Friday, March 31, 2006

Bare or Bear?L'Affaire Fence, Chapter 194

The new issue of Fence is out, and the old squabble about the Quinne cover on one of last year's issues continues. Editor Charles Valle is kind enough to cite my own contribution to the debate, and add it to his own reflections. Check it out, if you're still outraged about:

A. A topless model demurely cavorting on the cover of a literary magazine.


B. People getting upset by A, above.

The current issue, by the way, features a cartoonish representation of a bear. I for one am deeply, deeply offended by everything this implies.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Archambeau World Tour, Summer 2006

Okay, fans, you're in luck: this summer's Robert Archambeau World Tour is concentrated (so far) in the greater Chicago area, so you can catch both dates without having to put too many miles on the VW microbus you and your hippie pals had planned to use as both vehicle and residence as you followed me from town to town.

The tour begins with a May 22 gig at the University of Chicago, as part of the Council of Advanced Studies' Poetry and Poetics Workshop Series. The talk is, at the moment, called "The Aesthetic Anxiety."

After a brief hiatus, during which I'll be trashing hotel rooms, chasing supermodels, and dodging paparazzi, I'll emerge from my hiding place at the Chateau Marmot to speak on July 29th, at Northwestern University's Art and Craft Summer Writer's Conference, where I'll be talking about blogging on a panel with Bust magazine writer Wendy McClure and noted novelist/New Republic guy Kevin Guilfoile.

What a long, strange trip it will be.*


For "long", read "short."
For "strange", read "somewhat placid and academic."

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Acronym of Evil

Note: This panderometer seems to be set about a decibel too high, but it is the best I could find, what with the heavy demand these last few months. The guys at Radio Shack tell me the new, improved models won't be in until next week, which means I can pick one up when I go in to get the parts for the giant robot I'm building. The robot's going to look like Theodor Adorno. Well, like Theodor Adorno if he were thirty feet tall, had laser eyes, and the ability to crush cars with his magneto-grip (which he didn't have -- everybody knows that was Herbert Marcuse).

But what, you ask, prompted me to fire up the panderometer in the first place? An excellent question! I mean, whenever I plug that sucker in I risk blowing a fuse, especially if I do so while running the hair dryer. So I use it only under dire circumstances. But circumstances are, of late, somehwat dire.

(Consumer Warning: You know, I think I've been doing a good job of repressing my occasional urges to rant about politics here. But this latest news gets the better of me, so be forewarned: a rant follows.)

Newsweek's Howard Fineman tells us George Bush has a new story to tell, now that his old talking points are looking a little threadbare. The new White House talking points can be encapsulated, Fineman says, with a handy acroynm, WATITH -- the War Against Terrorists Inside The Homeland. And who are these enemies in the homeland? As Fineman puts it, they are "not just the terrorists themselves, but also wussie lovers of legalistic niceties that get in the way of investigations..." In this new story, it seems that those who don't toe the line and agree that Bush's law-breaking acts of surveillance on American citizens are both hunky and dorey are no better than terrorists.

Okay. Let us put aside the deep irony of a president who calls himself a lover of freedom who fights terror trying to intimidate those who would protect their constitutional freedoms. Let us concentrate on the creepiness of the tactic. Where have we heard words like this before? Where have we heard that war can be sustained in this manner? How about in the following passage:

...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.

That was from an interview with Herman Goering. No, I'm not making this up. Nor am I saying that Bush is a Nazi. But it is fact, not opinion, that he's not above considering a tactic Goering embraced, nor above using it for similar ends. And we're not wrong to be appalled.

If this keeps up, I suppose I'll be seeing you all in Gitmo. But don't worry: my giant robot will set us free.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Schmoozie: Criteria Revealed!

Since the Schmoozie award for most egregious self-promotion at or near the AWP was awarded a week ago (see my post of March 12), there's been a huge (okay, a moderate) outpouring of interest. Among the various emails asking me to reveal the full name of the winner, and the others guessing (mostly correctly) his full identity, there were a few asking about the criteria for the award. Since we at the Academy of Literary Conference and Festival Arts and Sciences stand for full disclosure and transparency, I here reveal the scoring system of that venerable award, The Schmoozie.

Feel free to print up score cards to use at any MLA, MMLA, AWP, MSA, or other acronym-bearing conference. The system can also be used at poetry readings, such is its versatility.

Minor afftonts to decency have a low point value:

  • Conspicuous nodding during a presentation: 1 point

  • Laughing loudly to prove one is in on the joke: 1 point

  • Name-tag gawking: 1 point

  • Carrying around a copy of your own book: 1 point

  • Offering to sign your book when you have not been asked to so do: 2 points

The following phrases all have point value:

  • "Loved your book": 3 points

  • "I admire your work": 3 points

  • "I'm a big fan": 5 points

Name dropping also has point value:

  • Naming This Year's Theorist: 2 points (note: in 2006, Franco Moretti holds the title of This Year's Theorist)

  • Referring to Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, or John Ashbery by first-name only: 2 points

  • Referring to Ron Silliman by first-name only: 1 point

Major affronts have point value appropriate to their egregiousness:

  • Hovering at the edge of a conversation where the famous have gathered: 3 points

  • Crashing a table at the hotel bar where the famous have gathered: 5 points

  • Giving your book to one of the luminous few, saying "I thought you should have one....": 10 points

  • Inviting yourself to dinner with the big dogs, when you have not been asked: 15 points

  • Inviting yourself onstage to read or speak when you are not in the program: 20 points

Finally, there is a variable point value to be awarded for anyone who rises, after a presentation, to ask a question that is not in fact a question, but rather a rambling speech, the primary purpose of which is to hear the melodious sound of one's own voice echoing through the hallowed air of the lecture hall.

  • 1 point per sentence.

The Academy of Literary Conference and Festival Arts and Sciences perpetually strives to improve its system of ratings, so please do not hesitate to add new categories based on observations of conference affrontery. We count on your field research!

Robert Archambeau
Provost and Dean of Affontery Studies
Academy of Literary Conference and Festival Arts and Sciences

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Under the Pecan Trees and in the Academy

Back from Austin, covered in glory. Or maybe that's barbecue sauce. Be that as it may, I bring you the following observations about the AWP fringes, along with an added bonus in the form of a note on the University of Chicago's recent conference on poetry criticism.

1. There is no finer venue for a group poetry reading than the lawn behind the Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse on a warm spring evening.

You're guided in from the road by a fantastic neon sign featuring a reclining frog cradling a coffee cup and looking philosophically into the distance. You walk into the bar area, read the chalked-up specials, ponder for a moment whether to go with coffee or beer, then let your adoring fans put your drinks on their tab for the evening (thanks, Grant). The kid selling you your microbrew organic ale looks a lot like Rory Cochrane's character Slater in the Richard Linklater classic Dazed and Confused. You hang for a while with the poets and local scenesters, then head through a hang-out room, a big screened porch, and down a gentle slope. You stand outside at a microphone flanked by two Peavy amps and a 70s-era lamp, all beneath spreading limbs of a giant pecan tree. You turn to face the big crowd and feel like this is where you belong.

2. The changing of the guard is always underway.

The last time I was in the same room with Kass Fleisher, her husband Joe Amato, Maxine Chernoff and her husband Paul Hoover was in 1999, at a bar called the Cirque Divers in Liege, Belgium. We'd all been speaking at a literary conference for which Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop had been the eminences gris. At the Austin reading, though, it was Paul and Maxine who were the presiding literary couple, the locus of all gravitas. They sat together in the front row, Paul looking tall and distinguished in the American poet's black uniform, Maxine sitting sideways on her chair and emitting a sort of aura of kind benevolence. All the time I couldn't help thinking that, in an unspecified but no doubt shockingly brief-seeming span of years, I'll probably be at another such poet's hang (what's the progression after Belgian bar -- Austin coffeehouse? Nepalese used book store?), and see that Joe and Kass have become the iconic literary couple, presiding over the poets at play. Not a bad fate, really.

3. Brett Eugene Ralph is the real deal.

When I first saw Brett Ralph walk up to the mike in his trucker hat, biker boots, and general biker/redneck mien, I suspected he was going to be a mere garden variety prof-poet masquerading in a kind of western Kentucky drag as a way of distinguishing himself from the rest of us. But no! He's the real deal: former punk-zine editor, current poet and member of the band Rising Shotgun (which, mentioned as it is on my old pal Doug Shawhan's, must be good), and poet of the western Kentucky punk rock experience. "The Donkey," he said between poems, "always reminds me of punk. It's a docile, gentle, kindly creature, but when it opens its mouth it's just fuckin' awful..."

4. The Chicago poetry mafia is everywhere

Bill Allegreza, Ray Bianchi and Simone Muench were the venerable outfit's ambassadors to the reading.

5. L'affair Fence lives on.

I've admired Joanna Fuhrman's poems for a while, so I was glad to have a chance to talk to her after the reading, when she joined me and a few others over some of Bouldin Creek's finest tofu tacos. Fence came up, since they'd hosted a reading of their own across town. It turns out the Quinne cover still incites heated argument, in this case between an anti-Quinne faction (Joanna) and a pro-Quinne faction (me). Joanna didn't like that the image of Quinne wasn't in any meaningful way an attempt to ironize or deconstruct the kind of image of conventionally attractive women we see on so many glossy magazines. I maintained that the use of exactly this kind of undeconstructed image on a poetry magazine was a kind of shaking up of norms, precisely because we'd expect poetry magazines to have covers that are either A) blandly arty or B) deconstructive. Somewhat hyperbolically, I claimed that the publication of that cover was a kind of minor-league version of Duchamp submitting a urinal to an art exhibit that claimed it was open to anything: it exposed the limits of our alleged tolerance. Joanna and I clashed even more when she claimed the things Rebecca Wolff wrote about the cover were even more offensive than the cover itself. Joanna didn't like the idea of a poetry magazine as a commodity. I (as a guy who ran an independent magazine for a few years) maintained that magazines are all the things we want them to be (the public sphere, the area of aesthetic free play, etc.) and market commodities at the same time. (I shouldn't be surprised that this bothered Joanna: I once wrote a bit about how this idea was scandalous to our received opinions). All of this raises the question: what other poetry journal cover last year was interesting enough to cause an argument about aesthetics, the marketplace, gender and objectification?Anyway. Joanna handled my response to her attack on the paintings of John Currin as unironic objectifications of women ("that is such bullshit") with a whole lot more grace than it deserved. And I still like her poems.

6. AWP contagion, and the heroic defense against it

I think I'm going to invent a new award (call it The Schmoozie) for the most offensive example of literary networking and self-promotion at or near the AWP Convention. Like many people at the reading, I avoided the real convention this year, but the AWP ethos came after us, in the person of a certain fiction writer, whose full name will be disclosed only to those approaching me in person and buying the next round. This fellow spent the reading jumping up and down out of his chair to introduce himself to people. I first noticed him when a hand thrust itself between me and Joe Amato, and a voice barked "Joe? John -- loved your book." At the end of the evening he invited himself on-stage as a reader, compelling the MC to summon the dispersing crowd back to their chairs.

But my other new award, the Medal of Meritorious Merit in the Face of Overwhelming Clouds of Self-Congratulation (anyone got a better name?) goes to Kass Fleisher, for her statement earlier in the day to the assembled heads of MFA programs. She told them she thought the AWP was too anti-intellectual, and withstood many minutes of heavy shelling afterwards. Represent, Kass!


Before heading down to Austin, I trekked down to Hyde Park for a few hours of a small conference on the future of poetry criticism. After munching on the entirely convincing falafel (which seems to have replaced the cracker with awful cheese as the conference food of choice), I settled down for a panel featuring Jeff Dolven's “Communities of Style,” Oren Izenberg's “We Are Reading: Collective Intentions Toward Poetry,” and Maureen McLane's “Romanticism, or, Now: Learning to Read in Postmodern.” The format of the conference is a good one, worth emulating elsewhere: papers were made available ahead of time online, so the presenters didn't have to read from them. Rather, each speaker would rise in turn to summarize another speaker's paper and pose some questions about it. This made for lively discussion among panelists and audience members. (Izenberg seems to have honed the business of dealing with slightly nutty questions into an art. "I'm afraid I don't see the force of the question" is a phrase worth remembering).

Dolven's paper was of particular interest to me, in that it addressed the question of a poet's signature style. Dolven's interested in careful stylistic analysis, but he's more interested in the immediacy with which we are struck by a poet's style. When we read we experience a moment of recognition, not a slow accumulation of facts, and this is his object of study. McClane's paper (which I didn't get a chance to read beforehand) seemed to be a riotous thing, more dialogue or closet drama than essay. Izenberg, who's written about literary community before, riffed on John Searle's idea of intention in an examination of how reading is changed if we think of ourselves as reading in common with others (who may or may not actually exist as readers of commonly-read texts). This paper had particular resonance, as I sensed that these three were friends, and that they must have been reading together, one way or another, for some time. (McLane teaches at Harvard, where Izenberg used to teach, and Dolven, who alluded to how he used to hang out with McLane, used to teach nearby, at Brandeis). In a way I think this panel must be the gessellschaft ghost of an old gemeinschaft practice of reading in common.

I'd planned for my own upcoming talk at the University of Chicago to be a version of one of the chapters of Laureates and Heretics, in part as a shout-out to the editors of the Chicago Review, who were kind enough to publish part of the manuscript. But now I'm thinking of working up something else, a kind of response to McLane, Dolchen, and Izenberg. Theirs is too good a conversation to ignore.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Those Southern Profs With the Way They Talk Knock Me Out When I'm Down There

"What," you eagerly inquire, "was your favorite moment from the 20th Century Literature Conference in Louisville, Archambeau?" Ah! I'm so glad you asked. I take so many modest pleasures in my annual attendance at that much-storied gathering of the professoriate. The less-respecatable delights always include looking down upon my profession for its sartorial shortcomings, although I have to say the nature of that particular pleasure has changed over the past decade. Where once I could look forward to seeing the middle-aged men of letters comporting themselves in an unholy combination of pastel madras shirts and tweed blazers, that particular subspecies seems to have died out (or, more likely, retired emeritus). When I look around, now, I see a heavy preponderance of dark suits. It isn't that the conference was ever particularly rock-n-roll
to begin with, but these last few years have seen us all looking a bit more like a convention of actuaries or insurance brokers than I'd like. (Not that my corduroy-jacket, red chinos and Che t-shirt is the sort of thing a self-respecting human would wear in public. No, indeed. My look was recently described by the long-suffering Valerie (pictured here with rakish chapeau) as "artist-outpatient".

This year, though, I have to say that my favorite moment came right after I'd cadged a few drinks at the big Seelbach Hotel reception. Grant Jenkins had just regaled a small group with his "the time I crashed Emmanuel Levinas' apartment" anecdotes, when he and I decided to lead a small group away from the Official-Name-Tag-Wearing-Deluxe-Rubber-Chicken-Death-in-Life-Conference-Dinner down to the funky Afro-Caribbean restaurant and dance bar three blocks to the south. As we poured out of the hotel I saw that we'd gathered quite a crowd -- maybe 15 in total -- who trailed behind us like geese in flight. I felt like the pied piper, or at least the co-pied-piper. The real life of these events, I thought, as I talked merrily away with Jenkins, Mark Scroggins, Cate Ramsden, Piotr Gwiazda (with whom I'll be reading in Austin) and a crowd of grad students (mostly, I think, from IU-Bloomington), always seems to happen in the interstices of the official events.

But sentimentality aside, there was some good stuff at the conference itself. I started off at a panel with on "Forms of the Spiritual in American Poetry." Philip Beard kicked it off with a good paper on Robert Lowell. Instead of going back to the well-travelled territory of Lowell's early flirtation with Catholicism, Beard talked about Notebook as an exploration of negative theology -- the exploration of the nature of the divinity through a series of cancellations of what it is not. For the most part, the things Lowell chooses to cancel are the ideas of the divine that connect with the idea of the Big Bearded Father, and what he's left with is a more general sense of caritas. As with any discussion of Lowell that gets to the heart of things, the talk touched on the idea of Oedipal struggle. Lowell always seems to be caught in that matrix — he can't stand the idea of submission to powerful authority figures (which is why "a savage servility slides by on grease" is probably his most memorable line -- he just can't stand the sight of those smug conformists). But then again, he's always on the verge of sliding over from rebel to overbearing alpha male, an irony best caught, I think, in the image of Lowell in Buenos Aires, hopped up on one of his manic sprees, mounting the various equestrian statues of the city. Is this an ironic deflation of heroic figures? Is it a weird, misguided attempt to supplant or emulate them? Both, I suppose. I ran the idea by Beard after the panel, and he didn't object, so I'm hanging on to it for the time being.

After Beard, Norman Finkelstein took the stage. He'd sent me a copy of his book of criticism, Lyrical Interference, which I'd read at O'Hare while waiting for my flight. I think I see why he wanted me to read the book: he covers a lot of my recent blog-topics, but in much greater depth and detail. He makes especially good points about the intersection of poesis and critical writing, a topic I'd just been writing about for Avant-Post. His paper was on the somewhat unlikely topic of Michael Palmer and spirituality. He managed to make the link between Palmer and spirituality via an interesting quote from the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, who held that poesis was always heresy, that literary form was inevitably a matter of scandal to orthodoxies. I'm not up on my Eckhart enough to know the exact context or import of his ideas, although it certainly made the inclusion of Palmer into a panel like this one possible.

I was very glad to see a panel on Harryette Mullen, then a little befuddled when I noticed it wasn't just on Mullen, but on Mullen and Julia Alvarez. An odd combo, I thought, before remembering that the American academy still operates on somewhat crude categories of identity-politics ("two women of color! put them on the same panel!"). What the hell, I thought: what could the Oulipo-inspired work of Mullen really have to do with Alvarez's sonneteering? As I listened to the papers, though, I began to think that the connections were stronger than I'd realized. Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary and Alvarez's sonnets both take up form as a generative formal restriction as a means of getting beyond habitual perceptions. Oulipo is, in the end, a formalism. And long may it wave. (NOTE: although I've complained about the prevalence of suits at this year's conference, Grant Jenkins, who gave a very sharp paper on Mullen, upped the rock-n-roll quotient considerably with his new hairstyle).

My favorite panel, though, was one with only two papers: Mark Cantrell on Christian Bok's Eunoia and Mark Scroggins on the San Francisco poetry wars of '78. Cantell did a good job of contrasting the different kinds of reading required by the paper version of the book and by the rather fabulous electronic version. (As a guy with a lot of lamentable ebay purchases, though, I've got to say that I found entirely false Cantrell's assertion that the stakes of online experience are low because everything can be reset).

Scroggins covered the Barret Watten/Robert Duncan fracas with amazing detail, which I'd planned to recount, but I find that the job has been done for me.

I'd hoped to stick around to the end of the whole shindig, especially for Piotr Gwiazda's paper, but events arrayed themselves in such a way that I had to leg it back to Chicago early Sunday morning, without coffee, nudged in line by a pair of blue-haired women with aggressively mid-Atlantic accents and a strong desire to make it through the metal detectors before me.