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Essay

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.
Introduction
The Modern Languages Association holds the largest professional gathering in North America. The latest was held in Washington D.C., where Joshua Clover reports on three MLA rites of passage: The Panel, The Job Interview, and The Poetry Reading.

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.

SWANNING ABOUT: INTERLUDE ONE

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 PANEL

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.

TOWARD A CLASSIFICATORY SYSTEM OF PANEL TITLES:

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 Clich
  • 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...

Essay

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.
  • 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...

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