Beyond Careerism? (Redistributing Poetic Effort)
This past week at Poetry Foundation Jim Behrle published a talk he'd given at St. Mark's Poetry Project last month (and which apparently first appeared at one of his blogs some time back) called "24/7 Relentless Careerism." Behrle's talk is a hilarious rant against the career motives and moves of contemporary poets. One would have to have a heart of stone not to read Behrle's piece and laugh aloud. And one would have to be seriously naive not to believe that much of what Behrle describes goes on to various extents.
That said, I cannot help but see the situation from a different perspective than Behrle (or at least the Behrle of "24/7 Relentless Careerism"; Behrle is, after all, a poet, as well a tireless community organizer and activist for poetry within the community around the St. Mark's Poetry Project). Often, I feel frustrated by all that one cannot do as a poet, what one seemingly gives up through one's devotion to poetry. And how far short of reality—of exigent political and social conditions—poetry would often seem to fall. Likewise, it is frustrating to feel as though one is at the mercy of an apparatus of contests, and editors, and prestigious academic appointments in order to be appreciated for one's work. What Behrle expresses eloquently is a cynical perspective I have no doubt is shared by many. That one can only follow one road now, and that that road is paved by mediocrity and meticulous calculation.
When I went to Buffalo for graduate school in 2000, I was fresh out of college (I deferred for a year between college and graduate school). When I applied to Buffalo, I didn't apply anywhere else. It was Buffalo or bust. I wanted to go because I admired Charles Bernstein's and Susan Howe’s work and had grown up on the poetry of Robert Creeley and the poets of Creeley's generation. Having met Howe when I was a college freshman, I had no doubt that Buffalo was a place where I could learn to be a poet. That's all I wanted. And, if nothing else, that’s what I got from Buffalo. A practice as a poet. Common ground among other poets whose work I admired.
I am still grateful for this. Looking back on my time at Buffalo (Bernstein had three years left, Creeley would pass away in four, Howe was preparing to retire), it seems like a miracle I got there when I did. To work with Howe and Bernstein, and also with Myung Mi Kim and Tony Conrad at Buffalo has instilled me with an enormous sense of good fortune.
My decision to apply to Buffalo was a fairly hapless one. It was motivated by eagerness, and interest, and desire. When I attended Creeley's memorial service at Buffalo I remember Robert J. Bertholf (at the time the curator of Poetry / Rare books at the university) thanking Creeley for inviting him to “come along for the ride.” When I get to host a reading, or correspond with a contemporary, or I am invited to give a reading I have a similar feeling of gratitude to simply be part of the conversation. If I become critical of something, I think it is in relation to and out of respect for this sense of conversation. Many of the poets who I feel closest to feel burdened by a sense of privilege and would try to conduct themselves counter to this privilege. Among these poets there is an ethical commitment to poetry—the writing of poetry as not just counter to “official verse culture” (which it is obviously always in relation to), but as the principal expression of the poet’s desire to be and act in specific ways within the world.
At its best, I think that poetry can make things seem possible again. Possible worlds, possible sensations, possible ideas, possible ways of being, possible relationships. I also think that poetry has its limits, and that a major limit of poetry (or most modes of aesthetic production for that matter) lies in its inability to effect immediately practical changes in reality. As Tillie Olsen reveals through her book Silences, there are "natural" hiatuses which occur throughout a writer's life, and then, more often than not, there are hiatuses which occur as a result of economic and/or socio-political violence. For women and minorities such imposed hiatuses have obviously occurred more frequently than for any one else. There is also a hiatus that I believe occurs out of a sense that poetry does not suffice in the face of strife or emergency occurring in the world. George Oppen's twenty-five year hiatus during which time the poet fought in World War II and organized for the Communist Party is a famous example of such a hiatus. Similarly, there is Robert Duncan's hiatus during the 1970s during which time the poet did not write or publish. Laura Riding Jackson gave up poetry because she did not feel that it could represent "the real," and spent the rest of her life writing text books which, in prose, extend many of the preoccupations of her renounced poetic practice. There is also the legendary case of Rimbaud, who became an arms trader; an act which Mallarmé likened to amputating one's arm while still conscious.
Mainly, I want to suggest that there are counter-actions to the kind of careerism Behrle skillfully describes in his essay. And one is to imagine the poet acting beyond the boundaries of poetry both as a literary genre/medium and as it is embedded within a set of institutional practices and cultural locations. What happens when a poet works without words, in mediums not their 'own' (as so many poets have done)? What happens when a practicing poet produces something outside a culture or context of poets/poetry (as so many poets also have done)?
Thinking about poetry as a labor and a field of production is crucial here. Because I believe that part of the difficulty with contemporary poetry is that poetry, for many, has seemingly ossified as a field of production and now seeks its revivification in other cultural activities. Off-page poetries—performance and somatic poetry, conceptualist poetries, ecopoetries, and other poetries which redistribute themselves across multiple fields of production—are therefore of the hour. While many poets obviously still do write poetry for the page (and I am someone who personally believes in the power and potential of page poetry, not to mention poetries traditionally identified as ‘lyrical’ ones) many others are writing across disciplines, genres, and modes/fields of production. So while many of us are still wrapping our heads around late-modernist appropriation practices, we also have yet to adequately address the more complex problem of how off-page poetries redistribute poetic effort within a more expansive and extended field of cultural production.
Following Paolo Virno's book, A Grammar of the Multitude, I would also like to take poetry, at bottom, as a labor. While this labor may not be easily quantifiable, there is nevertheless a finite energy that one can put towards the generation, distribution, and/or critical reflection upon/of poetry (what, traditionally, has been considered the 'work' of poets to a large extent). What, I often wonder, if this effort was to be radically redistributed? If the poet is also defined by their having a practice of using language in ways considered to be poetic, what would it mean for those practices to be displaced and put to uses other than they were intended? What, in other words, if one was to voluntarily and tactically use the labor power they would normally afford to the writing, distribution, and/or critical reflection upon/of poetry towards another kind of labor? What if such a hiatus were organized? What would this experiment result in?….
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...