Poetry is the lipstick of noise. Jean-Luc Nancy
The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises
by Steve Evans
don't care about the details
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 benefitor detrimentof 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 circumstancehas become all the more intractable.
shortcut of deductionof 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.
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."
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.
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.
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 itby virtue of an illegitimate but effective conflationthe
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.
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.
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 syntaxto 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."
out of both campsless the raw and the cooked than the sealed and the
senileWolff 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'swhether 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 avoidand call
each other out onideological 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
remainwith the exception of Lethem, who is soon to be replaced by Ben
Marcus as the fiction editorto this day.
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.'"
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 isconservative, 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."
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 themdosing 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?!
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."
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.
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
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 questionsand there certainly is no shortage
of themmore 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-gardeits anti-capitalism and its insistence on autonomous
intellectual/poetic production and evaluationcarry in the contemporary
does it make, for example, that Laura Moriarty's NUDE MEMOIRwhich 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 daringbegun 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 materwill
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 projectand 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.
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.
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."
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 coastedand new coastedon 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.
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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.
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"Against Pluralism." 1982. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural
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Enola Gay. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.
Laura. Nude Memoir. San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2000.
"Art Chronicle." 1962. Art Chronicles, 1954-1966. New York:
Seductive Reasoning: Pluralism as the Problematic of Contemporary Literary
Theory. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
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