Monday, March 06, 2006


I went to a conference on Saturday, an all-day endeavor that was meant to expose, poke, prod, reconfigure answers to the question (statement?) "How to read. What to do: The future of poetry criticism." Drawn to this event by an impressive list of presenters, including my advisor, Jennifer Ashton (others are Brett Bourbon, Stanford University, Steve Burt, Macalester College, Jeff Dolven, Princeton University, Oren Izenberg, University of Chicago, Maureen McLane, Harvard University, Mark Payne, University of Chicago, Jennifer Scappettone, University of Chicago, Gabrielle Starr, New York University), I thought it would illuminate some evidence that might help me muddle better through issues I'm having with some of my exam lists, namely my "Evolution of the Lyric" theory list. I left the event at the end of the day with a migrane. . .the first migrane I've ever had.

Maybe it was the size of the egos in the room that left so little space for my own mind and thoughts that made my head hurt so badly. Or maybe it was that people kept talking about "poetry" as if it was something we could define, something we could all agree on exactly what that meant, while there was obviously a very specific "kind" of poetry, namely old white male poetry, that is most highly esteemed. At one point, poetry was compared to a car, as a mechanism to take you from one place to another. I have to admit, this is the most vacuous definition of poetry I've ever been forced to wrap my mind around. Granted, the context was more complicated that I'm creating here, but still. It was a hard pill to swallow.

For me, the last panel was the most interesting, presenting on issues that I'm most interested in, namely, post modernism with some feminist theory thrown in. But I was even disappointed with this. Feminism seemed to be talked about as if it were a "lesser form of theory," lesser, definitely, than the ideas of Kant or Celan, whose names were mentioned so many times, I lost count. At one point, an older gentleman, the one who had been spouting about Kant earlier, asked the women on this panel, "You don't actually consider the sonnet a male-dominated form of poetry, do you?" Thank the gods for Jennifer Scappettone, who answered that though she was merely commenting on Jennifer Ashton's discussion of Rachel Blau De Plessis, she was not Rachel Blau Du Plessis. She did, however, think that women have been taught a certain tradition of the sonnet since we were young, a male-dominated tradition, shown that only males write this poem well, and therefore we have as women, stood outside of this tradition with little opportunity or models of where we fit in. I guess in a way, I felt similarly about the entire conference-- like I was standing outside of a discussion that didn't include me, that didn't value the things about poetry, myself and other's, that I hold as important, like subjectivity, poetic tension, language itself and our relationship to it in our time. Instead we talked about cars and spaceships, and whether or not a poem could drive a car to Paris, France, even if we built a bridge.

I also felt distant as a woman who believes, to a certain extent, in an essentially feminine poetics or aesthetic. Having actually carried a child in my body for nine months makes me a different animal from a man who cannot do this-- I am other, essentially(and, I would venture to guess, different from 99% of women at the conference, who are not mothers). That doctors had to cut me open to remove this baby from me has changed my entire perspective on the world. That my body produced another being, with the initial help of a lonesome sperm, yet that it was not able to deliver this being, has changed my complete belief structure, thus my relationship with language. I cannot trust my body; I cannot trust language either to deliver something or anything.I cannot trust a poem to drive to Paris, even Paris, Texas. I am left, instead, to discover the grief and simultaneous elation that language carries, complete with contradictions and erasures. This is my truth, but there was no room for it in that room.

My life, also, is so different from the majority of people in that room-- My world contains the chaos, failures, elations, and exhaustion of being a mother first and an academic/poet second. There is, for me, no other way to do it. This is why I embrace an idea I found recently in Kathleen Frasier's essay "How did Emma Slide? A matter of gestation." She proposes a different form of poetry, one so tightly linked to process as a reality for me, that I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it: "My mind was working double-time. I was thinking about childbirth, its interior unfolding process; then child-rearing and the infinite interruptions it promises. How we want them, how we don't. . .that the ambivalence for women artists around the issue of children and mates will never be resolved. I thought of the word 'gestation' in this context, and when I stood up to read, I began first to speak of our survival-as-artist needs and suggested that it was time we formally acknowledged this interruptive pattern as an exact set of movements , a newly-evolved poem model that carried its own imprint for the recognized and partly intentional nature of our lives. I named this new for the Gestate," and she continues to define it as a form that allows for a slow unfolding of thought and values detail, but also welcomes leaps in perception. I love all of this and agree with it very much, but love most the description of "the partly intentional nature of our lives." I have felt for some time that my poems do have intention, but it is not purely my own; (which was, actually a topic brought up at the conference, imagine it!) it is driven by the chaos of my subconscious as well as the absolute chaos of my life, moment to moment. I love it. It is essentialist, but so what, I guess I want to ask. I contradict myself, so did Whitman. That was his most effective poetic trope!

The moment of the conference that I enjoyed most was when Oren Izenberg's baby was in the hallway, screaming, while someone was trying to make a profound and deep point. I could see the look on people's faces, the utter terror and disbelief in their eyes. You might as well have run nails down a chalkboard. I loved it. That was the only moment of the conference when I truly felt at home.


brandijay said...

Mackenzie--Sorry things were so frustrating for you... Do you know Arielle Greenberg? She would be perfect to you to talk to about the relationship between mother/poet roles...

All best,

Scott Glassman said...

Mackenzie, what a moving post. It led me to think, what can a conference do but exist as a commentary on itself. Was poetry criticism the true issue of the day, or was it a gathering for the justification of a single viewpoint, a "let's declare who's right & wrong" with the subtle implications which accompany it: a desire to own poetry and gather acolytes for one master view.

It has been my feeling that where poetry is at the moment is always changing and a hundred different views of that change were present in the room at your poetics conference, none of which could be proven wrong and none of which could be taken out of there and asked to give life to anything! (not real life, anyway)-- which was the gist of your reaction. The contrast was striking: an acute sense of actuality (baby crying, interrupting "distinguished" speaker) vs. theoretical reality. Let's only hope there are more interruptions like this at poetics conferences! The fact that one baby who doesn't know anything can unintentionally undermine years of rhetoric with a single from-the-gut cry is a beautiful truth (and no accident, in my opinion).

Seems there's a self-sustaining belief system, that poetry critics are needed to define what the practice is and by defining it (repeatedly and with dogmatic certainty) they are necessary for its successful gestation and growth, midwives so-to-speak (ha! imagine that, old white males as midwives)-- which is quite a leap. My dream is that poetry evolves past the point of verbal description entirely (maybe we'd have to dance to critique it, or touch certain materials) and any criticism via the academic essay would appear an antiquated tool-- like an abacus. Poetry needs to burst through senses and dimensions, and can--it's that powerful. It's heading in that direction, toward multi-contextual extra-sensual realities, and certainly doesn't need an annual conference to guide it. Makes me think of your project combining dance, poetry, and music-- ahead of its time, really-- or behind if you look at ancient cultures where poetry was a ritualistic communal act.

So those are my thoughts about it, very appropriate (ironic?) as I get ready to write a review. I feel stuck in that old system / frame of reference. Maybe my review should be a craig's list-type of listing: "meet me at the corner of 57th and Broadway and I'll put on a personal mime show to describe so-and-so's book".

Suzanne said...

Thank you for this.

bill said...


i was at that conference as well. it's too bad we didn't meet. i listen to the girls in austin talk about you quite a bit.