Some Notes on Prepping for Influency
I’m writing this post on a break from preparations for my visit to the “Influency” poetry salon run by poet Margaret Christakos at U of T (spaces are still available: register, register, register!). I drew Susan Holbrook’s book Joy is So Exhausting, and when I met Susan at Harbourfront last week we shared a mutual panic moment wherein one said to the other “Isn’t that thing this month?” and then the other said “Yeah, I think it is,” and then there was this tense, silent period of realizing neither of us had considered starting the thing yet.
Now that I’m putting some notes together on Exhausting, I’m struck by the frankness of Margaret’s structure. Specifically, the fact that the author I’ll be discussing will be physically present in the room as I talk about her book. Conceivably also in my line of sight. This makes for a surprising critical construction: the “tell it to my face” effect, you could call it. Now, I really really like Joy is So Exhausting and have lots of good (and, I hope, interesting) things to say about it, but I wonder what would happen if that wasn’t the case. Kept honest by the combined powers of academic decorum and good ol’ Canadian politeness, how would a person speak to how a poem “works” if they thought it didn’t?
I guess the key to that lies in some element of the word “discussion.” Influency presents as a simple discursive pattern; the work being discussed is first read aloud by its creator, and then spoken on by the poet acting as presenter, and somewhere in there the author is asked some tough questions by the participants. This is a discussion, even if it’s done one third in poetry, one third in prose, and one third by audience participation. Discussion is something of the great red herring of the modern critical discourse I read. Everyone wants to talk about it (drop its name into paragraphs, bring it up as a defensive weapon) but no one wants to do it. The two philosophical ingredients in recent criticism that have gone the farthest to keep it interesting and valid (namely, feminism and ecomindedness) love nothing more than the “idea” of discussion. But I’m not sure what they think about the actual activity, complete with people disagreeing with each other (a necessary but much-maligned exponent of discussion). It hasn’t really come up yet.
My interest in discussion comes from a belief that every awful final product started with what someone thought was a good idea. What I’d love to see is criticism that is interactive enough with its authors that dialogues could emerge wherein the critic chases that good idea down inside the root of the project. This is a job for the internet, or the bar, or the faculty lounge, or (here’s where he brings it all back) the Influency Salon. It’s not really a job for our major print journals, as important as their work is. There’s an element of demonstration in CNQ, in Arc, in the others, that is contrary to what I’m talking about. Their conversations are both slow to react and one-sided, and while a truly gifted critic can often invoke the author in a discussion of the work, it’s only ever their conception of that writer, and one that seems made to agree with the critic’s opinions, like the partner in a Socratic dialogue, or an imaginary best friend.
For all the problems of dogma and decorum, for all the difficulties we find in (to borrow a biblical phrase) being subject to one another, the real-time, unadorned, environment of blogs and blog-like creatures is the antidote to the showroom quality of mainstream criticism. There’s something about locking three or more subjective opinions in a room and letting them push each other around for a few days that strengthens subjectivity, that makes it something that can stand on its own feet. A lot can be said for the meditative, the much-considered opinion that only appears on scene a year after the book’s publication, but no one challenges the meditative mid-meditation. So nobody knows what it’s made of until well after it’s said its piece.
I imagine that’s also why I like these “critical interviews” I’ve been doing at The Torontoist. It’s the review re-imagined as a discussion, if you will. If this all seems terribly self-apparent and kind of self-aggrandizing, I apologize. Believe me when I tell you, it’s really just me starting to arrive at an understanding of WHY I like to do the things I like to do. And it’s definitely a work in progress; I feel the tug of my inner conflict-fearing bumf merchant whenever I waffle on how to most delicately frame a question that could be seen by my partner as aggressive. Some partners have been gracious, some have been defensive from step one. Some have been fun, some have been most unfun. Especially with the poets I see as the most distant from my own aesthetic, what I’m really looking for is an education, a reframing of my own assumptions through the working paradigms of another artist. Like all educations, you are sometimes met by talented and compassionate co-learners, and sometimes frowned on by bitter old codgers. You learn something from both.
Anyway, this was all a means of distracting myself from my work by blogging. So I’ll stop that now. If you’d like to re-distract me with opinions on the matters above, I could likely become distracted enough again to read them.
PS- According to the Guernica Editions website, Len Gasparini has won the NOW Magazine Open Poetry Stage I hosted last week. Congratulations to Len. Also, Dear Guernica Editions: It’s exceptionally unprofessional to jump in front of your sponsoring venue’s press release by leaking their big secret before they want to (you may have noticed other poetry news taking up the airwaves today, Griffin Prize and whatnot), and before the other participants are informed. I hope your new ownership is better than your old one. As for me, I’m not a professional (I’m a blogger), so I’ll eat my own unprofessionalism, and forward this news to the masses. Dig in, masses. Yum yum.