Letters from “The Contemporary”: Mande Zecca, Letter 2

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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.

To hell with it, I'm a poet and I know my ways of working, and I know intuitively what my creative energy needs, and ... would like to get a house back of the campus in one of those canyons they tell about, near enough to the place to benefit from the library, near enough to the concert halls and the galleries and the bookshops. But living essentially by ourselves, preserving the integrity that has been built up between us ...

(William Everson; from a letter to Lawrence Clark Powell, January 1940)

"To the university I'll steal, and there I'll steal,” to borrow from Pistol at the end of Henry V, as he would surely borrow from us. This is the only possible relationship to the American university today.

(Fred Moten and Stephano Harney; from The Undercommons)

"Let's review: abandon path abandon path good god, poet abandon path!!!! ... take a new path to ... your university's copy machine ... Do you get free copies? I hope so! USE THE COPY MACHINE to make chapbooks and send your chapbooks to all of your friends to build an audience and make your own damned connections with people you actually care about who share your aesthetics and politics. Making chapbooks is fun and easy. Google how to do this."

(Poet Sandra Simonds; from "Letter to a Young Nonprivileged Poet")

I am an enthusiast trying to be a critic.

(Susan Howe; from The Birthmark)

I'm beginning with this constellation of quotations about poets in/against/out back of the university because they speak, I think, to one important thread running through Christopher's report: the relationship of the interloper to the institutional grounds upon which s/he trespasses. Interlopers are in, but perhaps not of, the academy, like Moten, Harney, and Simonds. Like Eversonwhose refusal to apply for a major fellowship at UCLA, hoping instead to more modestly and surreptitiously avail himself of its resources from time to time, was the occasion of the letter quoted abovethey/we are on its periphery. (Like Christopher, I'm feeling the intractability of pronouns.) We are for forming communities of "people [we] actually care about who share [our] aesthetics and politics." Sometimes these communities are intra-institutional, sometimes they are para-institutional. We are enthusiasts trying to be critics.

The pivotal question of how we "practice the outside" from inside the present, as well as from inside the university, is one that gets voiced predominantly, it seems, by poets. I say "it seems" because I have no numbers to back this up, only personal experiencesmy own and those of poets I read and of poets who are my friends and acquaintances. And while I wouldn't want to make the claim that all poets (or poets as such) are better equipped to initiate meta-disciplinary or meta-institutional conversations and critiques, I do think poets are often better positioned to do so for reasons that are material more than (or as much as) temperamental. For one thing, the glut of M.F.A. programs, combined with poetry's dearth of cultural capital (and real capital), combined with the scarcity of tenure-track jobs, has led to a temporary workforce of adjunct instructors floating between institutions, stretching themselves thin, writing poems in their off hours.

I'll return toward the end of my report to the idea that "the temporary" might be part and parcel (not just typographically) of "the contemporary," and to the ways in which this emerged in some of the papers presented last month. But before doing so, I want to touch on poetry's presence at the conference. In their report, "'The Contemporary' by the Numbers," organizers Sarah Chihaya, Kinohi Nishikawa, and Josh Kotin]provide a numerical breakdown of the authors, theorists, genres, and concepts most frequently mentioned in the 135 proposals they received. Only ten of these took poems as their objects of analysis, a fact that would seem to confirm keynote speaker Johanna Drucker's sense of poetry's marginalization. In her talk, "Other Others," Drucker lamented the absence of poetry in contemporary life, taking as prime example of this state of affairs the fact that there's no longer a poetry section in any major newspaper. From a certain vantage, this narrative of poetry's decline feels palpably accurate. But it also overlooks, as several audience members pointed out, the steady rise of the M.F.A. program and the abundance of small poetry presses and journals active today. As Drucker was quick to note in her rejoinder, a glut of institutionally sanctioned verse is not the same thing as a vibrant literary counterculture, but we can just as easily perceive poetry's continued relevance in contexts that are neither solely academic (even if they are, in many instances, intellectual) nor purely literary. Verse rhythms' afterlives within hip-hop and slam cultures come to mind, as does Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr's essay, "Elegy, or the Poetics of Surplus," on the intersections of a very old poetic tradition with contemporary, embodied modes of mourning and of militancyspecifically, the Oakland dance style known as "turfing," performances of which act as ephemeral memorials to young black men murdered by police.

I find myself thinking, too, of Maria Damon's 2011 book, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries, which documents contemporary "poetry and its others," to swipe a phrase from another scholar of verse (Jahan Ramazani). Determining what poetry's "others" might be involves deciding what makes something poetry (or poetic) in the first place. The unwieldy question of what is (and isn't) poetrya question that implicitly guides Damon and Ramazani's recent criticism, and gets addressed directly in Spahr et al.'s elegy essayappeared in a more compressed and koan-like form in Michael Robbins' paper, "Equipment for Sinking": "If a failed revolution can be a lover, can a poem be a pop song?" Perhaps it's worth noting here that "post" was the conference's most frequently mentioned concept, appearing in 77% of proposals. Perhaps it's also worth thinking of the "post" of Damon's titleand the "post" that is often implied when we theorize (and periodize) the transformation of literature over timenot as a melancholy reminder of a genre's obsolescence, of the never-to-be-recovered past of poetry that we've moved irrevocably beyond, but as a beyond in the more hopeful sense in which Moten and Harney intend it: poetry's reconstitution as something else (lover, pop song, revolution)as something "unexpected, [because] no one has asked, [and more] beautiful, [because] it will never come back" in precisely the same way again. [1]

A number of presentations addressed objects and modes that seem beautiful (or important, or timely) because they "will never come back"the temporary that is part of the contemporary. Genevieve Yue offered an account of several artists whose work foregrounds media's obsolescence. Emily Hyde's paper struck a similarly elegiac/utopian note in its discussion of how photographsand, more particularly, those that appear in contemporary novels like Ivan Vladislavic's Double Negative and Lydia Millet's Mermaids in Paradiseimagine possible futures as much as they preserve vanished pasts. These papers were especially evocative in their refusal of "post-ness" and irrecoverability in favor of the slow time of material degradation, the deep time of historical continuity, and the speculative (non-)time of still-imagined futures.

As Christopher noted, while they were not in attendance, Fredric Jameson and Walter Benn Michaels were repeatedly invoked throughout the conference. However, there was another, earlier theorist whose presence was felt (at least by me), if never mentioned by name, and about whom both Michaels and Jameson have written: Bertolt Brecht. In particular, certain conversations called to mind the moment in Brecht's essay "Against Georg Lukács" when he formulates a dialectical account of the history (or historicity) of the present and its relationship to literary form: "For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new."[2] Questions of formand of form's relationship to contemporary lifewere raised repeatedly over the course of the conference. Brecht's insights are especially useful if we want to think of cultural artifacts as having the capacity not just to reflect but also to intervene in their present. At one point in the same essay, Brecht says that he "do[es] not set ... an excessively high value on the concept of endurance." In other words, once the material conditions out of which a work of art emerges have been altered (perhaps with the aid of said artwork, perhaps not), then "methods" of making must change to suit these new contexts. While I might place a higher premium on the durability of poetic genre, I nonetheless feel a deep affinity for Brecht's take on ephemerality as a condition more hopeful than melancholic. I also wonder whether one "new method" of literary criticism our moment demands involves thinking beyond form and attending more closely to toneto the stance, or attitude, or affective force field that exists between text and audience.

In addition to begin a critic and theorist, Brecht was also, of course, a lyric poet. Though very few people at March's conference spoke directly about poetry, many of us write it. This absent presence (or present absence) speaks less, I think, to poetry's irrelevance than to its seditious, if surreptitious, potency. As I draft this report, an e-mail appears in my inbox, the subject line of which reads: "'This is what I meant by the term Poet' — Available Now!" I open it and scroll down to the stanza in its entirety: "This is what I meant by the term /Poet. To never know and, unknowing, get on with it."[3] And because I am a poet I feel a certain kind of license to include in my report this fortuitous intrusion into the scene of my writingif only as a reminder that poetry still exists, and that sometimes it asks us to question the kinds of knowing we are taught and the kinds of teaching we come to know. And so I will end with lines from another, more militant poem about what learning and thinking are and where they happen; an injunction to go outside, wherever that might be:

"what is he doing all his learning years / inside, as if the planet were no more than a vehicle / for carrying our plastic constructs around the sun."[4]

– Mande


Christopher, Letter 1

Aku, Letter 3

Mande, Letter 4

Christopher, Letter 5

Aku, Letter 6

[1] "The moment of teaching for food is therefore often mistakenly taken to be a stage, as if eventually one should not teach for food. If the stage persists, there is a social pathology in the university. But if the teaching is successfully passed on, the stage is surpassed, and teaching is consigned to those who are known to remain in the stage, the sociopathological labor of the university ... But what would it mean if teaching or rather what we might call "the beyond of teaching" is precisely what one is asked to get beyond, to stop taking sustenance? And what of those minorities who refuse, the tribe of moles who will not come back from beyond (that which is beyond "the beyond of teaching"), as if they will not be subjects, as if they want to think as objects, as minority? Certainly, the perfect subjects of communication, those successfully beyond teaching, will see them as waste. But their collective labor will always call into question who truly is taking the orders of the enlightenment. The waste lives for those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beautiful phrase - unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back. Is being the biopower of the enlightenment truly better than this?" (Moten, Fred and Stephano Harney, The Undercommons, 21)

[2] Brecht, Bertolt. "Against Georg Lukacs." Aesthetics and Politics. New York: Verso, 2007. 82.

[3] This quotation is from Amy King's new book, The Missing Museum (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016).

[4] di Prima, Diane. Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: Last Gasp of SF, 2007. 35.


Mande Zecca is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently completing a dissertation on midcentury American poetry and radical political imaginaries called Laments for the Makers: The American Political Elegy, 1940-1965.