Among the Modern Languages: A Poet at the MLA

Like conventioneers everywhere, academics at this three-day conference drift through hotel lobbies and wait for something good to happen.

by Joshua Clover
The conventions of luxury car salesmen or Home Depot managers differ from that of the Modern Languages Association (known, like their annual get-together, as “the MLA”) in at least two ways. Your Lexus guys, first of all, are more immediately tied to the economy. They have years when the business is thin and the gaiety is forced, others in which demand is ascendant and the drinks taste a little sweeter. At MLA, at the Secretary’s “Nightcap” and in the hotel lobby, the drinks taste pretty much the same each year. The other difference is that, unlike the confabs of, say, plumbers or Navy brass, the MLA is a good comedy source.

Or so one is regularly led to believe. The New York Times, for example, likes to make merry regarding idiosyncratic-sounding MLA conference panels, in their annual (if, alas, futile) bid for just-plain-folks appeal. The jokes write themselves: “Marxist cash bar! Geddit?” Similar flak comes also from the proud philistines of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), where last year it was heard said with a chortle that the AWP was “the MLA without jargon”—this, apparently, being in and of itself an achievement. There is nothing as charming as the cultural elite bidding against each other for street credibility.

The Modern Languages Association’s annual set-to is reputedly the largest professional gathering in North America, drawing from 20,000 members. There’s never been anything like a Tailhook scandal. Neither do the conventioneers wear funny hats, nor spend their days together imagining newer and better ways to sell sub-toxic insulation to Sun Belters. That’s not to say there’s nothing unpleasant about MLA; when a vast number of people who compete for the same resources congregate in a single place, toxicity is bound to gather like a mist of mellow fruitfulness. What remains unclear is why the MLA, which fails—fails quite decisively, by any measure—to be about strippers and profit margins, somehow becomes the target of mockery on a national scale. Or perhaps phrasing it that way makes it perfectly clear. We all remember the playground; nobody likes a failure.

In many ways, however, the MLA succeeds in being much like any other professional convention. Every year the attendees descend on some metropolis (Washington, D.C., this year) after Christmas and before the New Year. Poised delicately between egg nog and champagne, sanctioned events provide the nominal occasion for registrants to find themselves in the same room; behind-closed-doors dealings decide numerous professional destinies. There is a good deal of swanning about in hotel lobbies and whatnot; convention small-talk, largely about how deplorable conventions are.

And then there are the scheduled para-events which generally turn out to be more fun or more unbearable or, often, both: parties, literary jamborees, more parties. The next three dispatches will cover these basic scenes of the MLA: The Panel, The Job Interview, and The Poetry Reading, as well as some of the Swanning About that decorates life among the ovocephalic, as it was at the end of the year in Washington, D.C., from December 27th to 30th.


Cattily Vivacious Young Professor Who Speaks In Italics, encountering Former Classmate: “You’re living here? I thought you were in California?”

Former Classmate: “I worked it out so I teach there in the spring and summer.”

Cat Viv: “Oh, you must be a sort of minor star to have managed such a deal! [Narrates entire curriculum vitae].”


The MLA panel is a congealing of contraries. It thrives on the indignity of being at once the organizational centerpiece of the MLA, and steadily disregarded; if some events fill the room, many struggle to draw an audience meaningfully outnumbering the participants (generally a moderator and four presenters). And yet, almost every session has something compelling, informational, or engagingly idiosyncratic—including those that inspire anxious hilarity from popular quarters, i.e., the famed paper on “Deciphering Victorian Underwear.”

It’s true that the paper titles, like the wardrobe choices of tenured professors, seem sometimes like experiments in what one can get away with. It’s also true that the papers are given by people who believe more passionately than their neighbors that the world is worth thinking about as intricately as possible.


Long Titles That Get Increasingly Specific With Each Word: “Intertextuality in American Modernism's Long Poem: The Dialogical Conversation among T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams,” “Things That Last: Durable Ideas and Trailing Objects in Renaissance Studies.”

Long Titles That Get Increasingly General Until They’re About Everything: “Specters of History, Traces of Memory: Modernism, Literature, and Religion,” “The School of Criticism and Theory and the Past, Present, and Future of Critical Theory.”

Titles Promising Metadiscourse: “Periodization and Its Discontents,” “Anonymous in Academe,” “A Dialogue on Dialogue.”

Titles That Sound Like Novelty Songs Promising Good Times If You Get Into The Spirit Of It: “Slavoj Zizek and Early Modern English Literature,” “Pastiches and Palimtexts: Source Texts in Contemporary Experimental Poetry.”

Titles That Sound Like Parody Clichs But May Involve Experts Working At The Top of Their Game: “New Approaches To Elegy,” “The Role of the Intellectual in the Twenty-First Century.”

Titles That Are Straightforward: “Editing Whitman.”

Titles That Are Straightforward, Melancholy: “Thinking after Derrida I: Politics,” “Thinking after Derrida II: Ethics.”

Titles of Utmost Importance However Cynical You Are: “Criticism and Crisis: Twenty-First-Century Intellectuals and the Politics of Academic Freedom.”

Titles that Are Just Lists of Three Fine Things: “Cognition, Emotion, and Sexuality,” “Literature, Affect, and Anaesthesia.”

There are limits to intellectual autonomy, however—ideology foremost among them. Topics must navigate between the demand to honor the historical relevance of various studies, and the urge to adapt them to the more and less subtle onslaughts of changing history. This drama of discomfort haunted many of the poetry panels: “The Poetic Line in the Age of New Media” (with the ever-insightful Adelaide Morris), “New Approaches to Elegy,” or “Black Poetics for the 21st Century.” At “Rethinking Rhyme,” industry honcho J. Paul Hunter cited Alexander Pope and Jonathan Culler offered Bob Dylan, and David Caplan recited Missy Elliott to generalized unease. The need for lineage will make men do strange things, but it’s not clear that the hipping of the academy is preferable to mythical fustiness. What is certain is that it will proceed accompanied by politely stifled guffaws.

The “Poetry and Politics” round table convened in the hardest-to-locate room in the sprawling hotel; if one hadn’t arrived early for the Poetry Division’s mixer, one was certain to arrive late. This wasn’t the event’s only conundrum; hadn’t it been determined some years ago that poetry, along with the personal, is always already political? But the night was really about “the war.” How could it not be?

What was lacking was the promised “Poets in Debate”: clear and eloquent presentations were undercut by the certainty that no one in the room favored Neo-Liberalism or state discipline, and that everyone would be voting Democratic at the earliest opportunity. The only disagreement arose when one audience member suggested that the poem might have to debase itself and consider the pop song’s success if it aspired to cultural relevance; panelist Joan Retallack was having none of it, proud to make anti-commodities. The fight was taken up by several others, a dispute marred only by the fact that all parties were united by their perfect contempt for the pop song itself. And so the finest of the modern languages was cast down.


Job Candidate, standing in lobby after interview: “Some guy just walked by in cowboy boots and ... a whole sort of cowboy outfit, really done up, just ... everything ... and I realized, This is what tenure looks like.


No matter how successfully “professionalized” one may be, the supplicant’s first MLA arrival can provoke a sense of something subtly yet profoundly wrong, as if the very air has changed its chemistry. Gray overcoats angle through the tawdry atrium of the Marriott Anywhere, rolling luggage and hailing each other with grudging festivity. Slowly this new world reveals its secret: one is clambering into a vast gathering of peers where, for the first time, more people are hustling for jobs than for sex. If one is at all self-reflective, this moment may be melancholic: childhood’s end. Henceforth it will mostly be like this. If you are enthusiastic about the prospect of employment placed before erotism, this is the sign of a substantial character flaw, but it is the kind of flaw which will stand you in good stead in the marketplace.

The pursuit of a job is the pure fact of the MLA, around which everything else orbits. It’s basically an amicable confrontation between haves and have-nots (though the haves do not relent from expressing subtle gradations within their ranks, leading to “Swanning About”), and this confrontation is the internal engine of the academy. If one isn’t there to interview or be interviewed, or perhaps to chair a panel or present a scholarly paper (either of which will position you for some kind of improved employment) one is looked upon with suspicion, like welfare mothers and poets.

Job-seekers play their roles in a hotel room the sumptuousness of which is indexed to the school’s status. They sit across a coffee table from four or five haves: a scenario that allows one to say, upon one’s eventual return as a have, that one is happy “to be on the other side of the table.” Since the MLA’s workproduct is premised on various kinds of increasingly figurative language, this opportunity to use such a seemingly figurative expression with literal accuracy is a fugitive, honeysuckle pleasure of academia. Small as it is, it's a pleasure that belongs to the haves; such reminders of the gap between the supplicant and the tenured are ceaseless, and that gap appears less fugitive than absolute.

The main affect of the interviewers is that of feigned engagement; the candidate, feigned self-confidence. Both are transparent; all parties pretend otherwise. Nonetheless, under the very real ennui of the search committee—who have, after all, been sitting in an increasingly tangy room for five hours listening to their colleagues repeat questions with only the tiniest variations of inflection—there is an urgent desire that the candidate be inspired, inventive, or just not a general dud. Not since the Piltdown Man or at least the X-Files has a group wanted so profoundly to believe.

The candidate’s go-getter veneer and underlying anxiety are laminated over the inexpressible fury of the judged. It’s exactly this aggression that must be modulated into performance—and so the wheels of socialization continue to turn without surcease. When the session ends, the candidate is left to parse even the slightest of signs. Did he flinch when I mentioned Critical Race Theory? Is 41 minutes long or short? Should I not have said “That’s a great question!” before every response? The committee members have formed less subtle impressions: Would this person be a good coffee date, vote with me in department squabbles, mitigate my work load without encroaching on my favorite courses? Eventually the day ends, and MLAers go in search of the para-events that contrive the closest the convention gets to fun.


Rising Star with Posh Accent: “And then at the Norton party they had hired a band, surely one of the most ludicrous ideas in history? You couldn’t hear anyone flattering you the whole evening, no matter how loud they shouted.”


Every year, a couple of local poets organize a quasi-official reading for writerly types who have managed to end up at MLA. Because this particular population is likely to be critically-theoretically engaged—a workplace hazard—the reading tends toward the progressive. Few are the sentimental realists, nonexistent the Laureates and Pulitzerians. It’s a kind of mercurial aggregate that someone would doubtlessly call “postmodern”; 20 or 30 take their place in an alphabetized parade of five-minute blocks threatening to run toward three hours. It’s a prospect which promises, it can be safely said, pure despair.

And yet, for the most part, it’s impure and diverting. Rod Smith of Bridge Street Books and Tom Orange from George Washington University have actually organized two readings this year, one for visitors and one for local poets (also scheduled: an event for “mom-po,” the Internet tendency of poets who are also mothers. This is foreshortened when only two of the readers show up; modeling an excess of commitments, one presumes).

The outta-towners (including your present author) troop to the conference sub-basement of the Four Seasons: very Situation Room with monogrammed napkins. Order prevails, and for once, one is grateful for this; every poet—almost (cheers, Bob Perelman!)—keeps to the five minutes. The evening offers a continually shifting admixture of knowing classicisms (Michael Cross and the adorable Brent Cunningham, “giant panda of the avant-garde”), theoretically informed personalism (Jennifer Scappettone, Laura Moriarty), and analytic counter-lyrics (Joan Retallack, Jeff Derksen). The abbreviated form favors the conceptual (Louis Cabri), the curiously witty (Aaron Kunin), and/or the inimitable (Bob Perelman, huzzah!) ... but at some point the will to categorization fails; Rodrigo Toscano does himself to the letter, smooth and angry.

One doesn’t know what to do with Shanxing Wang’s winding fantasia based around the initials I and T, other than sit back and enjoy; the evening’s all but over, except for the tar pit of a poet’s party next door at Bridge Street. Most popular small talk: “We’ve never met, but I know your blog.”

The next night, the local poets et al gather at DCAC, an arts center in Adams-Morgan, the capital’s best pass at bohemia. The black box theater is packed to the walls with partisans dodging the MLA panel “American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics” back at the Marriott. Indeed, at least one of the panel’s subjects is sprawled out on the DCAC floor. If there’s a local style, it’s sympathetic to stylized performance, ranting, and angry humor—perfect for the showcase format. Buck Downs’ furiously ironic miniatures are inseparably different from K. Lorraine Graham’s direct charm and Chris Nealon’s poem built from online occurrences of the phrase “pure despair,” which manages through a sort if dialectical trickery to be itself and its opposite. Near the end, Rod Smith—the scene’s laconic center—produces a halting set of a dozen slivers, interlinked and recited with studied offhandedness, while flipping pages asynchronously.

Eventually, he describes some disappointingly dropped grapes as “fucking archetypal robots of capital” and the house comes down, delighted and howling. It’s the perfect reading, and a sharp spell for banishing tendentious seriousness, the spectre of true despair haunting poetry and the MLA equally.
Originally Published: January 23, 2006


On June 8, 2012 at 5:26am Kops wrote:
I had no idea April was National Poetry Month. I love the idea of carrying a poem aronud with me all day. I think I just might try it, along with some of the other ideas like memorize a poem and read a book of poetry.

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Poet, scholar, and journalist Joshua Clover was born in 1962 in Berkeley, California. An alumnus of Boston University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Clover has published three volumes of poetry: Red Epic (2015), The Totality for Kids (2006), and Madonna anno domini (1997). His poems have also appeared three times in the Best American Poetry series. He has written three books of cultural and political . . .

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