Relational Poetics

A Dialogue between Dale Smith and Alan Gilbert



Dale Smith: Do you think there are proposals out there that can deal with our current situation politically or poetically? I've moved toward a close examination of the domestic scene. Instead of addressing history (as in Cabeza de Vaca), social, and political issues directly, in the sense of a project, I've tried this last year to let those elements register in poetry through the examination of “minute particulars,” to use Blake's term. Ideally, any word of the most domestic poem should carry with it the broader context of our world. I've been looking closely too at the tension between Whitman and Oppen, the multiple, expansive self vs. the post-war reduction of it to the numerous. Quantity vs. singularity, etc.


Alan Gilbert: This seems to be a difficult time for proposals. The grand political and aesthetic projects of the modern era veered so frequently toward some form of totalitarianism that maybe a couple generations of cynicism, irony, and fragmentation were necessary to create a little breathing room — however restrictive this latter space itself can be. The collapse of the Soviet Union (and the many satellite states it supported directly or by proxy), along with its illusions of shared abundance, spurred individual and collective desire to pursue the commodity form on a global scale. One backlash to this now occurs in Islamic fundamentalism, which is hardly an attractive (counter-)proposal; more positive alternatives can be found in the worldwide protests against multinational capitalism and its supporting institutions. I don't subscribe to the idea that capitalist media and ideology brainwash or indoctrinate; but I do think they hijack desire in extremely complicated ways. And because the workings of desire can sometimes be more difficult to decipher than those of consciousness, understanding the ramifications of this hijacking is tricky. We do know that it involves fundamental constructions of the self in terms of identity and lifestyle. For instance, it proposes buying new clothes.

Or take recent political history in the United States. In trying to woo what it imagines to be a centrist or even centrist-right populace, Democrats have for a decade now vied with Republicans to be the party without proposals. The Republican party is the party of against: against taxation; against gun control; against social welfare; and, I think we can fairly say, more and more against democracy itself: from Bush's presidential appointment by the Supreme Court, to redistricting in Texas (which you've been witnessing first-hand), to the Gray Davis recall, to Ashcroft's demolition of civil rights with Patriot Act versions I and II. I wouldn't exactly call it fascism, but the US is slipping in that direction, and one of the 20th-century's many lessons is that it's imperative to point this out as early as possible. Democrats have been too willing to mimic the faux anti-ideology of Republicans, though with Bush looking vulnerable in 2004, suddenly the candidates willing to buck this trend are the ones generating the most enthusiasm — Howard Dean, in particular. Of course, the only two actually progressive Democratic candidates — Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton — haven't been getting much attention at all, which is hardly their fault.

That said, I think there's plenty of important work currently going on in writing and artistic communities with which we're affiliated — some of it in proposal form, and much of it as serious as anything recent literary and artistic avant-garde movements produced in their emergent phases (though it's obviously not a contest). Yet what makes the current situation different — in terms of being less public, less coalescent — is that it feels impossible to imagine the birth in any aesthetic discipline of another self-contained and self-perpetuating avant-garde movement, with its de rigueur declaration of proposals. The fields of poetry, visual art, music, theater, etc., are now far too pluralistic to lend themselves to that vanguardist model, and the boundaries between “art” and “non-art” have broken down way too much for art to have that kind of sacrosanct power. Make no mistake, I consider these to be profoundly good things. As I mentioned, earlier avant-garde movements haven't always fared well politically. Whatever the politically dubious manifestation, at the core is a sense of the avant-garde as elite, as vanguard, that has poisoned the well one too many times to go back and try to draw from it. Rather, much like you I'm interested in a cultural populism that weaves the everyday and its “minute particulars” into larger social and historical frameworks, “the broader context of our world,” as you describe it.


DS: It seems much of the history of post-war poetry — for the Beats, New Americans, and Language Poets, certainly — has politically and socially functioned as a warning of the fascist or near-fascist state we've inherited. The warnings have been implicit or explicit for 50 years or more. Even mainstream news sources in the last couple of years have acknowledged in their way devastating “mistakes” or inconsistencies from the Bush administration regarding 911. The European press is critical of American hegemony and Michael Moore's new book, a best seller, connects the Bush administration and the Saudi state with the events of 911. The situation we're in is unusual. What happens after the warnings have been hailed? I talk with people frequently who individually agree that war in Iraq is criminal, the economy is manipulated by and for the wealthy, and our domestic freedoms are being turned back. But collectively we're unable to accomplish what it takes to correct this pejorative condition. Individually we understand, but as a group we're blowing it.

Because there are no dominant ideologies to trust in — no proposals — it's hard for me to see beyond the domestic scene and the immediate diverse environments of the day. I think that within secular contexts, we should examine fundamental relationships to our “embarrassed” (to use a term by Werner Herzog) landscapes. There needs to be a reconsideration of social and political space. Think of taking a walk, for instance, as a political gesture. From the ground up we should attend to only what humanly matters to us. Fundamentally, we're dealing with complex psychic projections. Like Diane di Prima once said, “the only war is the one against the imagination.” In a sense, that's an easy thing to say. But in practice, it's a serious recognition of our power individually. The goal's to cultivate life.

Arcadia is my ideal: art, music, family and friends. The strategies to support that are complex, and result in keeping Empire off your back. I think we have to realize that some kind of technological and theocratic Empire is here for a while. So we have to find ways of supporting each other through this thing. But the first step is to drop illusions like those Howard Dean represents. We should all walk away. The Democrats won't help. The political system is kaput. An engagement with language is what matters at this point, and I think that's where poets are most important: we realize the world in language, not material power. Let's put our energy where it matters.

Renee Gladman's new book The Activist addresses some of these problems. Her work there is theoretical in a sense, composed of dream imagery, ELF-like (Earth Liberation Front) social sabotage and social organizations on the brink of collapse due to the personalities and personal desires of key members within the group. Her vision is purposefully problematic. On one side there's a protest by white liberals for “greener grass.” Meanwhile, there's also a dysfunctional terrorist network, and there's a catastrophe no one can quite agree on: did it happen or not? She's looking at the philosophical problems of identity, social organization, personal responsibility, and psychic infection within the totalitarian structure of the State. It's an admirable inquiry and raises important alternatives to the domestic scene that I've argued for above. One side is a McVeigh-like registration of discontent: blow it up. The other is to refuse the State's power over domestic space and our internal lives — liberate the imagination.


AG: A cultural politics of the everyday may not fulfill the criteria of a proposal, but it might serve as a possibility. Of late, it's where my thinking about poetry has gravitated as well, partly in the wake of what you describe as collectively “blowing it” in regard to Bush's election, the failure to stop the war in Iraq, the inability to put “Kenny Boy” Lay behind bars, etc. At the same time, if we only think of politics and dissent within cause and effect relationships, then we're bound to drive ourselves crazy with frustration over the inability to enact immediate change. Maybe it's better to think of resistance as an ongoing series of mostly indirect confrontations with power that nevertheless force it to negotiate its authority. Micropolitics plays an important role in this, because for the majority of people — and especially those most marginalized from institutionalized power — the struggles of everyday life are the most pressing struggles.

Therefore, a cultural politics of the everyday might be too infused with the idea of particularities you referenced earlier to serve as a proposal, which always entails general directives. But while it's true that politics may — or should — originate in difference, if they also end there, then every Bustamante (who ran a campaign invested in the politics of difference) is usually going to lose to every Schwarzenegger, at least on a scale that extends beyond the local. And while it's tempting under current conditions of astonishing disenfranchisement to commit to an idea of politics that operates solely at the local level, these local(e)s obviously need to be joined with regional, national, and international movements for social justice, while remaining committed to recognizing, even facilitating, difference. In this sense, I'm very interested in the movement in your poetry between historical and domestic registers, though your more recent work seems to favor the domestic — as a result, I imagine, of the birth of your son Keaton, but maybe also because of a widely shared experience of disenfranchisement.

Or perhaps, as you suggest, it should be seen more positively: that is, the domestic as the space where one has the greatest possibility of enacting Arcadia. In trying to get there, I like the idea of “embarrassed” landscapes. It helps make us more (self-)conscious of our place in these landscapes, which hopefully will lead to more actively seeking alternatives to them. From your book American Rambler 's reinscription of the historical context for Cabeza de Vaca's travels in what is now called the American Southwest, to detailing the fluid movement between the everyday and larger social circumstances in The Flood & The Garden , to meticulously focusing on direct transcriptions of daily life in your new project “These Days,” your work over the past few years has traversed a broad arc. I think this arc could also be charted against a background of changing political conditions in the US — from the heady days of globalization (and anti-globalization) at the end of the Clinton administration, to the scary infringement of constitutional rights under the Bush regime, the most recent example being the passage by the US Congress of a ban on certain legally protected forms of abortion.


DS: William Carlos Williams for me remains a poet of radical inquiry and “reinscription,” to use your term above. In relation to his work, my own is purposefully derivative. His argument from In The American Grain is formulated thus: “we must go back to the beginning; it must all be done over; everything that is must be destroyed.” For Williams, historical penetration leads to a renewal and re-energizing of forms. His work suggests that the symbiosis of the past and present is so great and we are so entangled in the multiple processes of our environments that language and landscape take on defining characteristics in us. To know ourselves is to know actual conditions in the present and to comprehend the diverse history that composed it and remains latent in it. The present as artifact of the past is interesting to me. I want redemption for the “embarrassed” landscapes I find myself in. Their haunted arrangements, vacancies, and dilapidated physical currencies demand recognition beyond their mundane uses.

As high-minded and compelling (I hope) as all that sounds, my experience in the world functions at parking-lot level. Since Keaton's birth two years ago, I've had to slow down physically in my environments, spending tremendous amounts of time in rather mundane places. I've noticed through him that children are conservative by nature. That is, he likes routine, ritual, and patterns. Over time we've established a kind of rhythm together, and for 8 hours of the day or more I'm with him. That's time away from study and the conflicts and imagination of the 16th century, say, a period of keen interest to me. So I began carrying notebooks into our environments, writing about my (and Keaton's) actual experience of these parking-lots, parks, shop fronts, and other urban spaces. I want to transpose this flat experience into something extraordinary. At any rate, while I can theorize a practice of domestic inquiry along political lines, I work this way now primarily because it's practical and extends the content of my day into something more vivid. The daybook form for now serves a purpose that saves the day from dirty diapers and dishes.

Brenda Coultas' “The Bowery Project: An Experiment in Public Character” has been influential for me also as an example of creative interrogation within a dynamic public landscape. I like too your temporal distinctions between “now” and “present.” Last winter, in Brian Kim Stefans' Circulars, you said that “there's a difference between a now in which one's range of political and artistic choices are primarily immediate reactions to a current situation, and a present that draws upon a culture and politics of resistance rooted in the past, present, and future.” That's an important though subtle relation to establish. It seems technology more even than politics or social apparatuses is determining the course of many of our lives. (The politics of technological energy might be an interesting topic to pursue.) I'm just wondering if this distinction between a “now” and a “present” is purely a recent social phenomenon due to the acceleration of our lives, or if it's a psychological condition of our environmental relationships. Perhaps our “time saving appliances” have established new orders and micro-orders of temporal inconvenience and sabotage — Revenge of the Toasters! You're a father now too (of divine wisdom, no less — Sophie!). Even in such intimate relations do you experience time differently in the speeding up or slowing down of attention? I know you had political and social contexts in mind in the Circulars piece. But I'm curious too about our ability personally to process experience in a technologically saturated world. The rates of perception and cognition seem unstable and fragmented.


AG: When I wrote about the distinction between a “now” and a “present,” I was thinking specifically about the call that went out last winter during the months leading up to the most recent war on Iraq for poets to think more seriously about the relationship between poetry and politics — whether this call took the form of a collection of responses to the topic published in Fence magazine, for which I wrote an initial version of that piece you mention; or the “Poetry Is News” symposium organized by Ammiel Alcalay and Anne Waldman and held at the Poetry Project in New York City, where I delivered a longer version of it (the version that was posted on Stefan's groundbreaking website / blog Circulars ); or Sam Hamill's refusal to participate in Laura Bush's White House-sponsored poetry celebration and his subsequent request for writers to send him political poems to compile, to which thousands responded; or many other similar publications and events.

All of this got me wondering what's the conception of politics that allows one to be more political at certain moments in history and not at others. Obviously, during periods of acute historical crisis, which we're clearly in at the moment, there's a need to be extra vigilant; and the efforts and even risks the editors of Fence , and Alcalay, Waldman, and Hamill took in confronting current configurations of power attest to this. But we shouldn't lose sight of other forms of politics, which might be described as a politics of the excluded (more specifically, a politics of those excluded from conventional forms of politics). For despite the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in February in New York City to protest the impending war on Iraq (and who joined millions of other people around the world to breathtakingly enact possibly the largest single-day protest in human history), the crowds were, for the most part, relatively homogenous and middle-class, at least compared to overall New York City demographics. Without a sense of history in the present (an idea your thinking is deeply laced with, as evidenced in your writing and in your last response), we're left with a politics of the now in which everyone disperses at the end of the day — on a literal as well as a conceptual level — after having made their voices heard in reaction to current political conditions.

That said, few experiences will orient a person as much toward the now as having a baby, and Sophie has forced me to confront time on an hour by hour, even minute by minute basis — how long since she last ate, how long will she be content to sit and play with her toys, how long can I blissfully carry her around until my arms and back start to give out? Yet Sophie wants a history, too; which is related to what you describe as Keaton's desire for routine and ritual. After all, what is ritual but the attempt to magically invoke history? To say nothing about how much one is working through one's own past — consciously and subconsciously — while focused on parental demands in the present. I don't see how one can't not also be thinking about one's own upbringing and the institutions that instructed it, and that instructed one's parents in their particular moment in history, while making decisions as a parent.

I haven't taken a daybook approach to writing; but I was intrigued by the form even before Sophie was born, because a politics of the everyday, the micropolitics I mentioned earlier, might be one way to begin registering a politics of the excluded, without imagining one could speak to — or for — anyone else's politics or exclusion. As a formal method, Robert Creeley's A Day Book interests me for this reason, though less for the transfiguration of the everyday that you mention as part of your own approach, but for the utter banality of certain parts of it — a banality that, non-paradoxically, is thought-provoking, certainly more thought-provoking than most poetry that passes itself off for profound.



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