Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 7: The Right Sandbox

Dissolving boundaries: pour acid on those categorical lines that separate the arts one from another.

The purists hate that.

I recently went back and visited a couple of online poetry workshop message boards that I had once been an active partner in. It was, shall we say, a learning experience. I had mainly felt drawn back for two reasons: 1. I was feeling somewhat isolated and cut off, by recent events in my personal life, and poetically, artistically; and 2. I had for some months thought to reconnect with one or two people in particular whose poetry I had always liked, and have always enjoyed chatting with. I always valued their critiques of my poems, and it always seemed mutual.

What I experienced upon this trial return visit was that a few people who had previously been friends had changed (as I have), and to say they were hostile and scornful of the recent poems I chose to post, to test the waters, would be a serious understatement. One or two couldn't even bother to address the poem, calling it unreadable, and calling the poet names. (Which is a clear ad hominem attack, which is against the stated Terms Of Service of virtually every poetry board there ever was.) I said to one person, who has clearly become a troll in the intervening time: If you actually want to comment on the poem, not the poet, I'll listen; otherwise, feel free to not read anything of mine, and I'll stay away from you, too.

The scorn I encountered was, however, a familiar scorn, one I've experienced often, but now it came from unexpected directions, some from people who used to know me better than that. Well, the board as it exists today is their turf, after all. I've gone away, and come back, while they stayed. It's their sandbox (I use that word precisely, as an indicator of emotional immaturity); I'm no different than just another interloper.

Some of these poets have apparently become more insular than is good for them, and have built up patterns of discourse and expectations that have soured the waters. So, having commented on a few poems, and having been scorned for my own recent poems, I'm going away again. The hostility was what was shocking. Granted, as I said, it's their sandbox. But it's become quite the closed and self-sustained world, it seems.

This is evidence of a species of insularity, of clique formation, that seems to be the end-product of many online poetry boards. (The one person I wanted to get back in touch with may be someone I can reconnect via private email. We'll see.) Boards do go through natural lifetimes; some die after a few years, and live on in an archived, sessile state. On other boards, I have seen many people leave in waves when a voice or a clique start to dominate all the discourse, rudely, intolerant of dissent, and the board owners and/or administrators do nothing about it.

In an ironic twist of fate, a couple of years ago, a well-known online poet wrote a long essay about these very issues regarding the online poetry workshop community—which generated a lot of healthy debate, for awhile, or so it seemed—only to himself, a year or two later, morph into the very kind of paranoid and insular poetry board administrator that he himself had complained about in his essay. He became guilty of enacting the very same sort of entropic autocratic bizarre behavior he had written about. It was a stunning reversal, as though he became possessed by his own shadow.

We become what we fear, always, unless we master our fears and overcome them. It seems many people don't even realize that they need to look in a mirror, when they complain about what they don't like in the behavior of others. We always project out onto the world what we dislike in our own selves, and the world obligingly mirrors it back at us; what we attack "out there" is usually just a reflection of what we don't like to admit is "in here" as well. We all contain the darknesses we despise in others: what makes the difference is knowing and acknowledging one's own inner shadows, so that one notices when they kick into operation. That's how you can prevent yourself from being possessed by the forces within your unconscious: by going in there, willingly, by choice, to work with what you have found.

Meanwhile, learning experience absorbed. Although it got me thinking.

Thinking, specifically, about the kinds of creative work I have been moving towards for several years, all of which exist outside the usual boxed definitions and closed categories that many artists put around their art-making. (Closed and locked boxes are dear to closed minds.) To call the multi-pathed I've been pursuing "multimedia" isn't really accurate, as that assumes the boundaries between media are still present in one's consciousness, when in fact one is looking for a whole new lack of boundary, or an ignorance about fixed category. Rather than "multimedia" it might be more accurate to say "recombinant," or even "rhizomatic variform." Or, better yet, abandon all categorical labels and just make the stuff. I am more and more inclined towards not defining what I do as anything other than "creative." More and more I just call what I write "writing," and don't try to categorize one piece as a "pure" poem, another as "pure" prose. Let the bean-counting purists decide if any of it meets their definitional criteria. Meanwhile, I'll just keep exploring. What I've been doing is a process of unlearning rules and categories that are fixed in many writers' minds. You enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is said, by taking on the clear and uncluttered mind of a child; it is similarly said that the Tao is effortless and undefined, and that enlightenment consists of cleaning out the cobwebs.

I've tried posting poems-with-images, or maybe images-with-poems, before on poetry workshops forums, and been near-universally criticized for it. The purists of poetry are so word-centric that if you can't do it with just words, they won't even allow that it's a poem. (Sometimes not even then, if you offend their formal sensibilities.) They demand the discipline of using only words to convey experience, the only tools with which to make art. The worst of the word-centric poetry purists don't even allow for the possibility of enjoying visual art for its own sake, on its own terms: if they can't describe it in words, it's not real to them. Such are the purists one occasionally encounters.

Gods forbid you should try to present a prose-poem in a purist forum, then.

The purists willfully ignore the long history of paintings-with-words common to Asian practice in genres such as haiga. Maybe I'm being too harsh: amidst the hate there were always one or two poets who could see what I was trying to do, who were open to the possibilities of combining word and image. Only a few, though.

I'm not interested in making "visual poetry," or any of the other naive forms of visual art that (non-artist) poets have been trying to make in contemporary postmodernist circles. (Some of the earliest examples of typographic play, such as Apollonaire's calligrammes, remain among the most sublime, and more interesting than their contemporary heirs.) I say they're naive because in most cases the poets making the new VisPo have all the (digital) tools of the visual artist but none of the sensibility: the results are the results of experimental play, of the category of art-making that I call "gee whiz! look what I can do with my new toys!" A necessary category, and a necessary phase of development and tool-exploration for any artist. But what I don't see, as yet, from the VisPo poets are any examples that move beyond technical play and into something as artistically resonant and emotionally engaging as a Paleolithic cave painting or the old Zen poets with their painting-poems. It remains mostly intellectual play, mostly word-centric even when the words are manipulated in visual space, or used as purely visual elements (as in some Wordle word-clouds).

Of course, dealing with only words, dealing with only intellect, is emotionally risk-free. There's no danger of either too much self-revelation or too much self-analysis. All the mess and muck of life is kept comfortably at an arm's length, at a virtual distance. One doesn't have to wade into the "mire and blood" of genuine engagement.

There are a few poets on these old poetry workshop boards I revisited who are very interested in the various forms of avant-garde word-work currently fashionable, from theory-driven language-centric poetries to flarf to Oulipo to other ("post-avant") syntactical strategies that privilege the word as an object in itself, with or without interpretative meaning(s). Many of these writers make the usual mistake of defining as good that which they like and approve of—and failing utterly to be tolerant of other styles. Well, maybe their attention spans are stressed by the necessities of life, and they don't have time for anything else. Like I said, it's their pond to play in.

The harshest comments I received were very much about telling other poets what to write, based on what they write themselves, and like to read. The usual mistake of defining as good what you do yourself. In other words, a total and unconscious lack of tolerance for pluralism.

I am interested in a kind of poetry I have called, for lack of a better term, "cinematic." Its closest analog in cinema is the non-verbal film: a genre including Ron Fricke's films Chronos and Baraka, as well as probably the most famous film in the genre, Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. The kind of poetry I am referring to as cinematic is, like some non-verbal films, constructed out of a sequence of images. There is no interpreting narrative, no voice telling us what to think or feel, or what a character in the poem (film) is thinking or feeling. We are given pure description, and must interpret the emotion for ourselves. Some moments are evanescent, crepuscular; others are gut-punches. The sequence of images in a cinematic poem can be built up in the reader's mind into a narrative, or a film played on the mind's eye. There may indeed be a story, a meaning to be revealed: but it's shown, shown very directly, not talked about, not described.

Maybe in some ways this kind of poetry is the ultimate extreme of the hoary poetry workshop adage, "Show, don't tell." On one level, I guess that's exactly what I've been trying to do: push the poetic technique of showing, not telling, as far as it will go. But I look back and realize I was writing these kinds of visually-oriented poems long before I ever participated in any writing workshops of any kind. It's something I got interested early on, being a very visual person at root. For me, the words were the carriers of the visual imagery, not anything valued in their own right into a reified existence of their own.

And that's probably the biggest heresy on my part that pisses off the most word-centric poets: that I dare to say that words have no value in their own right, except as carriers of content: a rare, for me, anti-McLuhan sentiment, in which I state that the medium (words) itself does not carry any message (massage) itself. (We need to remember that the original quote was "The Medium is the Massage," not the message; although McLuhan himself was okay with the usual misquote, and played with the resultant ideas in his usual thoughtful, multimedia manner.) That I dare to say that words are symbols and signs, with no intrinsic meaning or reality in themselves. Of course, I speak from the truth of my experience as a musician and visionary, in which non-verbal encounters with life have often proved to be more rich and resonant than those encapsulated in words. One of the reasons I am drawn to poets like Robinson Jeffers is because his use of rich and powerful language isn't pointing only towards language itself, but outwards towards a larger, often nameless Universe. (Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "She Unnames Them" is similar terrain.)

In a film such as Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, even though it is a narrative film containing spoken dialogue, the film's coherence is provided by recurring visual images, themes and colors, which overlap and recur in each of the film's three time-periods. The recurring visual linkages are what tie everything together; cross-fades between some of the key images emphasize these connections. The dialogue seems often of secondary importance compared to the visuals; and there are long sequences that are almost entirely wordless. When you put a small piece of critical dialogue in such a context, in which it's the only words spoken in a long visual sequence, the words take on extra power, extra meaning. They resonate more, they ring out as more important. The good use of words, as the historical bards knew, is to place them where they activate the most power. The Fountain is a remarkable film for these and other reasons. It pushes us towards something non-verbal in cinema, as well as non-linear.

So it is natural that I am drawn, like everyone else, to art that expresses my won worldview, my thinking. I find art to be exciting, to be stimulating in part because it reflects and expresses my own interests, desires, and explorations. I fall short of calling it "good art," just because it's art I like, unless it meets several criteria of craft and engagement that all good art is generally expected to meet. I refuse to make the same attack on others that others have made on me: I don't claim any moral high ground, I simply find such arguments wasteful of my daily energy budget. This whole experience has been a taste case in arguing for pluralism and against intolerance.

Maybe it's just a matter of finding the right sandbox to play in. Heavens know there are plenty of wrong ones.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Not much here that we’ve not talked about before – although Oulipo was new to me and the Wikipedia entry interesting. I’m like you in many respects but what I hate is when someone says that what they’ve written is, say, a sonnet, and yet it doesn’t conform to the established rules. It can still be a valid piece of writing but that doesn’t make it a sonnet. And you can obviously apply that rule in much broader terms; there has to be a limit as to what ‘a poem’ is. To my mind it needs to contain letters, not necessarily words and not necessarily only letters but there need to be letters involved which is why I don’t get some visual poetry because it seems to have crossed over into art not that there can’t be an overlap. But I’m far from being a purist. I was reading a bit about Marianne Moore a few days ago in which she explained why she sometimes split words across lines (something I don’t think I have ever done nor can see me ever doing) and although I wasn’t entirely won over by her argument at least she’d given the matter some thought and I think that’s all I really ask from people. I’m not totally discounting the it’s-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is-brigade but I do, clearly, have limits.

I’ve – rather nervously I have to admit – just joined a small critique group on Facebook. I was invited, which was nice, but I’m still not sure. Most people seem content to praise and little more which I’m not really into. One posted a poem in rhyme with an awful rhythmic shape and admitted that she realised it wasn’t right but had just posted it anyway. I couldn’t do that. If you know what you’ve written isn’t right then sit on it until it is unless you really have taken it as far as you’re capable. Personally I’m not big on sharing the creative limelight with anyone. I take responsibility for every word I write and I wouldn’t feel comfortable presenting a piece of writing as all mine if I’d had help with it. But that’s me. I feel the same way about artists who have teams of helpers.

3:01 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Noting really new, I know. More of a declarative reaffirmation, acknowledging the wisdom of the decision to step away from workshop situations.

I think there are limits to what a poem is, too. We might not agree on exactly where those limits are, but that's the inherent fun of pluralism: we don't have to agree in order to enjoy it all.

Most poetry groups are support groups, not writer's groups. Even though I've now stepped away from the circle of workshop groups, mostly because of the toxic personalities involved, I did learn a lot from giving and receiving critiques. I did learn from posting something I knew needed help, because sometimes I couldn't see what the problem was, but someone else could. I learned to look more objectively at my own poems, as well as at the poems of others, to learn to see what the problem was, what worked and what didn't, etc. That's a craft thing we can learn, if we have the right environment in which to learn it.

It's too bad the personalities of those involved can get so brittle. Really, poets have the worst problems with ego and insecurity of just about every artistic/creative group I've ever been involved with. Composers look downright stable by comparison. LOL

4:18 AM  

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