July 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Slow Down

The Slow Food movement began as a form of resistance to fast food in Italy. Today, the Slow Food organization has offices around the world with objectives that include the development of seed banks to protect heirloom varieties of plants, the support of small-scale processing and local organic agribusiness, promotion of gardening skills, and political mobilization to protest the use of pesticides. As a practice of life at a basic level, the Slow Food movement promotes reflection on the uses of local resources, attempting to limit the reach of wasteful centralized agribusinesses.

One argument against Slow Food, however, has been that only yuppies with adequate income can afford such organic produce, and Slow Food, when co-opted as a kind of marketing lifestyle choice you can purchase at Whole Foods, just becomes another product in the endless marketplace of global productive networks. Besides, without Monsanto, pesticides, and petroleum-based fertilizers, how else can enough produce be raised to sustain the nearly 7 billion people who now populate the planet? Slow Food certainly won’t feed everyone based on current arrangements between people and landscapes.

Despite these contradictions, it may be that we are forced to produce more locally as the cost of energy goes up and as banks and corporations continue to fail in what is increasingly beginning to look like a massive financial hemorrhage. Slow Food, imperfect as it perhaps has been, at least begins a process of reflection on practices that could offer some direction to food producers and consumers in coming years.

I bring this up because back in June I began posting notes on my blog arguing for the development of a Slow Poetry movement. Like Slow Food, I wanted to bring discussion to the production and consumption of items essential to human life. Instead of Brussels sprouts and broccoli, however, I wanted to find ways to imagine poetry’s value under our currently changing arrangements with physical and imaginary environments.

The small press has never been so active -- or so blandly homogenous. The vapors that leak from the pages of many texts induce a kind of numb somnambulation wherein eyes pass over words while the mind pushes elsewhere into a kind of mental sleepwalk. Worse, poets begin to identify with certain trends that promise recognition and respect at the cost of their own self-dignity. A certain pack mentality can form, causing distrust and skepticism over the writing of others who work under competing literary models. Sadly, this leads to an emphasis on production in poetry that is often misplaced to promote competition at the expense of community.

The contest system further pollutes the field, bestowing legitimacy, money, and prestige often on unworthy books. Others feel compelled to write toward a bullshit literary standard, authorized by this prize-winning mentality, only to flood the market with more of the same, often gassy, but “deeply” felt or considered, poems that waste reams of acid-free pulp.

Others who have turned their backs on the prize system join together to promote other theoretical frameworks, often with very good intentions. This helps to generate new work that excites a particular in-group, though it can leave those outside the group confused and skeptical. Many poets don’t move beyond a kind of inventive stage of writing to consider the wider contexts in which poems arrive to others. Competing movements start up -- none as exciting as the “visceral realists” described with the page-burning brilliance of Roberto Bolaño. Instead of the dirt, grit, and naïve daring of his fictional band of ragtag Latin American poets, contemporary norteamericanos often seem to work in a kind of professionally-focused vacuum marked by institutional obligations. (It would be interesting to compare Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives next to Libbie Rifkin’s Career Moves to complicate our understanding of the institutional contexts of poetry.)

As a result of its Euro-American institutional histories, avant-garde writing has come to be identified by its contribution to the “new,” a literary hangover that privileges experimental form over other modes of writing and social activism. Older modernist forms of avant-garde formations remain operative in a climate that may no longer require them. Participants in these movements of course make valuable contributions to poetry, especially in ways that the prize seekers do not: they are more often innovative, restless, driven to go beyond the understanding of their capacities to engage new and unknown potentials in language. Groups like Flarf, or those who engage in Conceptual Poetry, receive limited cultural recognition for their responses to a changing world. They work to bring some new sense of how poetry interacts in transformed artistic and social environments.

Since World War II, however, there have been several social and political factors around which avant-garde poets have developed writing and activism. The first was the Cold War, which inspired the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and others on both coasts to act out against the conservative ethos of the era. Next came the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, and the race wars that ended with King and Malcolm X both dead. Finally, Reagan and the fall of Communism introduced the triumphal expectations of global cap that were seriously contested by the sudden intrusive big bang of 9-11, the oil wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and lately the subprime crash that is underscored by a contraction in global energy resources.

My notes on Slow Poetry try to re-imagine the role of poetry in our changing environment. I have no prescriptive agenda, but I hope to produce reflection on poetic practices. Slow Poetry stresses a kind of ecological or environmental approach to the writing and reading of poems. Poetry doesn’t do anything for anyone’s career advancement; it is used to bring the world into greater focus. What is out there, Timothy Morton reminds us in Ecology Without Nature, is under ongoing debate. But the words poets bring to the intersection of reality with their experience can help reveal some of the significant events we all encounter on a daily level.

“More haste, less speed,” Morton writes. “This is the ideal moment to slow down…” Sewn into the etymology of “haste” is a sense of violent and urgent motion, whereas “speed” stresses a kind of prosperity and eternal hopefulness for good luck -- prayers to the Goddess Fortuna!

Our fortunes are drying up, however, as banks do their slow domino falling routine. We need to make haste to re-imagine a practice of living in the world. Morton argues too for “some kind of anti-aesthetic strategy,” a way, as I understand it, to evaluate the contexts and conditions of daily life. Slow Poetry adapts Morton’s ecocritique to search for “points of contradiction and deep hesitation in systems of meaning.” We need to create new environments through the poem rather than only creating more poems. The value and scale of poetry has to be reconsidered in the ongoing process of reflection poetry can inspire.

*

No Face, by poet and mathmatician Judith Roitman, maximizes the strategies of techniques of serial poetry to create brief narratives. Rather than relying on an expressive rhetoric of personality or the objective deployments of plot and character, these poems trace an experience of the world. Each page questions accumulated details of one’s life, from phenomenal objects to personal “thoughts,” appetite, and desire. Roitman uses language to discover environments rather than determining them, and the experience of reading these serial works gives readers an opportunity to reflect on their own habits of mind and attention by way of her compelling example.

Formally, Roitman’s writing puts the serial poem to work in different ways. The opening poem, for instance, is written in long lines. It organizes the space of the rhetorical situation to inquire about relations between poet, words, and an outside world. She writes:

The mystery of the inhabitants. The mystery of the staircase,
            of the rug, of the refrigerator left shining, of the random
            lamp still plugged in.
The lie of saying what you are expected to say
and the lie of hewing to ideology.
The lie of saying what you have been taught
and the lie of trying to please everyone.
The lie of categorizing
and the lie of defying categories.
The lie of saying you eat matzo
and the lie of eating it.
The lie of telling the family they will not be killed,
and the lie of the woman as she strapped her husband in.

These lies subvert common assumptions about how we are socialized, opening awareness of an uneasy relation to others through the categories we use to describe the world, even as those categories are imposed distillations of our own projected disorder.

Elsewhere, the nameless narrator and characters are revealed through a rhetorically strategic language that de-emphasizes the role of the poet in order for the poem to apprehend a common world.

Because everything depends on the body.
Because my word isn’t your word.
Because it is so hard to remember.
Because he moved restlessly through the house at night.
Because she convinced herself she could see through walls.
Because she was in two places at once.

The questions and answers in this book are distributed incongruently, leading a reader to reflect on the process of questioning and answering -- that they share essential goals in language, to unhinge stuck modes of thought.

Other poems turn to a floating, broken-line verse while some are composed as prose. In one, “Cosmogonies,” Roitman opens, rather than narrates, a reflective field through which she meditates on cosmic relation. She examines the contribution of quotidian form to how we understand cosmos. “As a lizard waits in the sun,” she writes, “so taste starting as light on tongue expanding into more light & color spreading like cloth in winter.” With this she notes, “[t]he origin is lost we have not found it but coolness, every year another disease and the seduction of etymology to believe we can understand it.”

Roitman’s writing examines the process of thinking and feeling, but in ways that remind us language, more than thought and sensation, is at stake in our apprehension of the world. There are directions and paths in these serial narratives through which we find the unexpected.