Notes for talk for Rethinking Poetics.
Given that higher education in the US is more or less a pay to play system (whether one pays with cash or with labor), one extensively supported by a governmental credit baiting student loan system, given its somewhat feudal hiring and retention practices and the difficulties of getting more than two aligned colleagues in one location, given that the possibility of teaching of creative writing is frequently denied or belittled by the very people who are hired to teach it, and yet despite all this, given that the higher education system unfortunately and ironically remains both one of the more
progressive and richest institutions in the US, is there anything that we, whatever "we" are, can do with or within this higher education system all together? The larger question might be: should there, could there, be an inter/national Poetics Program? If there was, what would it do? How would it do it? But perhaps the easier way to get at these questions is to rethink the conventions around those ways that poetry and poetics enters the academy: the reading series, the talk series, the conference, the seminar restricted to those who are paying to attend the university, the writers center/house, the summer program, the workshop, etc.
I want to convince that my old/new school allegiance is damaging the intellectual life around literature, a life that once upon a time, back in the day, in the good old days, when I was young had moments that while not entirely open and not without access questions, was somewhat oddly permeable. Hello those who have ended up in poetry for no good reason other than the thinking. Hello say myself and many of you. And hello those who have not pursued it as a credential. Hello say David Brazil, Rodrigo Toscano.
Now in the dystopia that we call the present, poets have entered the academy to an unusual degree. To say who is in or out is almost an impossible question. And in recent years I’ve watched many who were honorable avoiders, stop avoiding. Even Rod Smith has an MFA. Even Tisa Bryant. Even Kevin Davies has an MA.
This is not an accusation. I’m not interested in the poets are sell outs sort of argument. We all are part of systems we might co-create otherwise. And I know poets have always been in the academy—hello myself and most of you. But rather in the US right now there has been a huge growth of classes that teach creative writing and poetics at all levels—we’re enrolled in them and we’re teaching them—and with that has come an accompanying expansion of professionalization, such as the publishing of more books of poetry, and the production of more magazines, more reading series, etc. (These last two interesting because the AWP recommends that an MFA program have both so you can imagine how many this has created in the last 15 years)
I am interested in a paranoid sort of way about what this sort of impact this professionalization might have on community supported arts, which is what the sort of poetry that I am socially embedded within--I am talking about the specific cultural formation that we sometimes shorthand as the experimental poet or the outrider poet or the innovative poet--was once upon a time, back in the day, in the good old days, when I was young.
There are several things that colleges and universities are that I think we need to better recognize if we want to keep literary communities as communities (and by communities here I mean engaged; I mean exchanges of ideas in full contention and complication, full of friends and frenemies, and enemies).
One is that degree programs are short term communities (even if they have long term impacts—as any analysis of the limited places that those in this room went to school would show) that are created by a willingness to enter into a degree and the desire to pay for it. They are two to four to six to ten years (depends on the degree here). Often people enter these institutions and perform amazing feats of community for the time they are involved in them only to completely abandon these communities when they leave. So to let degree programs take over those loving institutions of community support that have for so long preserved literatures—such as the literary magazine and the reading series and the small press—is risky. It seems, for instance, that the growth of creative writing in universities and colleges has not lead to a parallel long term growth in the interest in literature. Almost weirdly the reverse. Although there is no evidence yet of a correlation and this is more an idle observation on my part—it seems peculiar to me that as more US citizens study creative writing in the academy that US citizens, as that NEA study showed, buy and read fewer books of literature every year.
The other thing worth reckoning with is that higher education is a huge pay to play system that has to maintain a façade so as to get people to spend large amounts of money for a paper certificate. They do this fairly well. They get many people to pay large amounts of money and labor for their certificate. They have entire departments, thus, devoted to cultivating their brand recognition. And I want to convince those who think to self but we support our graduate students, we give our students teaching assistantship lines that this is still a pay to play system. It is crucial to not discount labor as payment. Those students that are being paid $5,000 to teach a class are giving over about an additional $10,000 in labor per class, or paying about $20,000 a year still for their degree. Although I admittedly used really arbitrary math to get that number.
Again, this is less a value judgement and more an observation. Universities and colleges function in certain ways as a result of having to raise tuition money and/or labor. They have huge cash/labor incentives to keep their programs less than permeable, to perpetuate the exclusive and special uniqueness of their program. And they spend a lot of time on that. The exclusivity contract that a faculty member cannot teach at another college or university (a rule that is interestingly being eroded by the casualization of labor, but that is another long story) is but one sign here. Others are all that branding work that faculty and students do around editing the magazine, publishing books, setting up the reading and talk series for their program, etc. That one is told that the reading series should be on campus and then one holds it in the small room on the sixteenth floor that would be hard for anyone not initiated to find or that one’s seminar must meet on campus and that anyone who wants to sit in should pay an “audit” fee and then add to that that the campus does not readily supply parking to those who are not students or might have a giant gate around it, as the one that employs me does, or that requires an identification card for entering any of its buildings are but other signs. This list could go on and on.
So to move a significant pile of the intellectual recourses that were once located in the community has changed the social formation around this experimentalish poetry in many ways. I think it has somewhat challenged the way it was once upon a time, back in the day, in the good old days, when I was young model of the poet as lovingly cultivating things like the magazine, the press, the reading series. It is not that the loving poets have stopped their loving. They love as madly as ever. But some days when I look at the social formation around the Bay Area outside of the academy, all I see is a claim to a loving social as the difference. Everything else looks the same. The reading series is the reading series. Perhaps the chairs don’t match at the community reading series, but otherwise the community and university reading series happen with two readers behind a podium in a somewhat darkened room. The readers read, often in the same week. The same audience shows up. The reading group of the loving community is reading the same books that are read in the seminar down the street. The only difference is the claim to be better at loving, better at the after party.
Again, I do not want to rant about any of this. One way that the higher education system maintains its integrity brand is that it provides some limited protections around free speech thus letting those most involved in perpetuating it to complain freely about it and it calls this freedom or utopia. I don’t want to be part of that utopia any more than I have to be. But I also don’t want to leave the community to have only madly loving as its last remaining claim of distinction. I want it to have thinking loving also.
So here we are. It doesn’t have all, but higher education right now does have a significant pile of the intellectual resources of poetry. And it has a significant pile of other people’s money. We can give up. Or we can attempt some permeability. Insist that we need to maintain some of the uniqueness of the community support for the community supported arts that we feed off of.
Here is one small and tepid thought experiment out of this situation. And it is just one around permeability not one around cultivating the distinct relatedness of community supported arts. How about that national poetics program?
Say certain employees of higher education invent the Shadow Poetics Program. It is open admission. There is no application fee. It doesn’t give degrees. What it does is list the courses that affiliated faculty are teaching at their pay to play institutions and any Shadow Poetics Program student is invited to enroll in these classes. By becoming a faculty member of the Shadow Poetics Program one would agree to let Shadow students to take one’s courses for free, without paying the audit fees and maybe even in violation of the pay to play institution’s course caps, the same course caps one might have fought hard to keep as a labor issue. One agrees to offer Shadow Poetics Program students the same services one offers one’s pay to play students—grades, feedback on papers, office hour discussions, even that slightly inappropriate flirting.
On the obvious problem of uncompensated labor here. My first reaction was that faculty just need to take the hit. Academic labor is so feudal it is hard to figure out the limits of the job. It is for many a sinecure. Further complicating is that there are no national standards on number of students and contact hours and rate of pay and all that other sort of stuff. Even within departments faculty members sometimes make hugely disparate amounts of money. But then when I thought some more about what the Shadow Poetics Program might look like locally, I realized that over 2/3 of the people that would be obvious faculty candidates were adjunct labor. So my next thought was what if the Shadow Poetics Program had a faculty pay equalization plan. So here is my first take on what that might look like. Each year, all the faculty who agree to be part of the Shadow Poetics Program submit their salary. Then the Shadow Poetics Program estimates for each faculty member a per student payment by taking last year’s course enrollments and dividing them by each individual faculty members salary. This is then averaged and this number becomes the rate that faculty are to be paid per Shadow Poetics Program student they take on.
At that point, one of two things could happen.
One is that the Shadow Poetics Program students “pay.” They pay with some sort of bartered labor. Perhaps they pay in jam if they are makers of jams. Perhaps they pay with computer programming if they are computer programmers. Perhaps they pay with proofreading if they are proofreaders. Perhaps with community organizing, all sorts. Perhaps with little magazine production. I think it is important that they not pay this rate with legal tender mainly because I think this would be illegal and would cause the Shadow Poetics Program to be shut down fairly quickly.
The other possibility is that faculty either pay or are paid this rate to and by each other, depending on their relationship to this average.
In the earlier version of this paper, the one without that last paragraph on compensation, I ended it by saying that my thought experiment here feels both modest and also impossible. Modest in that it leaves a lot of things intact that I don’t like. It leaves unchallenged all those questions of what happens in seminars. It perpetuates rather than contests the professionalization around community supported arts that worries me. And then impossible just because it is hard to imagine it happening. But one reason I kept not wanting to deal with the paying for labor issue was that I felt that the moment I entered into the hugely differential pay rates of faculty in the academy, the economics of the situation made the idea of the Shadow Poetics Program immodest and impossible.
I don’t really have an ending here. I am more myself trying to figure these things out. Trying to figure out even what parts of my vision are from within and not without the academy.