An interview with essayist Rebecca Solnit in the The Believer's September issue puts a fresh spin on old mantras. "Everything is political" has become a tired refrain in art schools and writing programs, but doesn't make it any less relevant. Solnit discusses her aversion to didacticism with refreshing clarity. "You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style," she says.
More of the interview can be read at BelieverMag.com. Read some of Solnit's politically unapologetic writing here.
Rebecca Solnit, 2009
RS: . . . we tend to think of politics as a tiny fenced-off arena of unpleasantness, which most Americans avoid—except for the horse race of a primary season or fun moral questions often centered in irrelevant individual crimes and acts. But politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.
BLVR: You’re making a challenge there to the politics of art, of writing.
RS: Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.
BLVR:Savage Dreams (1994) and, more recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007) show that span, right?
RS: I hope so. In Savage Dreams, for example, I have a very strong polemic about the nuclear wars—for nuclear testing in Nevada was a war, against the desert and its inhabitants—and the unfinished Indian wars. Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequence through legislation and opposition, but to change the causes is cultural work—people are not less homophobic in this country because we have better legislation; we have better legislation because people—even the Supreme Court a few years back—are less homophobic. The political changes matter immensely, but they come out of cultural changes—which doesn’t mean you don’t need activists inside and outside electoral politics; it just means that everyone who came out of the closet to their friends, family, and schoolmates or coworkers was also engaging in a political act, and the rise of nonscary, nondamaged queer characters in entertainment mattered, that representations and the war against cliché mattered. Even Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres mattered, and that two-hankie movie about queer cowboys.
Heather McHugh, a poet I love and envy (she's a matchless wordsmith), just won a MacArthur Genius Award. Listen to a brief NPR interview--in which she talks about letter formations and slowed down speech like only a language-geek can--here. Read some of her poetry below.
by Heather McHugh
Surfaces to scrape or wipe, a screwdriver to be applied to slime-encrusted soles, and then
there are the spattered hallways, wadded bedding — and, in quantities astounding (in the corners, under furniture, behind the curtains)
fluff and dander spread by curs the breeder called non-shedding... It's a dog's life I myself must lead,
day in, day out — with never a Sunday edition — while they lie around on their couches like poets, and ponder the human condition.
The Father of the Predicaments
by Heather McHugh
He came at night to each of us asleep And trained us in the virtues we most lacked. Me he admonished to return his stare Correctly, without fear. Unless I could, Unblinking, more and more incline Toward a deep unblinkingness of his, He would not let me rest. Outside In the dark of the world, at the foot Of the library steps, there lurked A Mercury of rust, its cab half-lit. (Two worldly forms who huddled there Knew what they meant. I had no business
With the things they knew. Nor did I feel myself Drawn back through Circulation into Reference, Until I saw how blue I had become, by virtue Of its five TVs, their monitors abuzz with is's
NPR just posted a review and a compelling excerpt from David Small's new graphic memoir 'Stitches.' Small, the award winning illustrator and writer of children's books, writes from the perspecitve of a child, probing his own shadowy past.
Bookslut just published a superbly frank essay by poet Courtney Queeney. Queeney discusses women poets, the breed she's supposedly part of, and questions what it actually means to stand up for your own. While she isn't decisive, Queeney manages to be exquisitely precise. "There exists a great politesse around women's poetry; and to write critically is, in some ways, to betray one's feminine self," writes Queeney. She starts out talking about the problem of "women's poetry" as a catch-all category that priveleges personhood over craft, then crescendos into close readings of work by Louise Gluck and Heather McHugh.
The first half of the essay is below. Read the rest here.
The Kings are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women's Poetry
by Courtney Queeney
I'm a little ashamed to confess that I feel ambivalence, not pride, when singled out as a Woman Poet. Call me an ingrate. Certainly I've reaped the fruits of feminism -- more places to publish, more readers, more teaching opportunities than my female forebearers. More respect, as Ali G would say. Feminist theoretical models of readings have expanded the canon to include previously lost writers and neglected books, which have, in turn, enriched my education.
But still -- at a recent dinner I was seated next to the editor of a hip journal, who is married to a well-known youngish woman poet. "What are you reading?" I asked, my stock conversation starter with literate strangers, and he rattled off a list of writers I'd never heard of, roughly half of them women. "I'm reading Rilke," I said, "and Zbigniew Herbert." I'm used to feeling uncool -- my social life largely consists of scribbling poems and meowing back at my cat -- but more importantly, like a traitor to my sex, reading dead poets instead of my contemporaries, and men when I am a young female writer. My grad school mentor was a woman; five of six poets in my workshop were women; I lurk on a women's poetry list serv. But when running out the door I grab John Berryman, not Jorie Graham. It's an odd position to be in.
But the truth is sometimes I'm annoyed to be a Young Woman Writer. Maybe it's the occasional spats on the women's poetry list serv I belong to where someone is accused of being rude or out of line when their comments seem, to me, merely critical -- of specific works, not of the humans producing them -- as if women must like the same things or risk being disowned as disloyal to our sisters. A March 2008 thread focused on a column in the Guardian by British poet Frances Leviston, written in reaction to the paper's list of Great Poets of the 20th Century, of which only one, Sylvia Plath, was a woman. The Great Poets series as a yardstick of excellence is suspect to begin with; the list was culled from the Faber and Faber catalogue, and never claimed to collect the Greatest Poets, just some Great ones.
Leviston's reaction was not the expected call for numbers parity, but the more unusual admission that she didn't mind the list's gender imbalance. Sure, in her own list of 20th Century Greats she'd axe Siegfried Sassoon to make room for Elizabeth Bishop, and she prefers Yeats to Larkin, but that's it -- no call for a placarded rally or sacrifice of frilly underthings to flames. To support her revised shortlist, Leviston cited both Plath's freedom "to write head-on against the injustice she perceived in her own life and the lives of others," as well as the "parallel importance" of Bishop's "not enslaving your poetry to a feminist agenda, however urgent that agenda might be in the daily world."
Right on! I thought. I was wrong.
A fairly lazy internet search yielded criticism of Leviston's reaction that ranged from the dismissive (she's "young" -- born in 1982) to the political (she's "conservative") to the martyred and pious (she hasn't struggled enough (as, presumably, that commenter had) to the jealous ("she's a published poet herself") to the damning (she's a woman-abandoner). One person even quoted "Miss Austen's plea to fellow novelists in Northanger Abbey: 'Let us not desert one another. We are an injured body…&c&c.'" I read this last bit aloud to my 18 year-old sister, who promptly sassed back, "That's breaking my balls, man" (an admittedly interesting choice of appropriated body parts).
The introduction to Plath's Great Poets pamphlet, penned by Margaret Drabble, inspired further ire for reducing Plath to a tragic victim and emphasizing the theme of motherhood in her poetry. Drabble's introduction does allude to both the head in the oven and lactation, but also characterizes Plath's poetry as "appalling… also exhilarating" and avers, "She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness." In case you didn't get it the first time: "She changed our world." I don't know about the women responding to the Guardian piece, but I certainly aspire to change the world; it seems an appropriately high bar for writers of whatever gender.
Most worrisome in the Guardian exchange was the widespread -- though by no means complete -- characterization of any woman who criticizes another woman's writing as a traitor. And it's a seductive deterrent; when I leaf through journals at the bookstore, I'm struck by how few reviews are penned by women. Heidi Julavits (novelist and editor of the uber-fashionable The Believer, to which I subscribe) while accurately identifying a disturbing trend of snarkiness in book reviews, also seems uncomfortable with reviews that criticize the works they consider. I agree with Julavits when she writes, "Here's the scary truth: individual books don't get reviewed -- careers do. People do." (The recent row over the Oxford Poetry Professorship serves as a handy example. Is Derek Walcott known for skeezing on young women? I don't know the man, but this seems generally uncontested. Did Ruth Padel send a couple of shady e-mails to journalists about the aforementioned skeezing? By her own admission. I'm not at a cocktail party; I just want someone to give three interesting lectures on poetry that I can eventually download to my iPod, and listen to while trying to ignore the drudgery of my day job.)
"Elad Lassry's films and photographs draw from hauntingly familiar aspects of visual culture to create a matrix of non-linear narratives, illuminating a nuanced topography of image-making. Lassry treats appropriation and archive research as tools among many others, and is just as likely to hire a crew and shoot a new film based on archival images as he is to physically manipulate a purchased headshot into a one-off photographic readymade and place it in a matching-colored frame. While there are affinities between Lassry's work and that of the artists of the Pictures generation, he is less concerned with vagaries of social critique and ironic distance, adapting instead an almost anthropological approach to the question of why a particular image gets made."
"Among the first generation of American conceptual artists that also includes John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, and Bruce Nauman who redefined artistic practice during the 1970s, this exhibition features two new major interactive installations created especially for the occasion."
"This exhibition will present a series of new text-based light boxes and will feature the west coast debut of the film migration. Aitken explores the themes of temporality, space, memory, movement, and landscape in his work. History and themes of both the past and present are interwoven and reconfigured. His work deconstructs the connection between idea and iconography allowing each to reinvent itself. . .
Presented alongside the light boxes will be Aitken's first large scale public installation in Los Angeles, migration. The film, the first installment in a three-part trilogy entitled empire, debuted at the 2008 Carnegie International. This hallucinatory epic depicts the movements of migratory animals as they pass through vacant and deserted hotel and motel rooms, delineating a nomadic passage across America from east to west. Fittingly making its first appearance on the west coast, this large-scale cinematic installation will be presented to the public on Santa Monica Boulevard projected onto the courtyard of Regen Projects II; visible only at night from sunset to sunrise" (press release from Dexigner).
"For Brian Bress, point of view is a shifting and multilayered relation that invokes not only how we negotiate our interactions with others, but also how we negotiate our interaction with ourselves. Bress employs a variety of narrative structures ranging from the traditional to the paratactical, manipulating pictorial and sculptural convention and theatrical staging, as well as the editing approaches of both television and film. The result is an ever-changing situation in which expectations are exposed and assumptions are overturned."
The description of this group event is a little dry and, I'll admit, I don't quite know what to expect, but I'm excited by this list of names:
"This exhibition will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Armory Center for the Arts by commissioning twenty contemporary artists, who have created art installations in the past, to make new site-specific art installations both inside and outside the Armory. Artists in the exhibition will include Kim Abeles, Edgar Arceneaux, Deborah Aschheim, Daniel Buren, Carl Cheng, Seth Kaufman, Bruce Nauman, Barry McGee, Michael C. McMillen, Carlos Mollura, Matthew Moore, Jane Mulfinger, Sarah Perry, Rudy Perez, Ed Ruscha, Betye Saar, Barbara T. Smith, John Trevino, Pae White, and Mario Ybarra Jr."
Group show featuring emerging artists: "This rigorous faction of artists presents astute interpretations of the subjective parameters of reality through an array of mediums and observations.
Be it Matthew McGuinness' manipulated photos - which confront the disjointedness between physical and emotional disasters - or Martin & Muñoz's petite sculptural microcosms of dystopia, Fresh Perspectives exhibits work that grapples with the elemental framework of authentic experience, which oftentimes borders on the surreal as much as the commonplace. While Mario Ybarra Jr.'s installation examines the institutional dictations of socio-cultural "norms," Josh Azzarella's videos explore the power of context in the authorship of memory – both of which illuminate the individual encounter of communal events. These perceptions of realness can be rooted in the fantastic or the pragmatic, as well as their intersections – an acute point Tim Barber captures in his photographs of the beautifully mundane and stark Americana. As each of the five artists showcased in Ultrasonic IV reference a distinctive verisimilitude, they share a collective interest in addressing the relativity of experience in perception."
No press release for this one yet, but Rocklen rehabilitates found objects in tender ways, making them seem almost human. He currently has a piece at the Hammer Museum that I'm taken with. Called 'Have a Ball', the sculpture consists of a metal bucket with a smudgless glass surface, a deflated ball, and a candle wick. Combined, these objects become a strangely self-possessed body.