February 28, 2006

Barbara Guest 1920-2006

Barbara Guest, author of numerous volumes of poetry, prose, and drama, respected art critic and writer, died on February 15, 2006. As many critics, most notably Rachel Blau Du Plessis, have remarked, she is the frequently forgotten female member of the New York School. Her poetry, influenced by and influential of, the abstract expressionists and action painters, radically altered our perceptions of poetry and its representational limits. Poets.org has a brief bio about Barbara Guest.

One last brief note, The Blue Stairs, one of my favorite Guest poems, is worth reading for its ability to pinpoint many of the tendancies of 20th century ekphrastic writing. The poem itself is not directly ekphrastic, in the sense that it is not specifically representing visual "representation." The blue stairs refers to the steps in the front hall of the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam; however, the steps become a focal point through which to view the art on the walls, our anxiety about how art is displayed, constructed, manipulated, and erased... all of that exists in this ekphrastic-nonekphrastic work. Check it out.

Posted by c_jane at 11:32 AM | TrackBack

February 27, 2006

Sometimes you find inspiration in the strangest places

So today, flustered, frustrated, and utterly aggravated with the presentation that I've been working on for well over a month, I decided to take a break from revisions (which seemed fruitless) to (gasp) clean out comment junk from my blog, which I haven't written in for quite some time. And amid the clutter of "Viagra is good for you" and "This site is great, come see college babes!" spam, I found this:

As a writer for many decades, it is exceedingly annoying to read "literary" "theory" which is nothing more substantive than accidental, unintended imaginary fiction which aggrandizes its authors while pretending to be other than out-and-out solipsistic "mental masturbation" -- speculations which cannot be factually shown to have any relevance to the "text" about which the out-of-control hot air-blowing purports to be.
That is why it is by-and-large both unreadable and irrelevant to the "text" allegedly explicated. There was a time when a university education meant something more than aggressive advancing of one's "gender" divisiveness, and the dead-end refusal to communicate by instead fulminating verbose windbaggery which obscures everything but the "author's" obsession with her-his self to the exclusion of everything else.

The comment was made on my “Conventions of Ekphrasis” posting from July 2003. Frankly, it’s the least original post on the site, and really the one that summarizes what most people have been saying and writing about ekphrasis for a long time before I ever made my way onto the scene (assuming there is a scene… and more importantly, that I’m on it!) In any case, Joseph’s comments tapped into all of my “internal monitor” voices, the ones that say, “What good are you actually doing?” and “Are you sure you’re not just making this up?” It’s the part of me that rattles around in a metaphorical closet in my brain hollering “WHAT’S THE USE!!!!?!” I think it’s the absurdity of where this post was placed that made me realize that sometimes that voice doesn’t make any sense, that it’s an angry teenager who doesn’t want to think about what words do or that what one intends to do with words is more limited than what the words do once you let them loose into the world. Moreover, and more depressingly, it’s the voice that thinks that pleasure and enjoyment of language is only possible if you just don’t think too hard about it.

Are there limits to what literary theory can do? Yes. I think there are. I do think that there’s a point when the critical inquiry of the text steps beyond what the text actually says, a reach that is, I agree, masturbatory. But that’s not all of literary theory (or criticism, 2 phrases which I think the commentator is probably referring to but throws together).

I also recognize that “writers” have a particular anxiety about literary theory and criticism. These are agents that dismantle the authority of the voice behind the text, questioning intention and extrapolating beyond the author’s own ideas. That’s difficult for any creator to reconcile with. Of course, what most writers also understand is that once you put your textual child out in the world, you are no longer its care-taker. It has grown up like your 18-year old child to sometimes revere you and at other times disavow you (or at least some of your ideas). That’s the nasty side of creativity that parents and artists alike dread.

But to return to the point: “accidental, unintended imaginary fiction which aggrandizes its authors while pretending to be other than out-and-out solipsistic "mental masturbation"” This is the primary charge the commenter levels against what I assume to be my work? That is unclear, again, because of the location of the post on a page of “conventions”—ones identified by practitioners and critics alike. There are two parts to this charge: First that what we find is an “accident,” and the second is that the important part of the text is its “intention” rather than what the text actually does. The “imaginary” part is also entertaining… because one might think that imagination, the use of creativity, would be of value to your average writer. I wonder, too, if it is possible for a writer not to make accidental discoveries in his or her writing process. If we accused every fiction writer or poet for his or her “accidental” discoveries, we’d be standing in a Fforde-like court for the remainder of time levying charges against some of our most adroit and accomplished authors. Accident is an important part of knowledge production. Granted, accidentally discovered, the accident must have proof… and this is really what the commentator is trying to say… that there is no proof. And here, there is a small bit of truth. Sometimes poor scholarship happens which rests in the critic’s inability to prove his or her argument, or the assumption that making the claim proves its relevance. That is the definition of poor scholarship, and this has been my fear. But what you discover is that if you’re willing to admit the possibility that this is true, and if you’re unwilling to accept your own hypotheses without proof enough to quiet the monster in your mental closet… chances are, this isn’t your (or my) problem.

Really, the commentator’s biggest fear is about the “aggrandizement” of authors of critical work. Critical and theoretical work, it appears, is an affront to good writing, because it participates in that writing. It takes the writing out of the intended domain of the author and becomes, in part, the critic’s. This, I think, is what bothers him the most. The commentator believes that critics shouldn’t have a sense of accomplishment based solely on his or her reading of something that someone else produced. That’s not the production of knowledge, it’s masturbatory. Here’s the problem: if you’re a writer who is so deeply interested in “owning” the work of his or her production, rather than breathing life into it and letting it live like the child who has grown up, moved out, and taken over his own life … then what you are engaged in is masturbatory itself. It’s not creativity for the purpose of making something that will live, breath, and affect others deeply; it is precisely what you accuse literary critics of… a form of self-glorification.

You, dear commentator, are wrong. Criticism can be true. It can be proven, and it is often relevant to the text. When we talk about the conventions of ekphrasis (the topic upon which this comment is posted), we do so because it can be proven. If you read an ekphrastic work, it will include the word “still.” It will speak to, for, or about visual art. And this is significant, because as long as Western civilization has recorded its musings about the visual and verbal arts, those terms have been laden with ethical, moral, and political values. It’s true because it can and has been proven through close, accurate readings of many, many texts.

Moreover, dear commentator, you have misread everything I’ve written about gender and ekphrasis. You see, by looking at women’s ekphrasis, we’re not just advancing one gender politics over another for the purposes of division. In fact, my purpose is quite different. When we look at ekphrasis by women, what we discover are strategies of cooperation and collaboration that can also be seen in poetry by men. My point is that women’s experiences make it more obvious to see such sympathetic relationships, but once you see how subtly and how intimately it operates, it becomes easier to recognize such strategies in poetry by men. So, quite to the contrary… this isn’t divisive work. This is about finding an alternative to divisiveness.

On the next point, because this has also irked me lately, the commentator writes: “There was a time when a university education meant something more than aggressive advancing of one's "gender" divisiveness…” Now, I’m purposefully choosing not to read the rest of the comment, because I think it gets covered above. However, I want to know when this mythical time when the “aggressive advancing of one’s “gender” divisiveness” didn’t happen. Please. Enlighten me. If you’re referring to the fact that women have started to talk about the differences between men and women in the academy, then let me just say that this doesn’t mean that the “aggressive advancing of one’s ‘gender’” hadn’t already been going on for quite some time. I have in my bookshelf a lovely, slim volume called “Why Men Hate Women.” It was published in the 1950s and is 125 lovingly crafted pages about how the very “nature” of woman is offensive to male sensibilities. It lists attributes like, “their incessant desire to “talk” about “feelings”” and their “inherent capability to ‘nag’ their husbands.” Every time I think that maybe we’ve “talked” about gender enough and that maybe it’s not nearly as relevant to contemporary discussions of writing and of the academy, I remember the fact that I’ve been told by members of the academy that by “having a child” I distracted myself from true academic pursuits. I remember that I’ve been told that I had no chance to receive a fellowship because I would be giving birth that year. I remember that I have a mentor, someone I truly respected, explain to me that I was a “much more interesting thinker” before I had children. And then I think… would ANY of those things have happened to a man?

The answer is no.

The answer is that gender divisiveness has been a part of the academy from its earliest days, and will probably be a part of the academy as long as men and women go to, work in, and run universities, colleges, and schools. Anyone who is telling you otherwise either doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know the truth.

That said, I’m off to change my daughter’s diaper, and to finish writing about how Carol Snow’s ekphrastic poetry employs sympathetic strategies of looking and description in order to dissolve the distance between speakers and the objects of their gaze—a project largely about accounting for difference, without devolving into the divisiveness of gendered rivalry.

Thanks for your comment, dear reader, and for (somewhat belatedly) shaking me out of my momentary lapse of confidence.

Posted by c_jane at 1:39 PM | TrackBack

February 26, 2006

Fiction on Art

A link to make note of: http://electricveneer.com/clients/inekphrasis/. Curated by Sara Lookofsky | Site design by Shannon Darrough (Media Developer at MoMA NYC)

Posted by c_jane at 12:44 PM | TrackBack