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.)