Annie Get Your Gun
The thing about sardines when you buy them in a can: they are fairly uniform in size and in flavor; their individual identities have disappeared into the general fishiness of the soybean oil; their little bones have melted; their flesh has become a mass grave; they are fairly cheap and fairly consumable; and one forgets a sardine quickly after one has partaken of it.
But damn: don’t some people just love sardines? They’re convenient; they take no preparation time whatsoever; and, though a steady diet of them would probably be unhealthy in the long run, they are—in the short term—a pretty safe snack. They’re snacky. They aren’t lox, but they aren’t cat food. They are the middle of an ocean swimming with possibilities.
Sardines school. Yet, despite their defensive strategy of hiding behind one another, millions of them get eaten. All that schooling does them nary a whit of good. And yet, they still join, instinctually, each one believing that it’s some other poor pilchard who’ll be devoured.
I don’t know that artists and poets join schools for quite the same reason that sardines do. Sometimes there’s a true innovator in the bunch, sometimes they really do share some common misunderstandings about aesthetics, sometimes it just so happens that a bunch of really interesting people all shop at the same hat shop and they start to hang out and resemble one another and make little sandwiches. It can seem quite seductive to be associated with a school. Or to have a school from which one insistently distances oneself. Or even to found a school. But most of what makes a school truly interesting is what others say about it; not what it says about itself.
Is it the nature of beings to coalesce? I think sometimes that artists, like other lower forms of intelligence, want to “belong.” Or rather, that they want to not belong in some similar ways. They want to belong to the outside, and yet to be recognized by the inside. It’s a conundrum. Because, really, in order to belong to a school or a movement or a gang or a pod, you have to—whether you’re willing to think about it this way or not—move towards a “center.”
Maybe it’s peculiar to our time, in which actual schools (academies) proliferate and spawn, that we’re seeing so much centrism. What we need is more eccentrism. Who isn’t tired of the contemporary qua contemporary? Who isn’t bored by innovation for innovation’s sake? It has, sadly, become the mode du jour. Not even a school. A monocultural fish farm. An orchestra in which everyone is trying to solo at the same time. A tin of silvery bodies falling into place. I imagine that each of those fish must have thought it was going in a new direction. But all the other fishes got there at exactly the same time, and thus the great net encompassed them all.
Look, I like sardines. I probably like them better than most. But the time will come when all we have of the mighty oceans is canned fish. That’s the doomsayer in me. Shouldn’t there at least be a chance that I am wrong? Shouldn’t there be a greater variety of life, a greater variety of art, a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools trying oh so hard to appear larger and more menacing than it is? Write a manifesto. Don’t you see that it’s too small to keep? Throw it back.
Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...