Part One: Anthologies
In the great anthology debates that seem to pop up every once in a while in the poetry world, I do not come down on either side. I don’t particularly like most anthologies and never really buy them unless they are assigned. But I also have no qualms with the anthologies and their rights to exist. In fact, I wonder why the existence of poetry anthologies is so problematic. My guess is that most people do not just wake up one day and suddenly know what poetry they like. A certain kind of culling has to happen, a wading through of other people’s tastes and other people’s styles. Young poets/poetry-readers, or new ones at least, come into poetry through their own version of anthologizing. It happens in multiple ways, one of which could be the actual reading of published anthologies. It could be finding the handful of online or print journals you enjoy. It could be the poems assigned by good teachers (or even bad teachers). It could be the pile of books left to you one summer by a better-read friend.
(A couple summers ago, I apartment-sat for a friend while he was gone for the summer. I had been in an MFA program for exactly one year, and part of the reason I was in the program was because I knew nothing about contemporary poetry. So this friend, far more savvy than me, left a pile of books he thought I should read. I consumed them, and a handful of other poetry books, like a fiend that summer. And that summer, I was internally anthologizing everything. Both my reading tastes and my writing style shifted wildly that summer, became something both more eclectic and personal. What was that summer but a kind of guided anthologization (anthologestation), not perhaps different from a teenager from a rural area (cough, cough) picking up a poetry anthology and learning there were things in the world much bigger than the kind of old-fashioned fiction she had loved and internalized without question.)
To learn to love poetry is to learn to love anthologizing. Not anthologies but the act of collection. Cultivation, maybe we want to call it.
So here is where I come down on the problematics of anthologies: They are essentially the physical material of what all of us readers are doing on our own: constantly creating a type of archive of taste and preference. Anthologies are only dangerous in the hands of idiots, and most poetry readers are certainly not that. To believe that anthologies give people the wrong impression of an art scene is to assume that a person is guided only by what is immediately in reach. Which is never true, in my experience, of a poet or poetry-reader. Yes, most anthologies are boring and flat and clearly biased in their choosings.
But what is my brain and heart but its own kind of skewered anthology?
The Aeneid is the story of legitimizing Roman history. Rome-as-Virgil enfolds Homer into its origin story, but Homeric epics are ones of self-containment and Virgil’s is one of empire. The invaders of The Iliad had the luxury of destruction as their easily-envisioned endgame and The Odyssey is a return to an already-established home. The finality of Troy’s ruin is shifted by Virgil to the impulse for Aeneas’ journey, and the drive for the beginning of the empire.
While legitimizing Rome, it is also working toward the legitimizing of the language of Rome, and that language points to the true empire of culture. Although Aeneas defeats the Latins, he is who is subsumed, appropriated into their history. Virgil does not allow the Trojans to dominate and replace the Latin culture the way that Rome wanted to dominate and replace the cultures within its empire. The appropriation of Greek mythology is a legitimization, but not a dependency.
“Culture is the motion sickness that serves as a prelude to the certainties we cannot authorize, the sickness that is only its symptoms but, like a mimoid, never reduplicated in experience.” – Patrick Durgin, PQRS
Culture as a motion sickness. Culture as a spiraling drop in the stomach and the deep green twinge of lightheaded exhaustion. Every day there is another new story to follow. Every day there is another new friend to congratulate, another story to read, another pixel to push from one side of the screen to the other side of the screen while your thin rectangle transmits packets through the air thousands of times per second. It’s all syn ack syn ack, over and over. Shake and acknowledge. And it keeps coming. What can be duplicated by experience? Or, what can duplicate experience? Experience can be copied, but it can’t be duplicated. The copy is a secondary version of the thing; the duplicate is the thing, doubled. Art never provides the same experience twice, just like the internet never provides the same image twice. It may look the same, but it has been reposted, recontextualized, resized, and edited. Maybe the arc is the same, but the players are always different. It’s a constant novelty, but so constant that it almost feels like a single moment. It’s the center of the black whole, stretched into spaghetti. So what is real about any of this? What’s an authentic experience on the web? The short answer is: everything. It’s a constant rush of novelty, but a rush that leaks in all directions. Originality and reality are not the same thing. Novelty and experience may be.
“The old written laments about ephemerality, which measured no more than distance between writing and sensuality, suddenly fall silent. In our mediascape, immortals have come to exist again.” - Kittler, Gramophone Film Typewriter
More like ephermerality is pushed to its breaking point. Everything is so extremely translucent and brief that it feels as if there is a continual moment of novelty, one new thing after the other. It’s a wave-like euphoric moment of eternally returning with new, better content. These immortals are quickly forgotten in the ever-forward rush of increasing numbers. Maybe we have a voice, an image, some words, but their flesh and their names are almost always forgotten. And so what if we have their names: their selves are crushed and gone, lost to time. Media create and proliferate specters and ghosts, not people. However, art can take media one step further. If media resurrects the dead as ghosts, art can give those ghosts some small bit of flesh. Not their original flesh, but a new body. Maybe a bit plastic, but warm enough. Photography is seance while art is reincarnation. What is more real, the ghost or the past life? Both are equally real, but the latter promises a new entrance.
We have seen so many death-of-poetry think pieces lately that it’s nice when something different comes along: like this death-of-the-novel piece from Tim Parks. Like all death-of-X essays, it is both profoundly dumb and profoundly irritating. It is thought-provoking but probably not for the reasons Parks intended.
I will not pretend that I have loads of historical knowledge just hanging out in my brain-folds to cull from in my reaction to Parks. I almost know as much about fiction as I do about poetry – which is to say, I like writing and reading it and know absolutely nothing about it beyond that. But my many years of enjoying reading novels (novels, I’d argue, being my favorite of all the artistic genres in all the world) certainly qualifies me enough to roll my eyes at Parks. We get it. You’re bored by the contemporary novel. You think plot and denouements and character arcs are manipulative and untrue to life. And historical fiction is the worst of all, it seems.
What confuses me about Parks’s argument is his claim that a lot of contemporary novels, especially the ones with a historical perspective, are obsessed with pasts and futures but not engaged enough with the present. Parks writes:
The variety of stories told in the novel is indeed remarkable, but the tendency to reinforce in the reader the habit of projecting his or her life as a meaningful story, a narrative that will very likely become a trap, leading to inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity, is nigh on universal. Likewise, and intrinsic to this approach, is the invitation to shift our attention away from the moment, away from any real savoring of present experience, toward the past that brought us to this point and the future that will likely result. The present is allowed to have significance only in so far as it constitutes a position in a story line. Intellect, analysis, and calculation are privileged over sense and immediate perception; the whole mind is pushed toward the unceasing construction of meaning, of narrative intelligibility, of underlying structure, without which life is assumed to be unimaginable or unbearable.
For the last few weeks, anytime I sit down at my computer to write anything (a poem, my quickly-deflating novel experiment, a piece for the Actuary), I am seized by absolute terror. I stare at the screen, maybe get a few words or lines down, then burst into tears. I will not reopen any documents that have been saved during this time, in fear that they will somehow be even worse than I imagine. And this terror has been bleeding over into my precious, beloved reading time as well. I have read only two books in the last month: a children’s novel that I finished only because it was assigned for my online book club and Richard Siken’s Crush, which I reread for about the tenth time and which left me feeling heavy and starved, just as it always does. Books seem impossibly large to me right now, impossibly punishing. Even the slim volumes of poetry I have been stocking up on seem like too much.
So what have I done instead to stave off the wolves? Turned to wolves.
“Imagine the writer as a meme machine, writing works with the intention for them to ripple rapidly across networks only to evaporate just as quickly as they appeared. Imagine a poetry that is vast, instantaneous, horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.” - Kenneth Goldsmith
What does poetry look like after the internet?
Artie Vierkant, in his essay “The Image Object Post Internet,” says,
Post-Internet is deﬁned as a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the inﬁnite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.
As I discussed further in my essay on conceptualism, N. Katherine Hayles has shown in her book How We Became Posthuman that our contemporary age has divorced information from its body. If information is body-less, then it would follow that information can be easily transferred, manipulated, and stolen. In our Postinternet age, everything is authored by everyone (or, nobody cares who authored what originally) and any image is subject to mass replication, reproduction, and manipulation. The repost is emblematic of our age, as is the re-mix and the reblog. Anything re-, re-done and re-finished, anything done after the fact, furthered, moved along, decontextualized, and stolen is a kind of Postinternet art object. Our contemporary mode of conceptualism which favors the idea of the piece of art over the piece of art itself is a clear example of a Postinternet aesthetic experiment. It isn’t the book Traffic by Kenneth Goldsmith that matters, but the idea behind that book. It isn’t important where the image of Beyonce scrunched-up and mid-dance came from, but that it can be replicated ad-infinitum, recontextualized and repurposed (not to mention her publicist tried to get people to stop sharing these unflattering images, which only makes the image more worth sharing) . Those images aren’t originally art, but are taken from their original contexts and torn to shreds until something new but not entirely different is left behind.
I’m not certain Norman Rush is a natural writer, a natural critic or novelist. There is something unnatural about his projects, or perhaps supernatural. There is an effulgence in his prose, a superfluity in his voice, his characters, his events, a so-much-ness that casts a shadow. I’m still walking through their twilight, a not unpleasant venture, under a kind of eclipse. When I think of a literature that has changed how I relate to others and the world, I think of the novel’s of Norman Rush—comprehensive texts, diagnostic, world-manuals, aesthetically persnickety, sensible, surprising. Honest novels, too, about sex and nature and grief. He takes ages to finish his books and this contributes to their aura, to their blackhole or wormhole-like effects.
November my beloved you fall into my lovely arms. My students have crawled, á la Burden, through a glass-strewn parking lot regards a month-long poetry unit. They do not want to experience a poem, they want the poem to mean, they are paying for a “mastery” of the course content, not some touchy-feeling What is this poem doing? way of reading. NO WHY IS IT DOING? And we’ve read widely, I think, and sometimes confoundingly: Yeats, Armantrout, Dickinson, the Bros. Dickman, Yasusada, Neruda, Ito, Frost, Glück, Mann, Diggs, and whoever else was at hand in the book and on UbuWeb. The results are always a mix bag: the brightest students sometimes turn off completely—TOO MUCH DESCRIPTION—and students who don’t ever do any work perk up over the slimmest glimmering thing, the wizened wizard glass Devils Tower-type of poem, say, by Kay Ryan—A DEPARTED LOVER PLEASE COME BACK. It’s mystifying. It’s magnificent. Who is the speaker of this poem? What is its tone? What are its sonic effects? Can we identify a theme? have been my through lines on the way to making poems mean; but I like indeterminacy, and chanciness (this adjunct instructor teaches to his tastes: does everyone?); robustness, softness, kindness, coldness; I like some hustle, too, and then the academic side of me says, Well, evince. That is, Muster some evidence. Think of the adage The reader is not a detective; the poem is not a crime scene; the poet is not a criminal. (Who said this?) My brother said, “Maybe make the poem and the reader a doctor/patient relationship?” Analogized this way—This way, I said, pausing, makes the poet seem like a medical problem. “How about like a game?” I replied, How about Operation! Etc. In this spirit of recovering a funny bone, of defiling a corpse, of getting my electric buzzing on and then disappearing down the gullet—I present an explication of “What Next” by Frederick Seidel. I write these before class to show my students I can. It’s a little sad to say It can be done! 500 words alchemically exchanged from 65. Poetry makes of us Rumpelstiltskin. Gold is arbitrary wealth, all of that. The Florida sun passes into shadows. My Sun Pass—the little toll sticker that I put money on at the start of every month—is low. The state law requires my students produce 3,000 words of “at minimum” bronze by the semester’s end.
The young men were hardly saints. They lied a little and pumped up their roles as leprologists to get food and lodgings, and hustled a lot to get into bed with the women they met along the way, usually to no avail. They drank when the opportunity arose, ran away from unpaid bills, shot a beloved dog by accident, and bumbled along making messes that others would clean up, as young men often do. But they were kind to the sufferers they met. In the leprosarium they lingered in the longest, they broke with precedent by touching the patients without barriers such as gloves and later by playing soccer with them.
I saw trailers for The Motorcycle Diaries; I’ve seen t-shirts with Che’s face screenprinted and rumpled, vaguely simian. I thought the literature would cover his adventure, that his exploits must crop up in a fiction seminar the way all boys and girls in Indiana learn about John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman—Appleseed the Swedenborgian horticulturalist animal lover, yet as gaunt as Che, I think, and as bearded. The failure of a Midwestern education is its prioritizing local lore—bird song, orchards, the stew pan a man might wear as a hat—over revolutionary martyrs. I know more about Jean Genet, more about grandmasters of the Ku Klux Klan, than I do about Cuba, a place closer now—geographically and culturally—than Indiana.
For the first time since I was a young kid, I’m not in school. I recently graduated from an MFA program and moved back to the Philadelphia area, got engaged, and started my first full time office job. In a span of a few weeks, my life went from that of the MFA student with loads of time and relatively few obligations to that of the working full time adult human. I understand the huge amount of privilege that is contained in those last few sentences, so I’m taking this brief moment to acknowledge that privilege, let it simmer now for this clause, and finally let it release into the ether.
For the past few years I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to have a lot of time to write.There was homework and reading to do as an undergrad, and later grading to do in grad school, but if I wanted to read or to write something I simply stopped what I was doing and wrote. In other words, there were very few constraints on my time.
Now, I’m working full time outside of academia, which means my days are extremely constrained. It’s very nice (here’s that privilege again) to have the money to pay my bills, to feed and clothe myself, and to put a little aside for the future. But in exchange for that stability, I have sacrificed my time. This probably sounds very familiar to a lot of writers, and I by no means think I’m unique or suffering in any sort of profound way at all.
So, instead of going into details about the mind-numbing boredom of spending hours on hours in a fairly menial office job, I want to take this in a different direction. Now that my time is constrained, how do those constraints affect my writing?