More Provocations for People

Just back from Margaret Christakos’s book-length reading at The Scream Literary Festival. Was good times. I was in charge of the videotaping. I am shite at videotaping.

I’ve experienced a touch of disappointment these past few weeks (some of it said by friends, some of it just thought of by me) about the flippancy of this year’s Scream programme’s assumption of “provocation” as the work of, primarily, the literary avant garde. This has been an unsaid thing, mostly, but the programming speaks for itself. I suppose if the point is to provoke language, it’s a good assumption to start with. But surely language is just one of many perfectly provocable things, isn’t it? Aren’t ideas provocable? Isn’t class provocable? I’m thinking of late about Canadian poetry’s greatest political radical, the great Agent Provacateur of Canlit, Mr. Milton Acorn. Would Milty’s sonnets and troubadouring have a place in the hoot-calls and polysyllabic sprees of the Scream 2010 programme, if he was alive enough to participate? Who knows.

In this excellent conversation over at The Afterword, Scream performers Damian Rogers and Michael Lista take turns touching on the nagging pull of whateverism that’s been haunting my appreciation of this year’s version of the festival. Well, they do so in different words. I read into it a bit. Read on, but here’s the whole thing, if you’ prefer.

First Michael sayeth:

But I wonder: what are your thoughts about a poet’s responsibility to “welcome” readers into the privacy of her vision? I’m thinking about this question specifically in the context of this year’s Scream Festival, the theme of which is Agents Provocateur. The curatorial narrative is framed this year around a sort of nebulous idea of the avant-garde, and hinges itself on the argument that great, progressive works of literature need to be antagonistic. I think many, but not all, great books are: they’re antagonistic to prosodic modes, or social conventions, etc., sure. And it’s only recently, within the last hundred years or so, that we’ve taken for granted the assumption that poetry, for it to be innovative and great, must be antagonistic to the reader. And not only that: for one to strike out on one’s own one must be antagonistic to the reader in one’s own way (“all unhappy families…”). But none of this is a pre-requisite for excellence I don’t think. Shakespeare is the most obvious counter-example: his style is a perfection—not rejection—of the five-act blank verse plays of Kyd and Marlowe, and the last thing he did was antagonize his audience; his livelihood depended on delighting them. What do you think? Is the best way to ring in the new in our readers by provocation or invitation? And what poets and poems have you been reading lately that to your mind are the most innovative and influential?

and then Damian sayeth:

So having said that, what’s my hesitation in declaring my allegiance to the advanced guard? After all, I want to make art that is new, that speaks to the future, and that challenges the reader to awaken to her own experience in a meaningful way. I am dazzled by innovation and complexity. I wasn’t born to follow.

It’s a matter of definition, I suppose. In grad school, I studied with a poet who claimed that what is generally classified as the avant-garde in North American poetry could more accurately be described as a rear-guard movement, because its proponents essentially follow a century-old form of radicalism within the comfort of the academy. I’m not sure I buy that stance either—Marxists are still rightly considered radical (even within supposedly Communist countries for that matter), and a quote-unquote neo-Dadaist could reasonably argue that language has only been further corrupted since World War I and so the responsible artist must continue to tear things down to the ground if we are ever to learn how to speak again with integrity. Plus, a hundred years isn’t a very long time. I support poets who feel that’s the battle they are here to fight. I think I just resist the boundaries of labels and the rigidity of camps. Plus I don’t want to be conscripted into anyone’s army. (Not that anyone has exactly been knocking on my door with a clipboard.)

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23 Comments on “More Provocations for People”

  1. Shannon Maguire Says:

    okay, not a word about Margaret Christakos’ actual multilayered performance (and collaboration), which was rich and appealing, and class conscious (among other things too) and most deserving of analysis and commentary?? seriously?!

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    I enjoyed Margaret’s book. But, let’s not insult ourselves too much by talking about class-consciousness in the echo of a $45 a plate event held before an audience of almost exclusively graduate-degree toting word enthusiasts, Shannon.

  3. LH Says:

    Down with the camps, the walls, the classifying, absolutment. Not sure I see a problem with the notion of art as a provocation, and I don’t see why Milton Acorn can’t be seen as innovative and provocative…

    Yes to rethinking the relationship of poetry to audience…most poetry circles, having absolutely given up on the idea of a common reader have abdicated, to some degree, not necessarily a sense of responsibility but a gesture toward inclusion, or introduction.

    So too have the critics tho, who assure the smallness of the world by writing and thinking it small over and over again, every time they get an opportunity to open up the world to new readers.

    Cheers from London. Sorry to have missed Margaret’s reading.

  4. Shannon Maguire Says:

    I’m asking you to comment on her WORK, which is the point. Also, I got my ticket for $35 dollars, which was an option until last Monday. It’s easy to spend that much on dinner and a movie. And speaking of class, my mother was also a grad student, she put herself through school without loans and without help from her working-class, (and later on) single mother Metis family… so again my point is a focus on the WORK itself. There seems to be a paucity of attention in that area.

  5. Dan Says:

    Yes, LH, down with camps, cliques, and knitting circles of all kinds, but I think voxpopulism is correct that year’s scream programme is less inclusive than years past, and more cliquish.

    And Shannon, perhaps voxpoipulism’s intention was to discuss this general point and merely used that particular event as a segue. Just because you want it to be the point of this commentary doesn’t mean it’s the point.

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    LH: A giant, transatlantic “WOOT!” to all of what you said

    Shannon: There are a lot of good potential blog posts about ELP, I’m sure. This isn’t one of them. This is a blog post about Michael and Damian’s interview.

    And,not to be a jerk about it, but you just preceded the argument “focus on Margaret’s WORK itself” with what was essentially your own biography. There are points to be made about how poetry is not self-identification with line breaks, or how the solipsistic anecdotal urge is limiting at best.

    Basically, there are points to make about how poetry can look out to tickle, provoke, or amuse the world. But that ain’t how to start it.

  7. Bill Kennedy Says:

    As somewhat of a counterpoint, Carl Wilson discusses 2010 Scream opener David Antin on his new group blog Back to the World. An interesting read when considering the relationship between literary provocation and antagonism:

    http://backtotheworld.net/2010/07/07/david-antin%E2%80%99s-what-it-means-to-be-avant-garde-19811993-2010-scream-festival-edition/

  8. parrishka Says:

    I don’t see any difficulty at all in the idea of class consciousness being legitimately raised in the context of a dinner that may have mark of privilege. The privileges that those at the dinner enjoy are brought in to sharp focus when confronting a text like Margaret’s, and the evening was structured so as to highlight it too. Whether or not it was successful is another matter. But the concept itself has deep merit.

    A few years ago, the booklength reading was Dionne Brand’s Thirsty, whose protagonist is a homeless man, and Brand spoke insightfully about the tensions this created, and why she welcomed them.

    I do hope you’re not suggesting that it’s only the working class who can be legitimately class conscious.

    I also think it’s a bit rich to hear these comments coming from someone who was bitching on facebook about the fact that people in parkdale don’t shower often enough for your liking.

  9. voxpopulism Says:

    “Bitching”? Please. Next time I’m going to be sarcastic on the internet, I’ll send you a warning first, Katherine. Joking can sometimes be joking. What do you call the logical fallacy of using someone’s facebook status against them? App hominem, maybe?

    I guess what I was suggesting, if it was anything, is that a revolutionary act (even at its basest, least-ruffling level, the level of the simple provocation) is something that needs to face the masses to be successful. Is it not limiting your revolution, reducing it to a sort of parlour game for likeminded diners, to speak in a textual code that those masses don’t have access to, nor would they necessarily want to?

  10. Mark Higgins Says:

    A few things come to mind for me here.

    First, I’m not sure that The Scream’s attempt to put a spotlight on avant-garde, provocative literature is meant to be a narrowing of attention or appeal in any way. Regardless of your own style and appetites, surely there’s always value in seeing what’s happening at the extremities. The point is not that the work presented is the only work of value, more that instances and axes of provocation are often the starting places for movements and ideas that end up affecting and influencing (for better or worse) “the masses.” For that reason, it should speak to anyone who’s thinking about why artists so what they do.

    Second, the festival really is tackling, at most, aesthetic provocation. That this work often leads straight to provocation along class and political lines is, to some, coincidental, but to others it’s tautological. There are of course countless other forms of provocation, many of much greater consequence. But The Scream is, in the end, still a literary festival.

    Finally, there will be a few hundred people sitting in the grass in High Park on Monday night, which is as close to a “mass” as poetry gets, let’s face it! It will be the closing argument, in a sense, and the biggest tent for this conversation. No one wants it to be a conversation among the like-minded less than the organizers, I assure you. So bring your cushions, voices, and opinions, and ensure that it won’t be.

  11. voxpopulism Says:

    The Mainstage is kind of a different beast, though. The bill there is usually the most diverse of the week. A benefit, perhaps, of having an incredibly large number of performers. Lots of people go to the mainstage with only a cloudy knowledge that there’s a whole festival going on before it.

  12. parrishka Says:

    app-hominem! nicely, done, word-toter :)

    and of course I knew you were joking. Perhaps even being flippant.

  13. Margaret Christakos Says:

    Masses. The masses. That’s partly why I invited Cheryl Sourkes’ work in to the evening; The idea of “facing the masses,” “standing before the masses” is TV, right? With the Internet the masses have atomized, emphasizing both banality of shared experience and idiosyncracy of the individual, streaming “themselves” to us, each gazing self/I that perhaps insists upon his/her singularity.

    And in relation to this imagery the pleasure of anecdote springs from the space between every image to its next. As is my interest with words and narrativity.

    Intriguing field which has intriguing relationship to poetry and the idea of the audience. I tried to make some space for other voices and collaborative performance, and the event itself interpenetrates the activity of listening and eating, socializing and conversing in ways that offers one of the most useful restagings of the standard reading. The Scream festival does this in many interesting ways over the run of events.

    I think the festival operates as an extended essay on the state of what we might consider a radical poetics; we get the chance to encounter in quick succession a range of about 50 poets, and therefore there’s nothing but diversity to consider, even if we’re looking at a fairly specific typology of language event. The book length event is a really unusual immersion in the extent of one book, surely the most indulgent of affairs. It was really interesting for me to have the opportunity to revisit a text (and open it up to collaborative site-specific iteration) I published 8 years ago, one that has a symbiotic relationship with all of the other books I’ve written, many of which might be positioned differently on the spectrum of language event.

    It was quite a lot of work for me; I can hardly move today. I also found the unrelenting attention excruciating. There’s something to be said for the 10 minute reading; you can get the hell out of the spotlight! Thank goodness I was being paid for my time, which you as a volunteer last night were not, and so it is appropriate that you critique the master’s skewed economy built on a volunteer class–which by the way I believe all the organizers fit into as well. And yes, we are middle class enough to be able to rationalize doing this for art. Anybody really struggling to survive drops out of such volunteerism, simply to be occupied with making a living. Also this is key to your website; and I think it’s a valuable angle on the country’s letters.

    The Griffin award dinner maybe hides its class bias a little better than the Scream. They give out free booze, always a great audience solicitation strategy. And oh yeah they remind us that one poet is so much better than every other poet they deserve free money. But really I feel they are buying our indulgent attention to their patronage.

    And still I can find it in my value system to think yes Solie deserved the night, and maybe you can find it in your value system to think that perhaps Christakos deserved the indulgence of your volunteerism, or maybe not. So much of our writing culture is built on volunteerism; should it be any other way I wonder.

    Best to smell people in person, up close, not on this damn Internet comment field, which leaves the body too safe and away. I liked your stain by the way and I hope you liked my gray, but if you didn’t I can cope.

    I am going to get some more coffee, but that will involve moving the body to another room. Oh lord.

    It’s great to have criticism of events; I look forward to any tacklings and strokings any voice might bring to last night’s dinner event.

  14. voxpopulism Says:

    Tee-hee. There’s our entertainment! I knew you’d poke your head in here eventually, Margaret. Hope you slept well last night, much deserved.

    Just one quibble:

    “Thank goodness I was being paid for my time, which you as a volunteer last night were not, and so it is appropriate that you critique the master’s skewed economy built on a volunteer class–which by the way I believe all the organizers fit into as well.”

    I want to make it clear to everyone the degree to which I was DEFINITELY NOT saying this. I volunteered (such as it was, holding some grapes and later pressing Record on Kate’s camera)because I wanted to help out with a distinctly grass-rooted organization, ran almost exclusively by people I consider peers and, in some cases, friends. If anyone interpreted anything I said as some sort of slave’s rebellion, then I’ve woefully mispoken.

    People volunteered because they wanted to volunteer, myself included. And also, of course, to hear your reading.

  15. Margaret Christakos Says:

    cheers, I am wondering how I am going to voluntarily and wantonly rouse my arse to the gala…so tired and nary a mustache as yet. Do you suppose my fur hat will count?

  16. voxpopulism Says:

    Bring scissors. We’ll make it count…


  17. I loves Miltie more than I do most Canadian poets, but calling him the most radical is to believe his own press releases uncritically. As a political animal, Milton was a crank, far more opinionated than knowledgeable, far more outspoken than active. F.R. Scott and Kenneth Leslie, to name a couple, did far more in the cause of radical politics than Acorn ever did.

  18. voxpopulism Says:

    I understand that Acorn wrote and spoke much about the “working people”, while conspiring to labour as little as possible, but none of this lessens his value as provocateur. Which, after all, is theme of the festival.


  19. Just saying that his provocations were less substantive than many others’.

  20. voxpopulism Says:

    Maybe what he really needed was a blog and a magazine.


  21. No, what he needed was a mind that saw things less in terms of binary oppositions. He was one of the founders of The Georgia Straight, don’t forget…


  22. […] I responded brusquely, briskly to Jacob MacArthur Mooney’s post about the nature of provocation represented in this year’s scream lit festival. I was […]


  23. […] July 10th, 2010 More Provocations for People. Our hero’s public offer of $100 to anyone who used Milton Acorn’s “More Poems […]


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