Friday, May 22, 2009

The Queerness of Time: The Ultimate Difference Between SoQ and Ron Silliman's Post-Avant Poets

Why hasn't the SoQ ever acknowledged the fundamental difference between them and the post-avant poets? What is that difference?

The answer is obvious: their different relationships with Time, how Time manifests itself in their processes and products.

That's all that fundamentally matters to both groups: Time, and the ways in which they attempt to deal with the horrible and liberating clicking of that clock.

As a proud, insignificant member of the SoQ, I am annoyed that my peers haven't acknowledged their charmingly absurd relationship with Time, and how it impacts their art. But shame on the post-avant poets as well! If they're going to ridicule, they need to map out these difference in a more concise and useful manner. If this pressing matter was addressed in the way it should, both groups could continue fighting with renewed energy rather than trotting out the same old arguments.

Rather than rehash the positions and definition, which I may do if I ever decide to make this a more complete post, I want to delineate the differences these distinctive groups have toward Time. I always feel that SoQ poets misread Ron Silliman's dichotomy. It is a polemic, which seems to be a word that many SoQ poets seem to forget in all their self-aggrandizing, and ultimately, boring seriousness.

At the same time, the distinctions are weird. It is queer, odd, startling almost the way that Time is regarded by these factions. How though can anyone blame them? Time is queer, perhaps the most perverse thing of all.

I am going to outline these differences briefly between these camps and come back to them in a later post.

1.) Time in terms of labor. How many times have we not heard an SoQ poet whine about how long it takes to create a poem? Time is always pressing on them to complete this perfect verbal object. They don't joke about Time.

How could they? Think about it. They always pride themselves in that it takes years upon years and upon years to find that perfect word. They bemoan their resistance toward Time, and how they nobly refuse to resist its temptation to quicken their process, the discovering of matching the perfect work to objectively portray a feeling, or object, or person. You can always imagine them working way into the night, pacing frantically, hoping to find that one last and final word. Do they make love the same way they write their poems? Don't they ever believe in a quickie.

You can't help and laugh at the amount of pure pain they share in finding that right word for that right object, because if they don't the entire world may be destroyed.

It is weird that most of my teachers have been SoQ poets, and they have been the most dismissive when students ask for extra Time, or when the student himself talks about his process. All that matter is the poem, they say. Weird that they discuss their labor in the same way their students do. "It took me literally three decade to find the last three words to that poem," they said, "Or I've been thinking about that poem for two hundred years before it came out the way I wanted it." Time is relentless and uncaring in regards to their artistic process.

Post-Avant poets usually react to Time in a completely different way. Sometimes I've heard them even brag of how little work it takes. They seem to base a lot of their poems around a writing exercise of some sort that never needs to be rewritten or polished. It simply is and then you move onto the next poem.

And, the SoQ poets reason, how can their work be any good if they don't spend an eternity sweating over a poem? Obviously theoretical positionings make this even more clear. A Post-Avant poet would never claim that a word can represent a object. Language is more slippery than that. SoQ poets in isolated examples may believe this, but their poems don't represent that. They may announce the slipperiness of language but that idea is carried out through lyric and narrative strategies that never disobey, or do in such an overly self-conscious way that you can feel their terror. They must dismiss it as a radical thought and get down to that real business.

I love that one female post-avant poet (I can't remember her name) boasted that she wrote an entire book in one day. What an interesting! Who cares if it's a piece of crap. At least it's a cool idea. But those SoQ poets, they struggle day in and day out, sometimes even skip a trick at artist colonies in order to find that one last word that will solve the puzzle of poetry once and for all.

2.) Time in terms of immorality. It could be argued that both SoQ and Post-Avant poets want to live forever; who doesn't? But I would make the claim that SoQ buy into that rhetoric with a fiercer intensity. If you spend your entire life working on that one significant poem, discovering that perfect arrangement of words, doesn't death owe you?

And that damn Norton anthology, almost always filled with SoQ poets (I am talking about specifically poetry anthologies--I have a colleague doing amazing work for an upcoming Norton Anthology of the Bible).

If you look at a Norton Anthology of poetry, really any one, towards the end, there are a fairly decent amount living poets who need more books sold to break even. Norton knows this, so they force the editors to put them in there. With such popular, highly regarded Norton anthologies, you might, if you an SoQ poet, actually be able to watch your own immortality take place. A lot of those SoQ Norton anthologies include authors who --guess what?--include authors publishing with Norton. Death and life is taking place right before your very eyes!

That's magic. Or an act of God. Who knows? But it is something. There's modesty with Post Avant poets: they know that immortality is a funny thing so they do spend more time producing and producing, hoping that the sheer mass of their work may force the world to recognize them. They always brag about the number of books they created.

They also never use spellcheck. Their journals are filled with dumb typos. Too busy creating the next piece, I guess.

3.) Time in terms of age. You really won't receive that much acclaim, entrance into the better SoQ magazines or publishers, or receive the grants, until you've lived long enough for the Senior Citizen's Special at Denny's. Or the need for an artificial respirator. Since high school, I've been looking at lit mags of national reputations. I was recently in a library, reading one from 2008, and then the same one from 1970. Guess what? They contained a large percentage of the same authors! The only good thing is this could save all SoQ poets a lot of money. We don't need to buy the most recent periodicals featuring our own. We can browse the stacks from the 60s and 70s for free and still get the basic idea as to what's going.

Whenever I see a poem by Richard Wilbur, I'm shocked. Same thing with W.S Merwin. "I thought he was dead," I say to friends. The friend says, "So did I." Cryogenics is definitely the way to go.

The Post Avants are always changing, thinking about new names for their movements, creating charming manifestos, including younger and younger poets in many different series. Names change from issue to issue of their magazines. Which is equally annoying. Who am I supposed to form a parasitic relationship with? I love being a sycophant! How do these post avant poets know who to network with. Or maybe they just all gravitate toward Ron Silliman. Earning brownie points for carting his zillion manuscripts into his garage. She's sick of them pushing her out of her own house. They're already taking too much space in the attic, crawl space, living room, bedroom, den, kitchen, toolshed, pantry, closets, and of course, the bathroom, upstairs and downstairs...


  1. I'm glad to see that Nik has already asked what SoQ is. I was over here feeling like a dumb fiction writer.

  2. Oh. Don't worry. I got scolded. I think I understand it best thanks to this post better than others. I fear I'm a post avant--meaning I don't even keep up on the new monikers--I just write fast and with typos. But, really Mr. Fellner, you're an SoQ?

  3. I'll bet her one-day book was crap, but what's worse is that it's not an interesting idea, its a boring, stupid, concited one. You're clearly not much of a poet if you buy into any of the hack polemic writing and name-calling that hacks fill their time with, rather than actually writing anything good.

    I don't care about stupid theories of language or wanky poetics, anyone who thinks they can write a good poem in one day is a hack (except for Robert Browing).

  4. "I love that one female post-avant poet (I can't remember her name) boasted that she wrote an entire book in one day."

    I'm guessing you're referencing Bernadette Mayer's "Midwinter Day."

  5. I don't know how the speed of composition aspect works into this. That's about method, not content... but it does privilege an active stance toward improvisation and imagination, two places where these “post avant” poets differ greatly from the “School of Quietude” poets.

    Speed is something that can work for many of them, as they don’t need to “live through” something to write a poem. They want to make something imagined, not recalled, as it were.

    A.R. Ammons did _Tape for the Turn of the Year_ forty or so years ago, and he did it quickly, but still it took a month or so. I’ve never been sure who is in or out in the SoQ definition. I would say he’s not one?

  6. Hi John,

    I totally agree with your first two points. You added clarification and nuance. I do think that the way (and I do mean this in the most general sense possible which I don't think it makes the point any less valid) SoQ poets choose to talk about their process (which may have been what I meant to emphasize) is A Lot different that post-avants.

    The last paragraph strikes me as disingenuous. I say that with respect, but I do mean it. I think there's a danger in breaking out of those dichotomies when they are so present. You are an editor who self-consciously chooses poets from a variety of camps; I have no, and I mean no, doubt that you are aware of that. That doesn't mean you choose poem simply to be "inclusive". But you are aware as a highly intelligent editor where most poems would most likely find a home.

    When I first got my job, I pledged to support as many lit magazines as I could, and I was disappointed by the sheer predictability of what poems were where and why. As I know you must be. As a person who is much more educated in lit mags than me.

    You're a very reasonable person, and invested in etiquette from my observations having followed your blog for some time. But I do think if I gave you list of a two dozen poets you could classify them in one of the two camps and offer a rationale as to why most would put them there. For political and/or economic and/or aesthetic reason.

    When there's such an imbalance of wealth (unless we're privileged to escape that need to notice), I think it's dangerous to pretend we can't recognize the dichotomy...

  7. John,

    I drank too much last night and my response above was dumb. Not that it wouldn't have been dumb if I hadn't drunk, but I'm into easy outs.

    Which my last response was because I didn't acknowledge the real point of your post, in a way, and that is A. R. Ammons and his ticket tape machine (am I calling that by the right name?).

    I'd say he's an SoQ, pretty defiantly, even at the time he wrote.

    And I think it all comes down to those colons! I think I fetishize those colons because of him! (If we dread the semi-colon, why don't we use the whole colon. More is more is my way in this world.)

    First he did commit himself to traditional lyric poems early on. Which gave him some latitude later. He had to prove himself capable of the basics. Which is a large part of SoQ's pedagogy--you must do what they did in the beginning of Time before you do what you want at the current moment.

    But back to those colons!

    Ammons obviously wants to have it both ways: he wants the improvisation (and from more than one interview brags about the "riffing") of the post avants, their "experimental nature." At the same time, those colons, they can be tricky.

    They hide a lot. The words are still in tact...they function more, it could be argued, as an additional artful line break (as opposed to the messiness that Ammons I think may want it to). Those colons aren't the most honest formal strategy of revealing the mind stumbling, truly revealing gaps and breaks and desperate leaps.

    I think this is less dumb than my last post. And more of a true attempt to answer you, even though I think you were being coy. :)

    I feel perhaps that the line break is a little bit of a cop out, even if an imaginative one.

  8. Steve,

    Oh, maybe I was being coy, but unintentionally (is such a thing possible?). Sometimes I get to thinking too much about the blurry line right at that edge between large differences that (for me) someone like Ammons symbolizes that I miss sight of the larger tendencies. I’ve been frustrated by the notion of the School of Quietude, as Silliman uses it (and made it up to hold the place for) as a wildly inclusive tent. I’m sure he would toss Ammons in there. And certainly Simic and absolutely a poet like Marvin Bell . . .

    But for me these poets (and many others, of course) are so very different than what I really think he means by SoQ in the form of Dave Smith or Tess Gallagher or Rita Dove or Henry Taylor, and 90% of Poetry Magazine, and on.

    That’s all I really meant, which isn’t really much of an idea, that Silliman’s SoQ is really just him still fighting an old fight from the 70s and 80s. It’s just that for him it’s a big bucket, and for me, it’s only a large bucket. Or something like that.