Letters from “The Contemporary”: Mande, Letter 4

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In March 2016, a group of scholars gathered for “The Contemporary,” a conference on twenty-first century literature and culture, hosted by Princeton University. This series of responses by participants Aku Ammah-Tagoe, Christopher Patrick Miller, and Mande Zecca takes up questions raised there.  

An essay by the organizers was published earlier on Contemporaries; further information on the conference’s program and participants can be found at contemporary.princeton.edu.

Aku, you raise a provocative question at the end of your report about what critical closeness looks like and how we might practice it. I wonder if the critical closeness to which you refer is in any way akin to the enthusiasm Susan Howe speaks of in the passage I quoted in my first letter. Would it seek, in other words, to re-inject the biographical and affective back into a scholarly practice that has become, in the long wake of the New Criticism, clammily impersonal, frustratingly jargon-laden, and often alienating to anyone beyond a small cohort of intellectuals? I'm strongly in favor of the kind of critical practice that acknowledges the pleasures of the text and the idiosyncrasies of aesthetic attachment, though I can't help but wonder whether something more is still needed. Merve Emre's presentation, "Reading for Action," was especially illuminating in this regard. It demonstrated how, in a different (though some would argue not so very different) contextcorporate Americaa version of critical closeness gets mobilized as a means of molding better managers. (How easily the ideals of humanist pedagogy get co-opted by human resources departments!) This particular use of literature helped me to see why debates about our modes and methods of aesthetic engagementdebates which are necessary and valuablemust nonetheless be supplemented with critiques of the institutions within which these conversations are happening.

Your thoughts about how critical closeness might intersect with work being done around structural inequality in higher education and literary publishing called to mind some recent conversations about race and poetry. The world of politically engaged contemporary poetry seems to have become something of a battlegroundif recent Facebook conversations are any indicationbetween those situating themselves within a Marxist tradition and those whose investments tend toward anti-colonial practices and theories. The most recent debate has swirled around the publication of Wendy Trevino's book Brazilian Is Not a Race, with Mongrel Coalition folks and writers affiliated with Commune Editions on either side of a debate that is too knotty to reproduce here.

Would closeness help make these ideological and aesthetic disagreements more precise? More moving? Or is closeness part of what makes conversations that happen via social media so fraught in the first place? The personal is political, yes, but what about those moments when political commitments are manifested as personal barbs? Confrontation and censure do important work, so I'm hesitant to make a bid for a warm, fuzzy liberalism of the "can't-we-all-just-get-along?" variety. But I also can't help but wonder if a different rhetorical register could supplement the militant call-out, which at its best strikes blows against structural racism, and at its worst can sound like ad hominem attack. Neither Twitter's 140 characters nor Facebook's heftier comment chains accommodate the more meditative voice that I, personally, find myself longing for, especially after scrolling through the hypertextual surrounds that have become such essential appendages to twenty-first-century poetry.

I think this voice need be no less militant for its attention to nuanceto the kinds of uncertainty and conditionality that Aku refers to in her report. I find this voice in Lucas de Lima's "Poetry Betrays Whiteness," in Cathy Park Hong's "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde," and in Heriberto Yépez's "Confession and Testimony: On the New Berkeley Poetry Conference" (to name just a few examples). I would place Trevino's Brazilian Is Not a Race in the militant/meditative category, as well. I recognize how problematic it might seem to hold up single-author essays and books that have appeared in already-sanctioned literary venues as exemplary of the kind of political writing and thinking I find most compelling. One could argue that this is part and parcel of the problem.

But as a good friend said in a recent conversation about Yépez's essay: "It gave me better feels and better thoughts, in a similar vein [to the Facebook conversations about Trevino's book], but somehow such a different tone and stance, and one that I found especially helpful." Its title speaks to the tenor of the piece as a whole and to why I find it valuable. It is polemical and, to an extent, it takes a side (as testimony). But in framing itself as a confession as well, it approaches large, structural issues from the vantage of personal experience. Which is not to say that this is the only, or best, way to approach them. But it is an approach I find compelling.

Perhaps poetry's relegation to the contemporary's sidelines, if we take that narrative to be accurate, is part of what allows it to achieve both closeness and distance. Both the immediacy of embodied speech (attuned to breath and pulse and song) and to the kind of critique on offer in something like Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's "More Thoughts on the Mainly White Room of Contemporary U.S. Literature." Maybe I just want to have it both ways. Maybe poetry can.



Christopher, Letter 1

Mande, Letter 2

Aku, Letter 3

Christopher, Letter 5

Aku, Letter 6