from the Plenary Panel on "Discrepant Engagements" at the Poetry and Poetics of the 1980s Conference

My fellow panelists at the The National Poetry Foundation (NPF) Poetry and Poetics of the 1980s Conference have generously agreed to post excerpts from their papers from the June 30, 2012 Plenary Panel entitled "Discrepant Engagements: Long Form and Hybrid Genres in the Writing of Nathaniel Mackey, Erica Hunt, Beverly Dahlen, Anne Waldman and Robert Glück."

Our panel proposal included the following statement:

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.

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?


We hope you enjoy the excerpts. Keep in mind these ARE excerpts, and thus the arguments are necessarily abbreviated. At some point, I believe the video of the panel will appear on the NPF website.

See the earlier xpoetics post on The Poetry of the 1980s!

    photo courtesy of David Lau

    Kathy Lou Schultz on Erica Hunt's Local History

    from “Poetry and ‘Real Things’: Erica Hunt’s Local History
    Kathy Lou Schultz

    In 2001, Erica Hunt noted that “Years ago, I was asked whether my poems are about ‘real things.’ . . . That question about poetry and the ‘real’ jostles the horizon for poetry: how does aggressively speculative writing, strategies of intensification, opacity/excavation/illumination have value beyond their practice, to influence the world in which we live?” Hunt’s work enacts this heuristic through a series of prose events in Local History, her first book published in 1993 by Roof Books, but which, Charles Bernstein notes is “the product of over a decade of intensive engagement with poetry by a writer published in some of the most innovative anthologies and journals of the time.” The publications to which Bernstein refers, including In the American Tree and The Politics of Poetic Form would seem to place Hunt’s work solidly within the Language Writing community, though her work is rarely discussed within this context. In fact, though Hunt is well-known among many poets, critics rarely discuss her work.

    This paper will examine Hunt’s engagement with the local, which can be as intimate as a missing connection between an “I” and a “you”: “She must be someone’s missing person, the unread portion” (12) or as broad as a sought connection between the subject and history: “Thanks to the facsimiles provided by the Visitor’s Center, the traveler can obtain some idea of what the plaza must have been like” (35). In seeking to understand these connections-—or rather these missed connections—I will attempt to elucidate Hunt’s conception of the “real” and poetry’s incursions into it.

    Hunt’s playful prose poems present new histories, local histories by an African American woman who is witness to a world order in which appearances are not what they seem: “In an era of palaces inhabited by officials who’ve inherited their squint you have to do more than scratch the surface” (40). Hunt does indeed do more than simply “scratch the surface”; these poems converge at the dialectic between the personal (including the ordinary facts of daily life) and global power structures that while seemingly abstract inform the progressions of the everyday, addressing “how writing can begin to have a social existence in a world where authority has become highly mobile, based less on identity and on barely discerned or discussed relationships” as she states in “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics.” (“Notes” 687).

    For example the impending crisis in “A Coronary Artist” (“You can smell the smoke answering the alarm”) is positioned within the dailiness of family life: “To bring one’s face into the morning when it’s barely light. To promote sunshine to my daughter while surviving my own ferocious will to sleep. This is the corner to turn to the bathroom. This is the sink, I look at myself and see the person I might have been had I gotten more sleep” (13). In this world, the lived experiences of gender are highlighted in the artificiality of their construction: “One becomes an adult without knowing the details of how it was done, knowing only which team you’re on, which hat corresponds to your glands,” but the effects of gendered power dynamics are still very real: “Custom has it that a woman gets up first to solve the dilemma of the burning moment” (13). The “family soundtrack” runs in the background “putting everything on hold.”


    Hunt’s concern with the exigencies of daily life place her in conversation with the earlier work of Dadaist and Surrealists who: 

    identified everyday life under modernity as the central locus of sociocultural inquiry . . . they felt strongly that any viable politics of liberation would have to be fought on this terrain. Daily life under capitalism, they believed, was becoming increasingly degraded, routinized and ‘cretinized’, in that the individual’s capacity for autonomous action and creative self-expression was being squandered in the pursuit of material wealth and social status (Gardiner 24).

    Or, as Hunt writes in “Second Voice”: “Pinocchio didn’t know what fear meant. I come flying out of the elevator, out of my container, out of my box. I am myself, not the product you asked for, not the one you pointed to on the shelf. This one, not that one. No strings and anything might happen.” (Local History, 11) The poem draws our attention not only to the materials of the language, but to the making of the product/poem itself, demonstrating the speaker’s awareness that her subject position, and that of her poems, occupies a place within commodity culture. Yet, possibilities exist outside of the box, the speaker’s “container,” namely that point at which “anything might happen,” because there are no longer any “strings.” This is the point where the imagination takes off, the imagination, which we know from Muriel Rukeyser’s Fear of Poetry or Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” has the power to build a bridge toward social change. Lorde writes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Poetry, Lorde explains, puts us in touch with “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.”

    Put a very different way way, Amiri Baraka writes in “Black Art” (1969): “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step” (Reader 219). Poems are “bullshit” unless they are constructed of, and connected to, everyday life.

    Though concerned with many of the same issues that Baraka presents, in the eighties, Hunt’s tone is more fanciful, creating and discarding a series of situations in which the veracity of language is tested—and, importantly, she moves a female subject to the center. Hers is a poetics in which “fore” competes for space with “ground;” appearance is constantly juxtaposed with reality; the mechanism by which the official state is run exposed for its bare brutality. For example, the piece “cold war breaks” describes the “movie version” of the twentieth century “which soon will be the only version anyone remembers”: “The routine explanations of atrocity will be clocked, to present them precisely as they do on the evening news. Anchors will play themselves, mime a mix of concern and fatigue, as if the news had happened to them. It will entertaining however” (Local History, 23). Replicant versions of history repeat exponentially in which the news anchor is an actor played by the news anchor himself. Atrocity is boiled down to a bland soup of “routine explanation” in which the emotions are engaged only enough to mime concern and “entertain.” Such ideological manipulations put this reader in the mind of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World,” wherein generic—read “white”—“world citizens” serenade the viewer/rider with what white liberalism most wants to hear: The Other is not “Other” at all, in fact, the other is just like me. This worldview flattens difference, ignoring the xenophobic outcome that results from the imposition of dominant cultural codes upon people of color. 


    Having revealed the ideological functions in “ordinary” language in these poems, Hunt presents language as an active presence that can trip up or inflate experience. For example, in a poem entitled “The Order of the Story,” the speaker exhorts the reader to “invent a language” and to describe various things:

    Describe the buts in the doorway, in the doorway and everywhere in between, where she trips or slides     down them into some other contingency, a sentence with a dangling clause. She is the figure in the vicinity of her experience with its distracting claims on her attention. Capital letters inflate routine, without which days curve away (15).

    Hunt is creating a kind of grammar of experience where language itself not only marks daily routine, but is also worn upon the body; the speaker becomes in effect “a sentence with a dangling clause,” a part of speech that exists outside of the accepted “laws” or rules of grammar. She exists in violation. In addition, the title draws attention to the fact that Hunt’s writing practice de-orders or deconstructs traditional narrative structures, literally the way in which a “story” should be “ordered.” Furthermore, language is the intermediary through which experience necessarily must be understood, indeed felt, but the woman in the poem can only hope to get within “the vicinity” of her own experience. Language itself presents a hurdle to getting near to knowledge of her own subjectivity.


    Erica Kaufman on Anne Waldman's The Iovis

    from Rewriting the Epic Hero(ine): Anne Waldman's Revisioning of the Epic
    Erica Kaufman

    In June 2011, Anne Waldman’s magnificent and mammoth epic, The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, was published in its entirety for the first time (thanks to Coffee House)—an admittedly daunting thousand something page hardcover trilogy that feels all encompassing and awe-inspiring. 
              When asked to propose a talk for a panel on “long forms and hybrid genres” (to borrow from the panel’s title), I instantly thought of the earliest sections of Iovis—and why this particular traditional form is the necessary vehicle for Waldman’s opus. And, why turn to the epic in the 1980’s—what was it about that particular decade that led Waldman to take on male history and historicizing, while also working to contemporize, feminize, and hybridize this genre? 
     “I feel myself always an open system”: Both Both
              Iovis begins with “Both Both: An Introduction,” an opening three pages of prose that orient the reader with the poem and poet’s context—that of both “4 white walls” and “(woman) available to any words or sounds I’m informed by.” Waldman (by paragraph two) is already questioning, quoting, and “counting the “fathers” I had known in consideration of the long poem which among other things male, celebrates them” (1). While Milton tips his hat to his own predecessors (Virgil and Homer, to name a few) in Paradise Lost, Waldman does more than simply juxtapose herself as a female poet embarking on a traditionally male form—she examines the binary at play and how it has fed (and disrupted) her own quest. In “Anne Waldman’s Buddhist Both Both,” Laura Bardwell points out that Iovis’ introduction takes its name from the “Buddhist belief in yab yum, or what Waldman calls “both both” [which] provides a means for looking at binaries, even the gender binary, as a non-hierarchical entity” (http://jacketmagazine.com/27/w-bard.html). In other words, by beginning this epic with a prose introductory note, Waldman sets up a text that embodies this “both both” philosophy—we have a book that begins in prose and calls itself poem, and we have a female poet who is ready to investigate and interrogate patriarchy beyond the usual hierarchical critique.
    Waldman continues, “but unlike the men’s, my history & myths are personal ones. I want & need the long poem” (3). After identifying the lessons learned (positive and negative) from the “fathers,” Waldman then moves on to acknowledge that her story, her epic, is different—and this difference is one rooted in gender. The sentence: “I want & need the poem” makes use of active, earnest, and emotional verbs to personify the “long poem,” a long poem that grows to become its own living breathing volume/book/archive/text. The introduction concludes with the following passage:
    Words are used here with awe, dread, submission, humor cheek, as if they were sacred creatures—pulsating, alive, mocking. As such they are little mirrors. For this poem I summoned male images, “voices,” & histories as deities out of throat, heart, gut, correspondence & mind…They’re the heroes, thought forms of the theistic father and the pagan shape-shifter or boy-child-trickster of the poem. Every epic requires them. And she who sits at desk under dark spell and dances out under hot moon names them to release them.” (3)
    We enter into the epic knowing that the female poet has “summoned” the masculine, and she “names them to release them.” Waldman acknowledges the “both both” of the function of the “hero” and “father” within the epic, but also understands that although these “forms” might be “required,” Waldman is the one who holds the control or power—the one who decides if and when to “release them.” 
    While Iovis draw’s its title from Virgil (“all is full of Jove”), in my mind it co-exists and/or plays in the sandbox with John Milton. Paradise Lost lacks the obvious epic hero and challenges readers to rethink the familiar on both a biblical and polemical level. In “Iovis Omina Plena,” Alice Notley asks the questions: “Why would a woman write a feminist poem in a male form? Why isn’t this poem in one of the newer exploratory (“subversive,” post-modernist, more impersonal) forms in which many women are […] working?” (Chicago Review 1998) To echo Notley’s answer—it is crucial to take on this form, and by doing so Waldman reclaims the epic as a feminist possibility, while also coming to terms with her own intellectual and activist history—a way to “pay homage” (as Bardwell states) to her male influences, while also reinventing “the” male form. 
              Form as Activism and Activation
              In a recent interview in Rain Taxi, Waldman reflects on the process behind the twenty-five year project that is Iovis in its entirety. She reflects, “the only power I had was in my poetry, tracking the deeds of the patriarch. But I was also tracking the life of my child, my world, my lives, my elders, the school I had helped create…” Waldman’s description outlines the quantity of materials an epic can hold. Traditionally, an epic is a “public art” (as Notley states in Homer’s Art), which expresses (or centers around) some concern or worry about a civilization/nation/people, and reaches out to the supernatural/spiritual, while also interweaving a number of different poetic devices (i.e. litany, catalogue, meter/rhyme scheme, etc). And, there are always a number of really vivid battle scenes. Epics also usually have a hero, who is male, and women, as Joan Malory Webber notes, “appear in more ordinary roles, as mothers and companions…” What this gloss of a description and definition of epic points to is the fact that not every long poem can be called an epic, nor is an epic an inherently hybrid form (Notley aptly refers to it as a “collage” instead).
              If, as this panel proposes, the 1980’s was a decade that showcased a move towards prose and long hybrid forms, it seems as though the epic would be the long form that holds the most potential for provocation—and the most space for subversion. By definition, the epic is a vehicle for history—we begin in medias res and then backtrack to locate the battles that got us there. For Waldman, this history is one that is ever evolving, unpredictable, and conflates the roles of poet and documentarian. As noted in both Notley and Waldman, the epic is also a traditionally male form—what better way to both honor and interrogate the patriarch than by demonstrating a fluency in the conventions of the epic as a way to ultimately create a document that in its “intervention into human affairs,” reclaims control over the perspective of the individual, feminist, human. And, in the midst of the Cold War neo-liberal panoptic state, what better way to challenge surveillance than to pen a document that one cannot help but notice because of its sheer size, mastery, scope, gender/genre bending, and force (Volume 1 alone is well over three-hundred pages). To close, a few questions from Waldman herself (via the aforementioned Rain Taxi piece): “Who inherits this larynx? Who comes after us to clean up the mess? Who might sing of the darker times?”

    Robin Tremblay-McGaw on Nathaniel Mackey's Eroding Witness and Bedouin Hornbook

    from Creaking the Word: Epistolary Arrest and Fugitive Run in Nathaniel Mackey's Writing
    Robin Tremblay-McGaw

    A few years ago, when I wrote my dissertation chapter on Nathaniel Mackey’s work, my claim was that his is a poetics forged between a fugal and fugitive pursuit that constructs an archive as a practice, as a verb. This practice enables a re-membering of the past while it points to a troubled blutopic future, what Graham Lock in Blutopia describes as “one tinged with the blues, an African American visionary future stained with memories” (3), one in which fugitive run is always bound up with impediment, stutter and arrest. This is still my claim; however, in preparation for this conference, rereading Eroding Witness, and Bedouin Hornbook, two of Mackey’s books from the 80s, one poetry (a National Poetry Series Selection), one a fugitive text, the first installment in the ongoing epistolary series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, I find in Eroding Witness, a relative absence of explicit fugitive run, a fact I’d forgotten or not noticed in the rush of numerous references to and enactments of it in the later work.

    Fugitivity, a complicated trope, thematics, and method of composition in both the poetry and the prose, is informed by its history and figures in Mackey’s writing in multiple ways. Fugitivity, a wandering which is connected to the ambiguous (“...the Latin counterpart of “wander about” is ambigere, the verb from which ambiguous derives” [Bedouin Hornbook 157]), is a way “to pursue the nomadic source of one’s affliction” (157) and a “way to ‘catch’ one’s ambiguous ordeal by its infectious roots... with a ... homeopathic ‘wandering about’” (157). Thus, fugitivity is both affliction and cure, connected to the history of the runaway slave, maroon societies and the underground railway. It is also a strategy for trespassing as N, the writer of the letters comprising Bedouin Hornbook, describes: “I confess to a weakness for these amphibious, in-between, both/and advances into a realm which defies categorization, this way of trespassing, so to speak, the line which otherwise divides melody from rhythm, horn from drum and so forth” (138). Thus, fugitivity is connected to an evasion of the law, to an illegal crossing of boundaries. Fugitivity, too, demands “intensity over etiquette” (Hornbook 27) and also suggests the elusive, that which is difficult to grasp or pin down as well as the ephemeral, that which is of passing interest as in fugitive literature.
    In Eroding Witness the first seven poems are tied to the edge of the left margin and written in short Creeley-esque lines; with “Ghede Poem,” they begin to stretch, to stride across the page. In this poem, form enacts the mobility associated with the Vodun Loa Ghede, a figure associated with death, the abyss, resurrection and the libido. It is in this poem too, that an edge, “the edge of love’s disappearance,” is marked and reiterated.  In “Ghede” words begin to escape, become fugitives from the tight enclosure of a clipped form and syntax, begin to erode the edge the previous poems had confined themselves to while seeking a different edge, one that in the book’s closing poem, “Dogon Eclipse,” is fraught with the words “caught,” flood,” “bright” “prophetic,” and “unrest.” Here the words go out on a limb, perhaps a phantom limb/line, while they also invoke the historical and traumatic limbs of lynching. Mackey’s two serial poems, poems he seems to have been writing all of his life—“Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu” –also make their debut in Eroding Witness.
    As part of “Song of the Andoumboulou” 6 and 7, the first two “Dear Angel of Dust” letters are included in Eroding Witness and inaugurate a public address to the reader in the form of a “private” prose-based correspondence between “N” and an enigmatic “Angel of Dust.” These letters, appearing in the midst of the lineated poetry around them, are startling, they arrest the reader, stop her in her tracks. In them language, begins to become untethered, to play, to run and slide as in “Don’t you hear something ‘eartical” or “churchical” (some Rastafarian words I’ve picked up lately) in it? A certain arch and/or ache and or ark of duress, the frazzled edge of what remains “unsung?” (54). The linguistic play commencing in the letters contrasts with the way individual words in the rest of Eroding Witness, while resonant, remain arrested, isolated, in place.  I want to go out on a limb and suggest that the prose “Angel of Dust” letters initiate the dizzying and dazzling “creaking of the word” – language’s continual erosion and partiality on the one hand, and on the other, its plenitude, the constitutive excess of noise or creaking—the “compost” that “N” finds in the word “compose” in Bedouin Hornbook.
    In an interview with Peter O’Leary, Mackey has said that the Angel of Dust letters developed out of an attempt to unpack his poetry, enabling him “to speak at greater discursive length about the content, the perspectives, the different dispositions that inform the poetry” (Discrepant  298). While they do seem to serve this function, these prose letters, addressed to what is itself nothing if not fugitive—ephemeral, erosive—the Angel of Dust, appear to have incited a practice of “creaking the word, form, genre,” plying language so that it begins to escape its own supposed referential, material bounds; words run apart and into one another in fugitive danger and bliss, at once caught by and freed in a polysemous syncretistic migratory flight.  
    “The Creaking of the Word” lecture/libretto that closes Bedouin Hornbook , a book in prose, includes a description of a character called Flaunted Fifth who is pissing and musing in an abandoned field somewhere in LA. Here’s an excerpt:
    He noticed the cops in the police car looking his way. The emotional figure he absentmindedly toyed with was given an abruptly ominous edge by the setting sun, the helicopter overhead and the police car circling the block…a panicky rush ran thru him as the cops continued to look his way. He couldn’t help remembering that several black men had been killed by the LA police in recent months, victims of a chokehold (201).

    In fact, Hornbook ends with Flaunted Fifth arrested. In fact, black men, then and now, are targets of arrest, incarceration, and murder. Perhaps the asymptotic turn to prose that Mackey makes in the initial Angel of Dust epistles included in Eroding Witness as poems, and which then subsequently appear only in the fugitive prose Broken Bottle series is prompted by the problematic social and aesthetic politics of the 1980s . The present, and the possibility of speaking to and against it, for Mackey, most explicitly finds a home-on-the-run in the prose.
    So, what I’d like to close with is the claim that for Mackey, a turn to prose in the 80s, inaugurates a generative fugitive practice that, to use a phrase from the first Angel of Dust letter, “sprouts hoofs,” that acknowledges arrest and also runs, stutters, falters, and runs again with/into/against language, history, form, genre. Mackey continues to write both poetry and what I like to think of as fugitive texts—part letter, part poem, part essay, part liner notes, part criticism—that pursue the edge, these multiple forms leaping the chasms between them, in a continual pursuit of what ends up being a diasporic, post-nationalist imaginary, that re-visits the past and proposes as N does in Bass Cathedral’s closing revision of yet another “ after-the-fact lecture/libretto,”“a truly new world or, if not new, at least distant, far away, far over” (183).