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Dale Smith’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)

 

(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)

 

 

Jake Berry’s institutional meditation on the influence of academic publishing, the pressures of modernism and postmodernity, and the necessary relevance of an “Otherstream” in poetry all compel serious questions and concerns. His recognition of the central importance of a mass audience to contemporary culture necessarily complicates other grassroots notions of publication, creative dissemination, and economic models of institutional sustainability. According to Berry’s argument, large institutions determine canon formations and promote work that will be influential in terms of the hierarchies of popular and literary markets. Other cultural formations, however, evolve along the (choose your metaphor) margins, borders, or frontiers of literary culture. Looking at the production and distribution of poetry within the context of mass culture ultimately limits the descriptions of how art circulates for private and public uses. While some poetry does compete in the distributive networks of mass culture, most of it is designed to extend through very different methods of social engagement. In my response to Berry, I’d like to present alternative notions of public space and creative participation in it, and I’ll illustrate this with an account of one form of public encounter through poetry in Philadelphia during Christmas 2004.

 

Private audiences tend to embrace the coteries and in-groups that acknowledge contexts outside the mainstream. For some, there’s a certain fierce pride in developing consumer practices outside of mainstream cultural production. Aficionados, amateurs, and those experienced and engaged in the loose affiliations of poetry often seek out art that is decisively outside the domain of mass culture. In many ways, this private concern for poetry enables an “Otherstream,” even as it is buried under an enormous veil of mass concerns stemming from commodity culture (and increasingly whatever it is displacing shopping in an era of economic contraction). Schools of poetry, fierce group marketing efforts, and other strategies of institutionalizing what one likes mimics larger cultural forms of social practice. How one aligns with institutions like university presses or smaller presses or popular presses, or the institution of prizes or whatever, inform a kind of practice shaped by larger economic forces.

 

But it’s possible to put aside the institutional worries of poetry’s circulation in order to obtain a view of its actual services as public art. By public I don’t mean mainstream, or mass culture, or anything like that, though, of course, public documents do occasionally get absorbed into these recognized spheres of social dominance. Instead, I see a public as a shared space determined by committed participants. Poetry thrives insofar as its advocates bring it into being for new audiences. It’s not at all important that there’s more poetry than anyone can read; instead, what’s happening is an intensification of the critical apparatuses that make certain types of poetry meaningful for certain audiences. I’m not saying that advocates should reinforce institutional goals or identities, but that they should instead seek ways to encourage cross-pollinations between the categorical forces we are all dealing with. To identify as “Otherstream” is to identify with a form of institutionalization that voids the power of process, engagement, public participation, and critical self-awareness that can form new and dynamic possibilities. It’s far too easy to claim that the “other” cannot be absorbed (or consumed). Otherness is a complex process, as even St. Augustine acknowledges: the most alien parts of our souls participate in our relationships to the world. The figure of the other in contexts of literary circulation offers a romantic interlude, and provides only a vague, inactive description about how new forms of poetry emerge through a careful process of advocacy and creative innovation.

 

North America and Europe are business cultures, and as such, the relationships that motivate and extend something like contemporary poetry can often seem distorted. Categories and identities correlate with a kind of marketing apparatus that ignores the essential advocacy required to bring writing to a public audience. Publics are infused with private feeling, too. A public exists as an infused space of great potential for artists, activists, and writers. Institutionalized forms of the public sphere manufacture a caged sense of how things stand. But an actively imagined public that is generated through discussion, activism, symbolic presentations, and expressive gestures gives shape and meaning to undisclosed spaces. My point is, poetry does not exist as a category of any kind: it resists institutional determinations even as institutions like university presses can normalize or stabilize the chaotic blossoming of art around us. This is neither bad nor good, but a demonstration of the capacities afforded to our existing culture. But other individuals, participants, coteries, and institutions develop equally compelling capacities to engage within new cultural formations of public significance.

 

Let me end with an example of one attempt by poets to make words available in a public context, a context they in part defined and developed. Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand explain in Landscapes of Dissent (Long Beach: Palm Press, 2008) how on Christmas Eve, 2004, a group of artists entered high profile Philadelphia shopping areas to read poems, pass out handmade greeting cards and broadsides, and to ask passersby to reflect on their roles as citizens. Members and supporters of the Poet Activist Community Extension (PACE)—Nicole McEwan, C. A. Conrad, Linh Dinh, Mytili Jagannathan, and Frank Sherlock—stand, in one photo that documents their public action that day, in front of an Old Navy department store, the ironic union of corporate logo and idealistic poets captured briefly there. The writer-activists, bulkily dressed for the weather, hold their books and pens. A warm but firm presence can be validated in another photo where Sherlock and a random passerby embrace. But their engagement on the street offers a weird testament, too: Dinh, in one picture, wears a startling placard around his neck—“Ape Laureate.” He reads from a poem, “Planet of the Apes,” recalling for his audience the 1968 film of the same name, wherein militarized apes overrun human civilization. Parallel to Dinh’s reading, Sherlock passes out holiday cards. On the cover are the words, “Peace / On / Earth,” while the interior offers a brief poem: “There / Is / A / Road / / In / Sadr / City // Called / Vietnam / Street.” Similarly, Jagannathan offers an “Open Letter,” asking her audience to reflect on their cultural and moral situation in America that day: “do we speak to the conditions or / to the winner do we speak the conditions / in our deliberate mouths is our speaking / conditional is our love / conditionally speaking is this love / against the stranger breaking down.” The broadside Conrad hands out reprints a letter to President Bush that transforms political protest into an affirmation of public affection:

 

I’ve seen your fingers in person you have nice hands Mr. President and they’re your hands not your father’s hands your life is your own it really is it belongs to you and love is waiting I have a lot of love Mr. President and I just want to press against you sometimes to let you get a little of it HEY i’m so serious about this let’s go away together this spring just the two of us it’s not a big deal don’t even tell anybody I mean you’re the president after all but there’s a marvelous stretch of woods where I grew up we could smoke a little pot to wind you down get you out of your oval office mode maybe a little wine I’m sure you need a good massage maybe we could go to the creek and paint secret mud symbols on our naked bodies like I used to do with my first boyfriend what happens after that will be fine you’ll see it will be okay the break in the woods has the best flowers to rest beside in the sun and you will awaken with a crown of honeysuckle beautiful man that you are a real leader of real lives who can change the world.

           

To many, PACE’s public intervention that Christmas Eve may seem of little concern. Most of the issues they wished to address for passersby remain unresolved, such as the war in Iraq. And yet, their presence did not actually constitute a protest in the sense we understand it from the 1960s. No loud chants or sloganeering accompanied demands to pull troops from the Middle East. The most bracing piece—Dinh’s “Planet of the Apes” poem—brought a kind of incongruence to the situation of holiday shopping. Sherlock’s association of Iraq with Vietnam came within a holiday greeting card that was passed directly to individuals who paused from their last minute shopping to receive the message of peace. And Jagannathan and Conrad’s letters offered opportunities to reflect on the roles of citizenship and power, relating global events to decisions made by individuals: they personalized seemingly abstract social and political topics.

           

The social contour between these poets and the shoppers they encountered that day is suggestive of the public space I described earlier in this essay. Poetry, when used to negotiate social boundaries and institutional assumptions about public space, can momentarily bring reflection to bear on municipal, legal, and social definitions. A public becomes a meaningful space of engagement for artists and activists in ways impossible to imagine in mass cultural situations. A congruent and overlapping sense of values moves through the more rigid architecturally delineated spaces associated with public action. We like to think that the kinds of public exchanges we encounter every day resolve themselves within neat coordinates that are defined by the various private and public institutions that give public life meaning. The edifice of a municipal building reinforces our sense of civic duty; retail spaces prepare us for the experience of purchase; a suburban lawn enhances a meditative walk. Variously, the physicality of public space informs the practical and imagined uses of it, and the possibilities available to participants in public space tell us much about contemporary social and political experience. When we encounter messages in such spaces that are incongruent with our expectations, when some image or text stands out against the tableau of civic or corporate functionality, we experience, however briefly, an intrusive claim on attention and on the meaning of the various disciplines that encode our expectations of reality.

 

When individuals who are motivated by social change participate in public environments they have the potential to produce new meanings that can shape perspectives on compelling issues relevant to the decision-making processes of democracy. The poet-activists who met on Christmas Eve in a Philadelphia shopping district thus contributed to a form of public inquiry that saw new uses and transformations of market and civic spaces emerge, for they temporarily claimed the space on behalf of their political beliefs. When one turns attention to such creative practices—culturally determined spaces such as a shopping district that can be transformed by new strategies of language, image, and performance—the problems of public sphere theory arise anew, as questions of judgment, value, democracy, and citizenship burden any foray onto city sidewalks and into the imaginations of passersby. Attention at such moments is various, perhaps, focused on holiday ritual, last minute shopping, the quickest path forward, or the humanist values that accompany the season. Regardless of individual motives, some pause, momentarily, to engage another’s note of ironic tenderness for a president, or the argument handed out in a greeting card, that finds relation between Baghdad and Vietnam. In the intervals and pauses afforded by critical reflection, my aim is to point to strategies that remove institutional and hierarchical barriers and that seek instead to build common ground within exchanges that can happen when least expected.

 

What I hope to get across is that imagining new categories for poetry in no way serves the more important goals of public engagement. Public spaces have been ignored for far too long by a romanticized poetics of modernity that shapes itself by enclosed literary terms and market considerations. Advocates for poetry (and this must include poets and critics, obviously) are responsible for shaping social space and enhancing the capacities of others to comprehend what is new and happening in the art and culture around them. Such a dynamic and active pursuit gives a sense of possibility and excitement rather than circling the wagons around ossified identifications and romantic habits of audience disdain. Poetry will be written and performed the same as always. What changes is how cultural participants define the value of poetry with strategies that bring art into a complex array of cultural possibilities. Such potential exists only insofar as we are willing to imagine the kind of world we hope to inhabit.

 

   

 

copyright © Dale Smith  

   

 

 

Dale Smith is a poet and scholar who lives in Toronto, Ontario. His book, Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960, was recently published by the University of Alabama Press. Other writings have appeared in Jacket and Jacket2, The Colorado Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere.