26 May 2006

Resisting the Sentence

In so many ways, I would prefer to do in art what we’re talking about here. But here are a range of comments I have after a long read of the blog entire.

I’m with Lydia on “resistance,” but after 10 years of resisting, I’m not sure what I’m resisting anymore. Quite often of late I feel that I’m resisting my own tribe. For instance I find frustrating Lance’s discussion of Stacey’s “quirky” narrative turns and Ourednik’s (last name there since I don’t know him) “absurdities.” Perhaps I am simply aged and weary. The theater of the absurd, in which I participated in the late 70s, was over by 1980. Lance (and you know I love ya, Lance) suggests that resistance is about “working within and against historico-aesthetic continuities and rupture” (hereinafter HACR). It’s that “within” that’s got me a bit nervous.

Timmi mentions the problem of executive power and I am so with this, so freaked about this incredible loophole that 43 has gone apeshit nuts with. We're talking (or should be) about power, folks. I know someone early on in the conversation (sorry, notes incomplete as always) said something about modernism going on for 100 years. The twentieth century, at the same time, has seen a dramatic shift in power distribution to the executive branch---unheralded in history blah blah blah. We’ve also lived through two gilded ages, two upward transfers of wealth. We’re living through the 2nd right now.

I think it’s been made pretty clear by everyone writing in this space that Lance’s “within” to that culture is not possible.

This is why when Jeffrey insists that we take genre boundaries seriously for the sake of maintaining narrative, I have to step back and say, Whoa. The fundamentally discrete attribute of prose is not narrative; it’s the sentence.

What is it with prose writers that we so rarely talk about the sentence? Or do anything with it? Or challenge it? IT’S OUR FOUNDATION. (The traditional sentence is the source of prose's market power.) Thus I was grateful for Mark’s nudge toward language poetry. Most of what I know about the art I make these days has not come from reading novels. It’s come from listening to and reading about “difficult” (uh-oh) poetry. The only time I need to know anything about how story works on readers is when I write (more) conventional (dreaded, I know) nonfiction. Nonfiction exists entirely on a novelistic structure. Makes me nuts----

---but there ARE essential stories that need to be told, and for those, and for that wider audience, yeah, I retreat to the good old sentenced story. My thinking about the work I do in that area is this: telling a willfully unheard story is radical (resistant) only in the short term. Once the story gets out (assuming you can find a publisher in this era of these HACRs), once the story enters the public consciousness, the book is dead. It’s no longer a resisting artifact.

So yeah, Lydia, hybrids. I agree with Lance that lists are a fool’s errand, but the group indulged the impulse anyway, and what I find missing from the lists are some women whose (I believe) prose innovations (hybrids, due attention paid to the sentence) are being published as poetry. Lyn Hejinian wrote what is, for me, the best memoir of the late 20th century; and then we have Carla Harryman and Laura Mullen. I think of myself as a novelist, but all of my artwork has been accepted by poetry publishers. You should see my rejection letters from the prose tribes. Some really Wow stuff in there.

So when Lydia asks whether hybridity will stop being hybrid at some point and become its own third genre, I have to answer that hybridity or creolization has already been divorced in the main by prose folk, and is finding a lumpy-mattressed home as poetry’s distant cousin. That is, at this moment, hybridity isn’t even hybridity. It’s some other genre’s third limb.

(Ted: Curt White has a jones for birds. Dunno why, but chicks dig him.)

Michael! I’m concerned about the use of the word postmodern to describe what we’re trying to do, or the ethos of the current moment. I turn to Federman here, who in Critifiction said that postmodernism died with Beckett (I think Michael Berube puts the obit a few years later) BUT that the issues that created the NEED for postmodernism have NOT BEEN RESOLVED.

Among other things, we still don't know how to talk about power.

I guess what I’m trying not to say here is that most of us have been down these roads before. Yes; we've been less-empowered for a long time now. I’ve been quoting Fed. for ages ("To play the same old game by the same old rules, to say the same old thing the same old way would be merely competence"), not to mention Bruce Lee ("Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation") and Stevens ("The trouble with your poetry, Frost, is that it has subjects," said Wallace to Robert while on a train trip to Florida---this as quoted by Robert in 1963)----all of these for the past NINE prose-writing syllabi.

What are we doing?? I love that Michael mentions rules. And Michael mentions history.

History. History. History. I really think this is, with the sentence, prose writing’s final frontier. At this point in time (said Nixon), the thing haunting culture more than anything else---more than language, much as I WISH the culture were haunted by language---is history. Just 2 days ago on CNN, a presumably sane and intelligent man said into a stuck-in-his-lapel mike, “Wolf, in this postmodern era nobody believes in truth anymore.”

My television is lucky to have survived this appalling incident. People need to be told (Stein and telling) that this is not what people “believe.”

I fear that our tribe is living in its own past...and is refusing to take up a number of ongoing challenges, like the sentence (our people love to QUOTE Stein, but we don’t like to risk our transparency, as she does) and hybridity and history and power (withinness). Rather than respond to these urgencies we have rationalized our existence by scientizing ourselves (lord, 40 years after lit crit did the same thing)---you can’t get anyone to look at an “unconventional novel” without spending a full year in the library, researching something obscure, quirky, and absurd that happened.........long ago.

Recently I had an amazingly depressing experience; I got my hands on a little-discussed book by Sukenick, Down and In, a history of The Glory Days for artists of all sort, including writers, in the Village 60s. He wrote the book in the 80s, and in it he asks virtually every question we’ve been asking here.

Again: he wrote that in the 80s.

(I had really bad hair in the 80s. I was really hoping the 80s were over.)

I will now...SIGN my STATEMENT. THANK YOU for this space, and

love to yall,



Carol Novack said...

I love what you've said here, Kass. I want to ruminate and write something intelligent back someday. There are so many cacademics here (as the former cacademic Fed would say), I become intimidated because I haven't read what most everyone's read and have only recently returned to writing after years of toiling in legal trenches trying to escape land mines etc. And my fusions... hah. I never know where to send them: fiction or poetry editor? My voices say that rhythm and sound should drive narrative, that narrative's in the back seat enjoying the ride (one hopes).

But you know how we western minds love to categorize everything. We all here should perhaps try to avoid an "us against them perspective," yet retain our various voices/identities-in-progress to (ironically) define our collective aesthetic and our goals in terms of modes of action.

Maybe we should speak informally, in incomplete sentences we could each attempt to complete collectively for one another! :-)

So I just wanted to say hello and as usual, I've gotten carried away, no apologies -- I think it's important not to get bogged down in overly careful, intellectual questions and responses, though the issues are certainly interesting and I'm not downplaying them at all, but first and foremost, I think we're writers here, exploring our voices and their meanings and what we think we contribute and can contribute to history. And I do agree that Lynn H's memoir is a paradigm for all imaginative, risky, novel memoirs but gawds I'm tired of the word memoir! And actually, I'm not enthralled with either paradigms or traditions or of course, rules.

Great to meet ya!


blonde said...

hey kass:

HUM DINGER post. muchas gracias. turned all my lights and twinkles on.

i'm going to insist on the possible power of the hybrid, however, and i'm going to name JEANNE HEUVING'S book Incapacity and Carole Maso's books Aureole, AVA, and The Art Lover, as well as Anne Carson's last book Decreation (what a WEIRD gem it is--poetics, prosaics, opera, screenplayish thingee). i know what you mean about the danger of these kinds of books being dubbed poetry's inbred cousin, but i think that is nonsense, and i think this is an offspring women writers are leading the way birthing.


Lance Olsen said...

Incredibly provocative post, Kass. Let me follow up with a few questions: What, I wonder, should we be investigating that the alternative hasn't been investigating for well over a century and a half? Surely, as you say, it's not the sentence. It's not power relations. It's not form. It's not radical politics.

So is it possible that the alternative exists to trouble, to disrupt, to resist, again and again, in not so many different ways, as an act of reminding for the wider culture, or for certain individuals within it who might carry on the troublings and disruptions?

And in what sense shouldn't we be working "within" as well as "against" various systems of continuities and ruptures? From my perspective, that's what most of us here do, whether we like to be implicated within said systems or not.

Lance Olsen said...

Okay, you can tell your post stirred up the sediment for me, Kass, got me thinking, and that I think in questions.

Here's another (and I promise my last for the evening): you say, with respect to telling "a willfully unheard story" that "once the story gets out (assuming you can find a publisher in this era of these HACRs), once the story enters the public consciousness, the book is dead. It’s no longer a resisting artifact."

Isn't Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (published, I hasten to add, in the eighties) still very much a resisting artifact—if, for instance, you're reading it as an undergraduate in Kass Fleischer's contemporary fiction course or a woman in pre-war Afghanistan under the Taliban who has never before read such a thing or thought about what it has to say about gender, patriarchal texts, hybridization, backbroke sentences, and power relations?

Isn't it the case, that is, that who you are, where you are, and when you are informs a person's ever-shifting notions of terms like "resistance," "innovative," "elitist," "marginalization," "the past," even "willfully unheard story"?

doug rice said...

I just write writing. it is what Joyce once upon a time said. not knowing what he was doing, which rocks he was looking up from under or down under into. kathy (acker) once said on a cold bar in Providence that she only wrote to entertain herself and it was never writing until it was read. becoming. that old the following is writing. so. and then over there at the parasite cafe Stephen mutters something so Pfohlish about (w)riting. just you try to break that grasp. Niet. on his deathbed complaining that God was still alive, always alive in the grammar. Keeping it all in place.

do you sit down with an intention to experiment? how is that possible? In the heart of the heart of the country to experiment is only to be left with no remains. what is that remains in the archives after the signature disappears. that is a sentence, declarative and political. Have you ever asked Joyce what is politics?

Blood and Guts. still disturbs. in this sacrament of the provincial. i guest lectured to an angry class of men defending their women. up in arms against high school women who claimed desires. the most political moments always tend to be ones of surprise.

i never intended.

Jai said...

Increasingly I am being told my work is not a story or not a novel - that it is an extended prose poem. I ask how can a novel be a prose poem? a poetic novel indeed, but a PP??

and increasingly these works that evidence this hybridity is not being published. More 'ordinary' stuff is.

a PP is one thing (it seems) but longer works that have PP characteristics? no.

Thanks for this.

jdeshell said...

Dear Kass,
I agree wholeheartedly with your insistence on the sentence as the foundation our base, of our endeavor. It’s what we do and what we love. We can’t have a prose discussion without the sentence. But if we agree that the sentence is the foundation of our work, I’m thinking we disagree on the horizon. My horizon is narrative, in all of its variations (many still unexplored, many more still unmastered and many others still unthought). Yours (sometimes) isn’t. That’s cool. But my question is: how is narrative itself reactionary or repressive? How is narrative always already (joke) repressive? Why is poetry, or hybridity, or writing that refuses narrative (which is a question in itself) inherently more radical, more resistant? There are Narratives, there are narratives and then there are narratives. Even with Joyce and Acker. We both know plenty of novelists who pay due attention to the sentence: are they all working for wrong side?
My second question has to do with your foregrounding the discussion of the question of power. Put simply: how can we talk about power? If we speak about power directly, the conversation will be, as Major Strasser said in Casablanca, “A trifle one-sided.” To approach power directly, with the language of power, seems futile. To put this another way, Aren’t we talking about power? Aren’t we talking about power when we talk about choice: the choice to put this verb here, this image here, this sentence here? Aren’t we talking about power when we talk about composition?
I had bad hair in 80's too. One of those Flock of Seagull assymetrical jobs.
Cheers, Jeffrey

doug rice said...

Before I head to the ocean, I wanted to step in here with Jeffrey and also speak of the possibility of working within narrative and remaining outside or aside from the wrong side. some of this is explored in the anthology biting the error but not much,. most of what is explored in that anthology are other forms of writing narrative, of prose writers not being prose writers but rather being cross-genre-lingoverting. more often writing that is merely cross genre tends to be more reactionary than is narrative that is pushing the boundaries of what might be the margins of acceptable and proper story telling. my new work, at least the one, is straight narrative in comic mode. a straight narrative about not getting a sex change. it cant get more straight than that. i have fumbled around with all other forms of anti narrative only to finally listen to the needs of the story. and the needs for this story of unconventional bodies and desires is a more conventional narrative rendering. and i would argue that within the humor of this telling that it is political and breaks the normal structures and restrictions placed on it by grammars always already there or here. the comic breaks into the political. lewis, right? pound, right? blast. within narrative there must always be lines of flight or can always be lines of flight. and relearning. re-orienting of readerly desires and zones of comfort. dismantle that from the inside. the outside is always consumed anyway. becomes just as much a product. so how can we question from the interior? and how can new truths be discovered from within a sentence? the joy of arrival. and still i think of deleuze and his writing on style. i think anyone sitting down and forcing a style onto a story especially in terms of politics or some other banner is BOUND and i do mean bound to vulgarity.
how can we force a re reading that is worth it. so if the verb travels and syntax is performative on the inside in subtle ways...when grammars really do breakdown and cannot be made stable because the heart of the heart of the story and character demands such breaking. once upon a time my son was a little boy (now he is studying neuroscience) and he was reading portrait for the very first time and he called me and said joyce makes me want to re read his sentence because he jumbles them up. he messes with my normal way for not reading when i read. now he is reading pussy. and reading again anew. beathe fresh moments of becoming.
i dont know. sometimes i think narrative traps. but i think tinkering is more progressive than simple reactionary encamping.
of course, that old gardner guy was my teacher. i listened but rarely obeyed. there was always too much snow.
no more bad hair days for me. i shaved my head.

Lance Olsen said...

Jeffrey, Doug: Thanks for speaking passionately on behalf of narrative.

We can't escape narrativity (for me, every sentence is a narraticule), how we (dis)order our lives, and, thus, how we (dis)order our syntax and the syntax called our stories.

The only question for me is always: what form will the (dis)ordering take, and why?

Trevor Dodge said...

Interesting points as usual, Kass. I'm nodding a lot here. Can you see me?

I'm wondering, though, about your contention with Lance's use of "within." It's been mentioned both in this thread and out that the NowWhat blog is populated by "cacademics." Isn't the fact that this particular group of writers, publishers, artists, thinkers, et al has, for the most part, taken root in academia that kind of "within" Lance might have meant? I don't know if you can make a direct equivocation between a university and the White House, but certainly they are inherently "executive" institutions, aren't they? If tramps like us are, in some degree, running these institutions (hell...Ben Marcus was a finalist to direct the Iowa MFA program, no?), isn't that an indication of good things to come?