One of the most exciting things for me about reader-centered writing is that it models a kind of inclusivity that alternately recalls Whitman and Kenneth Koch's exigent poet. That is, something bizarre happens that threatens to undermine the consistency of the scene underway, and you leave that bizarre hiccup in the poem, rather than adjusting to fit the perceptions of an imaginary reader as conjured by the workshop. In this inclusive scenario, the potential figure of the reader keeps morphing and expanding unpredictably in relation to the writing. The deliberate proliferation of such points of interest can become a dazzling, perverse form of meditation. This may be one reason why people say NY School poetry feels like it is composed entirely of first lines.
Perhaps what I meant to say earlier was that overtly collaged poetry is what really freaks people out, and this could include anything from early David Shapiro to Flarf, or Jack Kimball's poems that introduce about ten bizarre, seemingly unrelated threads one after another and leave them all dangling at a rakish angle: your neighorhood computer programmer comes back with the response that such poetry is so random or chaotic that it seems pointless. My family used to play a game many years ago where someone would read Rod McKuen out loud and insert made up lines here and there, trying to improvise without the other people noticing. If someone detected a fake line, they would immediately make a buzzer sound: "bzzzzzt." This is pretty much the typical response to collage poetry, as in, AHA that's not real Rod McKuen writing, is it...I can tell...
One useful question to ask might be, what's the difference between collage and private language? Are these two entirely unrelated modes, or if not, how do they complement each other?
Matt Pearson, a friend and computer programmer based in Boston who I had no idea read this blog, wrote in the other day out of the blue with some really interesting responses to my poem Berlin posted a while ago. These readings are fascinating to me in the ways they resemble my first reaction to reading some of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath (which I actually threw across the room in frustration once). Here is the first volley:
Like, I really don't get it, at all? What's your project here? I mean, I'm assuming that modern poetry and prose still tries to use words to communicate *something* even if that something is confusion or a rage against the concept of a monolithic text. Or am I just missing the point entirely? I'm really curious as to what's underneath, what I'm not understanding, what I'm not equipped to understand
I responded by asking how he reads the poem, what he gets out of it. A little later that day, here's the second volley of questions:
When I look at the section that I highlighted and sent to you, it looks to me like a random assortment of words. No sentence in it is grammatically correct, in that verbs lack objects, etc. It seems to me it would not be terribly difficult - and no offense here - to write a computer program that could generate similar-looking output, in that there seems to be little syntactic glue holding the string of words together. So, how I read it is: I didn't read it, I *couldn't* read it, because I couldn't figure out how to go beneath the confusion on the surface. From a computational perspective it is difficult to parse, but easy to generate, implying that there isn't a whole lot of information content - again, at least from my perspective. Is there some internal rhyme or consistency I am missing? Is it meant to be read aloud? Is it meant to say anything in particular? Do you have any advice to the reader?
I could post here my long involved responses to these inquiries, as well as the reading list of references I've provided to the inquirer, but that would be boring for a poetry audience that has rehearsed the expected arguments and is now otherwise occupied with other battles. What's worth pointing to for the moment is that this shows that people, even intelligent computer programmers, are still really freaked out by post-Langpo. That's very encouraging. I wonder how many of my normal, non-poet friends have felt this same response bubbling up in them while sitting in the back of a reading they attended with me wondering what the fuck is going on. But standing up and asking what the fuck is going on, that's a whole different level of involvement!
Matt is right to make the computer comparison, if only because he's observing that a lot of avant-garde poetry coincidentally resembles spam, coming influenced via the texture of outputs like Mac Low's procedural works, the Oulipo and other influences. I suspect this distinction would become clearer if he read some Coolidge or Andrews or Silliman, but then again maybe not -- I've certainly read spam that was better than anything I could ever write. His point about the ratio between difficulty of parsing and ease of generation having consequences for the amount of information content in the text is fascinating, as fascinating as the notion of informative poems is distasteful.
The other skeletons that Matt's comments bring up for me include brief experiences actively submitting to journals, teaching creative writing, and optimistically trying to get relatively unimaginative people to appreciate wild disruptive poetry, as if it were some kind of nutritious religion shake. I've deliberately given up doing that or trying to fill in the background, and decided that people will come to such poetry if they are interested. But it's worth noting that the history of imposing such a buzzkill on interesting writing symptomatically usually takes one of two forms: 1) the work is "completely random" and "chaotic" and "my computer could write it" (as if that were an insult) or 2)the work is "elitist and exclusive," "overly intellectualized," and "incomprehensible to those people who haven't read the same books you've read."
But anyway, how about that? A real live "general reader" who knocked on my door. The genuine "other" of Language poetry, alive and kicking...
All these starts. When the nouns Fund shacking, a crossout aggregate I assign to your month of activism, nearness Honor a tree over a human But you would want mere swans.
But impounded life, a compass example Of rockem sockem robot Mark me over very hot mistake I gave back, comfort increasing Gene. Love the time. As the troops Fruit pulled out of the way, Un-yarn Dilemma is not familiar.
Dilemma is not an ability to punch your Planned column. A spark in the wash, bubbles Terrible demean de-tuck. Pushing back Inner-ear fascist norm I love Which ate the whole brunch.
My family doesn't Buying chair, and the deans we find there Which is why to entertain the subculture Skeptical organs we embattled A colosseum green
You had been sitting around And your poem (hilariously) employed Capitals, like in the Corinthian Pathos. Passive voice, seethe humanism
I wrote Columbian view over a leaf Critique of the non-meek Knowing palm approach. In situ, In arcadia embattle, in perks a foreign soil response.
Highlight key points on poems to speed up rereading.
Use negative body language to fend off unwanted submissions. Use signals such as glancing at your watch.
Estimate how much time it will take to write a poem, then see how accurate you were.
Divide your poetry into categories on the basis of need, then store accordingly. Keep those poems that you use all the time nearest to you and those that you refer to occasionally a little farther away.
Approach other poets only when you have more than one issue to discuss.
Make a conscious effort to relax and stop thinking about poetry at least two hours before you intend to go to bed.
Went with Brenda to see the concert in Prospect Park this weekend by Toshi Reagon, a lesbian folksinger who started out here in Brooklyn. Wore a retro vintage aluminum daisy-chain necklace. Saw plenty of lesbians but no trans folks, although Toshi herself makes a pretty dashing character in her fedora. Her mother from Sweet Honey in the Rock was in attendance and lent her rich voice to the band's interesting mix of folk with soul, funk, and hook-filled gospel melodies.
Meanwhile, if you're in the area come out to Grand Army Plaza on July 16 and let's see what we can do about this.