– for Joanne
As the official end of Poetry Month draws closer, so too does the first month anniversary of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. Shortly after the site’s launch, Joanne Kyger in her singular way asked me, friendly but with some slightly discernable admonishment, “What are you doing?” I stuttered something about “having fun” (which is still true) but I couldn’t really answer because I didn’t know what we were doing. The whole undertaking was propelled by impulse, whim, chance, and a bit of luck. The impulse was to challenge the complacency that seemed to have oozed into the crevices of the world of poetry, solidifying it into a grotesque, predictable masque of polite but meaningless gestures. What had been, only a few decades ago, an exciting and unpredictable centre of creative resistance and imaginative freedom, had become (with some obvious exceptions) a morass of institutionalized careerism, gamesmanship, and competition for prizes, an “economy” in which bogus distinctions between “mainstream” and “vanguard,” between “official verse” and “difficult poetry” reinforced a mutually supportive environment of warring opposites, neither of which offered anything more than a literary product meant to be exchanged for some equivalence in the market place.
Not knowing what you are doing may be the sign of incompetence – or possibly, an opening. At the very least, it can be a commitment to engage with something beyond the already known. At best to be bewildered. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t. Maybe we will find a way. But without the bewildered opening all that you will ever do is what you already know how to do. We didn’t want to do that, so we set sail, as it were, in box upon the sea. Banging drums and pans and raising a din as we set out. One thing we knew is that poetry is not a simple thing. It is not a simple thing and it resists the way simple things can be exchanged for other simple things of equivalent value. Shiny statues. Chairs at prestigious universities. Cheques from the Canada Council, the Pulitzer committee, or the Poetry Foundation. A niche in the wall of The Great Hall of Literature.
While we didn’t know what we were doing, we did agree that poetry is a mode of knowing, that it yields knowledge and understanding that is specific to its unique configurations of language and the way they open into strange, unprecedented dimensions of sense. That knowledge is bound up with the quest for a poetics, an active relation to those complexities that yields transformative events in language. And we knew that such an understanding flies in the face of conventional wisdom which has turned “poetics” into “theory” and returned the poem to some realm of literary accomplishment, whether that accomplishment is to realize excellence, dismiss it in some nihilist language dump, or qualify the poem for inclusion in an essay by Marjorie Perloff or Stephen Burt.
In that sense, even though we didn’t know what we were doing, what we were doing was a kind of knowing that is the faith of the poem, a stepping off the cliff, like the Fool or coyote, held up by the fact of not knowing. And then it starts becoming something. What exactly in this case is determined by different factors, but especially by the relation between me and Kent, which is pretty new and tentative, even as it gains trust and confidence. We are different. It’s a good match. And the result is difference. Dispatches is a becoming site of differences within the field of resistance. Some of those differences have to do with the differences between me and Kent, or between us and Corporate Poetry Entities that have poets arrested and jailed, or between different modes of resistance. Dispatches relishes resistance’s differences.
One of the great experiences in my lifetime was the resistance to the US American war against Viet Nam. It became what they call a mass movement which means that millions and millions of people joined the resistance and did what they could where they were. A mass movement, it turns out, is not about mass. It’s about everybody doing what they can, which makes up the differences. Some people go to jail. Some people get drafted and resist from within the military. Some people go underground. Some people go to Canada. Some people write poems and songs. Some people go to demonstrations. Some people sign petitions. Some people argue with their uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Some people get arrested. Some people defend them in court. A being-in-common-but-different is the heart of a mass movement. Everyone finds a way to resist, and all the differences of the being in common help stop a criminal war.
So even though we didn’t know what we were doing, we did know that resistance is important and that we wanted to make a space for that to happen, a space that opened itself to different forms of resistance, and in the process unfolded a being-in-common that was happening. If Ed Dorn’s relentlessly honest gaze is an inspiration for it, so is Jack Clarke’s sense of the infinite, intimate differences that activate a being in common. Rolling Stock on the one hand, intent. on the other. And Baraka, Rukeyser, Vallejo, Dalton, Di Prima. With all their failings and faults, too. That’s as far as we have got.