Poetry is the lipstick of noise. —Jean-Luc Nancy


The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises

by Steve Evans


They don't care about the details
but fuck with the structure and
they'll crush your spine.
—Kevin Davies, COMP.


Ever since the mid-1990s, when a host of forces conspired to drive the rigid designator "language poetry" out of credibility for all but the professoriat, avant-garde poetry in the U.S. has proliferated without benefit—or detriment—of a shared conceptual horizon, agreed-upon situation definition, or common archive. With no chronometer commanding universal recognition, and no dominant journal or movement synchronizing the terms and stakes of poetic debate, the question of the "contemporary"—far from self-evident in any circumstance—has become all the more intractable.

Denied the shortcut of deduction—of letting the conceptual magnet draw to it what filings it may and calling that a "finding"—criticism has no alternative but the long march of induction, of reading in detail and arguing from particulars. The question to be hazarded is less "what time are we in?" than "what time(s) are we with?" and the principal challenge is to essay the undeniable multiplicity of evidence without resorting to the facile pluralism that exercises such inertial dominance throughout political, artistic, and intellectual life today.

Unlike its more radical counterpart, which is collective and contentious, liberal pluralism is the spontaneous thought form of the marketed mind, a sort of unavowable dogma of the undogmatic that excels at neutralizing distinctions and defusing contradictions in a disingenuous game of anything goes (so long as it sells). It is by tendency eclectic and apolitical, allergic to commitment and against principles on principle. Savvy about individual situations, it is invincibly ignorant about structures, exhibiting a mixture of innocence and experience that calls to mind Aimé Césaire's generous counsel of "pity" for "our omniscient and naive conquerors!" Never having encountered a limit, it thinks reality holds none in store; having witnessed the inflexibility real struggle sometimes requires, it rationalizes compromise as inevitable and, moreover, enjoyable; observing integrity to be inconvenient, and in certain extreme circumstances even unsurvivable, it finds excuses for expedience and is relieved when a chorus of like-minded souls assures it there's "no need to apologize, we'd have done the same thing."

All good thoughts and feelings, if you happen to be racking up credit debt on the web or launching your accredited skiff into what is euphemistically called the "mainstream" of American poetry. But not the kind of nonsense to which the avant-garde, in any of its incarnations over the past hundred years, has been disposed to take seriously. For limits there are, as no one should need Charles Olson to tell them, and commitment is what it takes to endure, exceed, and sometimes transform them. Integrity is gratuitous, it is true, for those whose thoughts and actions conform in all essentials to sanctioned social and aesthetic practice, but it is an indispensable attitude for poets working against the grain and for poetic communities constituted against the odds.

But that's just the thing. At present, a surprising number of people seem confused as to which way the grain runs and the odds are stacked. Some are passively confused, waiting out the ambiguities of the moment with varying degrees of curiosity. Others are passionately confused, recognizing in the ambiguities an opportunity for self-advancement. Some of the former comprise the readership of FENCE magazine, a few of the latter staff its editorial board.

The resistible rise of FENCE magazine and its ideology of merge and market says a lot about one of the times we are "with"—a time of market conscious opportunism, mystified individualism, and symbolically profitable pseudo-pluralism. Strategically conceived as a safe haven for idiosyncrasy that could double as a hock shop for stolen goods as well (pace the FENCE manifesto of 1997), the journal owes its existence to more than the formidable organizational abilities of its chief editor, Rebecca Wolff. Four external conditions happened to be in place, circa 1997, that considerably smoothed the way for its emergence: first, the deepening erosion of intellectual and practical resistance to incursions of market logic into social relations where they have no place (i.e. reification); second, the aging, routinizing, and reductive stereotyping (from within and from without) of language-centered writing, and with it—by virtue of an illegitimate but effective conflation—the avant-garde project as a whole; third, a generational crisis within the dominant poetic establishment that, notwithstanding its continued monopoly of institutional power, can no longer command the respect, allegiance, or even attention of much of their captive audience of MFA candidates; and, fourth, the glaring absence of any regularly appearing journal capable of rearticulating radical poetic values within the much altered circumstance of post-1989 global capitalism.

The first condition has permitted the incessant rhetoric of "the market place" in the formal and informal statements of FENCE's editor to pass as transparent and unproblematic. The second has opened the possibility of a selective appropriation of radical poetic techniques, shorn of their contexts and motivating commitments. The third has supplied a contributor and readership base of young writers whose reluctant defection from the dominant poetic hasn't prevented them from coveting it spoils (a reliable sign that the defection will not outlast the inevitable changing of the generational guard). And the fourth has helped deliver a few avant-gardists whom the scarcity of other venues, if not the outright abandonment of values concerning the politics of publication, at least temporarily stranded.

"The Story of FENCE" as narrated by its editor in issue twelve of the web-based JACKET magazine understandably suppresses these enabling contexts in favor of a pluckier, more "idiosyncratic" tale. Departing an MFA program in possession of a talent deemed "weird" by the editors to whose magazines she submitted without reading ("blanketing the POET'S MARKETPLACE with simultaneous submissions"), Wolff tells of how she eventually tired of alphabetizing rejection slips and began dreaming of a journal "that would be unafraid of weirdness and which would respond enthusiastically to freedoms/constrictions of tone, music, and syntax—to a universal need." It may not have been the clearest of aspirations, but that did not stop it from being "catalyzed" by further hardships. First a blunt letter from Clayton Eshleman arrives to dash Wolff's hopes of finding shelter in "experimental poetry," then comes a stint business managing a southern literary journal that confirms her growing conviction that the "universal need" for weirdness has no advocate in a stultifying world where "on the one hand you had the thoroughly unremarkable brand of poetry as seen in the scores of undistinguished journals limping their way out of universities around the country (SOUTHWEST REVIEW, MISSOURI REVIEW, etc.) and on the other you had a small, practically invisible-to-the-naked-eye scene of impenetrable, closed-circuit, dogmatic, programmatic journals seeking explicitly to support work in certain types of experimentation."

Included out of both camps—less the raw and the cooked than the sealed and the senile—Wolff has no alternative but to turn editor, pitching to anyone willing to listen a "shpiel [sic] that went something like this: I'm starting a magazine for idiosyncratic writing, poetry and fiction that is not easily categorizable in terms of camps of schools of thought and which therefore is unappealing to the current market place." The journal would allay "the general reading public's—whether to the left or the right of the 'I'—fear of ambiguity" and "debunk the terror-filled mystique" surrounding such recondite entities as "Language Poetry." Its "honor" would be staked on "faith in our own good taste, and our commitment to avoid—and call each other out on—ideological distinctions." This blend of market analysis, awkward metaphorization ("I tried not to exploit the obvious metaphor of 'fence sitters' or 'sitting on the fence,' but it has proved too appropriate to avoid, like the best clichés"), sure fire appeal to artistic individualism, and a poignant if modest mission to calm the trembling and neglected "general reading public" apparently hit the mark with Jonathan Lethem, Matthew Rohrer, Caroline Crumpacker, and Frances Richard, all of whom joined the FENCE editorial board and remain—with the exception of Lethem, who is soon to be replaced by Ben Marcus as the fiction editor—to this day.

The conclusion to Wolff's self-canonizing narrative tells of a real office (no more submissions flooding the living room), part-time work at the Poetry Society of America (where several other FENCE staffers were also until recently employed under the managing directorship of Crumpacker), an Ivy-league intern to help with the drudge work, and two journal-sponsored book contests in the offing. (Apparently Wolff's own earlier skepticism about contests promising "to make me rich someday, if only I would pour enough checks into them" has been flexibly revised in light of her new position as recipient of the checks.) As for the future, Wolff writes that as "with any venture, FENCE will be continued until it is no longer fun. The question of utility comes up in my mind frequently, as I have witnessed in just these three years a sea change in the rigidities of both experimental and conservative communities, that which FENCE originally arose to combat. Many traditionally conservative journals seem to be trafficking in 'weird' writers these days; the advent of Anne Carson's popularity and acclaim may be a sign of some kind of opening up to intelligence once again. The experimental community continues to be a tiny dervish of self doubt and self-examination, reminding me of someone's recent observation that 'liberals continually fail at world domination because they're too busy attacking themselves to attack the conservatives.'"

Those last few sentences are worth pausing over, for they display with great economy the illiberality to which these liberal pluralists are prone: leaving aside the lack of reflexivity that protects Wolff from the insight that conservative journals might accept the work she favors precisely because it is—conservative, the contemptuous and ignorant dismissal of the "experimental community" enacts just the kind of "ideological distinction" that no one in the journal's band of idiosyncrats can apparently recognize or bother to call one another on, and the have-it-both-ways attack on that community as simultaneously "dogmatic" and riddled with "self doubt" (a spectral fusion of Stalin and Hamlet?) evidently satisfies the taste test that passes for intelligence once "self-examination" has been tabooed, "weirdness" unleashed as the sole criterion for aesthetic and intellectual validity, and "fun" established as the ethical telos of all "ventures."

"In a capitalist country," as Frank O'Hara once remarked, "fun is everything. Fun is the only justification for the acquisitive impulse, if one is to be honest." Given the incomprehension of O'Hara's work that has compounded daily in the era of Gooch and Lehman, it perhaps needs to be pointed out that O'Hara did not write the words approvingly. He knew that the reflux of narcissistic gratification that keeps consumers coming back for more (of themselves) is one thing, art quite another: there are "works that don't reflect you or your life, though you can know them. Art is not your life, it is someone else's. Something very difficult for the acquisitive spirit to understand."

Fun has it limits, and FENCE is encamped comfortably within them—dosing on occasional glimpses of alterity ("weirdness") but systematically avoiding the risks of any living engagement with it. Such surface attributes of the avant-garde as reflect back its own ambitions, it summarily appropriates; the rest it demeans with the same "spontaneous" (it couldn't be ideological) fervor that management typically reserves for insubordinate workers. One need only consider the recent labor dispute at O'Hara's former workplace, MOMA, to see how neatly the terms transfer: how "closed" and "rigid" those strikers must be, how clouded their understanding of which side their canvas is painted on! And who must this "tiny dervish" of picketers think they are, to interfere with the delivery of Corporate Modernism to the art-starved malltitudes ("whether to the left or the right of the 'I'") of Cultural Tourism?!

Whether or not FENCE succeeds at biannual intervals in making its five hundred subscribers mistake conformity for idiosyncrasy is not in itself a matter of spectacular consequence. Makeshift adjustments such as theirs have been made before and the only thing more impressive than their "currency" at one time is the depth of the oblivion to which they are later consigned. "Their moderation confirmed itself above all in its intellectual submissiveness," wrote Adorno of the generation that tried to domesticate atonal music, it "committed itself to nothing, composing according to the whims of the times; and liquidating in their compositions, as in their despicable artistic credo, everything which was musically uncomfortable. All they achieved was a respectably routined neo-academicism."

Of potentially greater importance is the task of addressing the conditions that FENCE and parallel developments like the recently concocted "Elliptical School" (an experiment in taste-formation by the literary journalist Stephen Burt, who, schooled on Vendler and Randall Jarrell but not unacquainted with the "Sun and Moon Press back catalog," advocates the kind of "rebellious" but never reader unfriendly, "hip but rarely jaded," poetry of elided "backstories" and surface "dissolve and fracture"—when it comes to "disjunction and confrontation," this poetry knows "how little can go a long way"—that FENCEsters write, an increasing number of establishment and university presses publish, and Jorie Graham funds from atop the pyramidal prize machine) give expression to in symptomatic form.

The thousand pages of anthologized novelty brought to market in the year 2000 make it abundantly clear that the dominant poetic is in the throes of reproduction. Even with a shortlist of fifteen poets already established, it will be several years more before this particular game of institutional musical chairs comes to its pathetic conclusion. While the aura of predetermination hangs thick over the whole process, it would be inaccurate to think that the dominant will look exactly the same after this changing of the guard. It won't. It will be younger, hipper, and weirder; more into "ambiguities" (including sexual and gender ambiguity); flashier on its surface; much less patriarchal (though not necessarily less misogynist or more feminist); and a little less illiterate about past avant-gardes. Stegner Fellows will be able to read Susan Howe and Michael Palmer without jeopardizing their MacArthur chances, and Walt Whitman Awards will go to works that make reference to cultural commodities the judges will be too embarrassed to admit they do not know.

What is sure to emerge unscathed, however, is the hierarchical and atomistic Hobbesianism of a system that still practices hazing rituals and manufactures value through rigged lotteries. The submissiveness required to endure such conditions will still be legible on most every page published by younger writers, while the bitterness the system inevitably breeds will continue to provide the acid-content for mid-careerists. The idiosyncrats now perched on the fence will likely find that unchecked egotism is more or less the same kind of weird fun as idiosyncrasy, but even better remunerated, and begin flocking home. Since a "little can go a long way," there will probably be a very few, very carefully vetted, erstwhile avant-gardists among them.

As distracting as this spectacle will sometimes be, one suspects that there is little to be learned from it by those who maintain a commitment to radical poetic practices and the radical social projects and values from which they cannot be divorced. Among the questions—and there certainly is no shortage of them—more befitting a self-reflexive, nonhierarchical, audaciously imaginative, and poetically generative community of practice, a good one to start with might be: what force, if any, do two long-standing commitments of the avant-garde—its anti-capitalism and its insistence on autonomous intellectual/poetic production and evaluation—carry in the contemporary moment?

What difference does it make, for example, that Laura Moriarty's NUDE MEMOIR—which answers to some of the adjectives assigned to the "Elliptical School"—is the result both of a distinctive compositional practice on its author's part and of a radically democratic editorial practice on the part of the Krupskaya publishing collective? The disengaged connoisseur of elided "backstories" might want to argue that Moriarty's work shares a crucial technique with Mark Levine's ENOLA GAY. But is the fact that Levine's next book after Jorie Graham's selection of the aptly titled DEBT for the National Poetry Series in 1993 is an expression of Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient, and Brenda Hillman's top-down taste making another backstory best elided, along with the normative career path the dust jacket advertises? Surely a trajectory of such daring—begun in Iowa City as an MFA student, boosted by a national award bestowed by one's teacher, and culminating in a place among the regular faculty at one's alma mater—will serve to inspire independence of mind and breadth of experience in many an aspiring writer to come.

In my estimation Moriarty's NUDE MEMOIR is the more interesting book both on its own terms and for the way its conditions of publication synthesize the values of autonomy and solidarity, integrity and generosity, that remain at the core of the avant-garde project—and the point can be extended to the seven other works Krupskaya has published in two years as well as to the editorial innovations of the subpress collective that has brought out roughly the same number of books in the same amount of time. While one can and should debate the value of the specific works they've so far produced, both publishing endeavors have without question contributed decisively to the ever-threatened labor of realizing conditions in which the free exercise of mind and language are possible.

The paradox of autonomy is that its achievement quickly becomes hollow if it doesn't drive beyond itself into new engagements and new risks. The duck/rabbit image that fascinated Wittgenstein has its corollary in the practical oscillation between autonomy/irrelevancy that renders this fundamental concept of Enlightenment aesthetics unstable to the core. Holding this paradox in mind, it becomes possible to offer a ground for distinguishing "experimental" or "linguistically innovative" or "indeterminate" from avant-garde practices. The former are all expressions of autonomy, and valuable as such, but absent the deliberate and imaginative work of connecting these expressions back to the social forces, contradictions, and struggles that animate contemporary life they can easily miss the mark of consequential engagement and fall into formalism.

Or eccentricity. The hefty, irregular installments of the GERM sometimes seem in page-to-page combat with FENCE for the peculiarity market, though both in fact pale before the fetishistic wonder that is FAUCHEUSE, especially in its recent third installment. Haunting enigmas, convulsive beauty, libidinal swerves from ornament to pornography and back: such are the curios cabineted in today's restaffed bureaus of Pre-Raphaelite and Surrealist research, nostalgic as castration complexes (pace Jeff Clark's THE LITTLE DOOR SLIDES BACK or Lisa Lubasch's HOW MANY MORE OF THEM ARE YOU) or a fondness for Peter the Great (to whom GERM 4 is tenderly dedicated). The too often prevailing mood of silliness, decadence, and the thorough presupposition of poetry's irrelevance is captured perfectly in the editorial note to GERM 4: "Tiny and definitively within, we wander the hair of a great chubby-faced royalty. It's language's court of course; the rest is fabulous."

The vacuity of an editorial stance reduced to signaling itself mainly through pictures and jokes doesn't entirely preclude the appearance of consequential poetry in the GERM, but it does serve to neutralize such works by enclosing them within a context where gratuity reigns, complicity is fabulous, and opposition is strictly unthinkable. Unlike the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose neo-feudalism was a form of defensive recoil from the Industrial-Imperial British bourgeoisie, the version farcically reconvened by the "Poetic Research Bloc" exploits precisely those areas of overlap between feudalism and today's capitalism, with their differently achieved but effectively similar concentrations of power beyond appeal, ideology beyond question, and wealth beyond all imagination. The serfs came with the land, the surfers come with the web: so long as you own either one, it works out about the same.

The poetics of indeterminacy have coasted—and new coasted—on inherited credentials and assumptions that seem unlikely to withstand the reexamination the next few years hold in store for them. Their defamiliarizations have simply become too familiar (at least to informed readers, whose evaluations today will be mimicked by the "general readers" of tomorrow), their exercise of autonomy too indistinguishable from irrelevancy. Even more to the point, the self-flattery involved in mistaking linguistic for social structures tout court is an illusion without a future, the collapse of which will cancel much more than the inane "of course" in the GERM's proclamation that "It's language's court of course." This spent poetics may be artificially resuscitated in the academy and in the pages of FENCE, AMERICAN LETTERS & COMMENTARY, BOSTON REVIEW, VERSE and other organs of the dominant-elect, but that won't change the fact that the radical imagination has already left them behind.

This text was first circulated via e-mail in January 2001. It was subsequently archived, along with the public responses it occasioned, on an ad-hoc website.


Adorno, Theodor. Philosophy of Modern Music. Trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Burt, Stephen. "The Elliptical School." American Letters and Commentary 11 (1999):45-55.

"The Cosmology of Anthologies." Poets & Writers 28.4 (July/August 200): 8-9. The fifteen writers to appear in all three of the recent anthologies devoted to defining an institutionally sanctioned "next generation" are: Erin Belieu, Nick Carbó, Thomas Sayers Ellis, James Harms, Allison Joseph, Khaled Mattawa, Campbell McGrath, Alan Michael Parker, D.A. Powell, Claudia Rankine, Matthew Rohrer, Ann Townsend, Karen Volkman, Greg Williamson, and Mark Wunderlich.

Davies, Kevin. Comp. Washington D.C.: Edge, 2000.

Foster, Hal. "Against Pluralism." 1982. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Boston: Bay, 1985.

Levine, Mark. Enola Gay. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.

Moriarty, Laura. Nude Memoir. San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2000.

O'Hara, Frank. "Art Chronicle." 1962. Art Chronicles, 1954-1966. New York: Braziller, 1975.

Rooney, Ellen. Seductive Reasoning: Pluralism as the Problematic of Contemporary Literary Theory. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Wolff, Rebecca. "The Story of Fence." Jacket 12 (2000). http://www.jacket.zip.com.au/jacket12


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