Gabriel Gudding (Illinois, USA) and Adam Fieled (Editor, Philly, USA): Waxing Hot

AF: You write, in Rhode Island Notebook, that "most literature is delusional, pretty, petty, and false." It seems like the composition of R.I.N. might have been a concerted, specific attempt to write something realistic, gritty, pertinent and true. Something, in other words, that transcends the artificiality of most literature. Is there a grain of truth to this?

GG: Maybe. Most poetry is a kind of verbal costume. An ideational schmaltz. An emotional uniform. A mental getup. This is just as true for avant garde and post-avant work as it is for mainstream stuff. Though I don't think the costumed life or the costumed mind is peculiar to poetry, necessarily, as a genre, it's no secret poetry tends more toward stylization than other modes. Poetry is the country music of literature. Given to schmaltz, nostalgia, over extension, socio-emotional reactivity, and alienation from material reality. The flipside is the hipster reaction to this: flaff, whathaveyou, langpo, N/Oulipian generativity (hipster maximalist masculinist compulsive text generation), irony as a modal approximation of self-awareness, and a conflation of experiment in form with soi-disant radical politics (the result being merely a more extravagant quietism). Our capacity for delusion is almost total.

AF: OK. I’m curious to what extent these kind of thoughts might have directed the composition of R.I.N. You include heaping gobs of concrete particulars: times, distances, amounts of gas, temperatures, highway and town names. Do you feel that these details “naturalize” the book somehow, give it stable/solid/palpably non-delusional roots?

GG: Good question. Not sure if they're less delusional but I can say they are less stylized. Maybe they do something not often done in poetry. These are the local details of your average person's world, least ways of my world. I wanted to include that stuff. Just the attempt to write the in-between, overlooked, peripheral -- as a part of the greater truths, larger narratives, and more overt emotionality of most poetry. Not sure if these elements naturalize the book, but my hope is the sum total makes for a book that does not much move via typical poetry modalities. There is that huge long section around page 90 or so where I wrote down ALL the signs I saw from Ohio through Indiana and into Illinois. Horrifying. We *READ* all that stuff: it affects us. It moves us. It makes us. We need to become aware of that. I feel it needs to be in our literature. It is an important part of our disgusting history. I really do conceive of the book as a history. My daughter Clio was named for the muse of history. The book is dedicated to her.

AF: It is interesting that you allude to history, because the book not only documents itself via concrete, particular travel details, but via an engagement with the history of poetry. I think one of the most interesting aspects of this are the pastiche-poems included, which take on Gerard Manley Hopkins. It seems like you were taking Hopkins’ purity and religiosity and “humorizing” them, not in a malicious or sardonic way, but playfully and tenderly. How do you think that, in the context of RIN, poetry history intersects with “our disgusting history”? In other words, you deal, in RIN, with several different kinds of history. I take "our disgusting history" as a reference to the ugliness of American highways: of roads, paved surfaces, road-signs. Your engagement with Hopkins is a nod to a different kind of history, a cultural one. Your book then becomes a kind of textual site where different histories intersect. What would you imagine to be the cumulative effect of these colliding histories? How did you envision these histories coming together, both for yourself as you were writing and for the reader? Was there an intended cumulative effect, something you were trying to show and/or demonstrate?

GG: There was a hoped for cumulative effect. But much was arrived at, discovered, in the writing. And the book became in one sense oppositional to the idea that the imagination is a refuge. We are told by poets for the last two hundred twenty years there is some kind of glorious refuge in imagination, imagination is this transcendent, palliative kingdom: the safety and order in the supreme fiction, the imagination as oasis, a good poem as a Wallace Stevens' Memorial vacation get-away, and that this capacity of fantasy is some kind of "palace of wisdom." This is complete bunk. Absolute delusion. It's the intellectual equivalent of tourism: the knowing, willful engagement in the delusive economy of deflected escape. It makes sense that Stevens constitutes the pinnacle of this romantic ideal -- as his poetics is strongly related to the rise of modern tourism. Where Stevens thought he was speaking of the nature of mind and imagination and its relation to reality, he was in fact writing deeply classicist and racist poetry. This book stakes an oppositional poetics to Stevens, Ginsberg, Spicer, Ashbery, siding with Loy, Lola Ridge, Rakosi, Niedecker. I wanted to write the kitsch, the radio, the a-magical, the quotidia of civic life, the road sign -- things normally kept from poetry -- as a means of reminding myself how much stuff we IGNORE in order to pretend to touch the real or the supreme – or “the mind,” as if the mind were this Ashberian numinous burning collagic machine of lyricism.

AF: This question, of what is real, and may be realistically portrayed in literature, can lead in many different directions. What I'm curious about is how it ties in for you with the idea of privilege. In lots of schmaltzy poetry, we see a privileged, patriarchal figure having some kind of epiphany. However, in fighting against this attitude, willfully structuring your poem so that ephemeral elements (road-signs, McDonald's, radio) take a prominent position, can it be argued that you are enacting a different form of the same privileged status? That is, do you find yourself to be in the position of telling the reader "what's really real"? Was an effort made to efface or subsume the (male) ego and its drive to direct, control, dominate?

GG: It’s a fair question. Sure, that could be argued. Anything can be argued. But the book is not a case for the real, the true; it’s not even, to my mind, a comment on “the poetic.” What it is, for me, in its largest dimension, is the story of a family falling apart and a nation going insane. Those are mysteries. Ridiculously huge and never-ending conundra. I don’t know how a nation goes insane. And though I know how a family falls apart, the WAY that is does so is a deep, terrifying mystery. At an ethical level, though, it’s a book about suffering and how to endure it – and in fact how to flourish in it. At an aesthetic level, it is textured by what Bakhtin calls "primary speech genres" (road signs, radio utterances, bumper stickers, the makeshift reality of internal mental dialogue, embarrassing first draft crap), the book is perforce built on speech realities that fall outside what Bakhtin calls official speech. It is overtly badly stylized (poorly realized) speech. But nowhere does it touch on the nature of the real. It’s just proffering the other things often left out of a book, a history, a politics, an organized “life”: buildings the size of dust motes, blurry towns smeared into a chain of ramps and roadside islands. It says nothing about the way these things exist, just that they might. The towns we see from the road might exist. The people in the Hardees might exist. The rest stops might exist. The jerk in the adjacent car might. Your hands on the steering wheel might too. A way out of my sorrow might exist. A way out of literature might exist.

But at bottom the book (for me) is about the navigation of sorrow: how to anchor instead of grasp; how to sail instead of let go. I have no idea what it is for someone else. For my daughter Clio, I had hoped it would be a history, a partial history of what was happening to her family during a time of great sorrow.

AF: Partly I think it’s the affectivity of the book which makes it so compelling. Without easing into sentimentality, it tells a real, heart-rending story in a narrative that’s not always strictly linear, but that is traceable. However, the trend in the academy now is all towards New Historicism: tying literature in to larger historical patterns that dictate the behavior and production habits of authors, albeit sometimes unconsciously, or subconsciously. If, where this book is concerned, you had to New Historicize yourself, how would you do it? Can you tie the affectivity of a “time of great sorrow” into a prevalent, comprehensible Zeitgeist?

GG: First, thank you for seeing the affective nature of it in that light. It’s heartening to know you’ve read it so well. Second, I see New Historicism as a literary *reception* movement coming to vogue in the late '80s and rising out of inter- and intra-disciplinary concerns about how to read (and write critically about) literature. I do not see it as a movement much affecting *production* concerns. So, the book is a history -- which is not to say it was affected particularly by current trends in literary historiography.

But I see more what you're asking now -- and I wouldn't call what you're asking me to do particularly "new historicism." Seeing the connections between "personal troubles" and "public issues" is precisely what C. Wright Mills, the great renegade sociologist, calls having a useful "sociological imagination." It's just good sociology. The book's appositions of national narratives and personal ones implicitly make this connection -- sometimes uncannily. For instance, the day the driver's family decides on "divorce" is the day the US begins the invasion of Iraq. It's a coincidence, yes, but it's clear that the larger socio-emotional climate affects a family's weather. What a horrifying time in our history.

AF: Dovetailing with this, I’d like to bring up the larger issue of historicity, as it applies to your (and all of our) endeavors. How important do you think it is for poets in our day and age to develop, hone, and maintain a historical sense, both as regards their own reading and their literary production? To state this more clearly: is it worthwhile to regard ourselves as players in a potentially historical drama, or do you believe it more productive to (I’m paraphrasing Joyce) awake from the nightmare of history?

GG: I guess my answer depends on what you mean by "historical sense." I have a few friends, as well as a few former friends, who believe, despite their obscurity and in some cases because of their fame, that they are writing for the ages, who think history will exonerate them or uphold them, who feel their current lack of recognition will eventually be transmuted by play of decades into a trans-temporal audience or who feel their present recognition is logical and was inevitable. That's delusional. But both constitute a common pose, a frequent tactic, and a conventional gambit -- the former especially I'd guess commonly seen among non-bourgeois writers. Bourdieu addresses this well in The Field of Cultural Production. It's either delusion, on the one hand, or an expedient of aesthetic politics, on the other.

But if you mean is it a good idea to just try to have a relatively global sense of what's been written and why it's been written, then yes I think that's wise.

AF: Can you parlay your “global sense” into a précis of where you think poetry is going in 2008? Is “post-avant”, in all its amorphousness, a viable entity and a worthy successor to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or do you feel there are other currents currently existent that could lead experimental (or even mainstream) poetry down new, unexplored vistas?

GG: It's an interesting question. But I wonder about its intent. You seem to be suggesting that having a "global sense" about what's been written and what's being written necessarily implies having a market sense about what's the Next Hip Thing. Maybe I’m putting words in your mouth. Likely I have. In any case I feel that trying to know or trying to control the direction of the field is part of what Bourdieu calls the production of a collective misrecognition--a belief in "literature." This manufactured "cusp" or foreguard is the site upon which the struggle for the monopoly of symbolic power concentrates. It's not a matter of direction (where the field is going); it's a matter of the illusion of direction created by continual literary rebranding (done in interviews, blog posts, anthologies, reviews, manifestoes, movements, etc).

I mean, basically there have been over the past 150 years a limited range of techniques that just keep getting relabeled and rebranded: collage becomes "cut up" becomes "flarf" or "flirph" or whatever it's called now; disjunctive anacoluthon becomes what William James called "automatic writing" and Stein takes that into cubist dada which is then rebranded via a different set of theoretical apparatuses (Frankfurt School) as L=A=N....; a hodgepodge of sleep-based techniques and collaborative aleatoric methods morph (thank goodness) with oppositional leftist politics into surrealism which then meld with the rightist political quietism of late modernism into deep image and ...?

This is a market. Markets need a predictive mindset. If "art" and "writing" cannot divest itself of this fascination with symbolic exchange-value in favor of a use-value, it will continue to be just another inverted extension of the economic system.

Too, markets need a projected null point that serves to mask the manufacture of collective misrecognition: the new; imagination; the originary; celebrity and celebration.

Is it possible to write and to think about writing in ways that do not create and maintain hierarchies of artistic domination and power? Is it possible to write without belief in a universe of celebrants and believers? Is it okay to write without thinking oneself a potential
object of celebration? And after having written, is it possible not to vie for status as a consecrated writer or as a writer who displays his own performative disinterest in the field of production?

AF: You seem to be commenting, with a somewhat negative slant, on the phenomenon of literature as a market-place, a zone of commodities, advertisements, and perpetuated illusions. You have also pointed out a kind of fallacious veneer to the rationale of your friends and ex-friends that shun the spotlight, but dare to believe that their work might have lasting value. Do you see a contradiction here? In other words, if the literary market-place is not a desirable locale, and if obscurity is also not a desirable locale, is there a happy medium or a third realm that you find preferable, or that could balance the two?

GG: Adam, not to be obtuse, but I'm not sure what you mean by "viable." Or even what is meant by "post avant." The imaginary gestalt Silliman labeled "post avant" is I think a multipurpose fiction about which little can be said and a lot can be asserted. And that's the term's power. It's what Uwe Poerksen calls a plastic word: florid in connotation, imprecise in denotation.

But even if I did know what a post avant movement was, I probably wouldn't be qualified to answer your question about where it's going. I am not a believer in the dream of literature or the salutary originary power of the imagination or the notion that new stuff is best stuff: it's all new stuff. We just choose to fetishize some of it. Whether one movement follows another successfully is really of little interest to me. Whether writing is useful - is to my mind a more salient question. So I don't see a third realm possible. There are no possible realms.

As to whether I think of my more ardent poet friends or acquaintances as "fallacious": no. I don't think of people caught within the dream of literature fallacious. I just think they are following the logic of the game they find themselves in. Part of that logic is belief -- believing in the religion of literature -- and part of that is the pretense not to believe. Performative indifference is part of an avant garde (or, as it's called now, "post avant") symbolic economy, just as the dream of what you call "lasting value" is part of a more established symbolic/financial economy of letters. And the machine has to turn: margin to center; acoustic to electric; Alan to Golding; outlaw to classic. The two different non-desirable-locales, as you call them, depend on each other. Sure you can find a viable third realm if you believe in Santa Claus. And lots of people do -- and one can make the flock move this way or that way: there are lots of tactics and strategies for planting one's brand. Take your pick. One can form a group, a "movement" -- or go it alone and play the transgressor, the outlaw, the shaman, versions of the sacred heretic: all of these things work. They each have their tactical logic. None of it matters.

I was speaking of a kind of manufactured cusp, a fabricated verbal frontier that we are encouraged to accept as real and even necessary. So, that third realm you speak of is always the next big thing: it is the cusp, the bubble, the next wave. Your question was "where [I] think poetry is going...," specifically whether the term post avant is a "viable... and worthy successor" to langpo. It's the same impulse relabeled. Langpo was not itself a viable and worthy successor to confessionalism, nor it to modernism, nor it to the Victorian era, nor it to the literature of post-1848 American democratic nationalism.

But then again, I don't believe time exists either. So take the previous for what it's worth to you.

Instead of where post avant poetry is going, I find myself these days wondering about why the Flarf movement is so white. Why "post avant" poetries are so white. Why is the Chicago innovative writing scene so white? Why for instance is there so little crossover between the scene surrounding the Palabra Pura reading series in Chicago and the experimental scene (Myopic series or Series A or Danny's Tavern). Why has there historically been so few women in the European and North and Latin American avant garde poetry scenes? Why is the spoken word scene at Nuyorican so much more ethnically and culturally diverse than the St Mark's crowd and why is the spoken word scene in Chicago whiter than white? Why did so few "experimental" poets write anti-war poems? How are some so sycophantic: why do they need an iterative white transgressive hero, a Ginsberg, a Spicer, a Berrigan, an Ashbery? or a white masculinely safe heroine, Stein, Moore, Bishop. Why do people keep reading the same writers over and over, even when they're ridiculously boring and shticky and predictable (Ashbery) or they know their poems by heart already? Why do so few study the anthropology and/or sociology of literary scenes?

AF: I agree that white hegemony within the poetry world is, in and of itself, an "undesirable locale," if we want to posit a state-of-affairs as a kind of place. How do you visualize a bridge being made, that might enable a multi-cultural element to be added to the present scenario (sorry for the buzz-word, couldn't resist)? Do you have any strategies that might enable the poetry world to broaden its cultural scope? You teach at ISU; do you buy in to the "think globally act locally" approach, and are there approaches you take in the context of your classroom that reflect an interest in manifestations of diversity, cultural heterogeneity, and the deflection of an assumed, white male canon?

GG: I guess I don't know that I have any answers beyond the obvious, which I offer at the risk of sounding like any of the following is easy: make on the one hand a pointed self-examination (as best as one is able to actually do that) about motives and influences and biases in order to uncover where I might be denying myself some really amazing work; study the sociology and anthropology of literature to better grow beyond the neoromantic fetish of authorship and the modernist fetish of text; and reach outward and into other writing cultures. I think we make/join/encourage hegemonies/big.samenesses because of our incessant habit of valuation. By which I mean we often seem to need/want things to be the same, or enough the same, so that we can better evaluate what surrounds us (or at least exercise/display our discerning taste) rather than constantly dealing with things/situations that defy/challenge our perceptual categories. And so those are some outward-directed practices that will help. But it’s important not to stop there. It’s important to understand that our very affect has broadranging political effects. Cultivate affiliative mindstates. Be willing not to be cool. By which I mean, notice and resist the play of power in the field of cultural production, understanding that hipness is merely a performative resistance that is itself a tactic, often marked by sarcasm, used to acquire cultural capital. Cultivate an interpersonal responsiveness and then retain that capacity to be surprised. Easy, right?

I think a really fruitful way of doing the above is to develop a loving heart. A loving heart is an open heart. An open heart catalyzes a flourishing, courageous mind. I do think Emerson is right when he says in "Friendship” that "our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.

© Gabriel Gudding/Adam Fieled 2009