Tuesday, June 05, 2012




From the Editor
June 2012
Insider / Outsider

What does it mean, in the world of contemporary American literature, to be an "outsider"? And why does the culture-in particular, the reading culture, those who by nature of their consumption of serious contemporary writing are already "insiders"-value it? It's a problematic trope, one I found myself thinking about recently after reading a series of poetry reviews that praised not so much this or that poet's poems as this or that poet's cultural position. The poet does or does not teach (at a college, specifically in an MFA program). The poet's work is or is not represented in the "popular anthologies." (I wasn't aware there were any.) The poet's themes or subject matter seem, well, unpoetic, and therefore "refreshing." The poet's output is prodigious, proving her essential visionary impulse, or else it is scant, suggesting an admirable reticence in the face of the Great Unknown. The poet had a Significant Life Experience (cancer, war, a stint in the Peace Corps) that sets him apart from the quotidian herd. The poet has a miniscule but passionate readership. The poet lives in Ann Arbor, Grand Junction, Santa Fe...anywhere, it seems, but New York City-unless s/he does in fact live in New York but is distinguished (rendered "outside") by some other notable characteristic.

What so many of these reviews seemed to want was to identify some essential trait that would impute value to the work: render it authentic, meaningful, and not some detachable, forgettable part of the cultural noise in which Americans are immersed. And they wanted to locate this essential trait in context: in the life, times, or circumstances of the poet, anywhere but in the work itself.

Not long after reading those reviews, I was actually asked, by a colleague, to name my "favorite contemporary outsider poet." I replied that I couldn't, because for a poet to be "outside," in my opinion, he or she would probably have to be unpublished. To publish-to seek publication and achieve it, along with a readership of any size-is to step "inside."

A stranger comes to town and shows the way to salvation. A vigilante, a gunslinger in the American idiom. Or: a flâneur, a la Andre Breton and the Surrealists of Paris circa 1924.

We are frightened of literature, it seems to me-frightened of Art-and we want someone, something to tell us how to read what we read, how and why to value what we have read. To be "outside" is, somehow, to be authentic. In authenticity resides value.

I grew up in the authentically rural South in the 1970s and 1980s. I certainly felt like an outsider, in terms of art and culture, and specifically literature. But I left that world-I chose to leave that world-for Harvard when I was 17. Harvard: surely the mark of an insider! Nine years later, I dropped out of academia and joined the Amish. I lived in an isolated horse-and-buggy community for six years, working as a carpenter and baker. It was there that I began to read and write poetry, with no coursework or mentoring. I hitchhiked or hired a driver to get to the university library in Chapel Hill, where I picked up poetry books by the dozen: outsider, by almost any definition. That particular Amish community broke up, and after some wandering I found myself in Iowa, where I earned an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop: insider again.

Now I'm a tenured professor at a small college where I also happen to edit a literary journal: not only insider, but gatekeeper.

I thought about this again last weekend while I was helping a dairyman brother in the religious community of which I remain a part with his evening chores. The cows seemed very authentic.

To read a work of art through the biographical context of origin, publication, or circumstance is useful, for critics. But it suggests the work of art is insufficient, on its own terms, even within its moment. I am not arguing that the work, qua work, is autonomous, but I am suggesting that a work of art, of any quality from any period, may be sufficient, on its own terms. (Poetry is that which suffices, as Wallace Stevens maintained.)

The convoking of these terms is a curious matter, a negotiable contract between the work and any active, curious reader. As an editor, I am always on the lookout for that glint, that opalescent sheen suggesting something more than the ambient cultural noise.

Moving through thousands of submissions a year, one begins to discern contours: work that is "inside," vs. work that is "outside." The same plots, executed to the same degree of competence (more or less): this is the "inside" of American fiction, whether they come from recent Iowa graduates or inmates in the California prison system or grandmothers in Missouri. In poetry, the same lyric turns: the minor epiphanies of domestic confessionalism, the "elliptical" or "skittery" collages in the more recent tradition of Dean Young or James Tate.

The inside of contemporary Anglophone literature is a brightly-lit room: we know where we are, because everybody from Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and Ian MacEwan to Sharon Olds and John Ashbery and Yusuf Komunyakaa has told us. This is where we live, most of the time.

If there is an "outside" to the literature of our moment, it lies in the dim rooms and unmapped corridors leading off from this brilliant space.

And yes, we should be frightened. (See: the sublime.) Like infants, we will learn to know these new spaces by touch. We should whistle, and even sing, as we move around in the dark. It won't help us know any better what this new terrain looks like, but it will alert the inhabitants of these new rooms, these other corridors that we're present, we're here.

—G.C. Waldrep


At 6/06/2012 6:26 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This is a great editorial. There is a fetishistic obsession with location in the culture, both poetic and pop.

Honestly, I don't care about any of that shit. I didn't start writing poetry to climb social ladders. I started writing because I wanted to, and will only continue as long as that desire is there.

At 6/06/2012 6:39 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Absolutely. I never got this conversation, and I'm glad GC is heading at it directly.

At 6/06/2012 7:20 AM, Blogger Whimsy said...

Brilliant and moving.

At 6/06/2012 9:56 AM, Blogger C. Dale said...

I am glad to read something like this.

At 6/06/2012 12:30 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

But John, it's important to know where you stand! What did you think this was about, writing?

Wait in line until it's your turn.

At 6/06/2012 1:32 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

This definitely speaks to me as someone who is surely "outsider" by some measures and "insider" by others.

At 6/06/2012 1:49 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It's not about writing, no, except that people tend to say it is. And the people who say it is are usually doing so to advance a frame for the reception of their work or work they are championing. It's a social problem, not an artistic one (except, once again, all art is received in a social net): "Outsider" is an honorific and "Insider" an indictment.

At 6/06/2012 2:27 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

It's unfortunate that we've made that distinction, as it's more or less what's going on in our political discourse, too. Notice how often our future political leaders mention that they are Washington "outsiders". It's ironic, because the outsider status is usually being paraded around as an attempt to get inside.

I think that's what's so refreshing about this article. It's very aware of the implications of these distinctions yet doesn't feel like it's arguing for or against either (though maybe both, and the whole conversation).

At 6/06/2012 2:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderfully candid and canny editorial. And, I appreciate that GC ended it in metaphor, and that he opened its framing device to include all of us.

At 6/06/2012 3:30 PM, Blogger Janet Holmes said...

Claiming to be an outsider and actually BEING one are two different things. Notice that the conversation is (apparently) being conducted entirely among men, for example. I'll bet some women could tell you a thing or two about being outsiders.

At 6/06/2012 5:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Janet,

There is this continual problem with blogs: the comment streams are overwhelmingly dominated by males, yes, and usually heterosexual males at that.

The comment from "unknown" though, is actually Rusty Morrison, who had intended to comment as herself but google did something to her name when she posted. But that doesn't get to your larger point: how women might react to the terms of INSIDER and OUTSIDER.

If you would like to, I'd really like to hear from you on the subject. There are a lot of things one can say. A lot of positions. And many of them, though different, are not necessarily in contention.

At 6/07/2012 7:20 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Yes, poetry reviews are terrible. I remember overhearing someone at the AWP expressing shock that "[x] actually finishes the books [gender pronoun] reviews."

Let's treat that symptom first.

At 6/07/2012 9:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Let's treat the whole thing all at once! Everything, all the time! I saw The Avengers. I know it's possible.

And I do think what you're saying here is a very important aspect of what GC is talking about. In lieu of reading the whole book, some (many? a lot? But certainly not ALL) reviewers, etc, make these leaps into easy categories which gives them a whole lot of handed down language they can employ rather than the harder work of the book itself. I see that over and over. (But, again, not always and not everywhere.)

At 6/07/2012 9:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Here's an example of (agree with what he says or not) a reviewer who reads the whole book:


At 6/08/2012 8:52 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Some of those guys who review classical music concerts don't even attend the concert. If the orchestra's playing the repertory and you know the musicians, you can cobble together clichés about tasteful ornamentation and empty virtuosity, etc., and fake having been there.

At 6/08/2012 6:38 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Did Mr. Waldrep mean to say 'outlier' as opposed to "outsider"? There is a significant difference.

As he noted, the outsider may be outside for a number of reasons. The outlier, however, is usually simply uninterested in being on the "inside".

At 6/09/2012 1:27 PM, Blogger G.C. said...

Hi Gary,

That's actually a very interesting distinction: "outlier" vs. "outsider." Perhaps it has something to do with choice, as you suggest. John Taggart, Merrill Gilfillan--outsider or outlier? Laurie Sheck? Does it matter, in terms of the work, or how we approach the work?

At 6/09/2012 5:59 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

G.C. Waldrep said:

“ …I was actually asked, by a colleague, to name my "favorite contemporary outsider poet." I replied that I couldn't, because for a poet to be "outside," in my opinion, he or she would probably have to be unpublished. To publish-to seek publication and achieve it, along with a readership of any size-is to step "inside."

I think that pretty much sums it up. This means, of course, that an outlier has only two choices: invisibility or self-publication.

Here is a list of my favorite originally self-published ‘outliers’:

Alexander Pope
William Blake
Walt Whitman
E. E. Cummings
Ezra Pound
T.S. Eliot
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Bly
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Robinson Jeffers
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Robert Service
Carl Sandburg

At 6/15/2012 7:58 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

My dictionary defines an outlier as "a person or thing excluded from a group; an outsider." Basically a non-distinction.

We might make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary exile, but it seems to me that Waldrep's essay addresses both, along with the problems implicit in both ideas.

At 6/17/2012 8:03 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I am using the term ‘outlier’ somewhat loosely in the sense that Malcom Gladwell did in his 2008 bestseller ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, especially regarding what he defined as the “10,000 hour rule”. To this rule he attributes the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles and many others. Please see the synopsis of this book in Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation. I have simply extrapolated this idea to contemporary poetry.


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