Sunday, August 12, 2007

Workshop - Modes & Strategies


Can stance be considered a form?

I think that’s what hovers behind a lot of poets when they’re writing and talking about poetry. Think of the obvious example of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, before it became Language poetry, and then, now, just people who use language in dislocating or experimental ways. If it ever was a movement at all, it had political concerns, it wasn’t just interesting things to do with words. But now, most everything started as LANGUAGE has been folded into another method, an interesting writing prompt. It’s been incorporated into the kit bag, our little bag of tricks.

It’s understandable that some poets might find that a lessening of intent and/or potential.

Similarly, and more famously, I suppose, surrealism. But we rarely talk about its roots in political oppression these days.

But I didn’t intend for my thoughts to become a catalogue, I’m simply wondering how one can talk toward – in poetry workshops mainly, but in other places as well – the idea that word combinations are more than simply interesting, they create a world that makes emblematic a stance, of politics, of metaphysics, etc.

So to say that a workshop is simply a space for forms, and we should all get along under the “poetry” umbrella, is, while in some instances possible, even probable (as friendship bonds are stronger in abstract situations than are bonds to aesthetic belief), it is by no means any more easy than the shaky alliances of interfaith communities.

Every poet I’ve ever met, with whom I’ve spoken about such things, has admitted at least one poet (and more commonly many) or school that he or she holds in contempt. Not just displeasure, but contempt.

It’s very similar to talking with people who worship in different religions. For them to accept others outside of their belief system, they must ignore many of their core values (at least in contact situations).

Different ways of writing are different ways of believing, they create different worlds. Different worlds are competing worlds. Of course, different worlds can also be seen as supporting each other toward some larger whole (which is the foundational idea behind interfaith communities), but to follow this line of thinking subverts the primary nature of the art, or believing, act.

Artists don’t tend to like that. But as the stakes are somewhat lower than those in the religious arena, artists rarely find the motivation to start wars over the issue.


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Stance, as in an artist’s stance toward the world, can be seen, and often is seen in creative writing workshops and writing prompts, as a form, or a mode, or strategy, or method (depending upon how one talks of such things), but at the same time, we ask – well, we suggest, or assign as homework – that poets develop a voice. A voice is simply an enacted stance, right? And if we play up the clothes-changing nature of artistic stance, we’re going to end up with an art that is simply a patchwork of competing possibilities without a center.

Some reviewers have said we’re already there. Others say a lack of identifiable center is a political position. Competing worlds.

Strong world views don’t seem to be much in fashion these days (in art, that is), unless it’s an obvious political party world view (Poets Against War, etc.). What I’m thinking about here is that a compositional practice is a world view, and though it is not a specific political party view, it is a world view. Sharon Olds and Dana Gioia almost certainly belong to different political parties, but neither of them sees the world of Michael Palmer or Lyn Hejinian when looking out the window.

In workshop we’re supposed to ignore this and be supportive of each other’s aesthetic direction. We do it, by and large, because getting along is nice. But perhaps there’s a way, a more contentious way, but perhaps a better way, to proceed?


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Whatever motivation occasioned the art aside, it begins to inscribe itself upon us at the moment of reception. The moment of encounter.

If we are in a different historical circumstance than the artist, then there’s no reason I can see that convinces me I must join the artist’s circumstance to be moved by the product. Historicism is interesting, but if the art needs it to be art, then it’s not really living, it’s just an interesting historical document, right?

If the artist’s motivation is a clearing away of a pressed down rhetoric (the culture – the politics of time and place), then the artist is simply choosing, or believing into, a clearer reality than the fabrications from above, and if that product stands, then of course it will fold back into the future’s notion of reality.

In that way all art objects are competing at all times, as they press themselves into the moment of reception. Some of these competitions are the sorts of competition team members might have, as they head toward the same (or similar) goal. But some competitions are diametrically opposed.

Some art moves us immediately, some art has to convince us (or drag us along), and some we will forever feel excluded from.

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