Monday, January 4, 2010

On Jason Schneiderman's Mythic Utopia

Because I'm teaching a SUNY Brockport Wintersession course, what essentially amounts to an entire semester compressed into two weeks, I don't have much time. But I do want to offer a quick response to Jason Schneiderman's anti-intellectual post that appeared on the Tuesday Best American Poetry blog. I apologize in advance for the bad proofreading and to an extent, the sheer unchecked emotionalism of this post. Hysteria isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Here is the link to Schneiderman's post:

I want to deal with one brief section. Schneiderman self-admittedly offers a superficial reading of what's been going on in PoBiz for the last few decades. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with a gloss.

This is the conclusion he comes up with:

"So if the 80s were about the rise of language poetry & multiculturalism, and the 90s were the decade of the culture wars, what were the 00’s? Our last siecle totally came to a fin, and what should we say about the poetry of the last ten years? OK, so don’t all beat me up at once—I’m blogging, so I’m embracing interactivity and I want to hear from you—but I think that the 00’s were when we all got along."

And then he offers an emphasis:

"But I feel like in the 00’s, a lot of the fights kind of seemed less important. Like everyone’s toolboxes got shared, and we stopped having to stress over who’d be a new formalist, who’d be an old formalist, and who’d be an old school Shklovsky reading Russian formalist."

Again, I don't (can't) go into much detail because of time, but even in the gay poetry scene, there are definitely many factions. How couldn't there be? There is so much at stake: job, awards, fellowships, conferences, anthologies, etc. Associations with particular aesthetic lineages and certain gay poets can yield much greater success. This isn't old news, and even though it isn't, it is worth complaining about, even if we can predict what those complaints are. I refuse to believe that one should simply shut up and accept things the way they are. If gay men did that, we would not have at the very least opened up the conversation about gay marriage in a world that wants us to accept that we're better off dead.

I would like to offer one autobiographical story which is not in and of itself proof of the serious factions in the gay male community. I won't reveal the names. Not out of coyness--God know, I've named names on this blog, sometimes stupidly, and thoughtlessly. But I want to use the personal experience as a way of addressing larger issues.

Some time ago I was asked to be on a committee to help choose the winner for a gay poetry award. There were many books submitted. I had not met or talked to any of the authors of those books face-to-face. I thought one book which eschewed conventional narrative was one of the best. I also articulated that I thought a Latino author produced one of the other great books of that batch.

After I decided on who I thought should win and shared my opinions, I got into an argument via email with two members of the committee. One said about the non-narrative poet: "You know all that book is is a brain fuck. You don't write like this, Steve. Stop trying to show how open-minded you are."

When we discussed the Latino poet, I was told that the only reason I championed his work was because I liked to "look all multicultural."

Needless to say, I was in the minority and neither book was a finalist.

Schneiderman knows better. I would not presume to psychoanalyze anyone (I have no idea what thoughts are going on in his head, and I'm not a trained professional), but I believe he must have something at stake in this obvious denial of an imbalance of equality within the gay community .

But what upsets me about his post is most evident in the following sentence. I'll repeat an actual quotation from above for emphasis:

"OK, so don’t all beat me up at once—I’m blogging, so I’m embracing interactivity and I want to hear from you—but I think that the 00’s were when we all got along."

This is the sort of white middle-class thinking that caused Proposition 8 to go through. To translate the sentence: "I'm not necessarily directly impacted by what's going to happen, I have enough, but sure, I'm going to let you duke it out."

If he has the self-awareness that people might disagree with him, he has the ethical responsibility to name the opposing arguments, show other points of view. (I would argue that things are more conservative now than then. But that's another post.) In other words, Schneiderman ride on the backs of more politicized gay men while he boasts about some fiendishly wonderful queer and straight utopia.

Inevitably, anyone who is going to disagree with Schneiderman will be branded as a troublemaker. Even though! oh yes! he wants to hear from us! can he sound anymore like the quintessential passive-aggressive academic! (Why do so many gay men feel compelled to get advanced degrees!)

I am a big fan of Schneiderman's, as I've written about his poetry and critical work on my blog. I am excited about his new book and will pre-order it when available. When he has a new critical article, I'll go to great lengths to get a copy. He is someone I genuinely would like to meet, and I highly anticipate the day I do. But I don't know if I can read any more of these particular posts. This is the first time his writing has made me sad.


  1. I do agree that in the last decade, there didn't seem to be a lot of critical discourse going on--at least, not like previous decades, when William Logan said things like, "One thing you can say about Muriel--she's not lazy."

    I think there was a LOT of fighting with the gay community, but to paraphrase Mean Girls, it's like fighting in girlworld, where all the fighting is secret.

    I, too, think there are many gay poets who don't engage in "fighting" or critical conflict at all, and who sincerely work to bring gay poets together. Those are the ones I like the most.

    But I think mostly it was a decade when people went either so deep into solipsistic poetry that they had no idea (and neither cared) other poets even existed, or else they became so ironic that to acknowledge anything but their own identities as poets became passe.

  2. Whoops--stupid me. Weldon Keyes wrote that about Muriel Rukeyser, not William Logan...