Jake’s Provoquestion, restated.
I’ve been Screaming it up most of the weekend. Last night I went to the Moustache Party (which sounds quite dirty, but isn’t) and won a prize for Best Beard, beating out two ringers from something called Beard Team Canada. It was the labret piercing that put me over the top, I’m told. I won a bottle of wine. I’m drinking it now. Next year I go pro.
I just came back from The Scream’s annual panel event, hosted again by Artistic Director Bill Kennedy and featuring Jenny Sampirisi, Jeff Derkson, and Kate Eichhorn talking about the “radical gesture” of avant-garde poetry. The event was just okay, I’m afraid there was a lot of State of The Avant Garde as Defined by What I, the Speaker, Have Been Personally up to These Last Few Months, but it was quite well-moderated and provocative enough to generate some neat take-away ideas.
I’m in something of a foul mood as I right this, though, as I asked what I thought was an earnest and inoffensive question and got something of a flippant response. Not daunted by this setback, I’d like to throw the question back out to the general public, buttressed by as much context as I can remember. Okay?
I was amused by Sampirisi’s image of the “Difficult Texts bin”, a place on the periphery of the mainstream bookstore (and, by extension, mainstream readership) where many avant garde books are relegated, thus presenting an obstacle to their readership. When Bill found my hand in the crowd, I asked Jenny about this bin, and offered the suggestion that while this label might be an obstacle to a wider readership for some texts, for others it might act as a crutch, and even something wilfully pursued by the texts’ authors. The rationale for this question came out of an earlier discussion about understanding and misunderstanding. I feel, as a reader and fan of a lot of avant garde work, that misunderstanding is often enlisted as a defence mechanism to deflect criticism of unliked books. Essentially, if I say that I didn’t understand a text, I’m volunteering the position of failed reader, and therefore negating any negative criticism attached to this perceived failure. Jenny Sampirisi answered (and here I’m paraphrasing, but not maliciously, and hopefully not inaccurately) that she sees this misunderstanding as, in her words, a very positive space, and that misunderstanding is as valid or successful a readerly reaction as anything else.
I think, in broad strokes, I agree with this. It’s the kind of answer that strikes me as correct, but that also fills me with a deep conviction that poetry will never again be read by an appreciable segment of the population, so long as us poets are entrusted with creating it. It inspired a follow-up question though, and this is one that I feel went unanswered. My question was something like this: If the avant garde wants to describe the complete failure of the communicative cycle of literature (writer to reader, and back again) as a “positive space”, as positive as that’s cycle’s successful iteration, then what’s left to constitute a “negative space”? Put another way, from where can the reader of the avant garde(s) generate a vocabulary to describe the not-workingness of a finished product presented in front of them? Have we made not liking something into a logical fallacy?
Sampirisi’s answer was something like (and again, paraphrasing, but not inaccurately, to my recollection) how I can always make a decision to refuse to interact with a work, if I so choose. It was an infuriating answer as all I want to do is interact with these works. I like these people, I like a lot of their work, but I have a series of what I feel are essential and inoffensive questions. One would be, how is a real interaction even possible, if the only reactions available to me are kinds of adoration, different qualitative veins of perceived exceptionality? This is my root suspicion of work that identifies itself as coming from an avant garde direction. It’s as if the entire academic branch of experimentalist poetry is employed in the derivation of a magical critical language, one that refuses to invent a word for “no”.
My concern with all this isn’t even that hucksterism won’t go acknowledged as hucksterism, it’s that greatness will suffer the same fate. I understand that hucksterism and greatness are matters of taste, but so is reading, for fuck’s sake. So is everything. I can live with unimaginative mediocrity being allowed a pedestal on the strength of some self-fulfilling critical prophecy written in the aforementioned Magical Language, what I’m not okay with is how the weight of all that jargon pulls legitimately revolutionary works into the same beige soup of theory and post-structuralist unexpression as their lesser cousins. And an avant garde author, if s/he thinks s/he ever stood a chance of producing great work on their own, should take offence to this limiting gesture, this gesture which is a lot of things (condescending, petty, quaint…), but is definitely anything but radical.
Anyway, it was one of those public questions that you realize isn’t going to go over well halfway through asking it (a stiffened silence, some half-heard clucking in the background…) so I should have known what I was getting myself into. Even more evidence that I had stirred something of a hornet’s nest came just after my question, when I sent a text message to a pending dinner companion only to have an adorably concerned Natalie Zina Walschots (poet and Scream Executive member) poke me, stare at my phone, and ask “Hey, do you have a Twitter account? You’re not tweeting right now, are you??”
No, Natalie. I don’t tweet that much. I blog. So, to anyone who might be reading this (and, based on the response to my last post, people are reading this) I wonder if there are other answers to my question. Does anyone have an uplifting answer? An empowering answer? An answer that doesn’t assume tribal ignorance on the part of the asker, or that wishes to flip the power relationship between writer and reader fully in the favour of the former?