In this month’s look at literary communities, we’re talking with Anis Shivani. Many of you may be most familiar with Shivani as a voice of criticism or dissent, especially when it comes to the current creative writing landscape and its relationship to MFA programs. I’ve been fascinated by Shivani’s views on these and similar issues for some time, but I’m also curious about what these ideas might mean with regard to writers and community more generally speaking. Shivani has been kind enough to address some of the questions brought about by this curiosity, while giving us a sense of his own experience and understanding of community as not only a critic, but a writer himself.
I’ve been tossing around a few points by Lyn Hejinian as a way of not only thinking about literary community as an idea, but of also asking what any particular literary community is or does. In “Who Is Speaking?” Hejinian writes, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.” What do you make of a model like this? Is it missing anything? Is it problematic in any ways? Is there a working definition that you yourself have for what “literary community” means or should mean?
This is a highly problematic statement for me, if read a certain way. It implies that the writer invents himself and discovers the meaning of writing within a literary community. I dispute the very premise that a literary community is necessary for a writer to invent himself—I mean, a living, physical, intimate literary community of fellow writers, peers and teachers, students and administrators, which is implied here.
This is a very important point of departure because at stake is the very notion of the ideal of writing, what should be the result when a writer gets down to work. My starting premise—contrary to Hejinian—is that solitude is the sine qua non of writing, the writer discovers the meaning of his or her art, what he or she was intended to say in his or her own unique way, in the deepest imaginable solitude, taking solitude in every sense of the word. The conception of the writer, according to Hejinian, is as a corporate being, embedded in social and political norms that have lent credibility and legitimacy to the institutions of writing, as opposed to the conception of the writer I hold as someone whose very essence is unrelenting opposition to the norms of society, the norms of organization and cohesiveness that make lives constrained and limited, both imaginatively and physically.
The form of literary community I most admire is that of communion with the great writers, whether dead or alive, through their words on the page. I will also grant the very fruitful notion of the community that exists between the writer and his readers; i.e., what happens to the book after it’s published, how it is received in the world, and the relationships that may come about as a result of publication.
But Hejinian is after a different ideal: she is talking about a literary community which it is necessary to be a part of in order to create in the first place. I militantly oppose this particular notion of the literary community. It’s a very different model—a corporate, institutionalized one—than the one I grew up with as a romantic ideal, based on my understanding of writers and their origins and practices from time immemorial until the very recent—only a few decades’ old—assimilation of writing into a hypercapitalist model which concretely manifests itself in the workshop/MFA system, in turn closely tied up with a very constrained, also highly capitalistic, model of publishing.
If I said that I invented myself, my identity, my origins, my meaning, in the context mainly of the European modernist writers of the twenties, would Hejinian accept this as falling within her definition of literary community? I suspect not, I suspect she means something necessarily more tangible and immediate, something with a transactional element, something with a supervisory and monitory aspect that governs the modern creative writing environment.
In your now infamous essay, “The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing,” you talk a lot about “a house style” or a “uniformity of product.” You’re making some pretty astute and difficult (for some) claims about the MFA as an institution and the kind of writing it engenders. It’s about craft, but it’s also about the kinds of social norms that play into that craft and how an MFA can go about imprinting those norms. Here you write, “conservativeness in organization usually results in conservativeness of product as well.” How would you describe the social function of any particular MFA program or the system more generally? In what ways does the MFA system succeed or fail as a literary community?
There’s no such thing, of course, as a singular abstract “craft,” though that is what the MFA program likes to pretend, that there is some sort of Platonic craft that has always been in existence and always will be, and that it is the task of the program to filter out the distractions that prevent the student from reaching the ideal form of craft.
Craft is about social norms, that is all it is. I mean, any particular form of teaching about craft is invested in particular social norms. In the case of the present MFA regime, its social function is to train would-be writers to be responsible capitalist citizens, so that they function seamlessly in the system of studying and teaching, and later publishing, without causing any ripples, any disturbances in the commercial climate. The imposition of social norms is true of any system of indoctrination (all forms of teaching), so why should the writing program be an exception?
The system does not question its own parameters—why it exists in the first place, what social and political goals it fulfills, how a particular form of “craft” is chosen as the ideal and not some other—but merely insists on students faithfully following the existing rules. I want to be clear that there is not a single form of prose or poetry that defines the house style; within prose there are variations—the MFA magical-realist or fabulist style (very popular these days), the omnipresent memoirist/confessional style, the social realist/politically acquiescent domestic style, etc., and likewise for poetry with its variations, but I want to argue that each of the subsets of style is very clearly defined, and with the passing of each year becomes more and more crystallized in definition and understanding and presentation.
A literary community such as the MFA system—taking place now on a continental scale, with huge numbers of people, tens of thousands of active members, and substantial financial incentives and rewards for the winners (admittedly few, but always held out as examples to emulate) as well as the undeniably vast corps of functionaries in the trenches, the slave/Walmart/associate level, if you will, rather than those ruling from corporate headquarters at Iowa and NYU and Columbia—demands to be understood sociologically, in distant—even funny—anthropological terms, as a virus-like instigation—much like any organization of self-declared goal-setters, such as real estate boosters—that is so intent on replication it finds it impossible to see itself for what it is, because all that the members can see (like any deluded cult occurring on such a vast scale) is their own reality. Any sense of literary history that deviates from present cultish norms is impossible to acknowledge in such a condition.
To what extent does it succeed as a literary community on its own terms? Exceptionally well. This is borne out in the norms of exclusion so successfully enforced on outsiders, and the ability to have created not only the impression but the reality, within a space of four decades, that writing emanating from this system is the only kind that should be valued in the economy of prestige and money. It is possible—from a certain detached perspective—to view the entire output coming out of the MFA system as a rationalization of the existing state of economic affairs, and hence profoundly conservative. Have we been repeating ourselves for the last forty years, or has the literary conversation advanced? Are we in fact retreating?
Other critics/writers, like Jim Behrle, have pointed to hyper-competitiveness and self-promotion as a new kind of social norm among writers. Relationships within the writerly world of late capitalism seem to be predicated on a weird mix of rivalry and use value. We’re either sizing our peers up or trying to use them to our own advantage. Maybe this kind of dynamic makes for better writing than the “MFA house style” you mention earlier, but it also most likely leads to some pretty dysfunctional interpersonal situations. What do you think? Is this kind of configuration a result of the publishing world itself, or do you see it as a further extension of the MFA as guild system? Is it any more or less problematic than some of the things you’ve pointed out about MFAs? Do you have any other insights on the current literary marketplace and what it means for our social lives as writers?
Yes, exactly, the point about hyper-competitiveness and self-promotion—using social media as a magnification and extension of existing tendencies—is completely valid. I don’t see it as a different dynamic than the MFA house style, however, but as an extension of the logic of the MFA as guild system, where there is naturally a very high premium on exclusivity and monopoly.
The members of the guild, in fact, are rent-seekers—and those familiar with economics will know that this is a derogatory term, referring to those who gain unfair advantage by finding privileged spots in the revenue-seeking stream and failing to do anything innovative or creative. Rent-seekers, as opposed to true (literary) entrepreneurs, those who advance the literary conversation forward as opposed to hold it back—that, it seems to me, is the real opposition. Writing, for those who play the game well, go to the right schools and earn the right position in the guild system, is a highly lucrative venture. I think we should go back to the root of the problem. Are writers capitalists? As you point out, the self-promoting and hypercompetitive behavior of writers on social media and even in real-life forms of interaction makes manifest, in ways that were perhaps not as clear in the past, the capitalist dimensions of this venture.
I would say that the publishing world has responded very well, or has nicely adapted, to the new situation in terms of the supply of a particular kind of writing, but I would place the onus more on the production or supply side than the acquisition or buying side—although perhaps this is a specious distinction at this point, between the cynical big publishing firm editor and the writing teacher overlord. They’re both equally corrupt, equally capitalist, equally cynical.
Underneath the constant mutual puffery, there always seem to be—in these fragile new literary communities—undertones of resentment and hostility ready to bubble over. These are typically not relationships of love and nurturing, but relationships based on insecurity. The more one tries to be part of such literary communities—at every stage of the MFA system—the more one gets involved in unhealthy personal dynamics. The system—as with the rest of the economy—creates a few outlandishly rewarded stars while the rest wallow in economic misery; such an inegalitarian system does not seem to me a solid foundation for a literary community.
The social landscape for writers might appear toxic, or at the very least, unhealthy in some serious ways, but there seems to be something that causes and has caused writers to seek out other writers throughout time. From the Sons of Ben to Gertrude Stein’s salon to the present day, writers have found ways and reasons to congregate with one another. Does that have more to do with simple human nature, or is there something about the writer’s life that requires some element of community? What is it about writing or writers specifically that is or isn’t conducive to some kind of communal experience? What does some kind of community give or provide for a writer that other things can’t?
I don’t know about other writers, but this isn’t true for me. I could easily live without the community of other writers. It’s not important to me, and most of the time, it’s not even conducive. I would argue the nature of your premise, that this is something that writers have yearned for throughout time.
I already made a distinction between a writing community as part of the production or writing stage, which is something I daresay writers in earlier stages of history have typically had little value for, and a writing community once you’re a writer and need to be with other writers to exchange thoughts or because it makes you feel better about the otherwise very solitary nature of writing. I suppose the latter is okay, but for me personally nowhere registering high on the scale of things. I share things with other writers—and likewise for those who trust me—but I certainly don’t live or die by it.
Writers as a community when it’s the logic of a movement—one can think of any of the literary movements since the beginning of modernity as examples, from the enlightenment salons of England and Germany and France in the eighteenth century to the Bloomsbury Group or the Russian Futurists or French Surrealists of the early twentieth century—that’s a different sort of thing altogether. I’m all for that. Bring on the revolution. But where are the revolutionaries? Everybody’s too busy teaching or performing all the functions of bourgeois life, so I suspect the moment for such movements—at least given present capitalist compulsions—is long past, or not right. And therefore a waste of time. I go back to solitude.
In an interview with Roxane Gay for HTMLGIANT, you talk a lot about the role of the critic in the literary world. You write that “the writer of the future should conceive of himself first and foremost as a critic,” and that this model could potentially “replace the model of the writer learning ‘craft’ by practicing under state or corporate patronage.” In what ways are the role of an honest and unflinching critic at odds with or in sync with what you would consider some kind of functional writers’ community? How does a strong commitment to criticism challenge current community models or norms?
In my forthcoming book Literature in an Age of Globalization, there is an essay, originally published in Subtropics, where I talk at great length about this notion of the writer conceiving of himself or herself as a “critic” first and foremost, as a way of honing the craft, as a way of being a literary entrepreneur, shall we say. It was an honest idea, a sincere ideal, the best I could come up with at the time.
I’m not sure it’s possible to put it into practice anymore. The Internet, in which I rested a lot of hope at the time, has degenerated a great deal. Social media’s repressive and authoritarian tendencies—that is to say, our own underlying tendencies, in the literary community in this country—have become more manifest. It is a great idea, to train oneself as a writer by way of practicing as a critic—it is no more than a formal expression of the way writers used to train themselves until the very recent past, by engaging with books of the present and past with their writerly hats on—but in this extreme stage of hypercapitalization, perhaps no longer possible. The moment for that has passed as well, if ever there was such a moment in the recent past.
The model I presented—of the writer as independent critic—is actually a point-by-point refutation of the MFA model; so you can imagine how little chance it has of working in the real world. Who, after all—given the proscription against negativity, or what is called negativity in the MFA world—will risk livelihood by saying anything at all honest or constructive or real about any writing, past or present? It’s quite literally inconceivable at this point. You cannot even say anything pro or con about the very dead ancients; you’re bound to offend someone.
As a writer and critic yourself, what has your experience been like when it comes to some kind of literary community? I’m sure the controversy surrounding some of your criticism has been cause for some form or another of communal shunning. How have you managed/dealt with that kind of backlash? What are some positive or productive instances of community from your past or present and what have they meant to you as a creative writer and as a critic?
Since in our culture there is no accepted role for the critic anymore, it is a very dangerous pursuit to follow. Anything critical—even with the highest values of scholarship or rigor or honesty behind it—is taken as unwanted negativity, as in kindergarten or a child’s playroom. The adults prove themselves to be children when they treat criticism as a virus to be exterminated. Calls for censorship and blacklisting go out—many is the mediocre asshole who has done that publicly in my case, and in that of others who in the last five years have shown even a grain of self-respect in voicing honest critical opinions.
In this openly fascist environment, as I said, a critic is a fool. I was the most dedicated of critics, and I have come to the point of asking myself if this pursuit is worth it at all. It is like being a voice of dissent in any authoritarian regime: at what point does it become futile to the point of counterproductivity? It is probably better to put your head down and write in solitude and do the best work you’re capable of and ignore all the bad stuff going on around you—in other words, cease being a critic.
We live in a culture of therapy and consolation (whose outward expression, however, takes the form of inconsolable grief and melancholy), where it is impermissible to call things for what they are, judge the value of particular works or authors. The very notion of objective criteria to make judgments of taste is forbidden: who are you to judge, what gives you the power or authority, doesn’t the sincerity of intention count? It is a very religious conception of aesthetics, actually, rather than the agnosticism that is required for criticism.
Of course, there has been shunning—but also admiration. For every idiot who openly called for me to be blacklisted or censored because I had the audacity to express honest critical opinions, there are legions of those who quietly, and generally privately, voice their own discomfort toward the reigning system, and keep prodding me to go on. I should publish the collection of correspondence I’ve received over the years from vast numbers of disaffected MFA students and graduates, who express disillusionment with their experience; it would make for very sad reading. I would instance these kinds of exchanges as a form of literary community that I like, that has given something back to me, as I have given something to it: i.e., the readers who thought seriously about my critiques of the system and tried to think for themselves which parts of the criticism were valid or felt true to themselves, and which parts they didn’t agree with. But this form of literary community—in which I would place this very solicitation of opinion and conversation that we’re engaging in right now—is the one I value, i.e., community after the fact, after the fact of expression and publication, not before.
As for the backlash, well, what can one do, except, as I say, be incredibly disappointed in our present standards of discourse. These would-be censors are, after all, writers! Writers, the ultimate humanists, who are presently in America at the absolute forefront of censorship, calling for suppression of voices of any kind they don’t agree with—well, let’s just call it defense of their house style, their style of public presentation. It is very revealing and makes one want to completely disengage from any form of interaction with this so-called literary community.
I have gained a lot from engaging with writers whose work I admire, ranging from Orhan Pamuk to Franz Wright, who at critical moments in my career gave me exactly the right incentive or boost to press forward, who knew exactly the thing to say or do to make me head in the right direction. Pamuk doesn’t have to gain anything by doing this, nor does Franz Wright—and that is the ideal literary community, when the exchange is based on admiration, in this case my immense admiration for Pamuk as the world’s best living writer, and likewise for Wright as the country’s best living poet. I’m perfectly happy to be a disciple in this situation, and have everything to gain by it. There are also instances where the level of skill between me and some other friend might not be as discrepant, where we may be more on terms of equality or close to equality, and there have been many such writers over the years, interaction with whom has meant a lot—mainly in terms of boost of confidence at critical points. If writing was only and purely solitary, then of course it wouldn’t be a humanly sustainable proposition—one does need readers after all, one cannot live without that—although I do think pure solitude in the creation of writing is the ideal to strive for.
Most of the instances of literary community I have found useful have stemmed from admiration of writing, and then have become translated into real-life friendship, and one form of this, which sustained me through many years of the most difficult period, was the form of community that emerges from the literary journal. There are many journals, going back fifteen years, which took an early interest in me, and published me regularly, and when the journal is firmly guided by a strong aesthetic vision, then the community of contributors to it forms a particular kind of literary community.
For example, I hold Richard Burgin, editor for thirty years of Boulevard, in great esteem: to me he is the ideal journal editor, having everything one could wish for in that capacity, with a deft touch and the ability to draw the best out of his writers. Such a person—let’s call him a teacher or senior writerly friend—can be invaluable when things seem dark or hopeless, just by their simple act of validation of one’s writing, especially writing which goes most against the grain. Richard holds these wonderful regular symposiums in Boulevard, and the community of contributors to these symposiums becomes an interesting entity over time. We, in our solitude in Massachusetts or Texas, become tied to something bigger than ourselves, and in this best example of community, strive to see beyond our own preconceptions; that is what a good community does for you.
Let’s also talk about the community that results from a press’s editorial director’s strong vision. I have been privileged to be part of such communities, and again, this is an example of writers coming together because of a common aesthetic or common commitment to literary standards. When Chad Prevost published my book The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, I went to Chattanooga, Tennessee—where they’re based—to do a reading for the Fusebox series, then organized by poet Aubrey Lenahan. At that particular reading, in a converted firehouse in the historic part of town, I was blown away by every single reader, and that may have a lot to do with Aubrey and Chad’s aesthetic, or whatever the reason was that that particular constellation of people came together to read: Kyle McCord, Joe Hall, Michael Joseph Walsh, all of whom I’ve tried to stay in touch with and have admired since then. Later we hung out at the most popular spot in Chattanooga, the Flying Squirrel bar, and there were others, Sybil Baker, for instance, with whom I had been in touch for many years, and who was published by Chad Prevost’s press before I was, so there was a common interest that transcended any immediate gain in terms of what I could do for someone and vice versa. That is the most exciting form of literary community I can think of!
I think of Joe Phillips, publisher of Black Widow Press, who also runs one of the planet’s most interesting used and rare bookstores—Commonwealth Books in downtown Boston, with branches in other cities as well, such as the Crescent City Bookstore in New Orleans’s French Quarter—whose mission it is to keep alive the leading surrealists of the founding generation, but who also publishes some great contemporary poets who fit into that aesthetic. Now the writers who are jointly published by Black Widow are a community. Dave Brinks, the New Orleans poet, who runs the historic Gold Mine Saloon in the Quarter (a beehive of literary activity in that city for many years), is one of them, and when I come together with him, beginning with my admiration for his work, all sorts of interesting things happen. A couple of years ago Dave told me of a great literary discovery: a treasure trove of archives he’d discovered that would reshape our understanding of jazz poetry in the post-war years (Dave is a natural for such discoveries, he has recently, as he told me last month at the Gold Mine Saloon, made another astounding archival discovery!). When Dave took me to meet John Sinclair at his Faubourg Marigny abode, what a great privilege it was, what an inspiring moment—musicians and writers and rebels holding on to the last vestiges of bohemia, acting as though this neoliberal capitalist juggernaut wasn’t out to crush every last one of us.
In Houston I’ve been a part of Public Poetry, whose mission has been to take poetry to different spots all over town, taking poetry to the people, in other words, rather than having readings in the usual bohemian spots with more of a sense of exclusivity. I love being part of this community, all kinds of unexpected things happen when the poets in town—and nearly every interesting local poet has read for Public Poetry by now, over its five years of incarnation—interact with resident communities in this way, it’s an exciting mission around which poets can congregate. It brings out the best in writers, their most social side, from what I’ve observed. Again, this is different from the ritualistic MFA reading, limited to MFA students, where cheers are out of proportion to quality, since everyone will soon encounter the rest as fellow administrators and judges.
Having said all this in praise of literary community, I will still say this: it is secondary. I could easily live without it, although it’s nice. It helps but is not critical. The only thing that matters in the end is solitude and privacy and refusal to engage in all kinds of big and small compromises that amount to the death of originality.
Do you find yourself seeking different things from a community depending on what hat you happen to be wearing (the critic, the fiction writer, the poet)? Should a writers’ community engage or be challenged by those individuals in different ways? Are there some ways that all of these forces can/should be combined or integrated into a single community?
This is a great question! When people encounter me with a preconception of me as primarily a critic, they expect me to be judgmental, severe, stern, perhaps even nitpicking—and are then shocked to discover the throwback California persona; you can take a boy out of Manhattan Beach, but you can’t take Manhattan Beach out of him. Recently I stayed at the home of an artist in New Orleans’s Bywater—found through airbnb—and he looked me up online before arrival and jumped into extra care to spruce up the place because he discovered I was a critic! No such precaution was necessary, I couldn’t be a more easy-going guest. When people see me primarily as a fiction writer, they expect more wisdom and balance and maturity, because narrative, particularly its long form, gives rise to such expectations; this is especially true for novelists, who are thought to be the repositories of the collective wisdom of humankind, the greatest analysts of character. When people see me as a poet, their expectation is to meet someone romantic, passionate, idealistic—in short, poetic.
Now imagine a literary community constituted of many people practicing many genres in many styles. What you end up with is the ability to reconstitute one’s own perceptions of oneself based on actual encounters, the ways they follow expectations and the ways they subvert them; this is the beauty of literary communities when they work, just as this is the beauty of great writing, we expect and are disappointed or we expect and are fulfilled, and in the gaps emerge our own formations of identity, our most precious discoveries about ourselves. It is all very contingent and reflexive, and it is very difficult for me to take seriously the idea of myself playing any role in entire seriousness, even the role of critic. I may be starting to sound too much like Hejinian, though, so I better stop here.
But I will say that a literary community, to the extent that this notion is important at all, works when there is a foundation of security—hence the importance I’ve attached to engaging in such activity after the creation of some real work—which leads to openness to change and reevaluation. The thing about solitude is that this is where you can be most secure, you can go a long way toward inventing yourself before having to subject yourself to scrutiny; in this lies greatness as well as disaster.
What might your ideal literary community look like in terms of structure, aims, etc? Are there any past models you look to or any possibilities for new ways of connecting that you see as alternatives to the MFA or workshop mentality?
The ideal literary community is one for which there is really no purpose, no structure, no aim, no goal: as soon as you formalize it, you lose the spontaneity that characterizes the value of literary exchange. The ideal literary community, in other words, doesn’t know it exists, and if it does, it doesn’t want to talk about it. The ideal literary community’s only goal, insofar as it has one, is the destruction of all literary communities; it is a bureaucracy otherwise. The ideal literary community is interested in its own annihilation, because how else is progress among its members to occur? The ideal literary community is one which is hated, abhorred, spit on, despised, issued death threats, blacklisted, and censored by those who actually should be its ultimate beneficiaries; failing these reactions, the community is little more than a pleasant get-together. But pleasant get-togethers are nice too.
Let’s think about Faulkner’s little literary community in New Orleans, of which Sherwood Anderson was a part, and in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, where another elderly writer took upon himself to be his mentor. Both communities quickly degenerated into outright hostility. Faulkner really came into his own when he said screw you to all communities, and became—as we would call him today—a “weirdo” in his hometown. His dealings in New York, when he visited his agents and publishers, were madcap events, and I’m not sure what anyone on either side gained by his travels. His relationship with Hollywood—that particular self-deluded community—was similarly fraught, although the director Howard Hawks flattered him and boosted his ego, and he had a great love affair, with a beautiful woman—Meta Carpenter—I for one wish he’d married. Meanwhile, he was continuing to do his best work almost in opposition to these communities, New York first, then Hollywood—using these communities as a foil.
There have been great literary movements that have advanced the cause of the arts. In Europe, one thinks of the surrealists under Andre Breton, in turn deriving impetus from such artistic movements as cubism, fauvism, futurism, and so on; the Dadaists under Tristan Tzara (perhaps my all-time great idol when it comes to these things) creating all sorts of mayhem in the cabarets and watering holes of central Europe; and in another manifestation, the Bloomsbury Group, who managed to shift writing in a completely different direction, where I think it mostly rests today.
In America, we had the Harlem Renaissance, which at its best hinted at an aesthetic reconciliation past grievance and hostility still only faintly understood; the Beats under Allen Ginsberg and others who revitalized prose and poetry and brought it down to earth when it was dead of formalist stasis in the immediate post-war years; the Objectivists, under Charles Olson, who pushed American verse in an experimentalist direction with all its present offshoots; and the New York School, perhaps the last such movement in America with such impact, under Frank O’Hara, which modified some of the earlier European tendencies in a peculiarly light-hearted way, and which still seems to me the acme of modern American poetry, a moment that has not yet met its antithesis.
I also want to mention the role of giant literary entrepreneurs/critics—such as Ezra Pound, the greatest modern example of this species—who have been the center of not just one literary community or movement but repeatedly found themselves at the center of such communities, wherever they happened to be. Think also of Ernest Hemingway, seeking the company of Gertrude Stein and other avant-garde writers and artists in Paris in the twenties, or in a more abstract way, George Orwell projecting a transcendent community from his perch at the BBC and expounding a form of patriotism that manages to be conservative and progressive at the same time and continues to appeal to all nationalities, not just the British. It seems, the more one thinks of writers, they all seek to be part of literary communities, or at least have some doings with them, or were early in their careers critically engaged with them. At the very least, they needed to work against them, in order to define themselves.
This space is not the occasion to go into detail about the realities of any of the communities I just mentioned, but in the context of this discussion we’re having, let me put out a few thoughts for consideration: 1) A literary community is often ex post facto visualized and conceived, i.e., it didn’t know it was one, until it came into being later. 2) For those that conceived of themselves contemporaneously in those terms, i.e., had manifestos and programs, there were often manifesto wars, i.e., at least as many interpretations of the community as there were members. 3) The most successful communities have been the least-lasting, the most transitory, the most apparently failed ones in the moment; thus, I think, Dada wins out over surrealism in the long run, though that game hasn’t played itself out yet. 4) Without the lead entrepreneur—Pound, Dada, Breton, Picasso, Marinetti, Olson, Ginsberg—nothing! In other words, community depends upon its own invalidation, upon strong individuality, to succeed. 5) The literary community floats above the larger aesthetic current of the time almost as if not touching it, floating a little above it, not getting wet, not in danger of sinking; it ultimately invests nothing, has nothing at stake, nothing to lose. 6) The best work is done outside the literary community or in opposition to it; though neat retrospective formulations often obscure this fact. 7) The communities that end up being the most successful are the ones most in danger of disintegrating, riven by the most stressful centrifugal forces. 8) Each viable literary community finds a space to hide, the only way it later becomes visible. (This last point is the most important, and the one that needs most exposition, but I can’t do it here.)
The present state of neoliberal capitalism has made sure we can’t have communities of this kind. Precisely when people start forming communities is when they run against the wrong side of the paradoxes I just outlined. What is happening in workshop, in big publishing, in social media, in public relations, is that everyone looks for the easy way out, the resemblance to the thing rather than the thing itself. The genuine thing requires making oneself vulnerable and exposed to risk, and it also requires strong doses of love, precisely what the current environment of insecurity doesn’t allow; so we have false simulations.
What are some proactive things, however small, we can do to create more generative/meaningful instances of community or challenge the powers that be more collectively?
This is a tall order. If your true enemy—against the formation of a real literary community, i.e., one which comes about because it has done something meaningful in terms of literary advancement—is neoliberal capitalism, then this is the force you must contest, not pick phony fights with other writers in the name of political correctness. So, try to figure out a way to exit your role in the capitalist representation of the writer and his function in the literary community. The events you ritualistically attend and the collaborations you’re expected to be part of, are they good for your soul? If they deaden you, exit. If you feel a weakening of the spirit, exit from anything they call literary community. You’ll be better off alone. In other words you have to find yourself first. Here are some things you may consider doing to start off:
Stop going to oppressive literary readings where everyone takes their own word as gospel and recites in the house style. Jeer and howl if you happen to be at such a reading, throw things at the reader, get the hell out of there. Boycott the venue, the bookstore, the library. Start your own literary salon.
Exit social media. It is juvenile and feeds into everything that is the antithesis of community. I don’t see a single good thing about it. Instead, nurture real community.
Stop reading and supporting websites and publications that are in the business of puffing up present literary production; that means just about all of them today, since they are all in the business of blurbing and boosting resumes rather than critiquing. You’re better off reading actual great literature.
Ask real questions at literary events even if you think others will look askance at you. Have the courage of your instincts. Take risks in real life.
I’m running into a problem here, listing these small actions as a start, because the logic of them leads to a big action, which is to say, stop teaching workshop if you do, stop being part of the social norms of writing and teaching, which then leads to the point, stop being a capitalist person, one who works for a salary to teach writing in a form that’s acceptable to capitalism, which then leads further to the point, exit social norms imposed upon you, do not have a lifestyle that requires living by capitalist rules even outside the teaching and practice of writing—which ultimately is the only way to a real literary community, which is based on real art, and you see how impossible a track I’m on?
Anything else you’d like to add or address?
Of all the things I could have ended up doing, in pursuit of the most honest, I ended up in the most corrupt business around in the United States: writing. The most corrupt because in this country the least is at stake. I feel like I know a little of what it must have felt like to be a writer in the Stalinist thirties, during the purges, during the heyday of socialist realism. I’m living the past as the future, when I thought I was going to find my way to the actual future.
But given this pervasive corruption, what can you do? I’ve stressed one point again and again, which is, community based on equality, not insecurity and desperate yearning to be recognized. The way to real community might ironically be to give in to behaviors which seem to be its antithesis. One always has the choice to end the waste of time implicated in mutual flattery, which halts the progress of one’s art, and instead congregate around an aesthetic vision among equals, by creating a press, or starting a journal or reading series, or simply getting together to talk about writing.
Anis Shivani’s latest collection of poems, Soraya: Sonnets, is forthcoming in early 2015. Sonnets from this book also appear in Black Warior Review, Borderlands, Everyday Genius, The Journal, Mudlark, Omniverse, Volt, Waxwing, Whiskey Island, and elsewhere. Anis’s recent books include Anatolia and Other Stories, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, and Karachi Raj: A Novel. Other Books recently finished or in progress include the novels A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less and Abruzzi, 1936, and a collection of essays calledLiterature in the Age of Globalization.
Jim Redmond is a Michigan native, who now lives in Austin, TX. He conducted these interviews and will continue to curate a monthly blog series on literary communities for Drunken Boat. Some of his writing can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, ReDIVIDer, Juked, Columbia Poetry Review, and Word Riot, among others. His chapbook, Shirts or Skins, won one of Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prizes a while ago.
This week’s vintage post features another talented photographer with unique and recognizable style. The vintage photographs that have earned the limelight this week are selections from Isabelle Hayeur’s “Uncertain Landscapes,” published previously in DB 4, Spring 2002. These desolate natural backdrops have an almost post-apocalyptic beauty that’s sure to amaze, so take a second today to check them out.
Isabelle Hayeur is a photographer and digital artist whose work has been widely displayed in public shows and solo exhibitions worldwide. She has been a participant in international artists’ residencies and her work appears in some twenty collections including museums and galleries in Chicago, Paris, and Canada. Currently her works are being shown in the National Gallery of Canada and Beijing’s Today Art Museum. To see more of her art, visit her website isabelle-hayeur.com.
Poet though I am, I’m always reading a novel: the new ones that have meant the most to me in the last few months are surely In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman’s dizzyingly ambitious novel of immigration, class division, colonialism and moral confusion and the three thus-far translated novels in Elena Ferrante’s un-put-down-able Naples Trilogy-soon-to-be Tetralogy. (I may not be able to wait until September 15, the publication date of the fourth, but read, very slowly, in Italian.) Both Rahman and Ferrante convey, among so many other things, the confusion and isolation brought about by upward mobility through education. Rahman’s novel is staggeringly wide-ranging in its approach to knowledge, engaging mathematics, physics, philosophy, but always bringing these subjects to bear on human interactions. Ferrante’s ambition is more localized, its profundity derived from unflinching attention to one city — for the most part, one neighborhood in that city — and to the complicated, conflicted and always vivid characters who inhabit it. Both writers’ works — at least to my knowledge – are without parallel in recent fiction. I started the Rahman novel on the number 5 train in New York, after a friend who lived conveniently near the Strand Bookstore – made an urgent recommendation. I was instantly glued to it on every subway (You’re reading a real book? No one reads real books anymore), then on a cross-country airplane back to Utah. A few months later, I was barely annoyed waiting hours for de-icing at Logan airport and then, having missed my connection, waiting another four hours in Detroit, because I had Ferrante’s novels with me.
As far as poetry goes, I spend a good deal of my time reading poems I’ve read before and finding new things in them – from the Hebrew Psalms to Dante to Dickinson to Crane to Coleridge to Hikmet. Wonderful new books on my shelves include pieces of dissertations I’ve chaired: Bastard Heart by Raphael Dagold, Storm Toward Morning by Malachi Black, Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day, and some fairly recently translated contemporary poets from Zephyr Press: Tomasz Rozycki’s The Forgotten Keys (Zephyr, 2007) (I understand there’s a newer Rozycki book to be had in English, The Colonies – but it’s not to be gotten hold of in Salt Lake City and my deadline is near ) and Approaching You in English by the marvelous Israeli poet, Admiel Kosman, who I once heard give a brilliant lecture on the Talmud. Rozycki is the sort of poet I love, who engages the most important subjects but is at the same time memorably lyric; Kosman writes beautiful, largely meditative poetry worthy of the Jewish literary tradition out of which so much of it comes, but thoroughly contemporary in its feel and thinking.
But the book of poetry I want to focus on doesn’t come out until April, and its author didn’t manage to see it into press: The Exile’s Gallery by Elise Partridge, who died on January 30 of this year. Let me first make clear that I knew Elise; we met in Robert Lowell’s final poetry class, in the spring semester of 1977, in which I was a junior, she a brilliant freshman. An image from a poem she wrote all those years ago haunted me for years, though we’d lost touch with one another. (She changed her name, moved to Canada, and, anyway, Google hadn’t been invented yet . . . .) Eventually, however, to my great joy, we found each other again and this last decade of friendship has meant a great deal to me, as have her exquisite poems.
Still, I want to make clear that while I am, of course, distraught, about the death of this exceptionally large-hearted and generous as well as brilliant person, I’m not writing about her book to console myself. Elise was a remarkable poet, with an astonishing gift of attention, whose work demonstrates that there’s nothing a poet can’t do when she matches such attention to nuanced thought and exquisite ear. Who else could write a line like “Five shirts take their ease on a jigging clothesline,” or perfectly recreate an iconic Hollywood moment, “as we watched hatbrims nudge/ in Bogie’s tarmac scene” or effortlessly and heartbreakingly encapsulate a life in a poem which takes as its starting point a school photograph: “The girl who lost her mind —/ no one can find her now —/grins from row four./ She always came first in hurdles,/ seven straight years.”
Partridge gives a life in a telling detail. A “white leather valise” suggests the thwarted, pampered existence of “A Woman Born in the 1930’s”
its aura of vista and risk,
initials gold by the tortoise handle.
Nudge the brass locks: they pop,
A beloved uncle’s sense of humor, irreverence and open-mindedness are evident in a swift anecdote : “When Father Stodd said women couldn’t be priests,/ he sent me a wry postcard of Voltaire.” A “Thoreauvian” is made vivid this way: “In the museum /of war heroes, / he noted the helmets’ plumes.”
A marvelous whimsical imagination is at work in Partridge’s poems. She writes from the point of view of a violin, first achieving eloquence, “the tree that made me stood five hundred years./ I feel its still forest in my fibres,” and then wittily and wistfully undercutting that eloquence:
I recall some outdoor fête:
a brackish pool,
the fish nearly snoring in the reeds;
their aimless, eddying schools. . . .
Or clattering to the schloss
over knobby cobbles
behind a stalling nag.
(That owner taught the lord’s brat to sing.)
I was left on a gilded chair
by the footman’s post.
A beetle spent all day clasping my strings.
A psychological “test to determine volunteer subjects’ creativity” which “used prompts like ‘What If Clouds Had Strings?’” inspires a meditation not only on creativity but utility, and the absurdity of such characterizations, such measurements:
There’s one tied to a fence
by a rancher yearning for shade.
Lashed to a mall’s arch,
two shift dolorous
haunches, chained elephants
Here, one is the only décor
snagged by the truck-stop
where the waitress pauses,
admiring its mauves
from a booth by the door
as she dabs at a mustard smear.
When her shift ends,
she strides through the parking lot
and snips its soiled tether
with the night cook’s shears.
But there are also clouds “stockpiled by Defense.” Partridge doesn’t shy away from the political, but approaches it with such a light touch it might be mistaken for something else. Here’s how she ends “The Imaginary Encyclopedia”:
It would skimp
on the descent of kings
or a towering GNP,
in favour of long bios
of mothers who walked miles for water,
a farmer who shared his well.
Partridge, until the very last moment of her life, certainly “shared” her “well” and I, for one, am tremendously grateful.
Today is one of those special Thursdays where we’re taking you all the way back to our humble beginnings as a literary journal. Nearly 15 years ago (Summer 2000) the very first issue of Drunken Boat hit the net. Although it may be small, it contains wonders of artistic achievement that still have the same sparkle as when they were originally published– which is why today’s featured post is Melissa Kirsch’s intriguing and speculative poem about human nature, “The Second-To-Last Hour.”
“In the future, no more bacteria.
In the future, less traffic
no new dance craze to catch on to.
In the future, the daughters who spilled
grape juice on the oriental rug are loved
just the same, everyone is forgiven,
all is forgiven.”
Melissa Kirsch is a New York-based poet, author, journalist, and has been professionally writing for and about women since 1998. At current she blogs for the Huffington Post and writes the “My Secret Library” column for KGB Bar Lit. Her first book, The Girl’s Guide to Absolutely Everything, was published in 2007 and offers advice on many of the topics and challenges faced by young women today. Get the latest updates on her work at melissakirsch.com
Your eyes lit like screens, from inside the commodity I find a likeness of you
It unfolds, again, again, in a mass of flora scented like the real thing
Of all the 3-D printed mansions, which one suits you?
“there’s maybe a higher chance of it fracturing at the contact point if there’s a strong enough force”
There’s maybe a river, underneath, where fish have squatted the mall
There’s a future I’ve only glimpsed from the promises lapsed
Your car spinning, where the parking lot will be
Pressed on by a dream, a liquidation sale of my nineteenth century obsession w/ everyday life
Versus all the oceans that tug
Versus the romance of circulation
Versus if I’m rare will you keep me
In the consumer dream house all the light pours down from above
Electronic dolls whirr in the hallways, cleaning
Panoramas are boxed in by cameras no longer in our hands
Walking the boulevards is not what it was—Virgil and I try it and we are bent and frozen, trying to make it to the steps of the museum. 200 years of African American art is housed in one room. A small room. Later we walk through many large rooms of medieval armor. The shell casings of cyborgs spit up from the past. In the dark of the Buddhist temple, stolen and then we speculate housed in a warehouse full of stolen temples, it must have languished in the dark for a long time. The paint is not allowed to fade. We wonder if the miniature temples carved and added to the ceiling at a later date were meant to house birds. No birds animate the ceiling now. Tourists make Buddha poses. Hey yr not in Oakland anymore.
In the dense realms of wishful thinking
I am always being betrayed, or else a friend is falling off
One of those dream houses
I can’t stop looking at the light –or- I cannot save anyone
Each greenhouse: an intricate music box of sadism
Every plant a handcuff my reading technology fades with laziness not cus it doesn’t feel pretty good
Cultish robes get moldy then get all silicon valley
“I had a car” I had it remelted to my form
Somewhere in the ruins of dead objects, every overdraft fee screenprinted onto teeshirts
Somewhere along this avenue of goblins, I have picked up pagan belief
(Google ad preferences tell us about our interest in astronomy tho its riots we talk about to measure distances but it’s no wonder stars appear throughout) (all our friends got into astrology)
If I turn my head enough, and shake and shake and shake like you tell me
Everything I said before might become different
Everywhere we thought we were going might become the hell we abandoned before
1) Here’s someone to greet you, w/ these flowers the size of yr new avatar’s head
2) Here is agitation foaming up like water, tmrw, another necessary clutter, another letter with a bunch of names, another chance to be called a witchhunt
3) The witchbread you eat all the time
A slashed angel lies where work was: baby back wings & summer
Incorrect gloopy time
Whose gonna be witness to the pause of refusal
With no record of moving parts
A drone hummingbird stands watch by our shoulders
Dropping bits of goo from its mouth which falls on our heads
The meat axe, the pickaxe, the rope, and the coffeeshop move against the metropolis
Human sandbags loiter, causing a pileup
A traffic circle has many points of stoppage
The highway we took by mistake becomes easy with more bodies faster into the pause
Oki Sogumi was born in Seoul, lives in Philadelphia (recently transplanted from Oakland), and writes poetry, speculative fiction, and into little boxes on the internet. She dreams commune dreams.