Tuesday, January 12, 2010

MLA 2009 Scenes in Philadelphia - Part 1

The MLA took place in Philadelphia during the last few days of 2009. I felt lucky to be there. Attendance was visibly hurting because of the terrible economy. Hiring freezes kept away job seekers, while vanishing travel funds kept away everyone else. Some poets were resourceful and managed to attend by serving on interview committees for the few available jobs. Say what you will about the wisdom of putting poets in charge of hiring, I'm just glad they found a way to make the trip.

My guest posts here will hit a few memorable moments from the convention, starting with Tuesday, the third day of the convention, when the MLA most felt like a welcome place for the poetry crowd.

The day began with two on-site events that were part of the official program. Small Press Distribution sponsored an afternoon panel on "Critical Challenges of the Very Contemporary" featuring a peerless lineup of poet-critics Jena Osman, Judith Goldman, Jennifer Scappettone, and Evie Shockley. The panel was attended by an embarrassment of talent. Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Silliman, and Bob Perelman sat right up front. Laura Moriarty and Normal Cole sat off to one side (with Moriarty putting in a plug for SPD Books and handing out the latest catalog after the event). Patrick Durgin sat to my right after I pulled him away from his spot in the back of the room, and a bevvy of other poets and scholars filled the room.

First on the panel, Jena Osman gave a talk "Thinking Texts" (a title from Renee Gladman) that sang the praises of Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence, a long series of prose poems based on actively describing the roles of black characters who appear in peripheral, background positions in Hollywood movies. Osman took her cue from the idea that "description can be a form of criticism," and she went on to argue that description is an ekphrastic process that can be repurposed beyond the directorial gaze of the camera. All you need to do is hit the pause button and look around or zoom in at the right moment. (You also need to have Bryant's dazzling sentences to put everything in motion.) I was reminded that I heard Bryant read from the poems last year in at Rust Belt Books in Buffalo, and I was glad to see her ambitious project getting much-deserved critical attention at the MLA.

Next was Judith Goldman's talk on Kim Rosenfield's book Tràma. Earlier at the convention I'd given a talk that tried to do away once and for all with homophonic translation, so my cheeks were turning red when Goldman began examining how Rosenfield turns the Italian text of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio into English-language sounds. Goldman passed around a handout with the original side-by-side with Rosenfield's version, she drew a series of parallels between the wooden boy who comes to life and the object status of the commodity, she disputed Agamben's notion that language is "a dead letter" -- and in the end, I was forced to renounce my anti-homophonic ways. Did I mention that she also enlisted Scappettone to read the Italian? As I surveyed the glowing reactions from the crowd, Patrick Durgin leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Glad to see that Chicago represents." Goldman and Scappettone both live in the Windy City now, and I can see why things are hopping there with those two -- and three if you include Durgin himself. Farewell, NY-SF hegemony.

Scappettone took her turn at the podium next. Her talk "Versus Disturbances" sought to generate a vocabulary of ambient poetics by aligning John Cage's Lecture on the Weather with the contemporary projects of Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather and Lisa Robertson's The Weather. Scappettone showed that each writer takes the weather as an archive, like Rem Koolhaas's idea of junkspace in which agency is rooted in the discarded and excessive remnants of late capitalism. Scappettone also described the different strategies for writing weather: Robertson's citations are a "syntactical mining" of 19C source texts, while Goldsmith's transcriptive process is repetitive, redundant and aggressive (and thus arguably masculinist, though Scappettone did not make this point). I was left gasping, as I usually am with everything that Scappettone writes. The only moment that flagged was a technical failure with the audio clips, but it mattered little because pretty much everyone has heard the Goldsmith before (on his radio show, PennSound, UbuWeb, the Poetry Foundation podcasts, Youtube, etc, etc).

The final speaker Evie Schockley gave a talk on Will Alexander that was my favorite presentation of the day. Alexander is older than the rest of the poets who were discussed, but Schockley had me convinced that lack of attention to his work means that his moment has yet to come. I was especially surprised when she said that he has not been assimilated into a black aesthetic tradition. The experimentalists love him, but other camps, not so much. One persistent point against him is that he does not write in ways that are obviously or overtly anti-racist, so his work has been unfairly deemed apolitical and hence has been marginalized. Alexander is apparently okay with that. Schockley quotes him as saying, "I don't need canonization... I'm a psychic maroon" (i.e. marooned from institutions that legitimate some poetries and relegate others to the outside). But Shockley is not okay with it, and her talk sought to read Alexander back into a black aesthetic. She mainly looked at his formal strategies, for example his verbal momentum and his rhythmic fusing of disparate vocabularies. I've heard Alexander read only once (it was in DC), and I found that I had to just let my mind go and let my ears follow the quick melodies and string-like movement reminiscent of what Noah Eli Gordon calls the "Area of Sound Called the Subtone." One added virtue of Shockley's talk was that she helped to me to appreciate the technical devices that Alexander uses to create those acoustical effects, like a signature word pattern of adjective-adjective-noun (where sometimes the latter is an adjective that has been converted into a noun).

Each presenter offered close readings of one or two works, so I left the panel still wondering about the larger stakes of poetry in the here-and-now, tail-end of the noughts. But perhaps that was the lesson to take away: no single trend is dominating at the expense of heterogeneous, competing trajectories. Or perhaps the better explanation is that an academic talk delivered under time constraints is not conducive to supporting comprehensive claims about the present moment. In any event, I hope for a speedy publication of all four papers before the "very contemporary" starts to mean something else.

(Thank you Sina for inviting me to post here on Tuesdays. I look forward to getting to know my fellow bloggers in the coming weeks. Next time from me: an official MLA-roundtable to celebrate 20 years of "Off-Site Readings.")


Kaplan Harris relocated from DC to Buffalo two years ago & now teaches at St. Bonaventure University. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.

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