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departing thoughts

By Alan Gilbert

The last time I blogged for Harriet, it was a more intimate affair. It was the summer of 2008, and there were six of us (I think). Current bloggers Linh Dinh and Mark Nowak were in that batch, although I think Linh was blogging for more than just the summer. This time around has felt more frenetic. Maybe that’s just my own life, or maybe it’s the sheer number of contributors.

With Harriet’s comment stream turned off, the blog’s producers encouraged us to dialogue as much as possible with each other’s posts. The results have occurred both directly and indirectly. For instance, I’m grateful to have encountered the poems by B. D. Trail that Linh recently posted. Among other things, they inadvertently connect with a previous post I made in which I talked about plans I’ve had to write about the Vietnamese American visual artist Dinh Q. Lê alongside my family’s own relation to the Vietnam War. And of course there’s been lots of back and forth over “Conceptual Writing.”

Meanwhile, oil is washing into Louisiana’s extensive wetlands, Arizona passed a heinous anti-immigration law, and literary programs in Los Angeles are on the verge of losing their funding. I published a (Warning: self-promotional link ahead!) book a few years ago that had as major themes cross-culturalism and hybridity (thank you, Craig Santos Perez, for your post discussing the long tradition of hybrid literary styles used by minority/non-white writers). My book stressed that even cultural forms seen as “pure” or exclusive usually mix different sources and influences. For instance, part of an essay in the book discussed the roots of Depression-era, white Appalachian folk music in African and African American musical traditions.

That book was written between 1998 and 2002 when globalization and the web were peaking during their first big deregulated stage (way to go, Clinton administration), and there was an accompanying theoretical-critical discourse that piggybacked on these developments (Empire, anyone?). There was also direct resistance, and if I ever get to be a really old person, and children say to me, “Wow, you were alive when the personal computer and web were invented” (the way we now say to really old people, “Wow, you were alive when the car and television were invented”), I’ll also be sure to say, “Yeah, and I’m grateful for having been alive during the Battle in Seattle.”

My point is that where I used to believe in dialoguing across what’s shared, I think the challenge now (post-9/11 is an all-too-obvious historical marker) is dialoguing across differences. For myself, Harriet this month has been a microcosm for this. How do we honor difference without it turning into indifference? How do we (and even that “we” is problematic)—as writers, human beings, citizens—speak with each other in a way that finds commonalities in differences and differences in commonalities without an accompanying cultural and political atomization (or worse)?

I recently discovered a quote in Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography that seems relevant here: “An emphasis on the dimension of being governed allows a rethinking of the political sphere as a space between the governed, whose political duty is first and foremost a duty toward one another, rather than toward the ruling power.” Sure, there are HUGE inequities in the poetry world. The posts to Harriet this month have made this clear (importantly). Yet at the same time, the ultimately horizontally networked nature of various poetry worlds (and many other cultural communities as well) is an example of the alternatively structured social system posited by Azoulay that contrasts with more vertically oriented structures of political power and domination.

At least that’s my hope.


Posted in Poetry News, Uncategorized on Friday, April 30th, 2010 by Alan Gilbert.