What does FENCE mean?

by on Aug.24, 2011

It seems that Fence (the journal, the press) has reached a kind of iconic status where it’s being used as a short-hand with all kinds of associations.

Most recently, Tony Hoagland uses it to mean the counterfeit inheritors of O’Hara, the fake poets who are insincere and unclear and possibly degenerate. But at the same time, Hoagland argues that they are the zeitgeist; while he, and the heroic few true poets (true descendants of O’Hara), are genuine as opposed to this nameless mass of poets (they are both numerous and strangely coterie-ish in Hoagland’s paradigm).

That is to say, “Fence” replaces the names of the degenerate poets (he only names them in the footnotes). Fence is kitsch because it’s influential, because it is zeitgeist; while the true poets necessarily go against the zeitgeist. It is the non-conformity that gives prestige, and poetry is very much subject to prestige.

Elsewhere I’ve seen Fence be treated as the opposite: they are the establishment, they have prestige. But in that context, the establishment is a negative. In fact in both cases it is rejected using some version of anti-kitsch rhetoric: it’s fake, counterfeit. (And as I keep repeating: so is Art.)

Of course the name itself suggests a kind of “hybrid”, a kind of compromise, a sitting on the fence and not being able to decide which way to go. But to me Fence was been anything but a fence-sitter; it has published a lot of the most provocative, un-compromising books of the past ten years (not just Montevidayo’s own Joyelle McSweeney, but Cathy Wagner, Chelsea Minnis, Aaron Kunin, Ariana Reines etc), books that don’t seem to have all that much to do with the two cold-war poles that supposedly make up US poetry (the reductive ‘langpo vs quietists’ model).

16 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, necessary to point people to Steve Evans’s 2006 essay “The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises.” In certain ways the piece is dated, though more often than not its datedness has to do with the essay’s arguments having gotten more real and pressing in the past few years. It was published before the Norton American Hybrid anthology big symbolic moment and so much more. I’ve given Evans some fire on some things, particularly his Attention Span project, but this essay is probably his best one–and most currently relevant:

  2. Johannes

    I’ve read that, and while it perhaps captures some of the forces allowing Fence to occur, and while I agree with a lot of the critique of the “hybrid” or “elliptical” poetries (they are quite a bit like my own criticisms of American Hybrid) Wolff espoused in her editorial, I think Evans’ article is much too simplistic and moralistic. His rejection of Fence, Jeff Clark and The Germ and decadent of course plays right into my own critiques of the langpo’s attempts to dismiss a lot of interesting poetry. One thing is that it was written very early, before the books were being published. To me Rebecca’s editorial stuff is not nearly as good as the books she’s published. Like I wrote, she has published some of the most interesting, provocative books of the past 10 years. /Johannes

  3. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I doubt Evans would disagree that Fence Books has published some good stuff. The key point of his piece is that the project as a whole (the magazine, its ideological outlook, its functional position as nexus for a largely domesticated avant, and now, to be sure, its solid integration into Official poetic culture) is representative of a new dominant professionalism, one whose institutional accommodation is much more obvious now than it was then, to Evans’s credit (I’d been actively writing myself of the same process and tendency before his article, I’m frankly proud to say). Here is a key moment in his essay. It’s looking pretty good, on hindsight, isn’t it?:

    >The thousand pages of anthologized novelty brought to market in the year 2000 make it abundantly clear that the dominant poetic is in the throes of reproduction. Even with a shortlist of fifteen poets already established, it will be several years more before this particular game of institutional musical chairs comes to its pathetic conclusion. While the aura of predetermination hangs thick over the whole process, it would be inaccurate to think that the dominant will look exactly the same after this changing of the guard. It won’t. It will be younger, hipper, and weirder; more into “ambiguities” (including sexual and gender ambiguity); flashier on its surface; much less patriarchal (though not necessarily less misogynist or more feminist); and a little less illiterate about past avant-gardes. Stegner Fellows will be able to read Susan Howe and Michael Palmer without jeopardizing their MacArthur chances, and Walt Whitman Awards will go to works that make reference to cultural commodities the judges will be too embarrassed to admit they do not know.

    What is sure to emerge unscathed, however, is the hierarchical and atomistic Hobbesianism of a system that still practices hazing rituals and manufactures value through rigged lotteries. The submissiveness required to endure such conditions will still be legible on most every page published by younger writers, while the bitterness the system inevitably breeds will continue to provide the acid-content for mid-careerists. The idiosyncrats now perched on the fence will likely find that unchecked egotism is more or less the same kind of weird fun as idiosyncrasy, but even better remunerated, and begin flocking home. Since a “little can go a long way,” there will probably be a very few, very carefully vetted, erstwhile avant-gardists among them.

  4. Johannes

    Like I said, he’s somewhat correct about the larger predictions, but this is reductive/easy, and it’s particularly a bad reading of Fence, whose authors do not seem “submissive” the least to me, and that was my point with that paragraph. However, I do think a lot of Fence poets are not invested in “the critique” as a mode the way you are, or the way a lot of lang-po’s “true”, authentic students are. Also, for me the Artistic experience matters. Not all art is the same. I don’t agree with dismissing poetry as “flashier on its surface” (as opposed to the true structure, the deep structure, the very modernist/academic idea of true authentic critique). I don’t know what kind of flash he means so I can’t go into details here, but some of the poetries that may seem “flashier” in a meaningless way to Evans are flashier in an important way to me. “Flashier” might be very interesting. Now, that said, I don’t like a lot of the poetry being published, and a lot of the “exerimental” poetry does seem to be careful not to offend – but that’s hardly the Fence books! And I do like a lot more poetry than I used to like, and I’m engaged by a lot more of the discussions than I used to be engaged by, and a lot of those poems/discussions are disseminated in new channels (blogs, chapbook presses, Fence Books, online journals etc); and most of them won’t get McArthur grants or special issues of Poetry Magazine dedicated to them. And a lot of them fall under various anti-kitsch, anti-decadence criticisms such as this one. /Johannes

  5. Johannes

    Do you think Raul Zurita is “submissive”?


  6. Kent Johnson

    Fair points, and flashy is fine with me, too, though I think the larger critique of the article is a very important one, and increasingly so. (I should say that I am not exactly “tight” with Evans–I’ve actually suggested he and circle are guilty of the same sort of insider mutual greasing of rails he points out in critique of Fence!)

    I DO disagree with this assertion, following your reference to the currents of poetry you are engaged by:

    >and most of them won’t get McArthur grants or special issues of Poetry Magazine dedicated to them.

    Well, certainly not “most,” but I’ll bet some of them do. Remember, only fifteen years ago, who would have imagined things turning out in the poetry field as they have? It is, with all due irony to the comparison, as unlikely as the Arab Spring.

  7. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I just saw your question about Zurita. But I honestly don’t see what you’re getting at there.

  8. Johannes Göransson

    1. I guess I wonder where the “so what” of your argument is. Sure, some younger poets start winning awards, getting prizes etc, and their stylistics are different than previous generation (and from each other). I think that’s pretty obvious. And it’s also true, as Steve Evans calls it, that on the whole people “submit” to the conventions of poetry in order to get those awards etc. And those don’t tend to be the most interesting poets (though sometimes they are). I think that’s pretty obvious. Where do you go from there Kent?

    2. To make Fence is an icon of this is strange to me. Like I said, if there’s one press that has been trailblazing, bringing provocative new poets into books, it’s been Fence.

    3. Also, if American Hybrid is out easy target for this next generation of institutionally accepted/submitted poets, there’s a big flaw in Evans’ argument: Laura Moriarity, the person he thinks is a true avant-garde poet, was (I’m pretty sure) in American Hybrid, but I don’t think any Fence authors were.

    4. Another important “event” to point out in the recent literary history is that SUNY Buffalo started happening. On the whole I like a lot of what Bernstein did with that program – brought back talking/writing about poems in interesting ways and involved students in chapbook projects etc. That’s all good, but they also became scholars and they started writing about each other. One key text here is Steve Evans’ contribution to Assembling Alternatives, a book from a conference on contemporary poetry, where he introduces the next generation of langpos, SUNY grads Moxley, Jarnot, Spahr etc.

    5. I don’t think that’s wrong. I think it’s good. I’m not one of those people who are opposed to the academy. I think academics should be involved with contemporary poetry. But I also think that language poetry has become its own discipline. Nearly all discussions of contemporary poetry is about them and their descendants, in part because they and their descendants are at all these conferences. Academic study of poetry has become very narrow. And if we’re going to talk about Fence I think we need to talk about that as well.

    6. Fence authors are often not considered eligible for academic study. In fact many scholars of contemporary poetry do not even know what Fence is; arguably the most influential press of American poetry over hte past 10 years is not an important part of academic poetry studies. I always run into scholars who are like, wow I’ve never heard of Fence! Etc. So if we’re going to talk about Evans and FEnce, I would say that this kind of dynamic is just as important to consider.

    7. I’ve also received plenty of correspondences from grad students who are blankly not allowed to write about my Fence, or the gurlesque or some such in their grad classes because were not a legitimate subject matter (ie we don’t make sense to their scholarly conventions). While langpo and itd descendants are legit scholarly subjects. This goes into a whole new topic but I’ll just throw that out there. In this case, it’s the langpo students who seem to be “submitting” to conventions, not Fence authors.

    8. Finally, it’s interesting to me that you, Evans and Hoagland all fall into the same rhetoric of making FEnce coutnerfeit, illegit, kitsch. And it’s important (at least in their cases) that Fence was the beginnign of the proliferation of presses and the resulting confusion of hierarchies (ie “the plague ground” of American poetry), a confusion most scholars of contemporary poetry won’t touch with a ten foot pole (they’ll stick to the langpo descendant linneage -and then we’re back to lineage and my troubles with it).


  9. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, that’s a sharp response, and I’m seeing your position better now. I can see you don’t quite yet see mine, though. I don’t mean that in a smug way at all; I think I’m probably working from a set of assumptions about institutionality and its likely consequences that I probably haven’t articulated enough, taking an “understanding” of my premises too much for granted, so that would be my failing, I guess. Though, too, I see that we have very different positions on the question of institutions (or what counts as such, culturally speaking), their critique (or the need for such), the implications of professionalism and habitus for the full development of that critique, and so on.

    And I leave town today until Saturday after my classes, so my own little professional position prevents me from a fuller response right now. But to point out an irony from your comment: You mention the key case of SUNY/Buffalo and Langpo, and as chance would have it, I’ve been invited by Steve McCaffery to give a talk and reading there in late October, so go figure. I guess the invitation to some extent highlights that my positions should always be qualified by self-recognitions of contradictions and hypocrisies, which I can’t and wouldn’t deny! So please don’t take me as some kind of finger-wagging weisenheimer from on high. Have a good weekend. And sorry to hear about Seyhan Erözçelik. Murat talks about Erözçelik in an interview I did with him for Jacket a few years back. May I offer a suggestion to you and Joyelle? What about a book from Action, translated, of course, my Murat?

  10. anne

    Johannes– Just this week I was just having a conversation with a fellow poet who said something like certain poets were considered academically “legit” _because_ they are published by Fence books. I didn’t know Fence/not Fence was an important distinction, but he always seems, as an Iowa MFA, to know a lot more about perceived importance than I do. How strange to read then that in your experience Fence authors are not eligible in some places for academic study. Perhaps the answer is just that regarding Fence, as regards all else, American Literature is simply confused?


  11. jms

    Moxley is not a SUNY grad. Minor point. But just for the record.

  12. Johannes

    Kent, actually Joyelle is going there to read this fall too. I didn’t want to create a black/white idea of poetry, which I apparently did.


  13. Kent Johnson

    Well, I’m not trying to create a b/w idea of poetry, either. On the SUNY thing, for example: I’ve proffered my share of critiques of Langpo and its high-velocity exhaustion-into-legitimation, but I think McCaffery is a fascinating, brilliant thinker.

    By the way, if you care to (and fine if you’d rather not, I realize you might not want to), I’d be interested in hearing more names of those you’d consider to be part of that harder-edge (as distinct from Swensen-wing hybrid atmospherics, for ex.) “next-generation langpo.”

  14. Johannes

    I think poetry is really soft and atmospheric; I reject all criticisms that suggest any poetry is “hard-edged”.


  15. Kent Johnson

    OK, Johannes, but you must have some criteria for identifying that ‘next-genration langpo”? Or is it not anything textual at all, and merely a matter of affiliation?

  16. Johannes

    It was clumsily put. I meant the poets Evans wrote about in that essay, people “affliliated” with certain publications, SUNY Buffalo etc. Of course I reproduced exactly the kind of binary I had hoped to undo…