Baltimore to Brooklyn: I’m back. Nothing like a few days away to get fresh eyes. Sometimes, just once in awhile, I get sick of the posing and competition and rushing and hipper-than-thou attitudes … you know, everything involved with living in a populated, artsy part of town. As they say, BK baby… so much going on here.
But tonight, I’m all about the love. My neighborhood has its upside too: there’s art aplenty, music makers of all varieties, people who still read books, people who make books, so much diverse food you need not eat from the same genre for a month, etc. I locked the dog down and walked over to Bedford Avenue for a bite to eat, a glass of wine, and to finish grading essays. It’s a gorgeous night. The weather will break soon, but for now, people are strolling, smiling, shopping, dining, checking each other out, chatting, sampling cheeses (oh, that’s me), and just generally enjoying the scene.
So I wanted to post some excerpts from a roundtable discussion for the poetry lovers out there. If you checked out my interview with Ron Silliman, however poorly articulated on my end, you would be aware that I’m a tiny bit concerned with my ineptness when it comes to talking theory. Many listservs I am on offer poets a turn at showing off their theory-know-how, while I lurk during these discussions. Mostly, I lurk, not because I don’t have something to add, but moreover, because I’m an insecure second-guesser who would rather avoid unnecessarily revealing my flaws publicly.
Second, I think people who talk theory on listservs do so for three primary reasons. Meet my simplifications:
1. They are attempting to position themselves in a traditional hierarchical manner that runs a close second to a good old fashioned pissing contest. There are many ways of outdoing the other theorizers; sometimes the theorizer is dogmatic or shouts loudly and aggressively or insults or attacks the flaws to distract, disregarding the merits of any arguments that might hurt their own. Generally speaking (of course) for them, it’s a competition. Plain and simply: they crave the attention and usually have their own cheerleaders, who, not coincidentally, have similar agendas.
2. Some theorizers actually attempt to advance the discussion. Such moments are refreshing, but unfortunately, rare. But they also maintain the authenticity of “conversing.” I have some favorite posters who switch between theoretical discussion and chat that reveals their humanity. They aren’t afraid to show their own frayed ends. I would like to name names, but alas, that might cause much finger-wagging.
3. And finally, other theorizers are like myself: we are trying to understand a concept in the process of reading and are, in a way, talking aloud online, until someone comes along and says, Here, let me put this in lay terms for you. But such admissions are risky; along comes theorizer No. 1, who jumps at the chance to make his or her own ass look good. They take the “you are an idiot” approach and leave theoreticians from my category stupefied and embarrassed. We finally end up posting very little ultimately.
Now I know I’m dumbing these ideas down here, and I welcome any comments or suggestions for improvement. In the meantime, I’m after more than just the ability to discuss theoretical concerns. You see, I like to read theory, philosophy, literary criticism, etc. Strange for a poet? Most poets I know do the same. So what’s the connection? Does one type of reading inform the other? Does theory help poets write?
My initial sense is not directly. I don’t like to think I can theorize my emotional life into cooperation with a planned idea. I still like to believe that my words are guided by that unseen force I rely on and trust daily, whether my pen is involved or I’m navigating my way through a crowded subway platform: my intuition. I can intellectually go back and edit later. I can intellectually surmise that someone looks suspicious. However, Ginsberg’s proclamation, “First thought, best thought,” holds much water. My gut tells me things my head doesn’t know.
Now I’m not saying theoretical ideas don’t inform my poetry anymore than I’m not saying I can’t (double negatives anyone?) create a situation that causes me to feel something specific (i.e. I can watch a notoriously depressing film on purpose to make myself sad). So it is with an open eye & mind that I take in Charles Bernstein’s comments at this roundtable:
“The conception of a theorist tends to suggest something like, ‘I’ve got a theory about how you would read this text.’”
“To me, the idea that critical thinking dampens emotional expression is highly theoretical, in the worst sense. There’s nothing that, say, Jacques Lacan has written that comes even close to that level of theoretical reductiveness or that’s any more prescriptive.”
And with such divisions, comes the opposite reduction, the one the mainstream favors:
“Poetry tends to be seen either as a cultural symptom or simply as an uninteresting form of emotive outpouring. At the same time, students spend enormous amounts of time on other kinds of material which they think of as being quite relevant — from methodolgical perspectives to detailed historical perspectives — without thinking that poetry, and certainly poetry since 1945, has any relevance to their work as scholars or researchers.”
And oh, dear readers, it gets juicier. But I’ll leave you hanging here for now. My time is running out on this public computer and my stomach is screaming at me. Plus I’ve got a glass of wine waiting somewhere. More from the sad little digital camera that almost could later! xoxo
2 Responses to “The Beautiful People”
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.