February 09, 2011

This is a revision of a talk that I wrote for “The Future of Writing,” a conference organized by Christine Wertheim. It will eventually appear in Viz Inter-Arts.


This is primarily about the round about around writing by which I mean it is not about writing or literature itself but the way writing circulates after it has been written. The thesis here is that the future of the round about around writing will be, just like the present, privatized.

My use of the word “privatization” here is intended as an annoyant or an irritant. I am meaning not only individually controlled but also something about the privatization of attention. I am meaning self-involved without the necessary reconnecting. As I wrote this talk, I kept stealing sentences from some related work I have been doing on the 1990s. But as I brought these sentences into this talk, I kept replacing the word “community” with “privatization.” So that is the slide I am talking about. I used to argue against the relentless charges of elitism that are so regularly lobbed at any small group defined by certain ways of thinking together, that the psychosocialsexual poetry scene I consider myself a part of was closed but permeable. By which I meant that it was partial to a certain way of thinking but anyone was welcome to show up and think that way. I’m now wondering how true this “permeable” part is. And this talk is about how I have found it increasingly confusing to figure out what is a private-ing gesture and what is a community-ing gesture in the psychosocialsexual poetry scenes in which I participate.

At the same time, I want to make clear that I do not hold exempt from this privatization any of the various things I’ve participated in or attempted to call into being. This isn’t a righteous talk where I argue that the answer to privatization is a lottery or that if everyone would just contribute a percentage of their income, all would be open and inclusive. I’m interested in this topic precisely because it has been so hard for me to figure it all out. And when I talk about my psychosocialsexual scenes, I am talking mainly about what I have otherwise called the “experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry puddle.” I am talking about writers of contemporary poetry that is informed by modernism, the beats, what Anne Waldman shorthands as the outriders. But I am not, for instance, talking about the slam or spoken word poetry puddle nor am I talking about the more lyric and confessionally quiet poetry puddle, scenes in which a related set of issues inflect very differently.

There are many stories one can tell about privatization. It is the time of neoliberalism after all. And many of these stories are dramatic, such as the privatization of water in Bolivia. And the story I am going to attempt to tell around the arts is in no way equivalent. The arts, unlike water, have had a long and complicated relationship with privatization from the beginning. The genre does, after all, have a courtly tradition.

But the story I want to tell here begins with what I am going to frame as a somewhat better time, as the once upon a time of the last half of the twentieth century when poets began to group themselves into various aesthetic affiliations, or “schools” in opposition to the nationalist idea of a universalist American literature. As they did this, they created community based patronage systems such as publishing houses, journals, anthologies, and reading series that supported themselves and others in the group. Many of these “schools” were formed in dialogue with the hothouse of minority cultural activist movements as many of these movements saw poetry as one genre among many that could be used for cultural representation, uplift, and preservation of the culturally disenfranchised. The creation of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in 1965 by Baraka is often seen as a foundational moment here. But that is just one among many. Bamboo Ridge, the workshop and the press that publishes mainly literature written by Asian Americans in Hawai‘i and has preserved and cultivated a literature in Pidgin, was founded in 1978. Arte Público, with its claim to “providing a national forum for Hispanic literature,” was founded in 1979. Many US cultural movements in the 70s often see poetry as a part of their activism as an ideal genre for an identity group to articulate and support its unique cultural practices. The Hawaiian Renaissance, the Native American movement, the Chicano/a movement, the various activisms around feminist and queer issues--all consider poetry as one possible genre in which to propose, examine, and cultivate cultural change.

Much of the literature that gets written out of and with this decentralization with activist ties provocatively represents collectivity. A foundational moment here is the poem “I am Joaquin” by Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzáles. It was written, as Rafael Pérez-Torres notes, as “an organizing tool” and published as a broadside. “I am Joaquin” uses the singular and heroic identity of “Joaquin” for Whitman influenced multitudes. Joaquin is many things. He rides with Don Benito Juarez; he is “the black-shawled / Faithful women”; he is “Aztec prince and Christian Christ.” It is a poem that echoes and one ups in homage Langston Hughes’s “Negro,” a poem that begins “I am a Negro” and then goes through a series of different qualifying identities such as slave, worker, singer, victim; it is a poem that perhaps also draws from Carl Sandberg’s poem that begins “I am the people--the mob--the crowd--the mass.” All these poems present a collective, permeable identity with activist desires.

“I am Joaquin” is just one example among many possible examples. Whether one buys Auden’s line that poetry makes nothing happen or buys Mayakovsky’s that one must smash to smithereens the myth of an apolitical art, it is worth noting that there is a moment where literary cultures in the US decentralize and as they do they refuse the more universalist content of American literary nationalism and align themselves with various specific forms of resistant activism. Kaplan Page Harris, for instance, in “Causes, Movements, Poets,” discusses another example of this: the “benefit” readings that are advertised in the 70s in the bay area journal Poetry Flash. Harris’s list has around twenty-two benefit readings that he has noted between 1973-1980 in the bay area alone. It is a telling list. There were readings for farm workers, for women, for the People’s Community School, for the Greek resistance, for stricter regulation of Nuclear power plants, for the prisoners of San Quentin, etc. However, as Harris notes, the benefit reading more or less fades away from the listings in the 80s. And I have to admit that the only benefits that I’ve attended lately are for the various journals or reading series that define my psychosocialsexual poetry scene.

Harris does not take as his subject the reasons why the large political benefit reading disappears. And I think one could endlessly hypothesize about why poetry once had a valence and connection to a certain sort of activism at one time that it no longer has. But many of these reasons, I want to argue would also be stories of privatization. The privatization that I am talking about is multivalent. It can be seen in the decline in national arts funding in the 1980s. It can be seen in the resulting decline in those community centered arts institutes with ties to cultural activist organizations and the sorts of literatures that they supported. It can be seen in the decline in the benefit reading as these organizations disappear and those that remain are forced to concentrate their fundraising on just staying around. It can be seen in the retreat of artists into higher education. It can be seen in the rise of graduate degrees in the arts.

I work in what Mark Nowak calls the neoliberal American MFA industry. And I also, like almost everyone in my psychosocialsexual poetry scene, have a graduate degree. So this story of privatization as also a story about myself. But at the same time, I want to make it clear that I do not think that graduate degrees in the arts are destroying literature; I do not think those who enroll in these programs are misguided; and I do not think that people should refuse to teach in them. (Even while, like Nowak, I’m concerned about the casualization of labor in higher education and I’m also not convinced that in general the programs do that great of a job of fulfilling their intellectual missions.) And just a note, when I say “graduate degrees in the arts,” I mean not just the MFA but the PhD and the MA in creative writing and the PhD in poetics. Although of all these degrees, the MFA has a somewhat distinctive role in this privatization story because of its huge growth in the last 15 or so years. The numbers on MFA growth are hard to get firm. But, after numerous complicated emails with Seth Abramson, it seems likely that in 1995 in the US there were somewhere between sixty-five to eighty MFA programs. In 2009 there are around 194. Abramson’s estimate is that the cohort groups for these programs average out to about 20. So in less than fifteen years, the US has gone from producing around 300 to close to 4000 MFAs per year.

The impact of this expanding relationship between higher education and creative writing has been much debated. But Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, stands out as the distinctive study of how higher education has shaped American literature. McGurl’s study—with deliberation I am assuming—does not distinguish much between the MFA and other ways creative writing enters into the university system. And McGurl does not spend much time on the heyday of cultural activist movement literature that I have just described. But he does discuss it when it enters the academy and what he describes are literatures of institutional individualisms. McGurl in his discussion of Chicano/a literature, for instance, ends up suggesting that it might be created for “the increasingly paramount value of cultural diversity in U.S. educational institutions” and yet another example of something that is more “a new way of accumulating symbolic capital in the fervently globalizing U.S. academy, pointing scholars toward valuable bodies of expertise they might claim as their own and offering a rationale for the inclusion of certain creative writers in an emergent canon of world literature.”

McGurl’s study is pointedly limited to fiction but I actually think genre is not all that determining of an issue here (despite the different economies between them). McGurl’s observation is not that off the mark when it comes to poetry. I keep thinking here of how the “I am…” poem mutates from the inclusive and activist drive of “I am Joaquin” in the early days to something like Marilyn Chin’s “How I Got that Name” which begins “I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin” and is all about Chin, not all about “the people” or a specific group of people within “the people.” This observation of institutional individualism has been made as dismissive accusation many times before. Often to dismiss the possibility of there ever having been a moment of a culturally activist and aligned art. But my desire here is to suggest that it would be insistently ahistorical to read a poem as “I am Joaquin” as merely individualist and at the same time, to read a poem such as Marilyn Chin’s as an organizing tool would be just as ahistorical. The “I am…” differences here are yet another example of a closeness between poetry and cultural activism that was so present in the 70s that is no longer so by the end of the century. The “I am…” poem has become, in short, privatized.

This one little example of the “I am…” poem is, of course, reductive. But sometimes reductive is the only way I can make sense of things. The other day though I was sitting in a car talking with my friend in attempt to figure out all this privatization and we kept getting caught in complication. I had given her a ride home from our jobs in that neoliberal MFA industry. It was a hot fall day and we were both sweating in the heat of the idling car as we were trying to describe this Cthulhu of privatization, this many tentacled but impossible to describe beast that haunts H P Lovecraft’s work. We were just talking. And a lot of what we were saying was more emotion and less sense. We were the parable of the blind man describing an elephant, or say a Cthulhu. We talked rapidly and nervously, our tentacles swaying with excitement.

We began talking about what feels to us as if it is a sort of talisman of explanation, how Harris, in a different article; this one called “The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation,” notices that in the October 1978 issue of Poetry Flash there was an announcement about a study group for “Marxism and the Theory of Writing.” Harris’s article is about the connections among what are now often seen as very disparate camps of Bay Area literary aesthetic schools, a number of which were at the “Marxism and the Theory of Writing” study group which was attended by people who we might now group into things like New Narrative and language and feminist writers. We are interested in this small fact because we have been joking that one doesn’t know about the reading group or the house reading or the house workshop that so defines the commons of our psychosocialsexual poetry scenes unless someone who is in the know wants to kiss you or kiss a friend of yours. Although Poetry Flash still exists, we can’t imagine announcing a reading group in it. The role Poetry Flash once had of a centralized but community run info rag is but a vague memory in the age of the internet. To get that same list, how many websites must one now click through?

So there we were sweating and talking and in our agitation we can only see how everything is becoming like us, like a Cthulhu, and how a certain privatization is coming to dominate the very forms of permeableness that had brought both of us to poetry in the beginning. We began to make a list of what we thought was permeable but now feels more privatized that we counted out on our tentacles. Much of what gets celebrated as independent or as DIY or as gift economy is on this list. Our list included the house reading and how when one isn’t in the coterie the reading at the bar or at the arts center feels permeable but the privatized space of the house does not, about Facebook and the privatization of the reading announcement, the increasingly privatized move from poetry announcements in Poetry Flash to the subscription based listserv list to the individual blog with the comment box to the individual blog with the shut down comment box to something like Facebook, a hyper regulated and restrictive social network space.

We then began another list of what we thought of as heroic labors, those moments where poets give their time, energies, and resources to keep non-institutional presses and their online equivalents alive. And there are, we noticed, places where poets who are differently affiliated come together not to erase difference—because we do not want third way or elliptical or hybrid—but in discussion of alliance. There are things like big internet projects such as Poets Against the War and Poets for the Living Waters and Delirious Hem and Pussipo. There is Nowak’s claim recently on his blog that much of his work with bringing poetry to union members was because he wanted to push beyond what felt (to him) like “overly constricted, delimited spaces and audiences for the reception of Poetry.” There are interesting conferences. The list goes on.

And yet still, my friend brayed and bellowed as she writhed about in her seat, some of these work towards the greatest diversity and reach possible by using internet technologies and yet still end up reflecting a kind of privatization as hundreds of diverse individuals click through without collective struggles because of the inherent limitations of more virtual modes of community-building. Sometimes these models become fetishized, arguing for revolutionary sociality, saying the words gift economy over and over, claiming that working for free is in and of itself progressive, or that having some quantitative evidence of diversity is the same as building a political constituency. Still, she bellows, on the whole, in the current context, these are ALL heroic and difficult labors, increasingly essential to the struggle against the institutional and economic pressures of privilege. The part I can’t figure out, she next brays, is how to not discount the individual heroism and yet acknowledge that it is at risk in a time of a privatization of sociality.

This privatization of sociality we somewhat locate in the impact of that way that suddenly we all have a graduate degree in the arts. We are well aware how graduate degrees in the arts are, as all college degrees are, provisionally permeable pay to play (whether one pays with cash, loans, or labor) communities that are constituted through a series of limitations such as applications that the community who enters into it does not control and does not have the right to contest. It is also a super short term community, usually of two to three years, sometimes of five. Graduate programs, as a result of these conditions, can at moments have a certain interestingly diverse student body. And unlike community poetry events, which seem to be more designed for an already convinced group, they can at moments provide an entry point to those who do not live in urban areas or do not have access to arts knowledge for other reasons. And they can create a community of writers that is not based on friendship, but on shared interest or intellectual devotion. And we also notice how if at one time it felt really obvious to us that the psychosocialsexual readings of our scenes were the ones that mattered, we have a harder and harder time telling the difference between a psychosocialsexual reading and an MFA reading because they tend to schedule the same sorts of readers except because we work at a fairly identitarian diverse college, the readings at our college are attended by more categorically diverse people who do not yet have an MFA and the psychosocialsexual readings are attended by mainly white people with an MFA or a PhD like ourselves.

At that point we began to wonder then about how it is that ethnic/racial diversity has become something institutional, but not something psychosocialsexual. We wonder again about the privatization around identity, about the MFA space resembling a commons in that many different people enter into it with admission being determined by factors other than friendship and yet not at all acting like a commons in its ramifications. It seems to us that many different people enter into the MFA, spend two to three years together, and then scatter back to their psychosocialsexual scenes.

As we talk, each time we use the word “commons” we cringe and say “ooops I mean Cthulhu.” It is not until later at home that night when reading Jodi Dean’s blog that I realize the reason we are cringing each time we say “commons” is because we should have been saying “common” not “commons.” Or as Dean explains this difference, using Cesare Casarino, the commons is a shared limited space; the common is the self-reproducing excess that is capitalism.

There is no better example of this from my psychosocialsexual poetry scenes than the impact that the MFA has had on the literary magazine. For so long the literary magazine has been one of the most unimpeachable and unquestionable signs of the gift economy of the literary coterie. It was edited by someone who put in long hours without pay for the love of writing and it was distributed and contested and often financed by a psychosocialsexual scene’s concerns. At a certain point the AWP puts together a series of recommended program guidelines. One of them is that MFAs have a literary magazine. And in years since we’ve seen the “commoning” of the literary magazine. We have noticed endless numbers of them all glossy and institutionally supported but without a community of readers beyond their editors. At the same time, that decrease in national and state arts funding makes running the little magazine difficult to do. So the little magazine lost both community need and arts funding at the same time due to its incorporation into the privatized MFA system.

As we brayed, our writhing feelers quivering, I kept thinking here of how conditioned I am to not think of poetry as in affiliation, how I tend not to notice these moments of privatized sociality. When I say to myself, oh the all white and degreed up psychosocialsexual reading series or little magazine or whatever is, feel, well, a little limited, I then say to myself, well, why don’t you just not show up to that one and start your own; edit your own a journal; start your own free skool; kiss everyone so they know about your reading group. But that is part of what I am now seeing as part of the problem. I have a tendency to privatize and call it gifting.

What we were noticing that afternoon in the car, although we were not saying it at the time, is the breakdown of that old divide between a good community poetry and a bad academic poetry. Basically, the divide isn’t holding up any more. And neither is the divide that suggests that the academy is privatized while the community is public. But neither is the reverse. That the university is public and the community is privatized. Everything seems to be constantly hitting up against this issue of what is open and what is private all the time and then the privatization seems to be winning more often than not. And the issue that feels pertinent to us at that moment is how we will get ourselves out of that hot, enclosed private car, how we will keep both these things accessible, open and yet undiluted and rigorous.

At a certain point, I turned off the idling motor, and we began to talk of Judith Butler’s recent work which is about how we define our selves and others into and out of the category of human. And in this book she points again and again to how we need more complicated modes of recognizability. Among the things to be recognized are claims of language and social belonging. And it feels that it is perhaps limited modes of recognizability are responsible for that disappearing benefit reading. There is some strange way that this commoning I have been attempting to describe on my own body promises me greater access to everything, but in actuality leaves me unable to think in a hot, stuffy, psychosocialsexual car. That once meaningful benefit reading doesn’t come out of nowhere. People don’t get together and make something happen unless they’ve hung out and argued and loved together at a bar or an arts center with the fervent faith of the converted. That is why I think this Cthulhu of privatized sociality puts so much at risk. Here my mind begins to wander and I think, one tentacle entwined with another, about needing both the intimacy of the psychosocialsexual scenes and the intimacy of the larger, public alliance that I am shorthanding here as the benefit reading (even as I so feel that the benefit reading is clearly not the answer). While I am lost in thought, I shake my squid head with its writhing feelers and my friend gathers up her exploding bladder, the slushy nastiness of a cloven sunfish, and with a sound I cannot put on paper, she leaves the car and I begin to drive home, tentacles to the wheel, and I, as I drive off, continue paraphrasing Lovecraft… Who knows the end? What has risen may sink and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

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