SG: Can prose poems have as much popular appeal as the novel? Or is this a relevant issue for you?
RS: It's definitely a relevant concern, but this question is often posed incorrectly. Literature needs audiences, but not a "public." A homogeneous audience (or mass market) is one that effaces the individual characteristics of the reader, to arrive at a reader-as-cipher, much as television begets its viewer. There are many legitimate audiences, but not a single "super-market" that one should try to occupy This diversity is recent, the result of the expansion both of literacy and of technology. Up until perhaps 1950, the increase in the number of possible readers meant larger audiences only for an essentially centralized small body of white, male, patriarchal writing. Women, people of color, lesbians and gay men were excluded or marginalized. The Jewishness of the Objectivists, for example, kept their work from being recognized as important for thirty years. As the elaboration of offset printing during the '50s gave rise to the small press revolution, poetry in America was cleaved in half by a debate between the so-called academics, writers who valued the preservation of convention, particularly the closed forms that originated in Europe, and the so-called New Americans, who countered with a speech-based poetics and a nationalism of open form. If you read much of the literature of the '50s and '60s you get the feeling that a great contest was being waged, and that one side or another would somehow eventually win. Presumably the losing side was simply going to wither and disappear. Not only has that not happened, but the amoebalike cleaving process has continued, both within this original two-party framework and outside it. Most notably, the rise of feminist culture has meant the rise of a women's literature that does not need to rely on the legitimation of male-dominated institutions for its sense of value.
SG: And each of these subcultures naturally produces a literary audience.
RS: Exactly. Each subgenre of poetry today reflects a different audience, a different community. Disputes as to the "excellence" of one kind of writing or another are in fact sub rosa arguments as to which social group will dominate the other. What we need to understand is how a subgenre of poetry both creates and is created by that social construct we call an audience. A very useful example is the work of Judy Grahn, which has done so much to make possible a kind of literature that was not even conceived of in the academic versus New American poetry debate—that is, lesbian writing. Works such as "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke" and "A Woman Is Talking to Death" are as complex, subtle, and efficient as any literary productions of the last thirty years. Yet, unlike my audience, the readers she seeks are not going to identify with her texts as readers first, but as women, and often as lesbian women. Such an audience may not have a thorough sense of literary history as an important characteristic; in fact, it may have a sense of literature as exclusive and patriarchal. Thus it's necessary for Grahn's pieces to appear artless, an effect she achieves through such devices as enjambment and variable capitalization. The only formal technique she ever foregrounds is parallel construction, yet the linguistic play in the texts seems limitless. Grahn's poetry is experiencing some fashion because it's directly related to a conscious social movement, and because many people, men as well as women, are just now coming to terms with what the existence of a lesbian community really means in our lives. But does it make sense to ask if it can have "popular appeal"? The important thing is that it does have value for its community, extraordinary value. The writing that has been associated with such magazines as This, Hills, Roof, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tottel's Poetics Journal, A Hundred Posters, QU, Tuumba Press, and The Figures Press, much of which has been in prose forms, is no less a community.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
From a 1982 interview with Ron Silliman: