To the Editors,
Oh my. It would appear that the essential purpose of defining who or what is a contemporary poet is to establish who or what should be included in or excluded from a group, sect or curriculum. Thus it is equally important to define who is NOT worthy of being deemed a contemporary poet.
As to the criteria implicit in the phrases not “relevant” or not “responding to their time…”, surely these are the height of fatuity. Who is to determine what is relevant to what? How is it possible NOT, in whatever elegant, self-righteous, tender, deluded, incisive, or moronic way, to respond to one’s time?
To the Editors,
I was happy to read Robert Archambeau’s essay, because the question “what is contemporary” puts a point on the need to be contemporary, which is not about fashion, nor about the survival of poetry, but how poetry can contribute to the fashioning of our future, a future which depends on how we read the past. Those with a faith in poetry, and a desire to make it, are sure that poetry has a role to play in creating the future as well as realizing the present (however grand that may sound). But poetry will not have any role to play if it is not “contemporary” in the largest sense—this is not an issue about art, but about aesthetics, or a philosophy of art; in terms of the debate, the latter precedes the former.
Cutting to the chase, Kenneth Goldsmith’s conviction that a new conceptual poetry that appropriates found language from electronic media is the most relevant poetry, and therefore the poetry that has the strongest claim to being contemporary (and therefore, the strongest historical claim, before the fact, of being the most important poetry of the moment)—that conviction is based not on the fact that the computer, because it is the most obvious technology in front of us, is of obvious importance, but rather because Goldsmith sees the computer changing, in some deep way, our language, our receptive and productive experience of language. If he’s right, it’s not only because computers are everywhere—at one point, radios were everywhere, and then televisions were everywhere, but those technologies did not fundamentally change our experience of language, of how we receive and produce it. There’s a good argument to be made that the computer and the internet have done so, that we perceive the very medium of language differently now.
What is contemporary? Now, if I say that Goldsmith has a higher stake in the answer, is that a problem, or is that the first point in arriving at a working answer to the question?
If you have a programmatic critical reading of what’s happening now, that defines itself by virtue of your agenda to promote a certain kind of writing over other kinds, then I’d say you have a critical problem that you’re not dealing with. But this is less of a problem for the maker than for the critic (the poet is partisan; the critic can look at the entire field with one disgust). The bigger knot is that there’s never a disinterested party at the party of the present. Critics, too, have an interest in promoting one work over another, as being worthy of attention, however different their investment. I think Goldsmith and Archambeau would acknowledge that. But we can’t wrestle this gator without grappling with the fact that poets do most of the writing about poetry. The buyer is the seller. Only Agamben, the philosopher, doesn’t get muddy in the market; particulars are the mud, and there’s no making without it. (And Archambeau, to his credit, is interested in particular poems and poets, as well as poetries and situations; he’s got his hands in the art, not just the aesthetics).
Another problem is that everyone writing seriously thinks he or she is contemporary, in many of the ways that Agamben suggests. Because Agamben doesn’t really deal with individual artists, or works, but with aesthetics. –”Hey everyone who’s making art, whoever doesn’t think he’s contemporary, raise your hand…. What, no one? Come on, not everyone here is contemporary, I gotta see some hands…. Hey, how about you! Or you! You don’t look contemporary to me…..” etc. etc. This is nothing but a farce in the arena of literary history & critical discernment. Dostoevysky or Tolstoy? Beatles or Stones? Whitman or Dickinson? Frost or Pound? Bishop or Lowell? Twombly or Warhol? Goldsmith or Glück or Hejinian or Bidart or Seidel or…..? (I can only have one? I’m not on a diet…) Who gets to decide? Of course, we all do, we duke it out, and the struggle keeps changing with time, as various arguments and advocacies gain momentum, run their course, and dissipate, or continue. The maker has one ideology, let’s say, but her readers are legion. (I want to sell my books, but if they were the only books I had to read, I’d stay at the movies….) The contemporary now is what readers of the future decide contemporary was back when we were living it. It’s never not historical. Because reading is always historical; only writing can be contemporary. What you’re writing right now; others will have to let you know. Eliot’s most salient point in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is that the authentically contemporary changes how we read the past. But we’re all historians of the present. The most pernicious fiction about poetry is that of mutual exclusivity. The vicissitudes of time make a mockery of our theses. Or to quote Stein on Picasso, “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.” The question for me is always, what’s at stake in making definitive choices?
To the Editors,
I feel like so much of the short fiction I come across these days is obsessed with same boring problems and relationship “issues” that plague pretty much every advice column in syndication. I don’t know if it’s because our culture (America) is so self-obsessed and self-absorbed to even notice how boring our problems are, but when I read Peter Karpinsky’s take on marital disconnect in B O D Y, I felt like somebody had finally blown that stale convention wide open. Sandor Jaszberenyi’s story from a few weeks ago (a story that is truly about the art of storytelling) had the same effect. I also appreciated the elegant simplicity of “The Green Bird” by Vlas Doroshevich, a story that reminded me how long it’s been since I’d read and enjoyed a real story – the kind I could read aloud to my kids without groaning inside. I guess that’s why it’s a such a thrill to encounter writers from different languages and cultures. After all, isn’t that why we read literature – to step outside of ourselves and see what life is like from other perspectives? I just hope some of that imagination translates back to America. We need it. Keep up the good work, and keep the good work coming.
WHEN DID AFRICA FALL OFF THE MAP?
To the Editors,
Don’t get me wrong, I think B O D Y is a great mag. You’re definitely covering more ground than a lot of other mags out there. And it’s great to see writing by people who don’t just live in the US or UK. BUT – seriously – fellas – what about Africa? You sure do underrepresent us down here. I would invite you to take a few minutes and google some names you might not recognise, such as Arja Salafranca, Shabbir Banoobhai, Sarah Frost, or Kelwyn Sole, to get a taste of some of the great literature being written in South Africa. And we’re just the tip of the continent! The rest of Africa, too, has many, many excellent poets and writers who are well worth reading and certainly worth bringing to the attention of B O D Y‘s readership. I suggest you check them out.
Cape Town, South Africa
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