conference is hard work & is ego ego ego but when it's really cooking the editor has nothing to do with it.
According to indymedia.org, when you dial the central phone number for the fledgling interagency Civilian Informant Network you don't get the FBI, you get - no kidding - a production assistant at Fox's America's Most Wanted. But the right's advantage has only partly to do with the fact that they have all the money & resources. Their momentum has as much to do with the fact conservatives & reactionaries encourage uniformity over individuality. It's easier to drive an army forward when they're all in step. Progessives, radicals, most of the poets I know, look a little crosseyed at received wisdom. The reductionist right's us vs. them bombast whips people into a bigger froth than the left's us AS them compassion. It's hard to go big-game hunting with the Net of Indra. Because every movement is reductionist (this one thing is what we will do to achieve that one thing) & progressives see the infinite possibilities beyond any course of action, we are almost certain to stop anything before it gets going. Thus anyone who projects herself into the world becomes a target. W is good enough for all the right. Who has the impossibly high level of integrity required by the left?
Not to say that art could stop the state, the device we created to serve us, from burying us, even if artists could stop whacking each other into irrelevance. But it's not without some power. Woody Guthrie put a sticker on his guitar that said "this machine kills fascists." He couldn't stop McCarthyism but he kept a candle burning that other people caught a light off until times got a little less wicked. Poet Robert Bové once said that as we grow up we become the monsters that were under our beds. Will you illuminate the space around you or degenerate into your own worst fear? Are you a candle or a monster?
Under any circumstances, poems that matter are failures - if they are big, immediately gettable things they advance nothing. There are poems that make everyone in the room stop breathing, that pull you out of samsara long enough to think or feel something that you wouldn't otherwise. But a groundbreaking poem - one that allows you to experience what would otherwise be culturally impossible - a groundbreaking poem sinks into the earth with only a slight trace. This is when the community steps in in some cases a tiny community - one person even - who comes across a body of work & pushes it forward, does the legwork, gets it not just published but received. The community creates a context, a medium for transmission. For example, Gary Sullivan is doing it for late poet Dan Davidson. He handed me a copy last week of Davidson's Culture which Krupskaya just published & bade me read it.
The wider the reception, the more likely the medium will be accused of exploitation or self-aggrandizement. While writing this editorial, I'm listening to music Alan Lomax recorded. He spent his life interviewing & recording blues & folk musicians in America & around the world. Without Lomax's efforts the work of untold cultures would be gone forever, the ideas & experiences embodied in their music would be not just dead but extinct. Lomax died this past summer & within a week people were accusing him of stealing the music of the black people to get rich & famous. The accusations were venomous & ridiculously inaccurate, the depth of their idiocy was almost enjoyably obvious. Equally transparent but less fun was their cynical desire to garner unfounded respect in an hour by denigrating an entire lifetime spent in the struggle of genesis against extinction.
It's one thing to be critical. I've turned down plenty of individual poems for this magazine by poets who I look up to. My writing's been knocked around & rejected by plenty of journals that I continue to read, helmed by editors I admire. Plenty of curators have failed to book me. Others have & then cancelled. There's an anthology that just came out - I'm in the table of contents for page 122, but 122 is blank! About ten years ago when I began compiling my shit list a friend told me to cut it out "If I had a shit list there wouldn't be anyone not on it." So I made a pact with my better self to not dismiss anyone, no matter how big a jackass he or she is. That, um, that didn't come out right.
If I begin closing doors now, in another very quick ten years I'd be living in an elegant box that nobody was allowed to see, on a shelf with thousands of other nice Leibnitzian monad boxes, none of us aware of the others except insofar as they were inferior. I know a lot of people who have constructed these & others who are getting estimates from contractors to build theirs. Anyone home? After all, why do we pay huge rents to live in the industrial slag heap of the city? We could live in the woods. It's much prettier. The vegetables are cheaper. But most of us don't. That's because the cultural acreage that gets tilled in cramped urban spaces is vast & amazing when we're willing to put even the most rancorous of our shoulders to each others' wheel.
I was talking to Adam DeGraff, a poet in San Francisco. He went to an event in honor of an well-known older poet & asked the illustrious man if there were any poets in the generation or two following his that really did it for him. He replied that he didn't read new poets. But sir, in your decades as a teacher is there nobody you came across who was a great writer, someone who showed you a new way of going forward? None come to mind, next question.
Adam's also a taxi driver. He talks to people all night & figures out ways of getting them where they want to go. Then its on to the next fare. Émile Durkheim suggests that if you find yourself on a journey in which the end gets further & further away the longer you travel, you will finally realize that the journey is the end. Some poets get that. Others pull over & declare their experience of poetry complete - & by extension, all new contributions to poetry superfluous.
This is where Poet as career & poet as calling diverge. Few poets make it big by advocating weird, unclassifiable writing. But no one could even perceive "big" if he or she dismisses contemporaneous innovation as novelty. At the outset most poets are psyched to be doing the true work of consciousness, harnessing their own obscurity to wonderfully covert ends. But after awhile you get tired of explaining to Dad & the guy on the plane next to you what you mean by "I'm a poet" & wouldn't mind tenure or a Gap ad. This is not to denigrate Charles Bernstein's Yellow Pages commercial, Sparrow's writing in The New Yorker or Jennifer Robinson's poem on Dawson's Creek - their work is astounding enough that, even though more people may have heard Jen's televised poem than will all of her colleagues' output ever - she will never be the Dawson's Creek Poet.
Accusations & counteraccusations are endless. I won't step into the debate between Larry "you kids don't know what poetry is" Fagin & Jim "you are full of shit, Larry" Behrle. If I agreed with Larry I'd stop worrying & learn to love the bomb of my severe historical limitations. If I got as caught up in fighting the war on supreme idiocy as Jim does I wouldn't have time to get this magazine out. I don't want to diminish Fagin - he's an intelligent writer & editor & no doubt based his grotesque generalizations about younger poets on having seen lots of younger writers who sucked. It's hard not to dismiss people who are younger than you on the grounds they're inexperienced & undiscriminating. Or to peg the the elders as ossified & no longer evolving. Hell, its hard not to dismiss people who were born the same week as you. Especially if you perceive them to be less or more or equally prescient.
Sharon Mesmer, who probably won't talk to me ever again for dragging her into this, said none of the poets will be talking to each other inside of a year. In an earlier episode of Lungfull! I went on about how poets were appropriating from & connecting an increasingly wide range of traditions & cultural sources. That's true - more & more people generate hybrid poetics from seemingly irreconcilable traditions. I'm a kind of Afro-saxon Language New York Nuyorican Futurist Beat Programming Code Hiphop Victorian Novel poet & when I write I listen to Texarcadian deep acid funkabilly. But at the same time, poets are becoming more closed to their contemporaries. That's a function in part of getting older - at some point in the last 24 hours everyone stopped going to readings & parties nonstop & now they're having kids & burning CD's. Its also out of ego & the conviction that anyone who doesn't meet my exact criteria isn't worth my increasingly precious time. Now I'm all for the self, if it weren't for a little cocky swagger, there'd be a lot less interesting writing, but when it binds the senses & limits the possibilities of where one poet allows herself to go, if it drops the portcullis on who another takes seriously - when the gargantuan cotton swab of ambition stops up your ears, the community might as well start pitching Dawson's Creek scripts.
People have pointed all sorts of vitriolic fingers at this magazine, as they will at anyone who purports to represent anything. Accusations of being too closed or too open. We're too self-depreciating, or is it to self-congratulatory? Too uptight & too slack? One ex-reader thinks the editorials & fine print are the work of a cokehead. Thanks but I'm not real into bad skin & bloody noses. I'm told someone else said that all the poems in this magazine could've been written by, like, three people. I'd very much like to meet these three people. It's easier to undercut yr colleagues than to develop good work, & often it looks more like discipline than actual discipline. In the long run, taking down yr neighbors is a lazy, misguided strategy. But, if you want to shoot Ronald Reagan so Jodie Foster will really love you - then go to town.
If you want to make constructive criticism on the other hand - or (better yet) put your money where you mouth is & do something expansive yourself - if you want to risk being misunderstood, derided or ignored because you operate beyond what's considered legitimate discourse, you're the mayor of a city I'd like to live in.
& if, Your Honor, if you want to write a poem, bear in mind that respect is unpatriotic, all speech is suspect, fear's a mint on every pillow, it's dark as hell outside & we can't see the sand for the lines drawn in it. If you want to create something, we need all the help we can get.
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