August 12, 2011KR BlogEthicsReadingWriting

We’re All Museums: A Conversation with John Gallaher, pt 2 (fin)

John Gallaher’s lots of things–a ferociously smart guy, a very good poet [three books of his own and a fourth, the very recent and very good collab with KR’s own GC Waldrep, Your Father on The Train of Ghosts], an editor [the Laurel Review and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics], and a blogger whose blog doesn’t feature the frustratingly common solipsism found on lots of other lit blogs. On reading his blog, I got more and more interested in his take on what he’s calling the New New Sincerity and/or New Spiritualism, and what follows is the second + final part of a long-ish email conversation about that. A last note: his blog’s worth giving several hours to, as is the ongoing conversation he and Waldrep are having at the BOA blog about their recent book (and here’s his blog posting about part one of this interview, which post’s got example poems and some interesting comments).

WC:

3. The blog post recently about aesthetics and ethics is a huge, huge thing for me–I’ve been mildly obsessed/fixated on notions of structural aesthetics in poetry and the ethical stances those decisions betray (basically: if the two [main] components of a poem are form and content, and [I’d argue] content in poetry follows pretty common paths [depending on age and idea[l]s and broader cultural patterns (this could be a bs argument, but it seems like lots of poetry, when grouped according to when it’s coming out and what school it fits in with, basically *does* similar stuff–a cultural sweep toward quiet ah-hah moments or ironic undercutting of things, whatever…)], then looking at a poem’s form can offer a lot about the ideals behind what the writer actually values–speed vs meditative movement, precision vs something like a circumambulative model of ‘accuracy,’ jostling linebreaks which disrupt natural ‘flow’ vs a more even, less chaotic lineation…you get the idea). Anyway: thanks for the post. Helps me think more about this other stuff.

4. Thanks so, so much for the last email. I know I thanked once, but it’s been in my mind all week, as I drove across states and now as I unpack into a house + buy things to fix appliances. This line’s been sticking: “but it’s just as appropriate to think of post-modernism in art as the full-scale wearing of whatever tradition one is drawn to.” I’m on board with this, mostly (due to my youth [I’m 32] and when I’ve come of age, I believe it now may take a bit more effort/time for those in my general age cohort to full-scale wear anything with something like sincerity: we’ve been raised among such posing that we’ve let certain muscles of sincerity atrophy, or so it felt/seemed to me in my late-20’s [for what it’s worth, I believe this fact is one of the big reasons why DFWallace resonates so strongly with so many of us, the lengths he went in talking about the difficulty of even being able to *establish* anything like and *authentic* *self*]). I guess this leads to the next big two questions for me on this whole topic:

a) Is the new new sincerity/new spirituality somehow nostalgic in any way? I’d like to believe it’s not, but sometimes I have doubts (it’s no different, I’d guess, from the feeling that longer, narrative poems can somehow feel/seem nostalgic as well, or at least so fully in the past they cause a weird dissonance in the reader).

and

b) The N2S/NS seems like something like a tombstone for what we’ve in the last 50 or so years understood as some aspect of the hallmark of postmodernism, at least in art: basically, something like omnisciousness, or omni-awareness, whatever word that should be. At least/especially with regard to fiction, “postmodern” fiction almost always meant stuff that was aware of itself and its artifice. I think poetry had some similar aspects (again, I know less and have read less than you), but I also think poetry could play certain of these dramas out in stylistic shifts/schools. I guess my question ends up being this: how much of the N2S/NS about trying to limit awareness, or trying to get things back to a human scale? I don’t think I’m doing a thorough enough job with this question–it sure clunks from here. I guess maybe this: art now *must* acknowledge that it’s being consumed/viewed/read. Even if the artist chooses to just play it straight, there’s still a moment of saying “huh, people are gonna wonder about this in terms of irony/sincerity/authenticity.” (if you disagree, please, pounce). Which is of course a function of awareness, of the reader and writer all being info-obese and fully plugged (not complaining/bemoaning). And there’s (I think) a good argument to be made that this much awareness or whatever’s maybe even toxic, that to seriously question or wonder about every single thing’s authenticity/irony, at every second of every interaction in each day, is just massively hard and paralyzing. Good lord. This seems even deeper into the weeds than a second ago. If this makes any sense, awesome; if not, I’ll circle the wagons.

JG:

WC: Is the new new sincerity/new spirituality somehow nostalgic in any way? I’d like to believe it’s not, but sometimes I have doubts (it’s no different, I’d guess, from the feeling that longer, narrative poems can somehow feel/seem nostalgic as well, or at least so fully in the past they cause a weird dissonance in the reader).

JG: Looking at it that way, as all things come from previous things . . . we’re all museums. The influences and reflections extend in all directions. Math doesn’t even help, as it’s an economy of chaos. So yes, there is nostalgia here. But there’s nostalgia in every movement, named or not named. Ezra Pound’s Make It New was part of a study in classicism . . .

WC: The N2S/NS seems like something like a tombstone for what we’ve in the last 50 or so years understood as some aspect of the hallmark of postmodernism, at least in art: basically, something like omnisciousness, or omni-awareness, whatever word that should be. At least/especially with regard to fiction, “postmodern” fiction almost always meant stuff that was aware of itself and its artifice. I think poetry had some similar aspects (again, I know less and have read less than you have), but I also think poetry could play certain of these dramas out in stylistic shifts/schools.

JG: I would insert here that there’s a different way to say the same thing that plays against the difference people see in contemporary poetry. Poetry has always called attention to itself as artifice. Rhyme, meter, form, poetic inversion, these have all been distancing techniques . . . distancing the poem from “regular” speech. We’re always aware of ourselves being artists. I think, rather than looking at ourselves as suddenly aware, or hyper-aware, of ourselves as making art, it can be looked at as the times we’re in–a time of prose, certainly, and non-fiction, yes, but also a time of hyper-realism in film. I would argue that it’s the interest in film, especially, that has caused the other arts to seem so aware of themselves as art, if they’re not participating in the formal realism of film. I would posit that Michael Palmer or Lyn Hejinian, say, are not more obviously aware of themselves as making art in their poems than was Alexander Pope. I pull these names at something like random.

WC:I guess my question ends up being this: how much of the N2S/NS about trying to limit awareness, or trying to get things back to a human scale?

JG: I would say these poets aren’t necessarily doing that at all. They’re just reacting to themselves in their generation as best they can. There is always an interest in “meaning it.” It’s critics and theorists who come along later and characterize periods. These writers are just trying to find their various ways through the contemporary situation. I mean, what is sincerity, anyway? Are politicians sincere? Is realism sincere? And what is spirituality anyway? Does it have to look like John Ortberg? Tony Hoagland in his recent article in the AWP Chronicle, talks about Linda Gregg as a spiritual poet, and then has to invent a category for her: Greek Pagan. I’m not sure what to do with that.

WC: I don’t think I’m doing a thorough enough job with this question–it sure clunks from here. I guess maybe this: art now *must* acknowledge that it’s being consumed/viewed/read. Even if the artist chooses to just play it straight, there’s still a moment of saying “huh, people are gonna wonder about this in terms of irony/sincerity/authenticity.”

JG: I’m not sure if Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Ted Kooser, or a host of other writers speak to themselves that way. But, for others, yes, this is a concern. But, on the other hand, from the other end of the spectrum, I doubt Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle speak to themselves that way . . . but I’m guessing.

WC: Which is of course a function of awareness, of the reader and writer all being info-obese and fully plugged (not complaining/bemoaning). And there’s (I think) a good argument to be made that this much awareness or whatever’s maybe even toxic, that to seriously question or wonder about every single thing’s authenticity/irony, at every second of every interaction in each day, is just massively hard and paralyzing. Good lord. This seems even deeper into the weeds than a second ago. If this makes any sense, awesome; if not, I’ll circle the wagons.

JG: It makes perfect sense to me. So how does one deal with the complexity? By going complex? By going simple? The poets I sympathize with most try to match their times. I guess that’s a version of “going complex.” But seriously, look at our political situation in America. The way they’re tossing around terms like simple and complex. I understand why some people would get intoxicated by the simple. It seems like an antidote. But mostly I find it to be a chimera. There’s always more. On the other hand, I can understand the burnout of the complex. There simply are too many balls to juggle them all. So Michael Palmer has gone from being what I would call a complex poet to one I would call a simple poet. He’s trying to synthesize. Unfortunately, it’s not working well. His recent poems are covered in their intentionality. They read more like exhaustion than simplicity. That’s a real danger.