Poetry of the 1980s!

Poetry and Poetics of the 1980s
June 27-30, 2012
National Poetry Foundation
University of Maine, Orono, Maine

Orono after a rain storm June 27, 2012

This was my second NPF poetry conference (I attended the Poetry of the 1970s in 2008) and I have to say, despite the lack of sleep, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maine, it turns out, has great local beers, warm nights, spacious dorm suites, but beds too hard for weary bodies, at least for mine!

For some time I have been writing about a selection of writers working in the 1980s, so how could I miss this event! While the conference references "Poetry and Poetics," I am using the term "writers" above quite deliberately.

During the 1980s some people thought of themselves as "writers" rather than "poets." In fact, in one of the panels, Laura Moriarty referenced just this. Laura complicated the simple term "writer" by noting that during the 1980s, if she were referred to as "a writer," she would immediately think of herself as a "woman writer," and if referred to as a "woman writer," she asserted that she was in fact "a writer." I think Laura's claim speaks to the complex intersections of not only gender and poetics, but also suggests the entanglements of "poetry" and "prose" and "poets" and "writers." Many of the writers I work on seem to fall into this messy and amorphous, rather intentionally ambiguous and capacious category. For example, someone like Robert Gluck writes both poetry and prose; the books in prose are often categorized (by publishers, libraries [with subject headings and classificatory systems]) as novels. But I think of his work as emerging in the context of the poetry community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not everyone fancies this blurring; some people and institutions get downright frustrated by writing and writers not neatly categorized.

Something like Gluck's 1994 Margery Kempe (High Risk Books) is neither a traditional "novel" nor poetry, but it borrows from each genre and uses prose to traverse the differences. Nathaniel Mackey's epistolary series, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, consists of a series of fugitive texts, often referred to as "novels" or "fiction"  (e.g. Bedouin Hornbook [1986] was published as part of Callaloo's Fiction Series). The "Dear Angel of Dust" letters that comprise the series originally appeared as poems in Mackey's Eroding Witness (1985); the first letter is entitled "Song of the Andoumboulou 6" and the second (only two appear in Eroding Witness) is part of "Song of the Andoumboulou 7."  While it is true that post-Eroding Witness these letters no longer appear as poems or in the context of poetry books, the letters exert an influence on the poetry, and are themselves deeply connected to this genre we call "poetry."

So, in short, for some writers, the 1980s is a decade of genre troubling. Of course, there is a long history of poems and poets and writers messing with genre. Think of Jean Toomer, William Carlos Willliams, Gertrude Stein, and many others. But there does seem to be something about the 1980s that produces a decade of investigations in prose and poetry that tend to undo and redo these categories, specifically, deliberately, strategically.

Laura Moriarty's pic of the lovely conference co-directors Steve Evans and Carla Billitteri

Genre popped up as a site of inquiry and discussion in a number of the Orono panels, including in:

  • "Gender and Genre" with David Need on Bernadette Mayer and Ben Gillespie on Rosemarie Waldrop and Ellen McGrath Smith on "Women's Prose Poetry in the 1980s." I walked in late to this panel and caught just the tail end of David's paper but heard Ben and Ellen. Ben discussed Waldrop's use of the page and suggested that Waldrop's prose "took away the page's power to define the genre of the poem."  Ellen covered a lot of territory, situating the prose poem in a long history of feminist practice, remarking on the prose poem's frequent association with subversion, an association that doesn't always hold up. 
  • "Post-Generic Writing in the 1980s" with Stephen Fredman, Kaplan Harris and Peter Middleton, and Marjorie Perloff as a respondent. The room was packed for this panel and the papers were quite distinct and rich. Stephen discussed a wide range of writers from Kathy Acker, Charles Olson, David Antin, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and others. As a way to introduce his investigation into the importance of San Francisco as a site of writing experiments, Kaplan began with an excerpt from Acker's The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec that features Ron Silliman as a character, and Peter explored Lyn Hejinian's The Cell, drawing our attention to "the cell" in a variety of arenas--in the sciences, finance, history and cultural studies. Marjorie Perloff responded with her characteristic breathless energy and declared that San Francisco was no longer a site of exciting writing experiments, questioned what might have been "new" about New Narrative, and expressed doubt about the category of the "post-generic."
Keynote Talks and Readers Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, Kevin Killian, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Nathaniel Mackey were all top-notch. Kevin's talk on "Activism, Gay Poetry, AIDS in the 1980s" was powerful and generated a standing ovation. Kevin has generously allowed me to include a little teaser here. The entire talk will appear in Paideuma. And you can watch a video of it HERE.

 Other Panels I attended included the following (caution: notes about talks perhaps suffer from faulty memory and/or note-taking!):
  •  "Estranging the Logos: Michael Palmer's Book of Echoes" organized by Patrick Pritchett and with papers by Richard Deming ("Senses of Echo Lake: Michael Palmer, Stanley Cavell, and the American Philosophical Tradition"), Peter O'Leary ("Poem of the End: Michael Palmer's Apocalyptic Sun"), and Norman Finkelstein ("From'C' to D: Michael Palmer from the Eighties to the Nineties (and Beyond).
  • "No More Secrets:" The Poetry Project in the 1980s" which included papers presented by Kimberly Lyons, Patricia Spears Jones, Gary Lenhart and Eileen Myles and Elinor Nauen. Eileen and Elinor were not present and so their papers were read by Kevin Killian and Donald Rothschild. These presenters traced the many and varied writers who read at the Project during the 80s and offered stories about the reduction of NEA funding, programming challenges, and the battles for diversity and inclusion.
  • "Feminism in the 1980s" was organized by Arielle Greenberg who provided an overview of the diverse feminist experiments occurring in the 1980s, and included papers by Cathy Wagner on Denise Riley's work, the "uneasiness of lyric subjectivity" and the exclusion of the lyric "I" in conceptual writing; Linda Russo used a series of note-cards containing quotes and comments to organize her approach to thinking about the long poem; she proposed "space" as a way to begin to consider the "always under construction" nature of the long poem and urged us to take into consideration that gender as an analytical lens is one that needs to be historicized.
  • I caught a bit of the "Gay Poetics" AIDS, Place, Postmodernism" panel with Nate Mickelson, Adra Raine and Katie Fuller. Mostly I heard Adra's paper and I was fascinated by her claim that readers growing up in the 80s, as did Adra who was born in 1978, respond to postmodernism and commodity culture in ways far different from an older generation.
  • Dashing over to the concurrent panel on "Language Poetry: International Cluster," I caught Peter Culley's very interesting account of "leisure poetry," what now might be called, he said, "slow poetry," and its anti-work or anti-labor oriented approach as juxtaposed with the American "language" poets' emphasis on work/labor; I also was able to hear a good portion of Abigail Lang's interesting exploration of "The Franco-American Conversation in the 1980s."
  • Aldon Nielsen organized a top-notch panel entitled "Of Time and Bodies: New Black Aesthetics/New Black Critique which included presentations by Evie Shockley ("What Comes After 'Nation Time'? Diasporic Configurations of Time in the African-American '80s"), Mecca Jamilah Sullivan ("'You are an Imperative': Black Women's Embodied Poetics of Difference"), and Meta DuEwa Jones (Ntozake Shange's Peripatetic Poetics of the Eighties: Locating Diaspora in A Daughter's Geography"). Sullivan's paper addressed Ntozake Shange's work, asserting a link between black women's bodies in the 1980s and explicit generic innovation. Both Shockley and Jones discussed, among other things, Nathaniel Mackey's work, with Shockley linking Mackey's 80s writing to the Black Arts Aesthetic while Jones explained how diaspora is figured graphically and thematically in "Passing Thru," one of the poems in Eroding Witness. Meta's paper included a powerful reading of the work accomplished by the graphic that begins this poem.
  • "Small Presses and Magazines" included three fascinating talks: Laura Moriarty's "Editing the '80s: Jerry Estrin's Vanishing Cab, Daniel Scott Snelson's "Relocating Jimmy & Lucy's House of 'K,'" and Donald Wellman's "Editing Coherence in 1981: Desire in the Shadow of First-Generation Language-Centered Poetry."
  • The last panel I attended was "Transmission, Tradition, and Change" which included Susan Gilmore's paper on "Primer Time: the 1980s Poetics of Gwendolyn Brooks," Alan Golding's "Armand Schwerner's Scholar-Translator: Notes, Paratexts, Avant-Garde Poetics and Institutional Form(ation)s" and Jonathan Skinner's "Scratching the Beat Surface: Ecopoetics in the 1980s." Each of these papers was engaging. I'd never heard of Schwerner's work, but Alan's paper has me intrigued.

There were many other compelling panels, unfortunately and unavoidably, scheduled at the same time, so we all had to make difficult choices.

The panel I was involved in "Discrepant Engagements: Long Form and Hybrid Genres in the Writing of Nathaniel Mackey, Erica Hunt, Beverly Dahlen, Anne Waldman, and Robert Gluck" was very much interested in the question of form and genre. Here's the prompt that we (yours truly, Kathy Lou Schultz, Kaplan Harris, Rob Halpern and Erica Kaufman) worked with:

Against the backdrop of a decade characterized by the rise of neo-liberalism, a number of writers in the Bay Area, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere found themselves asking urgent questions about poetry and politics, experimentation and identity, narrative and the paratactic fragment, the problematic and the performed "I," "theory" and "praxis," poetry and prose. "French theory" in the form of writings by Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Louis Althusser, and others opened up writing as a site of de-centered pleasure, transgression, ideological constraint and productive critique;"language-centered" writing challenged the poetic field, proclaiming its newness and group ethos; gay and lesbian, feminist, and writers of color contested both mainstream and avant-garde writing and publishing practices and ideologies.

Our panel contends that the 1980s witnessed a dispersed and emergent, strategic shift from verse-based poetics to various experiments in prose, often hybrid and performative. In his introductory essay, "Language, Realism, Poetry" from In the American Tree, Ron Silliman points out that "another transformation of poetry was taking place--into prose" (XIX). The turn from verse forms to various modes of prose-based writing occurs among numerous writers who are not part of this anthology, including Robert Gluck, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian, Eileen Myles, Aaron Shurin, Beverly Dahlen, Anne Waldman, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Notley, and many more.

Photo courtesy of David Lau: Kevin Killian reading Rob Halpern's paper, yours truly, Kathy Lou Schultz, Kaplan Harris and Cathy Wagner who read Erica Kaufman's talk

Our panel proposed the following questions:

Does a prose-based poetics function not merely as a structure for formal experiment, but also enact critical and utopian re-readings of gendered and racialized histories, communities, and futures?

How does one's position in various social margins/movements overdetermined by heteronormative prerogatives manifest at the level of genre in the work of already marginalized experimental writers?

How do publishing practices extend and critique the masculinist tradition of the long poem in ways that are undertheorized by formalist schools of criticism?

Does prose have an edge on activating "history" and "identity" as explicit concerns? Or is there something specific about the move to prose and long hybrid forms in the 1980s that argues for these things?

What potential does the hybrid form hold in terms of educating/education? The epic, not unlike the realist novel or long poem, can become a sort of history book linking the individual to larger forms of social organization. Is there something about the 1980s that makes this form particularly resonant in terms of recording time?

Kaplan Harris photographing a Maine Rainbow
Two of my suite-mates: Laura Trantham Smith and Kathy Lou Schultz
Feminism in the 80s Panel: Cathy Wagner, Arielle Greenberg and Linda Russo

Laura Moriarty, Patricia Spears Jones, Kathy Lou Schultz and Cathy Wagner
For more pictures, see Aldon Nielsen's blog, HeatStrings. For Patrick Pritchett's conference report, visit his blog Writing the Messianic.

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