Crane and Debris
Twice now I’ve begun reading Barrett Watten’s lead-off entry in the second booklet of The Grand Piano, and twice now I’ve stumbled at the beginning of the second paragraph, where Watten says: “It was a tremendous risk to be a poet at that time and place.” Is he kidding? “That time and place” appears—I’m judging by the opening paragraph—to be Oakland, “1 May 1975 . . . in a rented hall on Telegraph Avenue” at “a public meeting of a communist organization.” What strikes me with a black humor here is how Watten’s language mimics reports—of a generation earlier—to the House Un-American Activities Committee—the difference being, he’s not “naming names,” he’s implicating himself in an act of what can only be interpret’d as self-aggrandizement. Not to claim there exist’d no dangers in association, just that here Watten, white and university-spawn’d, is wildly overstating the case. To claim a “poet” risk-factor is silly. (No matter the stripe of the various competing “revolutionary” groupuscules of the “era”—there always remain’d a gaseous intangibility to the talk, a rhetorical ballooning. I recall precisely falling in with a bunch call’d the People’s Anti-Fascist Resistance League in Ithaca circa 1971. I was studying Chinese and they, being Maoists, sponsor’d a number of films and talks about China. A number of them work’d at the Ithaca Gun factory—I recall the immeasurable boyish delight of one who related to me how he planned to organize the workers there, “so they’ll turn the guns against the bosses.” All vaguely Tom Sawyerish, a youth- and joy-inflect’d goof, a lot of that going down.)
Watten again: “In the next five years, 1976 to 1980, we would need to make up an entire decade in compensation for the time taken from us.” Meaning what? Coming just after “There was no money, and few agreeable jobs,” the whole thing smacks of a kind of bratty sense of entitlement. Truth is, in the late ’sixties and early ’seventies it was still possible for a single person to make a living working twenty hours a week, something no longer the case. One could work a shitty job—I janitor’d for Cornell University Press’s three houses, a couple hours evenings and a “big cleaning” on the weekend—and spend one’s other hours elsewhere (Ithaca House). The era of grown men and women delivering newspapers—jobs formerly done by kids on bicycles—hadn’t commenced.
History as a series of “proper” tags (and nothing more): “John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Saunders, Archie Shepp.” Or, earlier: “Rosa Luxembourg, WPA murals, Louis Zukofsky, Anna Hartmann.” One’d do as well to write: “Brooks Brothers suit, Arrow shirt, Hickok belt.” History as the brands one “wore.”
Why the unstoppable thrust for recognition, that most literary of results? “By 1980 . . . our group of writers had identified each other, emerged to public recognition, and had created a body of writings, as well as new forms of poetic engagement, that have yet to be recognized for the literary breakthrough that they were.” Writers, here, emerge ab ovo, like birds, born speciated, or as if born “with a silver spoon,” fully made! All that’s left to do is to identify one’s coevals—there, blinking like a phoneme in the sun! How primitive and un-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’d a thesis!
Is one of the rôles (or, less instrumentally, effects) of the (self-proclaim’d) avant-garde to deprovincialize the City, any city? (Is all “space” provincial to the avant-garde?) Or is the making of place in all its forms no more nor less than each individual’s pursuit to “fit” somewhere. Not “fit in,” “fit one’s skin” (se sentir bien dans sa peau). How about a hermit utopia? Utopia for one. A deprovincialized solitary, quick and inimitable. (Assuming the provincial resides in congress—the moment “more than one” identify a habitus, a custom, a regimen. One avoids it by orbiting, circling the urban knot, landing nowhere.)
Ted Pearson insists that there’s a “critical distinction to be made . . . precisely between any give place as such—be it “The City by the Bay” or the one true American metropole, New York [such provincialist longings for the “one true” bubble up most frequently and vehemently out of the other soi-disant metropoles—us in the hamlets’ve construct’d burgeoning grande villes to inhabit right in our own heads]—and the abstract space opened up by the avant-garde’s insistence on constructing an elsewhere, liberated from geography, to inhabit.” Isn’t that the chore of any artist? To make a realm beyond?
Pearson’s affably recount’d memory of San Francisco “in those years” is, first, as: “though never easily, a singularly habitable place. For a time, one could ‘get by’ and concentrate on one’s work.” (All one requires, anywhere.) That is follow’d by a droll and velocity-up’d account of the colonial history of the city—largely tracing the fortunes of a Pearson “maternal ancestor,” one Bernal, though veering, circa 1852, to note The Golden Era, “the city’s first literary journal.” After the intensity of the self-direct’d gaze that preceded Pearson’s portion, the relief inherent in the pulling back (to situate the Grand Pianists in a city wherein “literary types were welcome, if not (then as now) always warmly”) is palpable.
What does it mean if Rae Armantrout admits (rather nostalgically) to reveling (early ’seventies) in a short San Franciscan period of “‘gender-fuck’ aesthetics”?
Chuck and I would go dancing at a club called Lion in Pacific Heights where there were gays and straights, men and women. People would ask, “What are you?” with friendly interest. This was the period that nurtured Kathy Acker as The Black Tarantula. It didn’t last very long.This was the period, too, before aesthetic positions hardened in the U.S. poetry “scene.” What does it mean to lament a lost stylish fluidity, sexual “room to move” and, simultaneously, participate in a act of autobiography designed—if one reads some contributors correctly—to consolidate a group position? Armantrout writes, referring to the aftermath of the period of “gender-fuck” openness (“feminism . . . in a separatist phase” and “macho clone style” in the gay community): “Once again, one was asked to be clearly readable—something that has always bored me.” Isn’t Armantrout liable to be made only more “clearly readable” through aligning herself with other participants in The Grand Piano project?
The verbiage of Steve Benson, something something and how “professionalization may respond to economic drives compelling our culture toward commodification and pressuring its persons into linear narratives of success, frustration, and compromise.” Recalling Peter Culley’s swift retort to art-explainers (noted by Vancouver photographer Jamie Tolagson):
. . . lots of really good artists are as dumb as a bag of rocks. Art existed for thousands of years before any such comparably difficult discourses were deemed in any way necessary, and could survive perfectly well without them. Unreadable jargony art writing is a very recent development, and has more to do with the postwar expansion of the academy than the evolution of art. No one could fake it at a physics conference as easily as most people fake it at an art opening. And just because elitism is hard to pin down doesn’t mean that the art world isn’t ridden with every variety of it. It’s what the crowds at Swarm seem to like—that velvet-rope “insider” feeling, the lure of arcane knowledge rather than knowledge.Benson’s final words: “Could the same things have happened anywhere else, at that time? Didn’t they? I wasn’t there.” Of course they did. Furious play by tiny bands of furious joy-drench’d players. Wild manic experimentals. Partout, partout. One didn’t necessarily “fetishize” the results, nor “theorize” them, nor “reify” them.