Follow Harriet on Twitter
Yoga for Losers II
I was in Maine last summer and Jennifer Moxley asked me why I didn’t get involved with the language poets since I was that age. I don’t even know how to answer that question simply. I actually get asked this a lot. Like there’s the boat going by. From another generation you might think it was a class.
If I think of how blurry it was at the time. Publishing in the same magazines for a while, a language poet might try and have sex with you and try and make you a language poet girl. But actually once there was a magazine there really wasn’t a feeling of openness. I was never asked to write and I wasn’t interested in theory and that seemed to be key though I’ve also heard in retrospect that what passed for theory in language magazine was often pretty lame but I wouldn’t have know the difference at the time.
I think the biggest difference is I was queer and really wanted to write about it. If you look today in the piano bar chronicles about language writing there really isn’t much sex. And they were having sex. They were young. They had to be. They just didn’t like writing about it and for me, aesthetically that is a problem. There was a whole revolution in San Francisco which created New Narrative Writing which was I think about people on the poetry scene wanting to be engaged with excess and sex and narrative particularly as AIDS reared its head – I have to ask where is the great language poem about AIDS, how could you watch so many people die and not write about it? I’ve always thought of AIDS as the Vietnam of my generation. A war needs its poets and we were absolutely there. John Ashbery did it in his John Ashbery way. And I think Language writing did not see that as its job. For that alone I have to stand in resistance to thinking of Language writing as what happened in poetry in the seventies and eighties.
To advance our poetics we have to go back. I think I’m allowed to say this because these poets are my friends (or they were) and this is what we do right, a discourse, and I’m trying to make room for other histories as we’re wallpapering the past we have to know there were many more than one. The explanation isn’t happening here. And also despite the fact that this conference is taking place in the academy I think we also must know that as artists we have to always take the academy with a grain of salt. It’s a resource, it’s a workplace, it’s many things. It’s a patron. It’s something we’re in cahoots with. But it can’t be the ground of the poetry world. It’s not in here.
When I taught in San Diego I noticed that the excitement for a writer’s work was at its peak at the hiring stage. Like when you were being eaten. Once one became part of the faculty it became clear that poets were not as trustworthy as scholars. This puts a poet at a dilemma. You realize you have signed on for an unholy marriage. Some poets are able to take advantage of what the academy offers. I found there was an insidiousness to being someplace that undermined you daily by its refusal to treat you as an equal. Your work was not research. Your grades were inflated. Your students’ texts were impossible to read. These pronouncements were delivered with great huffiness like poetry was a stumbling block to them, an affront to their experience of knowledge. Our outsiderness was never an enticement, or rarely. We were most visible when we received rewards. We put our paws or our genitals out and were lauded. For those for whom it was, we became friends. Mostly though it was like one applying for a grant, to be a poet in the academy I always felt I was in the position to need to prove my love. It could not be taken for granted. It had to be demonstrated again and again. Finally I realized we were baby-sitters keeping the numbers up for the department. Because writing as a major was popular. That’s why we were there. To support their jobs.
I mention this because approval by this same academy is a specious measuring tool for poetry. Work that “looks like” work or can be demonstrated as being “work” to academics eyes will fly. And that’s been one of language writing’s main powers since day one; it’s capacity to sell itself to the academy. And now Jorie Graham is coming around, and who else is liking us now. Actually I think of myself as not not a language poet. It’s a new negative space and I wonder who would like to come gather around…..But seriously folks is enthusiastic reception from the academy and its poetry stars our criteria for success. Mission Accomplished.
I prefer a mess.
Not a flarf mess or a conceptual mess. I think poetry history is always messier than that and if you only studied poetry with Heather McHugh or Charles or Kenny or Eileen you will probably be missing a lot. We tend to over-believe our filters. And a poet in the academy is a filter.
I don’t know about Heather, well yes I do. She is not a genius. I have written about it. I can tell you exactly why. I sort of thought Rae would get a MacArthur this year. Didn’t you feel it. So perhaps in some worlds language poetry is still a coming thing, not the blunderbuss of “us,” whichever one is out there somewhere hard at work keeping the fringes down. But I say the fringes, and their tiny adjustments is where poetry’s live edge is. Not in here.
What about feminism. I’m so sick of the word. Aren’t you? Don’t we ever just get to be. To my fellow females, I’m bushed. Do we have to talk about poetry here? Good I won’t. When I see Details magazine leering that porn is the new Sex Ed and learn that that is pretty literally true I feel scared. Boys (and girls) have more immediate access to porn at this time than at any other time in history. The access is only growing. There’s no violent sex act you can’t see with a click. The web is furnishing what would have been previously unimaginable could be out there for a boy of 13 or 17. Or a girl. But there’s no porn for girls. It’s aimed at a male audience and the come shot is aimed at her face. And that’s what he gets. We’re writing poetry and advancing feminist poetics at a time when girls grow up with less access to interiority, less ability to imagine their own bodies and what they might want than ever before. She is expected to get in position. The media purports what she is and was. I love Cathy Wagoner’s new book My Job suggesting at various points that she could be writing a sex manual for adolescent girls. That’s the kind of advancement of feminist poetics I endorse. All kinds of private revolutions for the female body and mind. The brave and the playful, the imaginative men can come. I would advocate a poetry full of characters like CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank who delivers mad obscene haiku healing yes I said it healing in 137 tiny doses over eleven years, unstoppable poetry that hurts and turns a mirror to pain and risks being viewed as the problem when CA you’re the cure. Poems that can be sung, that step outside of the reading room, into the studio, poems that design themselves into collective projects so people can see what poets do, poets climbing up a mountain, talking among themselves and making a film about it, working publicly against poisoning our water, slicing the tops off our mountains, extracting gas from under the ground at what cost. Poets running for small local offices, women fighting to put sex education back in the schools, sex in our poems, poems in our songs, time in our lives, time to lose, to lie on the mat to make tiny adjustments, to live. To live long as we’ve got.
I’ve been mostly thinking about the earth these days, mostly that she’s a girl, that she’s a poet and one in great danger. I decided not eat red meat, do that for a while. No ice on the planet in 2013. What should we do. Start a school or shut up? No.