Thursday, April 15, 2010

INFINITE DIFFERENCE: OTHER POETRIES BY UK WOMEN POETS

Planned to sketch out something a little more formal on Infinite Difference — the anthology of UK women poets recently published by Shearsman and edited by Carrie Etter — though it seems last months' review in the Times Literary Supplement might demand a more immediate gesture of solidarity toward what the anthology seems to be doing.

The attention given "innovative" poetries by mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years is impressive but I fear this attention may be functioning as a sort of kettling tactic that effectively neutralizes or cordons these poetries off, reducing them to carnival status and displaying them publicly on a sort of vaudeville stage way off Broadway. Rae Armantrout got a Pulitzer. Good times. The TLS addresses British poetries beyond the pale of the larger publishing industry once and again. Grand. But these gestures often come off as a weirdly condescending pat on the head or a strategy engineered to rope in readers located beyond the main.

I see the clearest example of this kettling strategy in the Poetry Foundations' Harriet blog. The blog as a digital forum for immediate and active discussion has been more or less productive, but the incredible lack of congruence between the conversations taking place at Harriet and the poetries published in Poetry magazine is stunning. And of the two, the Harriet blog seems to be regarded as the less formal and more degraded space, a space situated in subordination to the magazine. Where the rabble and their pitchforks are safely contained. I mean, what does it take for Poetry to publish something other than Knopf poets or the friends of wealthy palm-greasing impresarios? Despite the Harriet blog, Poetry is not what it was in 1912 nor is it anything within shouting distance of what it was under Rago's editorship through the 60s. And the case could be otherwise.

The culture of submission and supplication that characterizes the poetry industry is something that needs to be carefully reconsidered. What does it mean to willfully submit one's work to an editor? American Idol retroactively writ large across the work precisely because Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul were never fit to judge in the first place. Yet this culture is never in danger of being canceled. The success of the next season is always already guaranteed. And the space of the blog is where aspiring critics and poets audition.

But Infinite Difference. Gender as principle. The title of the March 19 TLS review insists, in advance of any discussion, that the work within the anthology sits at the kids' table: "Back Street Kid." And children are to be seen not heard. Marianne Morris posted a pointed response to the review at The Portal of Lost Wanting:

The TLS (Times Literary Supplement), organ of utter establishment-led poetry criticism and wrong-headed thought in the department of poetic amour, devoted a few square inches to the newly published Infinite Difference anthology in their March 19 issue, singled out my work as being particularly irritating to them, and made a kind of sorrowful plea about shared experience ... I have to view this as good news because it proves that what we – that’s me and my poetic colleagues – have been doing, is right, insofar as it is rankling to those who we disagree with wholeheartedly. That dissonance is expected, in other words. That my work is quoted in the TLS at all is merely evidence of the ambitious and peculiar task that Shearsman undertakes with Infinite Difference in collecting what it calls ‘other poetries’, written by women in the UK – to bring poetry that is written against mainstream regulations into the mainstream.

Not so much women's poetry as such (there are plenty of "mainstream" women poets in the UK, however disproportionate the figures might be) but a particular range of women's poetries are featured in the anthology. Apropos of Armantrout's Pulitzer, Carrie Etter writes in her introduction to the anthology:

A significant difference between the poetry culture of the United States and that of the United Kingdom is that work regarded as Other to the Mainstream, in the UK, never receives established prizes. The most recognized awards for poetry in the UK are the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Costa Prize, and the Forward Prize, for individual books. Even those Other poets who have gained international acclaim have never made the shortlists for these prizes, and now, certain it will merely wast time and money, some publishers forego sending their non-Mainstream work for prize consideration at all.

A useful quip by Charles Ives immediately comes to mind: awards are badges of mediocrity. But prizes offer capital — cold hard cash — and are directly connected to the distribution of power and resources among artists. As such, prizes might reward mediocrity but they do so by awarding it particular forms of power that reproduce a specific cultural situation. And here Etter's not talking expressly about gender but forms of cultural production outside normative channels of power. Categories like mainstream and its corollary other need to be carefully theorized, and I often wonder precisely how tenable an appeal to an idea of the mainstream as a productive conceptual category is anymore, but the need Etter's anthology makes a gesture toward satisfying resides at the center of the problem and, by way of its own internal contradictions, makes the problem available for further discussion. Neither Maggie O'Sullivan nor Geraldine Monk are included in the anthology, but Etter is careful to note that the anthology makes no claim to representation. The work it's doing is a little different, an intervention of a different species altogether. And neither O'Sullivan nor Monk — the anthology's great absent center — wanted, according to Etter, not "to be categorized."

Here I wonder if the anthology itself, as a form of organization, is adequate to the task of addressing questions regarding gender and visibility / legibility (mainstream attention). In other words, I wonder if there might not be another name for this sort of intervention that would allow for shaking off the problematic luggage any notion of an anthology carries with it (David Antin's comment identifying anthologies with zoos comes to mind).

I may be misreading the work Infinite Difference aspires to do, but it comes to me in many ways as an extension of Out of Everywhere, the comprehensive anthology of Anglophone women poets edited by O'Sullivan and brought out by Ken Edwards' Reality Street Editions in 1996. And the importance of either "anthology" (how I wish there were another language) cannot be overstated. The transgenerational orientation of Etter's selection is especially crucial in this case and points toward a problem that cuts across distracting appeals to "new" tendencies and generational difference. Grateful too to see the work of poets I can only assume are utterly unfamiliar to American readers: from "younger" poets like Frances Kruk, Emily Crtichley and Sophie Robinson (all published in the second number of Matt Chambers' Pilot magazine back in 2007) to Anne Blonstein and Elisabeth Bletsoe, poets working a little longer and undoubtedly less familiar to American readers than, say, Caroline Bergvall or Redell Olsen (both of whom are also included in the selection). Etter's anthology performs not so much as a cultural census bureau as it does an active and decisive intervention.