“In-between”

I know one of the arguments against avant garde (and post-avant) poetics is when it’s disjointed or fragmented or mucks with syntax it’s all surface or the poet is a misunderstood genius. I’ve thought it was a silly argument. I mean what is surface? How do we determine depth?

But lately I’ve begun to question this idea. The poetry of Bill Knot, Dean Young, James Tate etc. use avant garde techniques for the dominant poetry tradition (whatever it might be called. It doesn’t have a name because its the center. Style is clothing. Clothing is surface. Is there anything under the clothing? Sure, maybe not so much a soul, but many parts of the body hidden via societal pressures, fears, etc. In other words power, language, socialization and so on.

Dean Young is just cool. Sometimes fun I admit, but not coming from an avant garde tradition (he has proclaimed he is not part of the avant garde tradition so good for him for recognizing it). But Dean Young doesn’t grab me like James Tate.  But I do like some of the style of Dean Young. You can count on the style of Dean Young. He has a great voice. You could recognize it anywhere.

I can no longer attempt to separate mind/body. I just gotta think through language. Rigor doesn’t have to be boring, a chore etc. I just don’t get the point of most of the contemporary poetry books at Barnes and Noble. I mean who’s their audience besides poets in MFA programs?

I write for non poets and sometimes poets but probably my small audience is almost all poets.

I know this has been argued many times before. Nothing new. But I once thought I was in-between and it was best not to be a part of any group or tradition.

The community of in between. Living and dead.

Published by Marcus Slease

Born in Portadown, Northern Ireland, Marcus Slease has made his home in such places as Turkey, Poland, Italy, South Korea, the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom – experiences that inform his nomadic surrealist writing. His latest book is Never Mind the Beasts (Dostoyevsky Wannabe 2020).

19 thoughts on ““In-between”

  1. Marcus, I know what you mean. Even in the past year (since that thing some folks call a ‘conversion’) I’ve noticed that the center has shifted, and encapsulates a number of different styles. But it’s still hard to draw lines. The only way I can really attempt it sometimes is based on writers’ relationships to the market, or to MFA programs, or based on how inclusive they are in terms of working with, or even communicating with, folks who might be considered “mainstream” or even “in-between” (which pretty much means mainstream now, right?). But even then I’m leaving a number of pretty committed “mainstream” writers in a bad place, and a number of avant/separatist writers in too good of a place, since folks in both camps seem to work off of “style.”It’s tough.

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  2. Laura,I agree that poets can write well and instigate thinking and use various techniques from various camps, groups etc. But I do think the real split is about an approach to reality and knowledge/epistomology. Reality including social/political reality. A “style” can certainly play a part in this approach, but I think ignoring or denying the philosophical/theoretical bases (basis) of such styles is not responsible, full of “bad faith” etc. Like you say, sometimes the writers relationship to the market can draw lines. And in the marketplace style is everything. I think the poetry marketplace can be just a sugrouping of larger market ideology etc. But I think recognizing, evaluating, contemplating, and perhaps critiquing said marketplace is a better approach then simply ignoring it (still quite common in the “mainstream,” both poetry and otherwise). There may be (as Ron Silliman pointed out on his blog a little while back)a difference between “mainstream” and “experimental” in terms of how each system approaches history. I guess what I am trying to say is I agree with your insightful comment obout the difficulty of drawing lines and the value of inclusiveness. I realize poets can front from both systems. Perhaps that’s what a mean. The experimental as a whole system of approaches to reality and knowledge rather than only a style of writing (parataxis etc.)I can respect the hard work of mainstream writers (poetry and otherwise) but I think recognizing the systems at play is even more important than playing nice.For me it’s also about free will/play of signifiers etc. Which you could argue is also present in many mainstream poetry (a watered surrealism for example). Well I’ll stop there. Hope the wacky tobaccky didn’t didn’t make make this comment too confusing. But anyway. Thanks for the response.

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  3. No, I hope I agree with you a good bit!It’s confusing for me, I guess, in trying to discern writers’ intentions. (Which is never a good idea, but, nevertheless, something we probably all try to do.)But it’s kind of telling, in spite of impulses to be more inclusive (which, socially, I think is a good idea sometimes)that most of us can easily identify “mainstream” v. “avant” writers to a certain extent.

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  4. I think sometimes, tho, at least for me, it’s more difficult to discern what new writers (like myself) are “up to”: maybe it’s a matter of working away from MFA assumptions (assumptions as in a good bit of groundwork is never questioned and should be)? With folks who have got a good bit of publication (books) it’s much easier to tell where they stand. If they stand, which again, complicates….

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  5. Last note here, sorry to be a bit too excited about this talk….Do you ever find that you prefer certain mainstream writers to certain avant writers? I guess I tend to want to place this conversation within the context of what I value (most of which is avant, I suppose)but there are a number of avant writers whose work doesn’t really interest me, although we might be able to have an engaging conversation about a number of other lit-<>related<> things. This is where it gets hard for me.

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  6. Good questions and points. Yes, there are poets and poetry in the avant tradition that don’t light me up. But for me it’s more about the self-eating tradition of the avant garde (always questioning/eating itself).However, I do like some mainstream poetry, but I don’t identify with the overall context (publishing etc.)The mainstream poetry I like is a poem by poem basis. Whereas a lot of the avant stuff is a book by book, project by project kind-of thing.In other words, I like some of Seamus Heaney’s poems but I don’t believe in the tradition he is supporting (an English view of the Irish). I also like some James Wright poems. Just about any contemporary poetry anthology (mostly used in college classes) has a few interesting poems.Some maybe what I am saying is I am more interested (as a whole) in projects than poets or poems.I don’t feel mainstream poets are the enemy etc. But I do think it’s important to make some distinctions concerning worldview, ideology etc. without essentializing.Does that make sense?Donald Justice

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  7. Donald Justice is OK. He’s been given perhaps too much credit at school, so I’m not a huge fan. Just a reaction to other tendencies. Probably my failing.I know what you mean about projects, tho. The publishing context of individual poems is difficult for me to understand. I’m not sure how folks cobble single poems together into mss, etc., and that seems to happen more in “mainstream” land. I find that when I write from “poem to poem,” so to speak, the poems are what I most dislike: claustrophobic, Stevensian (in the worst sense of the word), too concerned with presenting an artifact that bears no relation to “things as they are,” if that makes sense. So I’m probably going to be pretty project-motivated, even if a good number of those don’t work. I learn the most from trying it that way. It opens up the field for me, so to speak.In terms of categories, I’m thinking more in terms of younger writers whose work (say, Ben Lerner’s, which I enjoy reading a good bit of) doesn’t really fit into a box. I also like a good chunk of Sarah Manguso’s first book—I think many of the poems are politically subversive in a way that escapes you if you’re not looking for it. And Sabrina Mark is fabulous. And there are, of course, many others….So I guess my question is more in terms of young folks who are trying to figure it out, and doing so in different ways, which is great for poetry.I don’t want to put too much credit in the project mentality either, for that approaches a view that slips into … style. I guess <>Life Studies<> was a “project” for Lowell (& team)? Maybe some of Sexton’s work was too, those silly fairy tale things and all? But I know what you mean.In terms of Bill Knott…he’s more what I’d call “mainstream.” I can see why you wouldn’t be interested in his work.

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  8. “escapes you if you’re not looking for it” may be a bad way of putting it, tho I admit I often “look for it.”—“not paying attention” might be better…

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  9. Yes, I don’t care for the poems of Donald Justice either.I do see more what you mean now. I do like a decent amount of work from the some of the younger poets you mention (Sarah Manguso’s The Captain Lands in Paradise for example). And yes, I like a few poets that publish with Fence (Martin Corless Smith and Catherine Wagner for example). However, I do find the younger poets who claim a middle ground are really moving toward a mainstream approach to art/world etc. That doesn’t mean I won’t read them. Some of the poets who publish with Fence are quite interesting. But as a whole I wouldn’t go out of my way to find Fence or Verse press books. I also realize presses are sort of a brand. I mean nothing really exists outside the marketplace right? I will buy almost anything from Edge Books or Talisman House.Is buying/consuming based on brand/editorial vision different than buying a sony over rca?I hope it’s different even if consumer ideology is also in play with choosing to buy books from certain presses. I do resist the idea of hot, cool, new styles marketing hype with poetry books (which is often mistaken via Pound as the only or main thrust of avant garde poetics).I like this thinking stuff. No easy answers. I do like inclusiveness as a social policy.

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  10. Yes, I think Verse is in some ways the new center, sort of. Perhaps Slope, Fence, as well. (It’s interesting that people in my writing program think of these guys as “the other half”: sounds kind of like corporate politics, eh?)Not sure which presses to latch on to. I like folks who put out their own stuff, because I like to see a complete aesthetic of the book, but that’s rare & difficult for most poets to afford.Talisman House is great. I also, however, find that I like a good number of UCaliforniaP books. (Fanny Howe, Juliana Spahr, that damned Donald Allen thing that started the whole ‘war’, right?).I don’t know Edge, really. I’m starting to like Ugly Duckling a good bit, & their EEP line comes w/ high recs.I’m curious to hear you talk more about alternatives to Pound. Maybe a post?But I’m still hanging on to some of my favorite mainstreamers. And, for the record, Verse & Fence have put out some good books. And so has Slope. But I trust Scott Pierce more, I guess.

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  11. My tentative conclusion is that as a writer one has to be careful about both affiliation & conclusions. I share some of your prejudices, but my concern about approaching poetry from the point of view of the market-place is that I’ll get “stuck” there, unable to let the poetry (or writing, whatever we call it) “transcend” or “break through” that “binding.” I think good poetry does this. It’s a complicated discussion. But I don’t want to miss anything. And surely presses like Fence (perhaps I’m fonder than you here) aren’t the “culprit”—maybe if Poetry the Mag had a press, that would be. But Poetry’s quickly become a joke ’round these parts, and I think that’s a good thing.Everything else is in flux, at least for me. I think about this stuff every day, almost continually, tho, so thanks for bringing it up.PS Are you moving to GA?

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  12. I do identify with the your conclusion. A kind of blind allegiance to “avant garde” poetics after a “conversion” experience. I do trust Scott Pierce a whole lot. Real editorial vision. I don’t know if you’ve read Haze by Mark Wallace but it’s an excellent discussion/exploration of this very topic (esp. his avant garde deoderant poem). I think it is a very healthy sign to doubt these categories to some extent and to continue to read “beyond” them. I sometimes like some Charles Wright.I’ve decided to stay in these parts rather than move to GA. No teaching gig yet, but I should get some classes here and there. What are your plans now? You graduated right?These whole scene is exploding. I like the energy. Perhaps that is a better way to describe my affiliation. Part of a scene. Mostly local. Community etc.Edge is a really interesting press out of DC run by Rod Smith. There seems to be a connection between the experimental scene in DC and George Mason’s MFA programme (mostly via Carolyn Forshe). Carolyn Forshe is considered mainstream but seems very open to experimental/avant garde work. I also like some of her poetry. She blurbs some of Edge’s books etc.This feels very good to air and contradict myself. Rethinking always!

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  13. Staying here. Not done with school yet. (1 year but basically just getting a great assistantship so I spend lots of time reading, writing, etc.) Glad you’re staying up where things are happening for you!Yes, I like some of Forche’s work, too, I thought Blue Hour was a cool book.Thanks for the heads up about Edge. And about Wallace’s article.

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  14. Marcus,I agree with a lot of what you say, but to say that Ashbery is merely a “token” of the mainstream is to seriously underestimte his role. From the “Great Ashbery Debates” that have raged since the 1960s the literary establishment has used Ashbery (I’m clearly simplifying all the complicated literary processes) as a limit on experimentalism (or whatever you want to call the urge to go beyond tracing) and also to define what experimentalism is.Judging from what I see in a lot of journals and books, they have succeeded. People running around declaring their allegience to some surface moves they call “experimentalism.” To say you’re experimental these days means nothing. It’s the new “authentic.” I absolutely agree with you.Of course Ashbery has been cleaned up as well. For example Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler can both love him as a Romantic, but they both make big points of how his dada (or European) influenced work are mere misstakes. The guy who wrote that travesty of a book about “The last of the avant-garde” had to repeatedly declare that Ashbery is not in fact political but a “maverick” – he’s not (despite the claims of the book and its title) avant-garde, but a Romantic.I like The Tennis Court Oath the best of A.’s work; A lot of his other stuff does – to agree with Bloom and Vendler – seem to create a fairly Keatsian space for the reader. To be honest I have many contradictory feelings about him.Also about Bill Knott who wrote some great anti-Vietnam poems in the 1960s (but we have since been taught that it’s shameless and in bad taste to write overt political poetry. And it’s absolutely un-avant-garde).Johannes Goransson

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  15. dear sleas:i don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right (you spell mine right, i’ll spell yours right). . .i’m not inbetween nor do i claim to be;i’m mainstream, middle of the road, school-of-quietude, call it what you will. . . or at least i try to be.if others judge my work to be inbetween, that simply means i’ve failed in my efforts to be mainstream etc. ..bill knott

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  16. Don’t let them mess with you, Bill. If you’ve failed, then their failure rests in failing to understand the true essence of failure, not yours but their own. Keep the poems coming. You have an army of fans out their ready to nuke them. Of course, poetry reading may be difficult while our skin is falling from our bones,but we’ll safeguard your verse in memory and say, I told you so, I told you so. . .remember what Knott said in that poem? He was right.

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