Thursday, March 08, 2007


AWP is the annual convention of the associated writing programs, which is the trade association of academic literary professionals. that is, poets and writers in english departments at universities, as distinct from the literary critics (who meet every year at the MLA).

at least, such is my understanding. there are of course poets and poet-critics who go to the MLA, but the MLA is where you go to try and get a university teaching job. socializing and networking aside, that's what it's about. the panels of critical papers are entirely perfunctory; there's no reason to give a paper at the MLA unless you're interviewing for jobs. you're far and away going to get a better hearing of your paper at a smaller and/or more specialized conference.

now i've been to paradise (MLA), but i've never been to me (AWP). and i can't for the life of me really figure out why someone would go to the AWP: it's not about getting a job, and the panels are (like at the MLA) thoroughly perfunctory. i can see if you are a publisher, because the bookfair is probably pretty extensive and representative of the literary publishing landscape at present. so anyone who can tell me something i'm missing -- again, socializing and networking aside, which is a very real and compelling reason for going to something like this, perhaps ultimately the only one -- do let me know.

in the meantime, there's nothing but a good ol' fashioned post-AWP poetryblog dust up! josh corey, following up on kasey's suggestion, discerns a "clash of cultures" (shades of samuel huntington?) between two constituencies:
The first is what I think of as the culture of affirmation; the other is the culture of solving artistic problems. The former, larger group consists of people who are most urgently concerned with confirming their identities as writers [....] The second, smaller culture consists of people who, though hardly free of the anxiety and desire for affirmation that constitutes the affect of the first, are primarily concerned with questions about what they'd like to accomplish as writers and how they should go about doing it. [...] Put simplistically, the first culture concerns itself with becoming, while the second assumes its being so as to get on with questions of doing.
as reginald shepherd's takes on this in the commentbox correctly point out, this clash is clearly posed in terms of a progression in which the second group is more advanced than the first and is thus fraught with all kinds of class conflict -- sufficient enough to send one seth abramson into a full-on rage against the poetry elite machine!

what's more interesting though is how josh seems unable to articulate his own place in the dynamic he proposes. for example, the AWP panel (scroll down) josh sat on...
Ballroom D 2nd Floor
F105. Post-Avant: Strategies of Excess. (Jed Rasula, Johannes Goransson, Anne Boyer, K. Silem Mohammad, Joshua Corey, Lara Glenum) Certain contemporary poetry flies in the face on the well-worn strategies of elegance and eloquence. Such poetry is invested in strategies of excess, violence, and aberrance. Opposed to the New Critical "no noise in art" dictum, these poets oppose the functional and the tasteful and revel in extravagance. Six writers inquire into the nature of these post-avant modes, from the grotesque to flarf to the postmodern baroque.
...reads to me as the consummate statement of "people who are most urgently concerned with confirming their identities as writers" and belongs squarely in the first of his cultures.

UPDATE [march 9, 12:15pm]: in response to anne's comment i include this excerpt from an email i sent her backchannel

he [josh] seems to have no trouble writing himself into the obviously superior position while largely ignoring the possibility that he may not really have distanced himself from "that older, now disavowed self—the self which desperately sought affirmation from sources high and low to confirm his or her identity as poet" at all.

and i felt this real contradiction to manifest itself in the very panel he was on, which appears -- to me at any rate -- to be partly about flarf and partly by flarf poets and supporters. i presume this applies to at least half the panel (josh, kasey and you, possibly johannes too tho i don't really know his work), while lara seems to being coming at it from the gothic and, yes it's true, i'm not how jed rasula fits into this panel. ("affirmation from sources high"?)

now if the panel, as it appears to me on paper at least, is in fact at least half about flarf and by flarf poets and supporters, this seems to me the consummate gesture of confirming one's identities as writers. i mean, it's quite an imprimatur from the academic literary establishment for the AWP to host a panel on your writing -- with you as the panelist. [...] again, i readily admit lack of familiarity with AWP culture, where perhaps this kind of thing, poets talking about their "craft," is de rigeur -- but to me it's one high-profile bid for self-affirmation.

which is not inherently a bad awful thing, because -- of course -- we all need affirmation and validation as writers. and we satisfy that need in various ways. (or else it goes unsatisfied and creates very very angry people.) my point was to criticize josh for setting up a simplistic binary that would place him largely in a position above or beyond that need.

and to which i add that when josh writes that "maybe the best that can be hoped for is to speed the transition from one culture to the other, while having the wisdom and courage to recognize that the desire for affirmation never really goes away, and the contempt I might feel for someone's naked desperation or emotional neediness or obsessive logrolling has its origins in the wince of self-recognition," he does gesture toward recognizing his own place in his dialectic; but that speedy transition ("with all deliberate speed"!) contempt and wince speak volumes.

to be clear: it's about the nobodys and the somebodys. (hegel called it slave and master.) the nobodys must spend all their time and energy frenetically trying to become somebodys, while the somebodys can spend their time in the more noble pursuit of "solving artistic problems" while wincing at the contemptuous little nobodys (who look all-too like their former selves).

identity claims within this dynamic are inherently competitive: every "i am somebody" here reinforces an "i am somebody too" or an "i am nobody" there. ("don't be the last one on your block to be somebody!") i prefer a dynamic that begins "we are all nobody" and reaches out and within that "we" to a series of "you"s -- "you are somebody," "you are somebody," etc.

UPDATE II [march 9, 7pm]: in response to kasey's comment i include what i sent him by email


if you have the time and inclination to elaborate that's something i'd like to hear. for what it's worth i don't know what neo-calvinism is so any parallels there would be coincidental. on some level i was thinking something more like zen. or wittgenstein (TLP 6.45).

UPDATE III [march 13, 11am]: in repsonse to al, i include an email i sent him:

mea culpa, you're absolutely correct! my comments were far too unqualified, as you and juliana spahr and steve mccaffery and marjorie perloff (and others i'm surely leaving out) have done a great deal to raise the level of poetic discourse at the MLA and make it a place hospitable to poetries that other literary institutions neglect. (i even gave a paper on coolidge at one of those perfucntory panels too!) still, it's such a sprawling affair and with concurrent sessions and 15 mintues per presenter it does end up feeling like the panels are anything but the real raison d'etre...


AB said...

There were, despite what you are describing here, some women with positions re class & culture in that conversation over at Josh's place. It is fairly typical of blog discourse, however, to ignore our contributions in favor of displays of male rage.

Please explain, as well, why you believe that Jed Rasula, Lara Glenum, Johannes Goransson and myself are the "people most urgently concerned" etc. What do you presume to know about my "urgent" concerns?


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Just for the sake of clarity, Anne and I were the only members of the flarflist on the panel (Josh is not a list member), and neither of us mentioned flarf once. I can't remember if anyone else did, but I don't think so. I've seen Josh's paper, which he didn't get to deliver because of a delayed flight, and it did in fact contain a paragraph or two about flarf. Lara was the coordinator of the panel.

None of this is meant to prove anything or to assert a counterargument of any kind--I'm just stating it for the record, for whatever it's worth.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

I have to say, too, that this "we are all nobody" stuff strikes me as an extremely messed-up neo-Calvinist position from which to formulate a poetics.

L.A. Howe said...

hey tom
i just came back from my first awp after attending a number (6 or 7) mla conventions, and i could say a whole whole lot about some of the differences, but will just say a couple of things here.

mla is a literary association, & its convention is a meeting of its members, who by and large are faculty and grad students in english and literature departments in universities. its panels seem too me to largely concern themselves with literary criticism and theory and some pedagogical issues related to teaching literature and theory. there is the big mla off-site reading that has risen up over the years, but not a lot of panels with writers discussing issues to do with their work and concerns as working writers (altho a couple of years ago i attended a great one at mla with c.s. giscombe, will alexander, and other african american male poets that was very interesting and seemed wonderfully un-"mla-ish" to me).

awp is the convention of members of associated writing programs, people who may or may not also be members of mla, but who teach largely in institutional creative writing programs that may or not be an integrated part of english/lit departments in universities.

mla is the big "get a job" convention for would-be literature and creative writing faculty alike, altho some interviews for creative writing positions are also conducted at awp. the feel of both conventions was markedly different for me in that, at mla, almost everyone is wearing dark-colored, "professional" costume. it's very formal in a lot of ways. at awp, i was really struck by how much less formal it seemed--tons of people wearing denim and t-shirts and sneakers and dyed hair and piercings and such. less concerned with presenting a "professional" appearance and more with presenting an "artsy," creative one. i'm painting here with a broad brush, and there are exceptions, but i'm just talking impressions here.

the panels at awp seemed to me to be concerned with contemporary creative practice and creative writing pedagogy, and rightly so. furthermore, most panels seemed no more or less concerned with working writers asserting their identity as writers than you would find at any live reading, round-table discussion, or literary festival. i didn't go to a lot of panels, but the ones i went to presented diverse viewpoints and were thought-provoking and intellectually as well as creatively stimulating.

at any rate, tom, i think you'd dig awp big time. it was hard to choose what to go to (panels? readings? bookfair?), and i did a smattering of everything but spent a ton of time at the bookfair, which provided me with a real smorgasbord of of presses and journals who are publishing work today, including some cool small presses (like ugly duckling presse) i wouldn't have otherwise known about. as i said, i could write lots, more, but i just wanted to share a few of my general impressions.

L.A. Howe said...

i forgot to say--
also, at awp, you get a free tote bag! it was great for putting all those (way too many) books i got at the bookfair. :-)

AB said...

Thanks Tom, for your response.

As far as a stance on our collective nobody-ness, my immediate problem with this is that for one who is historically and culturally denied full personhood, the "we are all nobody" reads as a false, predatory identification with those who orginate from the nobody-classes. Or, if you are somebody who assures me of our collective nobody-ness, and then offers me the opportunity to only be a somebody as I relate to you in collective, I will probably jeer, spit, etc., and might not be alone in this contempt, particularly as you ask me to give up my morsel of somebody-ness so you can potentially impress the other somebody's with your self-erasure.

It seems odd to think of an equality that resides in self-denial when it is fairly clear that some are given more self to deny others: who forgives that? What to do?


Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

ahem . . . about those "perfunctory" panels -- I certainly didn't feel the MLA panel I was on this year, where I was talking about Cecil Taylor on a panel with Walter Lew and Hank Lazer, was in any way perfunctory -- nor did the many people who joined in fevered discussion at the end of the panel seem to react that way -- likewise, on my one and so far only trip to the AWP, the panel I was on with Lornezo Thomas, where we were talking about Sterling Brown's life and work, seemed, to judge from the reactions of Luille Clifton, a former Sterling Brown student who had gotten up early enough to attend our 8:30 in the morning session, working to more prupose than simply to justify travel funding. And as bad a time as I had at most of that conference, it was worth going just to hear people like Susan Howe and Cole Swenson -- and in neither of these examples was I attending for purposes of hiring or being hired -- A lot of great work goes on around the edges of these things, which is why I've been gooing all these years --

mark wallace said...

Tom, your response to Al makes sense to me. Yes, he's right, there are intriguing panels and interesting discussions at MLA. But as should be apparent, those positives are only one feature of the academic disciplinary structure that MLA both feeds and helps create. I hope those of us who have had some enjoyment out of MLA will not forget that the systems of power that it supports and enacts are significant problems.