Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thoughts on the MFA

First: I just realized I inadvertently stole Amy King's blog subtitle when I created multitudes. Two weeks out of the gate, and I already need to rethink the name of this place. Quel fromage.

I'll be starting the mfa program at NYU in the fall, and while I'm absolutely excited, I'm also a little nervous. Most of my friends in college were engineers, and I've only recently become moderately comfortable identifying and labeling myself as a poet. I've never really spent time with other poets, and while I've always done well in undergraduate workshops, I think I viewed them as being populated by college students with an interest in creative writing/poetry rather than... poets-in-training? I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I do wonder whether the mfa experience will be a little intimidating at first.

It's also been awhile since my reading and writing habits have been externally structured or formalized in any way, so I'm really interested to see how my writing evolves simply as a result of my being required to read certain texts, write certain (amounts of) material, and come prepared to discuss and dissect poetry a couple of times a week. Will I realize my writing is improving as it happens, or will it be a few months before I start to notice it? Will I see an increase in the number of poems I have accepted for publication? How long before I manage to land a book deal? &c, &c. I know a lot of this depends on me (hard work, ability, attention to craft, and so on), but there are a number of x-factors involved (including, but not limited to, dumb luck) and I'm just really curious as to where I'll be in May 2012.

Assuming the world doesn't end before then, that is.

Monday, May 3, 2010

School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant

Ron Silliman, via his blog, has identified a schism in contemporary American poetry: that between the "School of Quietude," a nod to Poe that seemingly identifies poets who are needlessly and overly conservative in their poetic aesthetics, and the "Post-Avants," poets who are doing fresh, new work in their respective poetic circles (e.g. Language Poetry). As the story goes, the former have been systematically disenfranchising the latter for the last couple of centuries (at least), and this is one of the most pervasive and little-known crises in the literary world.

I hesitate to even employ these terms, since I fear they lend credence to an imaginary (or, at the very least, useless) dichotomy. (Before I continue: I've never seen them used in any academic text or discourse outside the Internet.) Indeed, much like Chevy Chase's character on Community attempting to coin the new slang term "streets ahead", Silliman's ham-fisted attempt to divide the poetry world into two factions—one subjugating the other—comes off as contrived and somewhat pathetic rather than helpful or effective. Worse yet, unlike Chase's character, Silliman makes no effort whatsoever to define what, exactly, his new terms mean.

What I (think I) know about them is as follows:

School of Quietude

• The phrase (an oblique reference to Poe, as mentioned above) was coined by Silliman and seems to be defined as "the subset of American poetry that Ron Silliman does not like."
• Most, if not all, confessional poets fall under this heading, as do all Poets Laureate of the United States (see below).
TriQuarterly and Southern Review both publish(ed) predominantly SoQ poetry.


• This phrase was also coined by Silliman and seems to be defined as "the subset of American poetry that Ron Silliman likes."
• I assume the phrase "post-avant" means "post-avant-garde," but am not sure whether this is being equated with post-postmodernism.

In all honesty, I think this whole "debate" is a lot of smoke & mirrors/wheel re-invention/purposeless re-branding, &c on Silliman's part, since 1.) no one (including, most notably, Silliman himself) has produced a definition of either term, and 2.) there's no more common way of legitimizing oneself in the art world than by arbitrarily defining who is on the cutting edge of capital-"A" Art and who is not, then defining oneself and one's associates into the former circle.

He must have some metric for separating SoQ from PA, though, or else he wouldn't be able to make the determination that current PLOTUS Kay Ryan is "the 47th consecutive School of Quietude poet to hold the position in its 71 year history." Some speculate that the SoQ folks descend from Thoreau, and the rest (which include PA), Walt Whitman. The clearest working definitions I've found are that SoQ is pretty much everyone ("the establishment"), and PA is the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (like Silliman) and anyone whose poetry is "experimental" (in my opinion) to the point of nonsense (Whitman excluded). To make matters worse, Silliman has apparently also allowed for a "third way," the "Elliptical Poets," whose membership and aesthetic are even more obscure.

In short: I'm not interested in Silliman and his poetics per se, but I do want to know if there's something interesting he's trying to get at by constructing this School-of-Quietude-versus-Post-Avant dichotomy.

If—to borrow from Jason Quackenbush—"one construction of the School of Quietude is that it is 'those poets who hold the purse strings and tend to promote work that is familiar rather than work that is good,'" then Silliman's construct may be meaningful, but not particularly useful; that bad poetry by famous poets is published all the time is not news, and the theory that their work is legitimized by the academy and not by a public that, by and large, never reads poetry is not really that surprising. When you have a group as insular as American poetry that so few people (relatively speaking) really care about, of course you're going to have these kinds of power struggles and political agendas. I'm just not convinced the controversy, insofar as it exists, is as one-sided as Silliman seems to think.