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.