Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thinking about (the Experimental Poetry) Community/Report from Orono Part IV

Having written only about some particular readings at the NPF/Orono Conference, I've gotten it in my head to write a few general observations about the conference and the culture it springs from and nurtures.

The experimental poetry community (hereafter, EPC, not to be confused with the Electronic Poetry Center) is, for lack of a better word, a community, a network of personal and professional affiliations which, in my experience, are collaborational, dialogic, and communitarian in practice. That's an overly academic way of saying that one of the great strengths of the EPC is that, when you connect and participate in it, you feel part of something larger, without the sense of hypercompetitiveness and atomism that surrounds the larger poetry network, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).

This great strength, however, also can mask the way in which outsiders feel just as outside of the EPC, and that, though these poets and scholars have attached themselves to what has long been a minoritarian tradition, they (we?) have now developed an institutional presence which makes it as vulnerable to (and responsible for) the exclusions (or even absences) that invariably occur.

If one takes the "Poetry and the 1970s" conference in Orono, 2008, as a test example, one must be careful not to overgeneralize any observations to the larger EPC--which, as I'm writing, I'm well aware I'm in danger of reifying into a meaningless category.

The great strengths were fully in evidence at the Orono conference. I personally had a blast, meeting for the first time or catching up with longtime friends, conference colleagues, quasi-mentors, and co-conspirators (in no particular order, Kasey Mohammad, Andrew Epstein, Lytle Shaw, Barrett Watten, Steve Burt, Grant Matthew Jenkins, Anne Boyer, Kevin Killian, Aldon Nielsen, Linda Russo, Maria Damon, Tom Orange, Kaplan Harris, Bill and Lisa Howe, Ben Friedlander, Scott Pound, Andrew Rippeon, Rodney Koeneke, Patrick Durgin, Bob Perelman, Steve Evans, Jennifer Moxley, Robin Tremblay-McGaw, Burt Kimmelman, Joel Bettridge, Joshua Clover, Bruce Andrews, Susannah Hollister, Marit MacArthur, Aaron Kunin, Stan Apps, and Piotr Gwiazda). Some of these folks I met for the first time in person, having cyber-corresponded with them over the years. Some I'd known from other conferences, including the 2004 Orono Conference. Some I'd read before.

It's quite a stir and stew, and a sense of kinship invariably accompanies the proceedings. There were plenty of thought-provoking and dynamic papers, talks, and readings, and just enough time for after-talks and between-talks interactions that make such events so critical not only to the promotion of ideas, but to the affiliative aspect of the EPC. With the vitality of such academic programs as SUNY-Buffalo's Poetics Program, UPenn, UCal Berkeley and Davis, Wayne State, and Brown, the EPC has established itself as a vital institutional presence that spans both academic and non-academic worlds.

At the same time, Anne Boyer noted in her blog of the predominance of men at the conference. I counted exactly 2/3rds of the papers were delivered by men. So though the main poets and presenters were equally split in gender, the conference (and perhaps the EPC in general) is pretty male. That is not a fault of the conference, but probably just a reality of the profession, since Steve Evans, Jennifer Moxley, Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiteri are incredibly progressive and sensitive people who have an eye to such exclusions.

Another attendee made mention of the paucity of African-American conferees (and, one might add, ethnic-Americans in general).

One other area of relative lack, to my mind, is representation of what has variously been called Official Verse Culture. On the one hand, it seems as if the Orono conference is vital because it brings together the critics and poets of a shared tradition (though it is itself rife with difference, contradictions, and heterogeneities). It is a place/time where such people can strengthen and revitalize the conversation about experimental poetry and the avant-garde. On the other hand, for whatever reason, Official Verse Culture critics and poets are mostly not in attendance.

In my counting of papers delivered at the "Poetry and the 1970s" conference of 2008, Bernadette Mayer emerged as the most-talked-about (8 papers), followed by John Ashbery (7 papers), and a small batch of others with 3 papers. This is highly unscientific, since clearly I've gone by the titles of papers, and could not have attended everything anyway. The NPF conference organizers are, like every other conference organizer, beholden to what comes to them. As with any conference, there will be figures and movements that go unmentioned, and it's too much pressure to place on a single conference to solicit specific papers when none have been forthcoming. But I think it is significant to note that there was no paper or mention of Robert Lowell. By Official Verse Culture standards, Lowell was probably the OVC's "most important poet" from 1959 until his death in 1977 (after which he has suffered a precipitous critical decline). There were also no papers on Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Denise Levertov, and others of that generation.

If the EPC were to elicit greater participation by OVC-aligned poets and critics at events like the NPF conference, some possible scenarios might occur. First, OVC-aligned people would be tokens who simply create a parallel mini-conference, shut off from the rest. Second, OVC people could actually get exposed to the vital poetries that the EPC theorizes and practices, thus converting some to a larger sense of poetry (this is what has happened to me over the years, thanks to people like Alan Golding and Barrett Watten). Third, OVC people could provide a critical "outsider's" perspective that would hold EPC accountable for its own blindspots, exclusions, or doxa that need re-examination. Even though there is great beauty in the harmonies created at Orono (and there were also plenty of creative dissonances as well), a part of me always holds to the Blakean principle: There is no progression without contraries.


rodney k said...

Hi Philip,

Thanks for this informative, searching post. Great breakdown of the social and aesthetic vectors at work.

I'm sure this has everything to do with me having given a paper on Hannah Weiner at the conference, but with three other papers on her work (Jennifer Russo, Sam Truitt, & Marie Buck, whose panel I arrived at the conference too late to catch), plus Patrick Durgin's presence at most of the Weiner-related panels, I sort of thought of Orono '08 as a "Weiner" moment. Though I shared your sense that the buzz around Mayer was perhaps the predominant sound.

Philip Metres said...

Rodney, thanks for your comment. Both you and Patrick mentioned that Hannah Weiner was the third-most referenced poet (and certainly the most referenced deceased poet--since Mayer, Ashbery, and Coolidge are alive and kicking). All of these poets are now on my "shuffle list" now--a post-conference condition! Hope you're well. I'm enjoying MUSEE MECHANIQUE

douglang said...


Everything I experienced at the conference was extremely gratifying,
and that has been extended to all the post-conference commentaries, including yours. Thank you.


Philip Metres said...

Doug, thanks for your comment here, and good to meet you (this way, if not in person in Orono)!