Ruminations on the MLA and other things

The MLA is here in San Francisco. So much going on: readings, talks, informal gatherings. I served as a chair for a panel entitled Transgression and the New Narrative, organized by graduate student Danny Kennedy from the National University of Ireland. His paper was entitled, "So Much Endlessness Stored Up and in Store: The Project of Representation in the New Narrative." Danny was joined by Rob Halpern who presented a paper called "Realism and Utopia: Writing, Sex, and Activism in the New Narrative" and Bob Gluck whose talk was entitled "Bataille and New Narrative." Each paper was layered and complex. Each paper mentioned New Narrative's relationshp to Language Writing. Finally, a whole panel on New Narrative at MLA, and in its home, San Francisco!

In 2006 in Philadelphia, I gave a paper called, "New Narrative: Story as Social & Ethical Currency of Community" as part of a panel called Social Fictions. Kathy Lou Schultz was in the audience and might have been the only person there who had read the work of New Narrative Writers--Bob Gluck and Bruce Boone--about which I spoke. At yesterday's panel, there were more people in the audience who know this work--Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Miranda Mellis, Eireene Nealand, and others. And it is encouraging that New Narrative has found its way across the sea to Ireland.It seems that Danny has been at work reading New Narrative for awhile. In 2006, he organized an international conference called "On: Dennis Cooper," and in 2008, the conference "NarrativEncounters: New Perspectives on Narration."

There were many other interesting and stimulating MLA panels though, I confess, dear readers, that I didn't make it to too many. Attending MLA in one's home town is actually somewhat more fraught when one is still juggling one's daily life! I did sacrifice Bikram yoga Sunday morning so I could attend two panels: Poetry and Complex Systems: Global Ecologies and Poetic Form with papers by Christopher Nealon ("The Matrix and the Oracle, 1972"); Nathan Brown ("The Distribution of the Insensible"), Joshua Clover ("Worldsystemangst: Here Comes China"); and Sianne Ngai whose paper title I can't remember since she changed it from the title published in the program. However, I can tell you that Ngai performed an elegant close reading of Juliana Spahr's The Transformation.

Following on the heels of this panel was one entitled Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. I heard Ian Balfour's "The Word Under Pressure of the Image" and Sianne Ngai's "The Zany Science." At this point, I left to go rock climbing as part of the birthday celebration for my daughter. However, I'm glad I made it to part of this panel. I am so impressed with Ngai's work. She argued for the importance of new aesthetic categories for approaching the work of contemporary literature. The zany is one such category. Ngai traced the historical construction of the zany, illustrating how it bridges the popular and the avant-garde, and has a historical reach from commedia dell'arte to The Cable Guy. Ngai's reimagining and refiguring of how we understand and situate contemporary writing, and in what terms, is important work.

So, a sliver of the MLA.

All of this brings me to a quote with which I'd like to close the year. MLA's presence here in San Francisco and the panel on New Narrative have prompted me to reiterate here something that has been unstated but undergirds part of the project of this blog and is one way to understand what I am seeking to do in my dissertation: Community and Contestatory Writing Practices in the San Francisco Bay Area 1970-Present.

It is about literary practices and potholes. It is about history and complexity. It is about the future. The social. The communal. Contestations. And what literatures survive and which don't.

In Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (The University of Wisconsin Press 1989), Cary Nelson calls our attention the following:

“It is remarkable how rapidly we lost the rich literary and social heritage of modern poetry. By the 1950s a limited canon of primary authors and texts was already in place. The names in the canon continued to change, but a substantial majority of interesting poems from 1910-1945 had already been forgotten. Academic critics had come to concentrate on close readings of a limited number of texts by ‘major’ authors. University course requirements were increasingly influential in shaping the market for new anthologies. And the professorate, largely while and male and rarely challenged from within its own ranks, found it easy to reinforce the culture’s existing racism and sexism by ignoring poetry by minorities and women. Much of modern poetry was either out of print and no longer available in bookstores or never published in book form and thus forgotten in journals no longer being published. As the dominant social functions of poetry began to change in the 1940s, some poets found it difficult to publish their work. Other poets, such as Mina Loy and Marsden Hartley, never made much effort to promote their own poetry, rarely sending poems to journals and showing relatively little need to assemble and publish books. That did not, however, mean they were any less committed to their writing. We tend to ignore evidence that promotion by oneself or others plays a role in building careers, preferring to assume it is the best poets, not necessarily those who are most ambitious or most widely publicized, who retain long-term visibility” (35).

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