Oh my god, it was like the best conference ever.
I am sure there will be much description of it in various blogs and of course there is the conference blog
itself. This will be my impressionist version generated by post migraine euphoria. I am in a delicate rather exhausted state however and so cannot be expected to be thorough -- maybe not even accurate.
The SPT AGGRESSION CONFERENCE ON CONTEMPORARY POETICS AND POLITICAL ANTAGONISM began at CCA on SF Friday night with Cynthia Sailers’ talk on “When You’ve Got An Itch You’ve Got to Scratch It: a talk on group mania and the criminal mind.” Cynthia detailed aspects of crowd behavior and group formation with special emphasis on lynching and other terrifying phenomena. She used clips from films as her examples of this behavior. The psychological terms were somewhat familiar, but I don’t usually think of the poetry world in this way (mirror stage, desire for mother and father, body parts, feces etc) so I was a bit confused at first and troubled by her not connecting the talk directly to poets – but then I considered how diagnosing anyone or any group by reading her or him or them through texts or reported activities would be silly, maybe even offensive. Some of the audience was exasperated by this approach, some were elated. I thought that it provided an intriguing backdrop, not without issues, by addressing some of the psychological causes and effects of being part of a group, not being part of a group and otherwise in being in the poetry scene. After Cynthia’s talk, before I had really thought it through, I said to Jocelyn Saidenberg that I was asking myself how this approach related to the poetry world and she said that it was clear to her that it connected completely and in all ways. (She was one of the elated ones.) The next day Cynthia and others made the point that to look at the scene while you are actually in the scene had a value but was hard and potentially dangerous to the psyche and I tended to agree,
The next day began well for me when I ran into Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover on arriving and Joshua approved of my outfit which was a bit beyond the regulation jeans and black shirt that is the fallback for these things. (You might generously call my look for the day aging but dignified French tart.) Jasper popped a couple of nicorettes, other conferees arrived and we found our way through the unfamiliar campus to the conference hall, a renovated Victorian with a wonderfully old California feel. There were pastries and coffee in a front room which ended up being the main other location for the audience who spilled out from the intimate conference room where the panels took place. There was a technology glitch with a larger location on campus that had been planned as a backup in case of huge attendance, but, in the event, the audience seemed to fit into the space we were in. I thought the crowdedness of it leant itself to a sort of excitement. There were maybe 30 or so attendees for the first panel which began at 11:00. Maybe fewer. At the most crowded, there were perhaps 40- 50 in the two rooms for the later panels, but many of us could cram into the main room for the first one. Stephanie opened things with a short intro to that panel which was on the internet and then asked the panelists to introduce themselves. Erika Staiti started out. I first met Erika a few years ago at a Mills pre-semester party when she had just arrived in town and, all eagerness and kid attitude, informed me that she was in my workshop. I must admit that I felt like a proud mama when she presented a sophisticated, thoughtful, coyly ironic presentation about her editorial/archival project Race & Gender. She is collecting Numbers Trouble posts connected with the essay by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young and the Michael Magee Flarf poem debacle. (There is a lot on this at and linked to the conference blog.) Jasper Bernes then gave a talk on the internet that really looked at the ownership of it and the way in which it is a not even remotely adequate compensation for the loss of opportunities and services which are true here in the US, not to mention the lack of connectiveness to the internet true of most of the world. (Lisa Robertson made this point.) His was a dsytopian view well thought out with a Marxian frame that generated a lot of comment. csperez read parts of a much longer paper on the Magee poem – actually as I think of it, it was a paper about his original paper on the poem, part of which he read. There were a lot of layers to his talk. The consensus I got later was that he was remarkably generous to McGee, while fully cognizant of and including the many nuanced issues of racism and other issues present in the reception of McGee’s poem the vexed title of which he tended to misread with a slight grimace each time he mentioned it. He posed the question of whether it is Emersonian gesture or white boy outrage and again, his answer to that question was quite measured. csperez had a view of the internet and of blogs in particular that seemed a bit more positive than Jasper’s and tended to chime more with Erika’s more hopeful view (close to my own) that it is good to have a lot of work and comment out there that gets books, events and analysis in front of the communities who need to see it. There was a moment when someone (Joshua?) asked Jasper and csperez to debate their seemingly opposite positions and suggested as an ironic afterthought that Erika could act as referee. Cynthia noted this later as a questionable gesture of making the woman the mediator (without accusing anyone of wild sexism) but wanting to question and highlight the action. I agreed inwardly (and later when we talked about it) but noted to myself that some presentations occur more in the form of an argument – these tend to be the ones that generate debate – while others take the form more of statement of what one is doing with a gesture of openness to include the listener but not really an argument with her or him or with the other panelists. This kind of talk is often quite artful and functions more as evidence or example than as debate. My own presentation in the next panel, which was a memoir, was like that. Tyrone William’s presentation and Bhanu Kapil’s talk in the last panel as well as Rodrigo Toscano’s excellent recorded piece would fall into the example of artfully presented evidence (with huge content) of the thing being discussed. Juliana’s piece about The Distinction, as she put it, was more in the scholarly argument mode. The Distinction referred to Chris Chen’s description for the panel of the “distinction, drawn by an earlier generation of critics and poets, between creative projects organized under the sign of “identity” or “difference,” versus a “poetics of indeterminacy.” This was a fairly simple, elegant way to proceed but some of us were so fried by that time that we couldn’t remember what The Distinction was. The consensus on the third panel (I am skipping ahead) seemed to be the avant-garde was already always ethnic and there were innumerable proofs using many writers and artists. Bhanu’s talk, riskily but effectively written the night before, grappled very directly with the psychological issues suggested by Cynthia’s presentation. Because the piece was very much written in the powerful diction of her work in general (which really crosses genres from fiction to non fiction to poetry) and because the issues she addressed were incredibly visceral and even potentially ugly or difficult and needed to be thought through by the audience in an individual way, maybe dreamt by them and discussed with intimates, there was less initial response than I might have expected or wanted and yet, as I discovered talking to people later, there was much admiration and appreciation of and engagement with her approach.
But backing up a bit, I will say that we went over our time even with the first panel, getting out late for lunch -- which had me fretting about the logistics of it all but I managed to let go of it. I ate with David Brazil and Sarah Larsen who were distributing their new magazine Try! Tyrone was there and Stephen Vincent, blessedly keeping me from being the oldest person in the party. Two other tables in the tiny Thai restaurant across the street from the campus were filled with poets. We reconvened back at the location where Stephanie, Cynthia and Chris had reset the room and were ready to show Rodrigo Toscan’s 8 minute piece SUPER-SOLID about work and community and the tricks being played on us to get us to think things are better when, well, are they? Camille Roy then gave a nice introduction to the histories panel that included her intriguing notion that she was subject to each of our divas. Robin started with her piece which was broad and even-handed in its scholarly approach. I was struck by what should be obvious -- that what is written and recorded become the only sources, besides the participants (while they (we) are still around) for what happened. Robin mentioned some of the familiar issues around Ron Silliman’s several articles and assertions in relation to various communities and Leslie Scalapino’s and others’ responses to them. I saw the necessity of mentioning these often debated issues, which however were sometimes less central to those of us who were there in the time when they occurred. Ron gets a lot of focus because he does the work of summing up, boiling down, framing etc – sometimes accurately, sometimes not – but he does it and so becomes the lightning rod for issues. Still, I felt there was no particular bashing going on – in case anyone expected that or suspects it is what occurred. Lyn Hejinian came and made some perceptive and gracious comments in response to the three talks in this panel, remembering bashings of the past as rather traumatic for those bashed, but clearly demonstrating by her demeanor and presence that this was not in any way what was going on. I would say that there was processing of how the many strains of thought and personal relationships have produced the scene we are in – with occasional complaints but often also with celebration. I think if Ron had been there he would have had some issues but really enjoyed the energy and the argument.
My talk was very much a memoir. I had worked hard to make it a coherent narrative. (I will either post it or publish it somewhere – more on that.) The very warm, interested reception of it I got from more people, including Lyn, than have almost ever praised me after a reading (not that I keep count) let me know that there is real interest in multiple versions of the last few decades of poetry history, how it relates to now etc. and in my own take as participant and witness at many levels. Rob Halpern’s talk “Realism and Utopia: Writing, Sex and Activism in the New Narrative” was a wild improvisitory ride through the first 5 pages of his 50 page tome on New Narrative, focusing on the magazine SOUP
and Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds
which is very happily soon to be reprinted. His and Robin’s talk seemed to generate the most response, sometimes by me as I was completely uncorked and felt able to say what I wanted (hurray for it!) I very much look forward to the longer versions of both of these projects.
The third panel was great in many different ways which I can’t quite be equal to as my euphoria is weakening. Tyrone’s talk included many visuals available on the conference blog, detailing several examples of avant-gard practice by African American writers and artists of the past and present. It was, again, artful and so was very much an example of his point. The responses to each of the talks in the third panel were a bit more subdued than I expected, partly because we were all pretty worn out by that time. A number of points that had been made earlier by csperez and by members of the audience such as Scott Inguito who argued for distance learning and how it can be the only learning available to students with economic and other issues were not remade but definitely enriched the discussion that did occur. And these points clearly radiated outward to the question of how the esthetic practices we were discussing reach readers and what the effect of the route (internet, book, graduate school etc) is.
In the interests of getting this up now before my migraine euphoria has completely faded I will truncate the later events, mentioning only that, after a lot of post conference talking, dispersal occurred and a lovely dinner was had by myself, Jen Hofer who was irresistibly and happily drawn away from her current stay at Djerassi, Taylor Brady, Rob Halpern, Camille Roy and then David, Sarah, Stephen and Tyrone, as at lunch. It’s hard to believe, but the evening ended with Bhanu Khapil and Tyrone William in bed together in David Buuck’s house -- Tyrone reading his poems as bedtime stories and Bhanu mysteriously pulling books off shelves with string, surrounded by as many members of the poetry scene as could stuff ourselves into David Buuck’s bedroom. With any luck there will already be many shots of this highly photographed event online. For now, I am fading fast.
Oh, one more thing. Chris Chen, in masterfully moderating the third panel -- commenting, framing, inciting -- asked for ideas for future panels and it occurred to me that to think of audience might be one approach, as in 'what and who are we writing for?' Just a thought.
ALSO, the whole conference was documented by Andrew Kenower and will appear shortly on his site.