Reginald Shepherd - Who You Callin’ “Post-Avant”?
I’m going to be taking part in a discussion of Reginald Shepherd and his work at AWP on Thursday, from 10:30 a.m.-11:45 a.m. in Room 207m Colorado Convention Center, Street Level, along with Brad Richard, Robert Philen, Catherine Imbriglio, Timothy Liu, Sam Witt, and Robert Philen.
Here’s a short essay he wrote for Harriet (I think?) a few years ago. We've almost stopped talking about these things, haven't we? What would he be talking about now, if he were here?
Reginald Shepherd – Who You Callin’ “Post-Avant”?
I was prompted to write this entry by the citation of my blog entry “Orwellian Me” in article called “Blogging the AWP, Part Two,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “*Footnoted from Academic Blogs” page. Author Jennifer Howard cited me discussing the shifting boundaries of “inside” and “outside” in the poetry worlds; noting my use of the phrase “post-avant,” she asked for a definition, which I provided on the site. It occurred to me that it might be useful to do so in more expanded form here, especially since Don Share’s most recent Harriet post notes that “Harriet readers frequently see calls for a definition of what, precisely, ‘post-modern’ and ‘avant garde’ poetry is.” (And no, Peter Campion’s uninformed dismissal doesn’t cut it.)
The phrase "post-avant poetry," to my knowledge first coined by Joan Houlihan in a jocular mood, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world (I’ve never seen it in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both). It’s used with the assumption that "we all know what that is" but, like the phrases Don mentions in his post, the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to do so, for whatever use it may be.
"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant, such writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Though many of these poets have projects and even systems, there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation”), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf may be an exception to this, but I don’t understand what flarf is or is supposed to be. And no doubt I’ve missed a lot—there’s a lot to miss.)
Some of these writers have been called Elliptical poets by Steve Burt, but though I’ve read his essay and I’m scheduled to participate in an online symposium on Ellipticism organized by poet Chad Parmenter, I don’t understand what it is either, though I have a better grasp of it than I have of flarf. Some of them have been called “third way” writers by Ron Silliman. Some of their work has been called “lyrical investigations” by me, in the introduction to my new anthology Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, to which I will devote a later post. (You didn’t think I’d let an opportunity for self-promotion slip by, did you?)
Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don't just discard the self as an ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative of any variety. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle. They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical impulse of Language poetry. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions (let alone grand narratives) of artistic "progress" or "advance," though they are fascinated with the processes of poetic construction.
This cross-fertilization has been happening in poetry for a long time, but there are a lot of people on various “sides” who either don’t see it or vehemently oppose it, perhaps because it undermines their own carefully constructed identity formations (which many of them conceive of as having been forged under fire). Hardcore avant-gardistes, as well as hardcore defenders of a narrow and reified “tradition,” are at this point both ideologically backward; they’re still fighting the poetry cold wars. The avant-garde isn’t ahead of the guard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. There are, of course, many people who haven’t yet passed through the avant-garde and never will. (It would be nice if some of those people would at least read Eliot. But then, it would be nice if some of those people would read Keats.) But once you have passed through that avant-garde door, there is no ahead, no destination or telos, just an open field. Art critic Arthur C. Danto, in such books as After the End of Art, Beyond the Brillo Box, and The State of the Art, and music critic Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, both make this point about, respectively, visual art and music. Ross’s book includes a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.”
My partner Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist who maintains a brilliant and wide-ranging blog, tells me that the same phenomenon is occurring in the social sciences where, for example, the dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative research are breaking down.
There are doubtless many “post-avant” poets who would not recognize themselves in this description and would even vehemently reject it (practitioners of flarf, for instance, which I can’t describe, might do so), and some wouldn’t consider themselves “post-avant” at all. But I think this is a fair though broad description of a significant area of contemporary poetic activity.
Some established poets whose work maps out or creates this third space are Michael Anania, Paul Auster (though I don’t know if he still writes poetry), Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Forché, Peter Gizzi, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, C.S. Giscombe, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Ann Lauterbach, Timothy Liu, Jane Miller, Michael Palmer, Suzanne Paola, John Peck, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright. Most of these writers are included in the aforementioned Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, edited by moi and just out from Counterpath Press, with generous blurbs from Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff.
Some “emerging” or less-established poets who work in this space are Christopher Arigo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jasper Bernes, Laynie Browne, Julie Carr, Joshua Clover, Joshua Corey, Cynthia Cruz, Jocelyn Emerson, Amy England, Lisa Fishman, Graham Foust, John Gallaher, Michele Glazer, Noah Eli Gordon, Matthea Harvey, Brian Henry, Joan Houlihan, Christine Hume, Catherine Imbriglio, Julie Kalendek, Joanna Klink, Joshua Kryah, Joseph Lease, Malinda Markham, Mark McMorris, Rusty Morrison, Jenny Mueller, Laura Mullen, Amy Newman, Geoffrey Nutter, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Tracy Philpot, D.A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, Rebecca Reynolds, Brenda Shaughnessy, 'Annah Sobelman, Brian Teare, Karen Volkman, G.C. Waldrep, Tyrone Williams, Sam Witt, Andrew Zawacki, and Rachel Zucker. Many of these writers are included in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of all the poets whose work I enjoy who write “that kind of poetry” (as Joan Houlihan writes that editors refer to it).