Saturday, April 17, 2010

17 Innings with Michael Snediker, Jack Spicer, Queer Theory, and Disability

Michael Snediker
was our Joseph Keene Chadwick lecturer this year in the English department; he delivered a talk on Jack Spicer this past Thursday. Along with this starring role, he played utility infielder by reading his poems at the M.I.A. reading on Wednesday and by leading a seminar on disability theory on Friday. How felicitous to have the author of a book on optimism speak to us during this cruel April of the soul in Honolulu, where cuts in education lead the headlines nearly every day. No furlough for Michael, who devoted hours to talking to my students, in addition to fulfilling his obligations to lecture and run a seminar.

Snediker is a theorist whose theories are creative and a poet whose poems bob and weave through theoretical notions, alongside descriptions of cauliflower and broccoli, water and nervous pastorals (landscapes of the nervous system). Most striking to this reader of his work is the way in which Snediker turns a long tradition that equates pessimism with knowledge, constancy with suffering, and asks why we do not consider our moments of happiness as of equal interest? Once he sets up this experiment, he finds such moments in astonishing places, the poems of Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane, for example. He finds worth in "the junk heap of happy poems" by Dickinson. One of my favorite chapters in his book, Queer Optimism, locates Hart Crane in the very vocabulary of Elizabeth Bishop, inducing smiles for me, like the smiles he interrogates in Crane's poetry. Lest we think Michael's extemporaneous and playful monologues are mere language games, he tells us that theory equipped him to become a gay man, not the other way around. This is not to say that theory becomes his belief system, but his method of weighing transiencies (I begin to write as he speaks!) in such a way that they offer up their joyful instances. (The audio emanating from my computer tells me that the Cardinals/Mets game enters the 15th inning with no score, and as I hope against hope that the moment of joy will be mine and not that of a Mets fan.) His is a mind in which the actual and the allegorical are in profound relationship to each other, in which sex and theory nuzzle, where his own episode of depression relates to the landscape of England (as he told my class) and to the lack of coherence described by queer theorists before him (Butler and Bersani and Edelman, for example). He defined "melancholy" to a seminar group as what might happen if he were to discover that his friend Susan had been a Mets fan all along, instead of a Cardinals fan. (This will not happen, no matter what the 15th inning brings, as we move to the bottom, Yadier Molina at the plate, the announcers giggling at memories of a game from the 1970s or 1980s that lasted this long, when the aptly named (?) Bake McBride ran from first to home on a pick-off attempt, cooking the goose of the opposing team.)

If not Bake McBride, then Demi Moore. Less is more. Half is more. Raise or raze. Long Island or New Canaan. New Canaan or Kingston. Kingston or Honolulu. Everything appears as possibility in Michael's intellect. Including the possibility that Jack Spicer is worthwhile not only for those who come to him with hope, but also those who approach him with disgust. Snediker hated Spicer when first asked to write about him, collected quotations that he especially disliked, culled them, read and reread the work and then allowed Spicer to educate him as a reader of poetry. Isn't this what we want for our students and colleagues and friends, this opening out that poetry promises, but whose promise must be accepted by the reader, cannot be forced on her?

The prodigal son in Spicer evidently mirrors that in Snediker, who went west mid-way through college to find himself as a gay man in San Francisco, even as Spicer's trip east did not go so well. Michael's description of Spicer wove in and out of the biographical and the steadfastly anti-biographical. His assertion that Language writers appreciate Spicer for reasons of biography and not the work was left to hang in the air; I would like to hear more development of that idea, though I can see that Snediker's Spicer is a poet who folds meaning to his chest rather than alienating and then educating his audiences via obscurity or other verbal obstacle.

Snediker's definition of optimism is not quite ours (as we go to inning 16 on my computer audio stream, a broken bat out having foreclosed the Cardinals potential win, man stranded on third base), not a Disneyland of the soul but instead a long but forward-moving drive (like Manos Hand of Fire's interminable opening scene). His use of the word "disability" is likewise untethered from subject positions (so and so is handicapped, say, and this is how they walk) but let fly into a description of how characters read themselves. If Michael's neck IS a neck because it hurts (after Blanchot's declaration that "a broken fork is most a fork"), then characters are best able to read themselves when they are dis-abled. Disabling is a condition of reading and interpreting oneself. Hence Snediker tropes suffering as a launching pad for the joy of thinking about literature within literature (and of course without it).

(The Mets have their first runner on third in 15 innings of this game. "Here's trouble." I feel optimistic yet, as the Cardinals will bat again in the bottom of this inning.) What was most striking about Michael was not the way he speaks of himself as the subject of theory and theory as an integral part of his life, as the way by which he reads himself (STRIKE THREE AT THE KNEES), but the wisdom that sits underneath a wild shelf of fancy lexical doodads. As one colleague wrote to me, "I'm an overnight fan - mostly of the way he kept bringing theory back to how we live." It's the way we live that means most, and seems most difficult to approach through the academy and its trivial (and sometimes untrivial) differences and bitterness. Michael's theory of living combines incision with kindness, the profoundly temporal (he was utterly present to my daughter Radhika yesterday and this morning as he brushed and braided her hair) with the atemporality optimism provides. Optimism may be short, but it is true.

As the 16th inning dawns, my friend Aaron Belz writes to say he hates that LaRussa has left two relievers in to bat for themselves with two outs in their innings, and the game goes on. The game's very fascination is now in its tediousness; my optimism at a good outcome is almost met by a strong desire simply THAT it end. Base hit to centerfield by Ryan Ludwick brings Albert Pujols to the plate (that most poetic of baseball names, as Sandra Dollar said to me in Denver last week). I am not finishing my blog post because the game refuses to end, but I enjoy the fact that I am writing Snediker through baseball as he's a Spicer scholar who does not know an out from an at-bat. Strike to Pujols. The announcer chuckles. Base hit for Pujols; two men on. Peter Gizzi writes about Spicer's use of baseball: "It turns out, in fact, that baseball works for Spicer as a model of individual and social composition; in the lecture he uses it to describe his practice of dictation and in his last book, Book of Magazine Verse, the diamond becomes an incarnation or synthesis of heavenly and earthly cities." But incarnation depends upon the grinding of time on the diamond, this game going into its fifth hour, at least. And a double play ends this inning, 20 players having been stranded by the Cardinals in this game. I have begun not to feel anything for this game except anxiety. But to paraphrase Michael, "These baseball players, to paraphrase Dante, show the way one might feel eternal, but also the way one might, more generally, differently, feel. (41). Poets and theorists, like baseball players, cannot predetermine their temporal fields. What they can do is read the ground ball or the bounce or the instant of happiness, hard earned after so many innings. Jack Spicer's radio drones on (the game was blacked out, even though it's nowhere to be seen on Hawai`i television) and he would appreciate the ways his voice informs Snediker's informs the baseball commentators (on the verge of hysterical laughter) informs mine. The game has not ended, seems not to want to end, but this post has ended at the bottom of the 17th with no score, six hours in.

[in the pictures with Michael are Cindy Ward (seated with MS) and Radhika Webster Schultz (standing)]

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