27 May 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

I can't pick up on most of the great stuff here - great simply that it is happening - but I will quickly post something before I leave town for weekend (holiday Memorializing a time before we became the new Soviet Union...).

Buffalo last week had a birthday party for Robert Creeley who would have been 80 last Saturday had he made it. (Miles Davis's 80th then followed later in the week, which I thought was sweet beyond words.) In the long day and a half celebration of this occasion, there's a couple of things I wrote down, from the film Creeley by Bruce Jackson - a couple of Creeley statements which seemed to me useful:

"Words make very powerful grids of determinant meaning."


"Words don't care about the truth."

I bring these statements in first as a final salvo in the "non-fiction" thread way far above. Even the slightest engagement with language should convince one of its slipperiness and disabuse one of the simple dream of pure representation. And so my problem with the realists, the creative non-fictionists, and the political mythologists (in Roland Barthes' sense of the term) of our time is this: they lie. As Barthes said long ago, Mythology (readerly writing) is the end of Writing, that is, it shuts down imagination, installs a narrative (a politics, a reading, a "Truth") that ends free-play of imagination, and with it actual literature. In the marketers' desire for a fiction whose sales they can predict and in the political leader's desire for a pliable people are the same abusive readerly "Mythological" uses of language, and the things they stamp out are real participatory democracy and literature.

Painting all this with a very wide brush indeed.

Other lines that come to mind, that I've been thinking about lately (& that have haunted mne for years):

Let those who use words cheap, who use us cheap
Take themselves out of the way
Let them not talk of what is good for the city
-Charles Olson, Maximus Letter 3

The "city" for Olson being a construction of future political and artistic organization - the "book to come" of our potential social & imaginary organization. Let them use words intelligently & sensitively and all else will follow.

Call me naive, but I also believe this. I don't think it's accidental that when Orwell gave us his portraits of totalitarianism, he focused so heavily on how language was employed as the basic component of social engineering, abuse, and mind-fucking: "Four legs good, two legs better" -> "work shall set you free" -> "support the troops": we have seen this many times, to many degrees, in many contexts. Reading/deconstructing are tools resembling what Woody Guthrie long-ago painted on his guitar: "This machine kills fascists."

So, pedagogy: I try NOT to give exercises to writing students that are heavy on doctrine; rather, I try to construct situations where they be forced to consider the formation of writing-art in language.

One of my favorite exercises is to go with students to the zoo (across the street from my college) and tell them to find an animal they've never heard of before and write a story/prose-experiment about it. (This is a mid-semester intro-workshop exercise, after they've seen some & hopefully retained some things but hopefully while they are still open to experiment - they do close down, too frequently.)

The crucial other part of the exercise is that each paragraph's first letter has to ultimately spell out the name of the animal, as an anagram. This gets them thinking about their words, where they break and how they use paragraphs, and how long the story is -- that texts are artificial constructions, and may have to end in a hurry if you're up to the V in cerval.

In this spirit it was great to hear about Christian Bok's book, of which I didn't know. It reminds me of those old Walter Abish books so formative for me back in the (yes-Kass-I-remember-them-too) 1980s, Alphabetical Africa, Minds Meet, and In the Future Perfect. But here again, poetry - Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse is also full of such experiments. Someone back there quoted Andy Rooney about the pretentiousness of poetry; yes, it can be and often is. I generally prefer reading fiction myself,too. But this too: if you are happy with the narrative assumptions of Andy Rooney, by all means, keep avoiding reading poetry. These questions, on average, are much more likely to arise among poets than in the general run of prosewirters. I think this group is on to more than that.

I also run a second track in my fiction writing classes where we read stories when there's nothing to workshop, and I use an anthology for that purpose. I use a handful of classic and new pieces -- "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," "A Cask of Amontillado," "Monkey Garden" (Cisneros) -- usually I use Story and its Writer, supplemented with something avant-garde, or handouts, the first chapter of Notable American Woman ("Bury Your Head"). Paragraph Magazine is good -- about 40 single para. stories to read, imitate, joust with, That magazine, available from a Oat City press in Rhode Island (see http://conan.ids.net/~oatcity/Paragraph.html). Or, yes, STARCHERONE BOOKS has that PP/FF thing....

The classic "Exquisite Corpse" exercise too always yields great images and sentences that I'll then challenge students to accept the logic of, and write coherent (or incoherent) narratives around.

All this to say I am really itchy when I hear someone say students have to be indoctrinated or formed or recruited in a doctrinaire way. I think that if you present them with object lessons and simply try to get them to ask the questions that make the other kind of writing (that doesn't think about the role of language) impossible, then you move them toward a more interesting art and a more open politics.

And, yes, Kass, Ron Sukenick does also ask all of these questions. There are many roads.


Joe Amato said...

Ted -- I know you're off memorializing, and I hope you're having fun -- your last comment brought to mind what Finlay Currie (as Balthasar) tells Charlton Heston at one point in Ben-Hur: "There are many paths to God, my son." (Strictly from memory.)

To God: again, I'm going to have to ask a question that, Olson or no Olson (and you gotta know, I'm the hugest of Olson fans), is still nagging me, to wit: Aren't there any uses, creative uses, for an instrumentalist approach to language? As I recall, even Zizek says (in an interview that I don't have handy) that he's essentially an instrumentalist when it comes to writing.

I cook a lot. I like cookbooks. I like cookbooks that are written well, that read well -- that say, clearly, what they have to say. Etc.

Now this for me is a vital, uhm, ingredient in the way I approach my creative work. Without which, my creative work would surely suffer. Transparent language use indeed.

Am I making sense? I hope so. Can you understand me? I like to think so. There are times when this is precisely the effect I wish to achieve: comprehension. And I wouldn't mistake for a moment my desire to achieve same with what language actually is.

But surely, from a pedagogical standpoint, the social contract entailed in words like lucid, cogent, concise and the like is something our students ought to pursue, along with an understanding that this is all a contract, an agreement between writer and reader. ((I'm falling back on "contract" b/c it's easy.)) When I approach a STOP sign, I've tacitly agreed not to play with the letters -- SPOT, POTS, TOPS -- for the sake of STOPPING. After I stop, I play with the letters. ((OK, I'm at the point now at which I can stop and play with the letters, think and hit at the same time. But you get my point -- we have to see and act on STOP as such.))

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.


This is tougher to pull off that it seems, it seems to me. Else all cookbooks would be good reads. And why do so many people still run STOP signs? ((OK, never mind this last.))

But it seems to me, likewise, that it's vital to what we want from our students. And I think in general that one's creative work suffers, immensely, unless one's poetry is as well-written as prose, and one's prose as well-written as poetry.



Carol Novack said...

Could you possibly clarify what you're talking about, Joe? You want we should write like cookbook authors so that students and readers will know how many wordcups, word teaspoons and wordtablespoons go into the piece, how the piece is made, spoonful by spoonful? So then they will be able to cook the piece at home? As in writing by numbers, writing in word measurements? I'm very confused by your thirst for clarity. I have a great recipe for a mad hatter apple facoctail. Maybe I should have a few before I read this again.

So what if you like to shut the cookbook (by one of those very exacting French chefs who want us to buy very expensive ingredients)as I do, and put all sorts of morsels into the goulash or casserole that would render the recipe useless ultimately in the sense that it had its usefulness but now you're really cooking, adding all sorts of eggplants and elephants, teacups and flags draped over the coffins of dead soldiers and so on and so forth? Is this a question or is it not a question? A quest?

Yes indeed, I'm confused. And I love being confused because confusion takes me as a free spirit all over the world inside and outside and then when I'm done expressing my confusion, readers come to clarify what it is I was saying whether I meant to say it or not. And that's called The Joy of Cooking. :-)

In dementia perpetua,


Joe Amato said...

Carol, let me get this straight: you want I should clarify what I mean by ... clarification?

I'm not a particularly clear writer much of the time, if by "clear" we mean something like "accessible." I swear.

But I think it important that we don't simply dismiss attributes like "clarity," esp. when it comes to the classroom. (After teaching tech writing for a decade, believe me -- my antidote for representational transparency was several removes from anything approaching clarity.) Sometimes we try too hard to understand (to paraphrase a line from Orphee) but there are times when being lucid is a talent worth its weight in gold.

That said, I've been wanting for some time to write a cookbook using an unreliable narrator.

Wait -- that's been done.

Capisce? Or am I off my nut?



Carol Novack said...

You're off the walnut, Joe.
Clarity is over-rated in our society. What is clear is often BS. I should know; I used to write lots of legal briefs and I couldn't be poetic. Think of some statements by our fearless leader. On second thought, I don't want to ruin your evening. Anyway, clear to the red and the dead, senseless to the blue/purple and the reasonably fearful and aghast.
Don't mind me. I should never blog on Friday nights.

Happy Memory Weekend!


Lance Olsen said...

Thanks for reminding us about Barthes, Ted, and his relationship to pedagogy. Once upon a time, we knew all this (and everything that Sukenick et al. said along the same lines) before. That's no longer the case.

And so it's particularly appropriate on Memorial Day to memorialize the difference between the readerly text, which, as Barthes writes, "attempts to conceal all traces of itself as a factory within which a particular social reality is produced through standard representations and dominant signifying practices," and the writerly, which "discovers multiplicity instead of consistency and signifying flux instead of stable meaning."

How could our culture have forgotten so much so quickly?

Frank Sauce said...

Firstly, our culture never knew of Barthes, but CZ makes great guns, if you like to shoot people with finger-triggered machines. But then again, "our culture" probably doesn't know that CZ makes great guns. They are Czech rifles, and most people in our culture don't know where the Czech Republic is or what happened in the 60's there.

Secondly, Andy Rooney was the voice of the iconoclastic, populistic individualist in the 80's. I watched 60 minutes with my folks just for Andy Rooney. He made me laugh and think.

After I got out of the Army, I was smoking a bunch of weed and being a security guard at one of the Marriott's(sp?) "Residence Inn" and going to school at PSU. On the shelf in the TV area was a book by Andy Rooney. Right before I went to work that night, I went to the Japenese Internment Memorial down in Waterfront Park here in Portland. It was the first poetry that I had ever read on rocks that moved me. After that moving early evening bike-ride to work, I read Andy Rooney during my graveyard shift. In the beginning paragraphs, he wrote that there are too many good writers writing today ( circa 1990) to read in a lifetime. Then I read his great line: "All poetry is pretentious nonsense."

Interestingly, one can read most of the good poets in a lifetime and maybe most of the greats. My Luck!

Poetry is free, or at least "bounds out of bounds."

When fiction becomes poetry, it shines. When every word matters, it's real and true. You can't teach that. One either believes that every word is important or every word isn't important.

Most of what I read is poetry. I only read fiction when I'm sick of reading so much poetry.

I only want to read writer/poets where every word matters, even when there intention is different than(then) my understanding.

Once again, one cannot teach writing. You know which of your students have/has/had the gift. Everyone else in your classroom knows it, too.

The only thing a good "writing" teacher can do is to be well read enough to hand said student at the right time and at the right place the perfect book to feed their writing soul and keep them reading and writing and believing their words have matter.

I'm a reader. Move me.

Danke dir,