Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From The Poetic Margins

Out here on the poetry margins, where no one's opinion really matters or is reported on, sometimes we get a little frustrated with abject self-regard, narcissism, and stupid recycling of opinion in the core mainstream of PoetryWorld. That may be where the action is, but it's also where a lot of pointless drama is. What keeps it cycling that people care too much, personally, about it. There is a point at which the arguments between camps about issues are laughable. The reason, of course, that the drama can get so vicious is precisely because there's very little at stake. Out here on the margins, where sometimes survival much less career is not a certainty, the arguments seem doubly disconnected from real life.

People in the center usually dismiss the margins as uninteresting, forgetting that people moving from the margins to the center are always what drive the machinery on. Go ahead and move to New York City if you will, but growing up in Cleveland can't be ignored: it leaves its mark. Go ahead and move into the center of activity in Los Angeles, but that childhood spent on the windswept open prairies is still going to color your attitudes.

People born and raised in the center of the whirlwind of culture are often the most provincial of all. The classic icon of self-regard was a drawing on the cover of The New Yorker magazine some decades ago that gave most of the page to a detailed drawing of downtown Manhattan. Then there was a broad strip labeled the Hudson River, some empty space with not much in it, and finally, a dot on the far horizon, a bump labeled Los Angeles. Most New Yorkers still think about the rest of the country this way. Of course, most urban dwellers at The Center Of Culture think this way about themselves. Parisiennes have an almost identical attitude about Paris vs. the rest of Europe. So do Londoners.

Perhaps some of this attitude is well-deserved, having been earned over the years by events and cultural migrations.

But it's also really fucking narcissistic, as well as annoying to the rest of those who live elsewhere, by choice or necessity.

That doesn't mean there are no good poets in the urban mainstream core Center Of Everything. It does mean they need to get out more, in some cases. I've interacted with a number of New York City poets, or ex-NYC poets, over the years, and I've run into provincial attitudes more often than not. Sometimes it's expressed as genuine provincialism; sometimes it manifests as the attitude that they're always right about all things cultural, and everyone else is wrong. But then, big city people almost always have that sort of attitude about the rest of the country. Being just another dumb hick has its advantages: when no one takes you or your poetry seriously, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want, on your own terms. without comment or complaint. There's a freedom in that which is sometimes lost by the center mainstream, where people sometimes feel constrained in certain ways because of their constraining social contracts.

Of course, nothing I'm saying here matters one whit. No one cares. No one's listening. I'm just rambling. it doesn't mean anything. Yippee!

I've been reading a lot about brilliant artistic rebels this past week or so. Time and again, the pattern always repeating itself, it's the creative outsider who comes in and revitalized a moribund artistic scene. The center tends to turn to stone after some time, until the outsider comes along with a fresh stick of dynamite and a critique about where to place it.

Is it cultural inertia that ossifies the salon, or is it that once the tribe establishes itself it must become conservative? There is no permanent revolution, because a revolution requires two different attitudes in order to become a new nation: first you must be radical and rebellious, to overthrow the existing powers that be; but once the overthrow is accomplished, calmness and pragmatism must take hold, and voices more able to conserve what has been won must take over. The people who have the radical pulse to overthrow the current regime are almost never able to consolidate themselves afterwards; they almost always call for a permanent revolution, even when there is nothing else to win. Even after they have become the artistic establishment, they still write manifesto after manifesto proclaiming their continuous revolution. After awhile, it becomes a self-parody.

The renewal of art almost never comes from within the establishment, from the core mainstream, from the halls of aesthetic and critical power. Why don't literary critics ever acknowledge this? That renewal always comes from the margins, from maverick outsiders with no investment in the sociopolitical status-oriented games played at the centers of power. Renewal comes from the disruption caused by outsiders ignoring what they ought to be doing, or from open rebellion.

There is always a period of rejection, then the former rebel outsider usually gets assigned a rewritten narrative. The history of art, the narrative of music history, is usually portrayed as a sequence of innovators making independent artistic developments, or evolutions of content and technique. Which is true enough on the surface. But once the former rebel outsider is now considered part of the flow of history, the narrative edges get rubbed off. we almost never hear how hated, feared, and rejected such innovators almost always were during their lifetimes. The narrative of art history is a sad sequence of failed lives who became acknowledged only after their deaths. Many never achieved anything like financial, artistic or personal sense during their lifetimes. Perhaps there is some necessity to keep working, stay hungry (aesthetically if not literally), keep pushing. Examples abound of artists who did achieve huge success late in life ceasing to innovate.

But that is all part of the constructed art-historical narrative, which is often a myth-making narrative full unquestioned assumptions and stereotypes. It's a narrative that rarely accounts for the genuine outsider. Many outsider rebel artists would prostitute their art quite readily, if the offer was made. No one wants to starve. Only artistic poseurs more attracted by the stereotyped myths of Being An Artiste than to making their living doing what they love reject all offers of payment that might taint the "purity" of their art. A few genuine artists have also made this rejection, of course; but if you look at why, there is usually some better reason than artistic purity. Often it was just a clash of wills and personalities, the wrong people at the wrong time. The real situation with the rebel outsider is not that they won't sell out, but that usually no one asks them to. The process is called patronage, wherein someone commissions you to make art, or buys the art you've already made. Of course, while patronage can still operate in music and painting, it doesn't exist in poetry. Even the core urban mainstream has to admit that patronage in PoetryWorld consists of getting a job, like teaching creative writing, that allows you to sustain your own writing. Occasions wherein a poetry chapbook has been commissioned are vanishingly rare. Even the big names have to beg to be heard, in the usual run of business.

Sometimes it's an okay motivation to say to yourself, "I can do better than that." You read a poem by a Known Poet, a Published Poet, even a Big-Name Poet, and you think to yourself after reading their poem, "I can do better than that." And you set out to write something better than what you just read. And sometimes you do. And you submit it somewhere, who cares where, there are a million small journals to choose from these days, maybe some place with a longer-term reputation than others, and maybe your poem gets published. And you can sit back and look at it, and say to yourself, "I bloody did that. And it was better than that other poem I read." This is all valid motivation. It won't sustain you all the time, and it can't be your main motivation because in the long run making art is not a competitive sport, not for the full length of a writing lifetime, but it's a good motivation nonetheless, every so often, in the right moment.

Another good motivation you run into, out here on the margins, is the DIY mentality. These days in literary terms than can look like self-publishing. Print-on-demand. Whatever you want to call it. The old assumption by the core mainstream, that self-publishing was only ever vanity publishing that produced bad work, has had to be abandoned. In the current digital age of e-publishing, all bets are off. Some great new work is being self-published. The big publishing houses at the center of the industry are no longer the gatekeepers of what gets into print and what doesn't, nor are they any longer the gatekeepers of taste. Some of them are quite upset about this loss of power, of course. Too bad, lie sucks, you go on.

In the music industry, little DIY self-productions have been around much longer. Ever since the invention of the cassette, and now with all the digital media available, musicians have been recording and self-publishing, completely bypassing the Big Record Companies (who have been quite upset about their loss of power and profits for some time now), and building a fan base and sales on their own. I recall one punk rocker who went by several different band names in Cleveland, but put them all under the umbrella of his cassette-based recording and self-publishing company F.Y.I.D.I.M Records. That stands for, "Fuck You, I'll Do It Myself." Which has to be one of the greatest names for a record label ever invented. And this punker lived by his word, and lived by his work. Not bad for someone on the margins.

So, in the end, out here on the margins, where no one really cares what you do, what you write, or what you have to say, there's a certain freedom to what you want, since you don't have to please anyone but yourself. The critics and reviewers generally ignore you anyway, assuming they ever encounter your work. It's beneath them. Writing about you doesn't advance their own careers as reviewers and critics. There's no bitterness in that assessment, it's just a statement of fact. So, out here on the margins, we'll just keep doing what we want to do, writing for ourselves, and maybe in part for that small circle of genuine readers who might follow us from time to time, and ignoring the bigger picture. We exist in that empty space in the drawing, the blank zone between Manhattan and LA, and be just fine. We're the dot on the map, the dot sometimes labeled "regional writing," or "outsider art," that the mainstream ignores, mostly, except for those few curated dips into our topsoil that allow the big city critics to write precious, condescending critiques of our quaint novelties. Again, just a statement of fact. Nonetheless, we'll endure, we'll persevere, and when called on, we'll be the necessary font of renewal, and produce our prairie winners with their winning eyes on the land and the sky. And when the party's over, we'll still be here, enduring even as the winds of literary fashion have swept all the current insiders away, like chaff in the wind.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never really thought of myself as either an outsider or a rebel. I’ve had a hard enough time thinking of myself as a writer. That alone took more ego than I had. Now I have a bit more confidence in my art I can breathe a little more easily but I have no great desire to become a part of a something. At times I feel a little out of the loop. There was a poetry slam in Edinburgh a couple of days ago and one or two people I know from online were there but I wasn’t. It’s not like I was waiting for a personal invite or anything – it was a come-one-come-all kind of do – but even if I had I wouldn't have gone. And I suppose some people might think me snobbish - Who does he think he is not wanting to mix with the likes of us? - but I’m not a snob, far from it. I don’t really need to be around people who are plugged into the zeitgeist. None of which helps me sell my books I know but that’s fine. All this peripheral stuff takes up too much of my time as it is. All I’d do if I tried to fit in is embarrass myself. I’m still catching up on poets from the sixties and seventies. I keep hearing names online - Oh, I heard such-and-such read at Stanza - and I have no idea who they’re on about. So I guess I’m a hick too. I’m not incurious about all these new fangled schools of poetry which is why I did the interview with Stephen Nelson and why I wrote the article on Flarf that I’ve yet to post but I’ll never stop what I’m doing and go over to the other side because I like what I do just fine the way I do it and if nobody likes it bar me well that’s fine too because I’m writing for no one bar me, not to get noticed or to fit in with a certain group.

4:09 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'd call that the very biography of an outsider, and I mean that in a positive way.

As you know, I don't anymore like to call myself either a writer or a poet, although I have to admit to the truth of those labels. But I still don't want to proclaim them. Like you, I don't really have any interest in the whole culture/social aspect of it. I may be more up to date on the currents of the poetry world at the moment, but I don't find myself wanting to join or participate in any of them. Quite the opposite.

8:55 AM  

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