Strategies not factions, microclimates not cliques, and enough already with the churlishness.

by on Aug.17, 2011

My basic beef with the factions discussion is twofold: 1. poetry isn’t a finite territory. We don’t set out in wagon trains for the land known as Poetry, we aren’t hopped up on manifest (murderfest) destiny. Nor do we divide material resources among the people, or legislate their affairs in the most direct fashion. We have wiggle room. We have room to continue down an unproductive route, try something implausible, or otherwise fuck it up.

2. We’re talking about two different things when we say faction or camp or clique. We mean both the poems that fall under the faction’s heading and the poets who participate therein. Poetry is a set of strategies, and the poems are products of those strategies. The poets are the lucky humans that have so many strategies to choose from, and when a poet ends up in a group of poets pursuing similar strategies, a great (or pissy) little micro-climate forms. This can happen in real time party-like fashion, or disconnected over decades. You can be in a big microclimate like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, or a small one like Gurlesque. You can be in a microclimate that pronounces itself simply climate, and you might even believe that what you’re doing is simply and only poetry, but that takes an awful lot of squinting and fudging, and a lot of us are very tired of how homogenous your strategists appear.

Bonus feature: The microclimates are permeable and unstable. You needn’t lodge in one permanently. You might even occupy a couple at a time. When one degrades, you move along to another, etc.

In 2001 when Hejinian came to read at New School where I was doing my MFA, David Lehman kept marveling at the way we baby poets indiscriminately sampled from Language and New York School poets. I don’t know if he was teasing us, or if he was sincerely puzzled, but I do know that many of us hadn’t considered that these might be incompatible strategies.

Poetry, like any mode of making, can be endlessly repurposed. When you figure out what you want to do with it, you pick or find yourself with a strategy that (hopefully) suits you personally, politically, aesthetically, and affectively. It’s wise to remain active. A microclimate, as Johannes points out, isn’t going to turn you into its very own zombie puppet. Poets who claim they’d rather not be labeled often write poems that have clear affinity and to deny the affinity seems precious. There are a couple iconclast poets out there, sure, and that’s wonderful news, but most of us fall in and out of pre-existing or contemporaneously emerging strategies, and better to be an agent in your own location.

I like to speak loudly and delightedly and melodramatically about my strategy. I like to say how amazing mine is, make a manifesto about what it WILL (try to) DO TO YOU. I’m not doing this because I think your strategy is stupid. I’m doing this because it’s an excellent way to define my strategy, bring other exciting poets into this microclimate, give readers more tools, and have a real good time. You do the same–you love to think about your strategy, write about it or at very least write via it. So what’s wrong with belonging to or hanging out with a group of strategists? And what’s wrong with another group of poets strategizing in a totally different fashion? Biodiversity is key to a flourishing planet!

Poetry isn’t fragile, and poetry is big enough to accommodate every strategy. It’s big enough to eat and regurgitate itself, to recombine, to crumble and reassemble, to pull a Terminator time travel. Poetry even accommodates those most churlish sorts that wish the rest of the microclimates would dry up and drop dead. I’m not sure why that is. I understand a churlish bent might produce poems worth reading, but why do we accommodate the churls themselves, and why are those churls allowed to do financial and professional (if not lasting artistic) damage to the rest of us? Especially those who (consciously or unconsciously) use racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and otherwise hate-inspired approaches to criticism.

It seems obvious, but perhaps it needs to be said: it’s boring and obnoxious and troll-like to go around denouncing whole strategies, insisting on a crisp little ladder instead of an undulating fluxy field. But some of you do it. Seriously. I don’t get it. Do you want to be real big dudes? Are you just itching to turn this into a competition? Are you so committed to your strategy that you fear any other will choke it off? Do you think the strategy has stolen from you without inviting you to the party? Do you think it’s bogarting your resources? Taking your jobs? When you dislike something or feel its alien qualities coming on, what’s your first instinct? Do you follow it?

Am I the only one who saw this After School Special?

I’ve heard writers in positions of power/privilege/authority say they think “people should write so everyone can understand it.” I’ve heard them say words like “skittery” “soft” “meaningless.” I’ve heard them speak like what they’re saying is a coherent, transparent given. Maybe I’m speaking that way.

The point is, poetry isn’t a thing. It’s a a lot of things and ways of being and lines of flight. Even in those strategies I like least–those that commit the tyranny of realism, certain patience-demanding varieties of post-narrative, etc.–I find poets & poems I love. Even in those strategies I love best, I find crap I’d rather not read. I’m skittering through my bookshelves. I’m skittery through the library. It’s a cheerful millipedia!

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Danielle, this is really useful, following from Johannes’s below. Poetic microclimate: Did Joyelle use this term first, I’m not sure, but whoever. I for one do like the metaphor of microclimate applied to poetry groups (one can choose to live there, but the local weather is flowed to bigger forces and surprises happen; one adapts/reacts in changing conditions, and so forth). Though I’d propose it’s one syllable too long to catch on as a tip-of-the-tongue term, like “faction,” or “group,” or “school,” or “movement,” etc… How about “microclime” for short? Poetry microclimes?

    One question, Danielle, not really a disagreement, because I don’t think this is what you’re specifically saying, but some of the end of this good post seems to lean in this direction: that microclimates should more or less let each other be, shouldn’t critique or polemicize with each other? But I think that idea would be wrong: Weather systems overlap, bump, smash into each other, and this produces all sorts of effects, some of them uncomfortable, but not necessarily bad. Storms help things grow, and all that. What I mean is that disagreement, debate, struggle, polemics, even satire, the whole dialectic of working things out is also part of the chaotic weather–the “red weather,” as a poet once put it. Microclimates are hardy, and they can take the messiness of conflict. They can even thrive from it. Don’t you think?

  2. Johannes

    Kent, since the microclimates are permeable, this to me suggests that there will inevitably be discussions. Not just between climates but within climates./Johannes

  3. Jared

    Kent, your comment on interacting weather picks up on a recent thought I had about “doing no harm,” which felt simplistic but was at the end of an already too-long comment. I like very much the idea! In the same way, Danielle, I like the idea of the microclimate (or clime) as a far superior ecology to that of tribes that others mentioned and I also took up. Makes me think of habitats, of which there are certainly microhabitats, and maybe putting the two together, habitat and climate, makes for a really nice description of poet-critters finding spaces in which to live and work (habitat) with the idea of climate and weather (perhaps very localized weather at times, and at other times more “global”) characterizing the inevitable interactions between these spaces. In this ecology, perhaps the churlish ones are akin to global warming deniers! 😉

  4. Drew K

    I love what you’re saying here, Danielle. I don’t really see the big deal with the microclimate/faction/etc. debate. Where things get murky for me is when publishing and/or professionalism intersects this climate discussion. The more vocal (or more populated?) microclimates are the microclimates who inevitably curate journals, reading series, open reading periods, etc. We become aware of climates through these channels. The visibility of a climate in the first place, to a certain degree, is dependant upon those who curate. Now, I’ve witnessed many MFA students who treat all of this like some kind of careerist game, slipping into the most comfortable climate–not out of an artistic urgency and necessity (which could create new climates and push things in new directions) but out of some sort of careerist move. This kind of boggles my mind that this is even happening, considering there were, what, around 5 tenure track positions teaching poetry in MFA programs in the United States last year, and also because some prominent MFA programs are already starting to flounder under budget cuts and attacks on arts funding. The majority of us will not get these jobs; strategically writing in certain styles solely to have ones work curated by the recognized microclimates seems tragically misguided. Luckily, many of us (I hope) are in poetry because we are in it and it’s an essential part of who we are. We are in it for art.

    That said, I want more microclimates to become visible, and not filtered out. I want that punk kid from YouTube to strut on the street and not stay frozen in front of the bathroom mirror. Maybe the solution is for people to take initiative to start their own journals? I’m doing that with a friend now, testing it as a possible solution. Basically, I think people just need to stop bitching from their armchairs and do something.

  5. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, all,

    Kent, I started using microclimate to talk about Gurlesque awhile ago. What I most like about the term in that case is that it doesn’t require the poets working a particular strategy to be in close contact with each other. I like your “microclime” & will adopt!

    & yes, I’m all for critique and polemics. They’re healthy & good fun. But I think we should hold these to higher standards. Critics need to demonstrate, for instance, that they’ve read the work they’re ragging on. We need to insist that debates are conducted with a certain level of literacy. Anyone remember when the gender numbers trouble stuff came up at HTMLGiant a couple years ago, and Kirsten Kaschock posted that brilliant satirical piece encouraging women to own up to the fact that we just don’t write as well as men? Half the commenters took her seriously. Some fellas praised her for being so brave. The illiteracy disturbed me almost as much as the misogyny.

    Bullying, ad hominem grandstanding, abuses of privilege–if it weren’t so offensive it’d be mind-numbingly dull. Climate deniers, snicker.

    The other half of this, of course, is that poets & writers in more (for lack of better words) traditional or mainstream microclimes need to stop imagining that those in (flobw) avant-garde microclimes are out to get them, or disrespecting them by producing work in a different strategy. I suspect there’re a lot of nasty, unfair sleights that get carried out on that premise. Is anyone ever sincere in their efforts to protect the big umbrella POETRY? It seems to be precisely about maintaining one’s territory and privilege…

  6. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, Drew, I love that bit about the armchairs! I wholeheartedly believe that a lot of elbow grease can bring a clime out of the margins.

    Microclimates would also be more visible if those in more privileged/powerful positions viewed them as pleasant surprise rather than threat, viewed them with curiosity before disgust. And, I suspect poetry would have a more stable socioeconomic future if it were more interested in permeable borders than cordoned off forts.

    The Academy of American Poets has that Poem-a-Day project? I get the sense that they’re curating it more and more thoughtfully all the time. Featuring someone from a less established microclime in that project (CA Conrad, Ching-In Chen, me, whoevs) can bolster both the poet and his/her strategies. They’re setting a good example, and perhaps making it more difficult to belittle entire microclimes. I also sense they’re striving for greater parity (gender, sexuality, race, etc.), and demonstrating that parity doesn’t mean quality compromised, it means wonder expanded. Duh.

  7. carina finn

    “Poetry isn’t fragile, and poetry is big enough to accommodate every strategy. It’s big enough to eat and regurgitate itself, to recombine, to crumble and reassemble, to pull a Terminator time travel.” = <3 you !

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