Friday, April 28, 2017

A note to my students of the avant-garde

What is the avant-garde, anyway, and are we doing it?

Aloha class--the question has come up, and it's exactly the right one. What, in the end, is the avant-garde? The "official" version of it goes something like this: the European avant-garde, including Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, foregrounded the material of language and art over its content or meaning. Whatever meaning we find in these works we locate in some sense outside of it. Not: how do we read closely in order to find what the poet intended, a message, but what does this work of art do in the world? How does it disrupt our notions of reality, which begin with grammar, syntax, narrative structures? We end up reading ourselves more than we do the poems. In more recent decades, Conceptualism has taken up the banner of the avant-garde and engaged with questions of plagiarism and other norms that most of us have chosen not to break (much).
My argument in this class has been, however, that the avant-garde can be other things, especially when it travels to Africa, African American, the Pacific. It can find itself located in place. The disruptions made by writers from these places are disruptions of an imperial grammar, one imbricated in language and in other forms of power. This avant-garde may seem "tamer" to the adherent of the echt avant-garde, but it's equally powerful in its questioning of norms and cultural assumptions. Where works along these line directly take on questions of language (using more than one and refusing to translate, for example), they intersect with the traditional AG. Where they tell the stories of place, however broken they may be, perhaps they do not.

Are we writes of avant-garde works? Speaking for myself, I have been deeply influenced by Language writing, especially, and in recent many years by poets like Westlake who are seeking to include places like this one in their work with honesty (which I would here distinct in many ways from "authenticity").These are poets for whom there are tensions between various paradoxical inheritances (Hawaiian mele and Chinese poetry, say) and between desires for nationalism and internationalism. But my work is all about the meaning that the poem can generate improvisationally. It's oddly more NY School than AG, even if I've never lived in NYC. 

I see something similar in your work. None of you has become a fervent avant-gardist. Instead, you're taking what you need for the work you already do and enriching it, as the question ran last night. While sometimes I confess to wanting you to go crazy with the possibilities and abandon aspects of your own style, I've come to realize that's not realistic. Those of you who are Ph.D. poets, especially, are already deeply invested in what you do and how you do it. Easy for me to say, spend a semester mucking around with something else. 

BUT, I would like to see you thinking about the ways in which the avant-garde has influenced your work this semester, and also the ways it has not. What have you accepted, and what rejected? Are you more like Kenny Goldsmith, or like Hart Crane--essentially a late Romantic poet, but one who sometimes used the techniques of the AG--or like John Ashbery, who had only one book in the early 60s that might be termed "authentic" AG? That word again. Where are the boundaries, and where do they blur? To what purpose each? In what ways are your poetic heroes aligned with the most radical purposes of the AG, and in what ways not? Let me see the contexts that you're developing around these ideas. That work of analysis will help when you write your own poems, and when you think about literary history as a teacher.

As students, I want you to devise a narrative about the avant-garde; as poets, I want you to place yourselves inside (or outside) of it.

I'll also post this on the blog, and invite responses to it. 

aloha, Susan (who is also living with these questions )

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

At the New Orleans Poetry Festival, April, 2017

Eileen Tabios, Tim Dyke, Lo Mei Wa and myself before the Tinfish Press reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

17 April 2017

That clever display of wit won't increase your devotion. De- does not denote undoing, unless undoing falls on amnesiac ground. When I told my daughter what I wanted to do to the girl who broke her brother's heart, she said, “Mom, you shouldn't even think that!” Devotee of dew. De-volution's not the opposite of re-, though shards of it can be found beside the chain link fence. A newsman was arrested in front of Trump Tower, because they own the street. What I got paid to march I measure in my sun-burned skin. Her debauch was a white dress she was too young to assume. The pleasures of risk expressed at the expense of his feeling. Desire's not kind. What I say can't matter; it's all pantomime. Sit outside his door. Reach for his hand. Muss his hair. Ask him what he'll do this summer. (Aways use the future tense.) Turn on the car's a.c. Walk him around the block. To be mother is to follow with a broom, to gather in the dust, apply to your forehead, then lick it from your finger.

--16 April 2017, Easter