Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ye Shall Know Us By Our Taboos! Beyond ConPo: Revisiting Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “The Judges Of Craft” In Light Of Current Poetry Wars

First thing I have to say: If you’re happy with the status quo in the literary world, you probably don’t want to read this: it could make your angry, defensive and/or smug.

I asked a professional poet I admire who has published and been celebrated for her work which, in quite a few cases, sticks its neck out on important social and political issues: Do you still struggle with publishers who will publish your work only on the condition it’s not too (blatantly) political? She wrote back that she was lucky that her book publisher never objected to her “overtly political stuff, “ and adds: “I made sure it was my best work at the time.” On one level, this is very refreshing to hear; it offers hope that a possible ideal conjunction of ethical and aesthetic standards can be achieved in writing published by what is referred to as the “mainstream” or “establishment” press (in relatively small poetry circles at least).

Her statement makes clear: if any more radically political work is rejected, it’s because of aesthetic grounds rather than content. While this may be true today for her, and for many others, I am also aware of many who have not been so ‘lucky,’ and who’ve had a very different experience with editors, one that is much more like the transactions we see in Thomas Sayers Ellis’s piece, “The Judges Of Craft.” In this piece, TSE takes the “found objects” of three rejection letters of literary publications, almost as if he were a “conceptual writer”—recontextualizing, baring the device. Peeping behind—or through—the scars, exposing a seedy underbelly of the status quo’s standard modus operandi. Yet, TSE makes use of these “dry texts” that do not stop at the mere (though fashionable) “massaging” characteristic of “uncreative writing,” but rather take that gesture as its epigrammatic starting point (and dialogic foil) for a “hybrid text.” Here’s the first example:

Thanks for your note. We’re actually very interested in poems that address issues of race and racism and wish we could run more of them. Most of what we get in that regard is mere subject matter; that is, there’s not enough craft to carry the content (though this is certainly not the case with “Spike Lee at Harvard,” which I am sure you’ll place somewhere very good).

This is not just any rejection letter, but one with “race and racism” as its subject
matter. The editors (speaking as a “royal we”) claims to be rejecting TSE’s work because they prefer “craft” to “mere subject matter” as the main criteria for acceptance, while duplicitously adding that the poem TSE submitted does have “enough craft to carry the content,” so logically, one would think, the editor would be in favor of publishing….unless of course…..what? It’s hard not to at least consider the possibility that race has a lot to do with it. So what does this publishing venue (and many others like it) mean when it uses the word “Craft?”

Ellis takes the occasion first to tell you what he thinks about “craft” in his own ABC of Writing:

The art of breathing is the first craft,
the carrier from which
all content pours.

While the rejection letter occasioned this, the poem also has power as a statement of poetics in its own right, if one considers its liberating implications of this definition of craft. Breath is community….Often craft carries you, off the page, away from control. The ABC of TSE’s poetics is easy as 123:

A well-made compromise
Allows the shape of exchange into it.
Other currency. Social balance.
The policy of public poetics.

Ellis’ “The Judges Of Craft,” itself is a “well-made compromise.” TSE could have started it by screaming that the editor is a racist, but instead allows “the shape of exchange” into his poem, by deepening, and lyricizing, the dialogue on “craft.” He refreshingly bares the device, by exposing the protocol of “textual exchange” between writer and reader (a reader who becomes a critic, an autocratic judge—as opposed to, say, a jury of one’s peers) as he judges the judges in hopes of moving beyond an economy of judgment toward a “social balance.”

The second “dry text” Ellis uses doesn’t invoke racial content or “weak craft” as the reason for rejecting work, but focuses on another (albeit overlapping) literary taboo:

I have disappointing news, but there’s a big silver lining. We discussed your poems at length and with admiration and excitement, but in the end we didn’t find one in THIS batch that we felt would be a great début for you in the magazine. It’s just that so many of them are about writing, and we try to shy away from poems explicitly addressing the subject of writing—much less the politics of the writing scene. But you are definitely on the screen here, and I’m only (and deeply) sorry I took so long.

In shying away from “poems explicitly addressing…the politics of the writing scene,” these editors, here, are, strictly speaking, rejecting the content more than the craft, yet “shy away” is the operative verb here. What exactly are these editors afraid of? Though this letter is all we have to go on to determine the motivations of these particular (anonymous, though probably white) gate-keeper editors, Ellis’ “The Judges Of Craft” did itself occasion similar responses from other quarters of the literary establishment after it had been published in The American Poetry Review (who, to its credit, was less queasy about this poem than others).

In his review of Ellis’ book, Gregory Orr criticizes Ellis’ gesture of including these rejection letters:

“Imagine a gifted and widely acclaimed operatic tenor pausing mid-song to deliver a rant about how Opera News once failed to mention him in an article, and you’ll have some idea of the jarring note this performance strikes…. The problem is not that these criticisms are undeserved. Maybe the editors who sent Ellis rejection notes are indeed insensitive… The problem is that these criticisms seem unambitious when compared with the provocations in Ellis’s better work…. A writer this good ought not spend his time peeling potatoes this small. That said, the motivation here isn’t hard to fathom, or to sympathize with. There’s a lingering insecurity behind the swagger in some of these poems, and because Ellis is a tough-minded poet, he’s reluctant to admit (much less surrender) to that uncertainty. So he stands his ground; he pushes back. The instinct is entirely to his credit, but when the thing that makes you feel belittled is itself tiny, then the consequences of such a response can be unfortunate. And there is almost nothing tinier than the poetry world, just as there is almost nothing bigger, stranger, and more disturbing than the bloody country that contains it.”

While Orr’s nuanced critique may not be as “insensitive” as the anonymous authors of the (potentially fabricated) rejection letters, and he clearly appreciates Ellis’ poetic “gifts,” he’s still rattled enough by TSE’s chutzpah in calling attention to the inhumanity of the literary world throughout this book to lash out against him in the tones of a paternalistic psychoanalysis: “there’s a lingering insecurity behind the swagger.” Orr makes the mistake of reading TSE’s criticisms of the poetic establishment in terms of TSE’s personal psychology, as if TSE is driven by mere ‘instincts’ rather than a collective struggle. This is precisely what Skin, Inc., taken as a whole, is attempting to expose, a racism so entrenched in the standard protocols of the “literary scene’ that even well-meaning proponents of aspects of Ellis’ book succumb to it (even unintentionally). Ellis is speaking of injustice in the workplace, and trying to counter it. In this light, Orr’s comments feel like a scold: It’s okay to think globally, but don’t act locally! Don’t trouble the sacred frame!” In this sense, even his largely positive “well-intentioned” review (that can be mined by publishers for blurbs) mimics the very letters TSE takes to task in “The Judges Of Craft.”

The most lengthy review of the book, in The Nation, also gets deeper into TSE’s “personal psychology,” by tracing his “career trajectory” with much more attention than it traces what the poem does: “I'm prepared to say this is the inescapable sophomore jinx, which in music usually takes the form of a track by the new star settling scores with people who rejected him back in the day. And sure enough, ‘The Judges of Craft’ intersperses rejection letters with off-point remarks on craft and life and line and form. “

Both points are debatable to say the least. In the first place, Ellis’ remarks on craft, life and form are only “off point” if one fetishizes the ‘autonomous’ poem, the sublime object, a be-all-and-end-all that is its own reward: and renders that object into an absolute standard for judging poetic integrity. In the second place, Ellis is acutely aware of operating in a literary world in which the “ratio of us to them” is “far worse than/ commas to words,” as he puts it in the sequence’s final section (before he says his ‘anapest goodbye’). The poem is “not about me, it’s about us” and he just stands as an example of “one of us.” Ellis is not the first, nor is he the last, person to have gone through this trial (even if he doesn’t confess that he loves this “cultured hell that tests my youth” as Claude McKay’s “America” puts it). This sense of identity, of ontology even, is clearly not understood and/or appreciated by the white critics of Poetry and The Nation.

These white poetic establishment critics praise TSE’s work insofar as it works within certain parameters, but it’s more challenging, and enlightening to consider it on its own terms. The poem is not simply about the ‘politics of the writing scene,’ but about the politics that is part of the poem’s---any poem’s—essence (the politics that defines what is and is not a poem as a genre, not simply whether it is a good or bad poem):

“In the classroom     the work
on the table is a corpse
surrounded by     other equally

decomposing economies…..

Another lengthy case,
a crack in the craft
to crawl through, the trial of proving
 you are flat, worth paper….”            (88-90).

(Dig the consonants!) The medium of exchange affects not only the shape of “the work” but also of the writers, in academia and publishing. The writing workshop becomes a grand metaphor for what Orr calls “the bloody country (or, more accurately trans-national NGOs) that contains it.” The global is in the local; the world is in the workshop. And so far nothing in these lyric passages is specifically about race or racism…until TSE gets to the penultimate section of this XII part poem:

They allow you among them
without a hood.
a type of vitiligo typeface
taught taste

You make the ghetto Greek
Reference, begging.

The word “hood” for instance could refer to “them” (they took off their Klansman’s ‘hood’) or to ‘you’ (they’ll only let you among them if you don’t bring “the hood” with you; especially if you help them destroy—I mean gentrify—it) and Skin, Inc. is full of such brilliant and illuminating double-meanings that go beyond mere ‘textual play.’

TSE includes a third, shorter, rejection letter that rejects the poem “The Obama Hour” for being “too strident,” but if TSE’s work is stridency, I believe we could use a lot more of this in the poetry world today. I’m sure even white people have felt the alienation of the workshop and “submission” process, of the protocols and conventions that “guide” poetry performances, have felt straightjacketed by the narrow definitional norms of “poetry” as well as the marginalization of poetry in this world, and Thomas Sayers Ellis, like the Black Arts Movement at its best, may help provide a corrective for many of these ills that were indeed caused by the way white supremacy has institutionally manifested itself in the poetry world….not that he could effect this corrective alone.

From my perspective these are hardly “small potatoes.” He’s fighting on one of the many front lines of the institutional biases that are a precondition to “legitimate” discussions about poetic craft. In the process he champions a more inclusive, permissive, eclectic lexicon of poetry as his book itself attests to in its range beyond the opposite “extremes” of the Vendler-Perloff continuum—including concrete poetry and manifesto-as-poem, but also his “perform-a-form, photo-elegy with footnotes for feet-work” and beyond to his enthralling musical collaborations with James Brandon Lewis and company.

TSE’s relentless attempts to create alternatives to overly narrow specialists, and tyrants of the post-Poundian lyric (an institutional problem with race and class implications) is a fight hardly finished (as bad public assistance is), and today few dare to fight the real life struggle by ruminating on the power dynamics of the literary world with the brilliance and force with which TSE does, but it is at the heart of what Baraka calls the Black Arts aesthetic, which is still rarely afforded equal status in our academic and quasi-academic institutions of poetry.

These ruminations raise complex—or even simple—aesthetic and ethical questions—which probably demand at least a lifetime of engagement, both in one’s writing, as well as in the ways poetry—as literature—circulates in the world. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one need (or should be) only fighting on this front, only arguing self-referentially about “shop talk,” but sometimes the frame has to be troubled (the better to afford it an opportunity to defend itself more convincingly?).

I am willing to grant that, indeed, by the standards of craft as they’re known (and by which I’ve achieved success in)—that some other work I love because it says something important, that needs to be said and heard and could actually “do something” (or at least tries)—is not “successful.” But we don’t need to accept these standards as absolutes; we could simply reject them as some do, but we could also be in dialogue with them; we don’t have to reject their possible uses on occasion to reject their dominance and tyranny.

I reject this common and often implicit (unspoken) standard that we, as writers (and judges since every published writer, whose published more than one piece, also becomes a judge of writing) are expected to adhere to: that there is one ideal form, an “ever fixed mark” between extremes. One negative consequence of this standard as it’s practiced today is that poems are regularly rejected on the grounds of “erring on the side of content,” but have no problem finding publishers if they “err on the side of form” (though I know some would protest that I’m accepting a naïve, vulgar, binary distinction between “form” and content,” or “play” and “meaning”. No, I’m just pointing out that these judges of craft do it.)

The ideal of the perfect conjunction of craft and creed, aesthetic and ethics, form and content is so heavily weighted toward linguistic ambiguity and suggestiveness—especially in the “free verse” era which robbed poetry of crucial features that marked it as separate from “vulgar prose” (though it made it easier to distinguish it from the song-lyric as transcribed on the page—even a song as complex as, say, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” which is made for New Critical/Deconstructive close reading as much as any Dickinson or Blake song). Lacking those “blessed structures” of plot and rhyme, poetry demanded a stepping up of relativistic ambiguity, or other devices that would derange the senses, to distinguish it as art rather than mere communication.

As a result of this 20th century development, Laura Riding claimed that poetry now manifested an irreconcilable breach between creed and craft, but even if one holds out hope that this difference could be reconciled, the ideal of the perfect conjunction of aesthetic and ethical does put an exceeding amount of pressure on the poem that may even be self-defeating, especially in a time and place in which the American wealth gap is at an all-time high and the crisis of this zeitgeist splits the myth of the middle class into upper class aesthetic forms and lower class content (in poetry—or what’s called that today).

Against this backdrop, is it not possible the best poems say, “look at me for my flaws—or incompletions that need not be seen as flaws. I’m not asking you to love me only for my flaws, but at least acknowledge these flaws make it easier to see the limits of whatever it is you call ‘mastery,’”-- just as pop music albums at their best (back in the day of albums) would include a hit that had been a single to anchor the ambitious—if flawed—experiments on side 2, as if the single was the “head on the wall” and the album could be the “hunting” which exists with it in equal, symbiotic relation.

Of course, for this to happen, you need to bring back—at the very least-- a singles culture, something like local radio stations with request lines and the neighborhood watch focus-groups which were at the heart of early Detroit years of Motown (and, yes, a poem should aspire to be as well-organized as a great radio station like today’s holdouts such as KPOO). And, yes, like that radio station, the poetry world (or scene) needs new blood, or at least what Kenneth Koch called fresh air. And, yes, you can’t write a really excellent poem that fits my—as judge of craft—aesthetic standards without in some way helping to create community in this scattered, decimated, social nexus (despite---or more likely because of—TV and Facebook’s “global village” which rhymes, of course with pillage).

And by these high and/or deep standards, probably many of us fail. The best defense against realizing that failure—some reason—is to, in turn, fail (dismiss) those standards and, rather, judge from the perspective that values an abstracted sense of craft (however understood—or spun—as “organic”). Of course, appealing to ethical standards will be seen as “privileging content at the expense of form” (notice the implicit economic transition, which resembles the way the global super rich demand their right not to pay their fair share). Yet, creating a fine poem and seeing its analogies with, say, a sustainable community center serving kids as well as seniors requires craft as much as creed, even if it demands a more capacious form than a single poem could permit, more capacious than even the naturalized over specialized notion of poetry (before it split from music, narrative, essays, dance, history, philosophy and medicine) could permit. So, why couldn’t we call this wider sense poetry? What would the word “poetry” (and its world) really have to lose?

Aesthetically, I crave a poetry that errs on sides, a poetics that errs on sides—the more sides the better. I do sometimes crave poems that appeal to the sophisticate (TSE names Ashbery), but also poems that feel that they must yield before the wisdom of a child (which Kenneth Koch championed).—or at least a brilliant 18 year old community college student writing at a “6th grade level.”  I crave work that lets different standards talk to each other, revolutionary dialogue poetry that questions, interrogates, the anti-populist structures and institutions, and attempts to provide alternatives, to build and organize decimated communities. One audience’s great poem is often another audience’s lousy poem, you could either try to write a poem that pleases both and ends up pleasing neither, or write two “opposite” poems that can please each separately, and hope to build a wider coalition: I believe TSE is further along in doing the latter than the vast majority of his contemporaries.

The fact that something as commonsensical as a “perform-a-form” is still considered “too radical” should tell you a lot about how far we have to go. As Ellis puts it, “breath is the first craft.” This simple statement also challenges more than merely the small potatoes of “official verse culture,” but beyond it to the western metaphysical tradition based on Descartes’ “Cogito” or the notion of the word as essence that precedes, come before, the flesh. Once one sees this dimension to TSE’s critique, it’s easy to see how these metaphysics (which even Eliot knew ushered in a “dissociation of sensibility” at the dawn of imperialism) were, and are still, used to justify colonialism and white supremacy (as “mind” is more like an enlightenment writer sipping coffee in the Netherlands while the “body” is the people enslaved and displaced to pick the beans—to name but one ramification (see Fred Moten’s work on how “imagination” is racialized in Western metaphysics). Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t compromise, can’t wear “kid gloves” and not be too heavy handed (I’m sure TSE’s too subtle for some as well)—but sometimes you have to scream—or at least shout--and you could either aspire to do it as artfully as James Brown or John Coltrane or maybe just like those guys who dug up the outdated Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl” to read at an occupy rally in 2011.

Recently, in his long essay, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” (especially in the section titled “Writing While Black”), Ken Chen breaks down how the exclusionary economy of scarcity drives the critical presumptions of Perloff and Vendler (and Logan) across the “wide” spectrum of today’s acceptable poetry. The same dynamic is seen in pop music (to revisit that analogy) and explains why it’s less eclectic and inclusive than it was when black DJs had more autonomy. Today, in poetry as in pop music, there’s less grass roots genre cross-pollination compared to previous popular music (if not in poetry which was always dominated by a trickle-down economy). In contemporary pop, we see a deadening sameness. Yet, if we take seriously the appeal to reason and passion that is TSE’s perform-a-form manifesto, we may yet be able to save the word—and institution—“poetry” from itself if it’s worth saving, if we find we have a stake in it, a stake that is not an oil drill as much as a hoe to help plant enough tomatoes to help feed the ‘hood and create better paying jobs than the Jack In The Box our actions could put out of business.

Chris Stroffolino

1 comment:

  1. Great piece! "I crave a poetry that errs on sides---the more sides the better."