You couldn’t find two people who agreed about when it began, how could you say when it began going off? Mission intellectuals like 1909 as the reference date; if you saw as far back as Rimbaud and Verlaine’s split you were practically a visionary. “Realists” said it began for us in 1957 when Black Mountain went under, and the common run of Mission flack insisted on 1963, post Vancouver Poetry Conference, as though all that killing that had gone on before wasn’t really poetry. Anyway, you couldn’t use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say the Poetry Foundation was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter; might just as well lay it on the proto-Gringos who found the New England woods too raw and empty for their peace and filled them up with their own imported devils.
* * *
Sitting in Buffalo was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace. Brooklyn and San Francisco were like remote closed societies, mute and intractable. Buffalo remained, the repository and the arena, it breathed history, expelled it like a toxin, Shit Piss and Corruption. You’d stand there in your tracks sometimes, no bearings and none in sight, thinking, Where the fuck am I?, fallen into some unnatural East Coast-West Coast interface. It was axiomatic that it was about ideological space, we were there to bring them the choice, bringing it to them like Sherman bringing the Jubilee through Georgia.
But you know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at the photos in Lingua Franca, the ones that showed exploited adjuncts or poets you’d never heard of, their stylish eyewear and nondescript black clothes, crammed, waiting for the interminable elevators at MLA, talk about deferral. It may have legitimized my fascination, letting me look for as long as I wanted; I didn’t have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first Flarf, all the Flarf in the world. Supposedly you weren’t going to have that kind of obscuration when you finally had tenure, a book from Wesleyan, but you tended to manufacture it anyway.
“I just can’t hack it back in the World,” he said. He told me that after he’d come back from the Dodge Festival he would sit in his room all day, and sometimes he’d stick a hunting rifle out the window, leading people and cars as they passed his house until the only feeling he was aware of was all up in the tip of that one finger. “It used to put my folks real uptight,” he said. But he put people uptight here too, even here.
“No man, I’m sorry, he’s just too crazy for me,” one of the Eco-Crit scholars in his department said. “All’s you got to do is look in his eyes, that’s the whole fucking story right there.”
“Yeah,” a visiting professor said “but condescension and thinking oneself no better are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility, and violence needed to exert domination.” Her Trotsky pin bobbed almost insensibly, some sovereign isolation between irony and nostalgia.
* * *
Fear and motion, fear and standstill, no preferred cut there, no way to even be clear about which was really worse, the wait or the delivery. Poetry spared far more people than it wasted, but everyone suffered the time between contact, especially when they were going out every day looking for it; bad going on foot, terrible in trucks and APC’s, awful in helicopters, the worst, traveling so fast in something so frightening. It was painful enough just flying ‘safe’ hops between firebases and LZ’s; if you were ever in a movement that had been blog-flamed, your deep, perpetual anxiety was guaranteed. I went through that thing a number of times and only got a fast return on my fear once, a too classic hot MLA panel with the heat coming from the trees about 300 yards away, sweeping pronouncements that sent poets head down into swampy water, running on their hands and knees toward the grass where it wasn’t blown flat by the rotor blades, not much to be running for, but better than nothing. When we’d all reached the cover of the hotel bar and the chair had made a check, we were amazed to see that no one had made a check, except for one man who’d been mildly disparaged by Stephen Burt. Afterward I remembered that I’d been down in the muck worrying about promotion. I guess you could say that I was refusing to accept the situation. The ground was always in play, always being swept. A cab driver with an accent I couldn’t place said “Other people, particularly the simple folk whose qualities the intellectual poet is so fond of stressing, generally encounter him in the role of those with something to sell. In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.” I made a note to put that on Facebook.
* * *
High on dirt weed, the aging Langpo fellow-traveler said “To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC to fulminate against 1, 2, 3, to fly into a rage and sharpen your wings to conquer and disseminate little abcs and big ABCs, to sign, shout, swear, to organize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence, to prove your non plus ultra and maintain that novelty resembles life just as the latest appearance of some Twitter feed proves the essence of God.” He finished his third Ketel One, ice, lime, and the Brown post-doc responded “The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant; the only advantage of the former is insight into his entanglement, and the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such. This is why the very movement of withdrawal bears features of what it negates. Reclaiming the struggle for ‘absolute’ poetry renounces the magnetic field of perennial relativiness. Chronomicrometering of hazard. Control. Poetry will be made by some, not by one. The reason is the direct result of our theory – The movement must be real or it will not be. Now the call is INTO THE LOW RESIDENCIES!”
“Tenure, dig it,” I remember thinking, “you weren’t going anywhere. It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni, but it was only a stunt.” It was the same with your ongoing attempts to get used to the department meetings, the blow-you-out climate or the saturating strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it flattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the tenured academic is, nonetheless, obsessed with acclamation; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly publisher awaiting him.
There was such a dense concentration of American energy there, American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste, and ambition it would have lighted up the Lily factories for a thousand years. Life in that society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to poets, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking writers only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy…well, whatever. The poets need a state – this all the opportunists can tell you but the opportunists forget to add that the poets need only a dying state, a state constructed in such a way that it immediately begins to die away and cannot help dying away.” Then I realized: all the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick up!’ Or: Smash the window at night (these are magic actions) smash the windows daytime, anytime, together, let’s smash the window drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want. The magic dance in the street.” But I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.
Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the poetry wars and they covered me.