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Punching Against Poetry Cartels: An Interview with Rodrigo Toscano

 

By Sean F. Munro

 

Sean F. Munro: It’s Black Friday today, and in protest, I’m boycotting spending money for twenty-four hours. Since this has me hyperaware about my position as a consumer in a capitalist society, I’d like to ask you about a trend of audience-consumer conflation, i.e., what sells is what’s good. If you have a specific idea of audience for your new book, In Range, how did you calibrate audience when composing it, and how would you separate this audience from a consumer?

Rodrigo Toscano: Let’s look at it this way: If you were taking an evening walk and happened upon a graveyard (which in New Orleans, is a common occurrence), and glanced at an epitaph (mouthed it even), not even your most strident Marxist critic would suggest you are having an audience-consumer experience. And if you were in a library, say a public one, and you were casually combing the shelves, and picked up a random book, and perused it for a minute or two, there, too, claiming that action as a moment of audience consumption would be quite a stretch. In each case, we can say that the written words as they appeared to us were not experienced as a form of current/present commodity circulation. In both instances, we might say there was a chance element at play in encountering the texts, but even more so, our minds during those times were not hacked by an outside force (distributive network) sparking a consumption experience.

Now, let’s look at the phenomenon of a scheduled poetry reading, a scenario in which we, as audience members, are called forth by the promise of a particular author. Are we “audience-consumers” at that point? It depends. If the author is an actual commodity in circulation (an acclaimed “prize winner” that makes hard money presenting their works), whose consumptive value has been declared well in advance of the actual listenership experience, then you might say, we (as audience) morphed into some kind of consumer. So, the question then becomes, does the author’s poetics insist that we “trust” the author, as evidenced by the product at hand? What’s the degree of authority needed to lend the product its “interest” for us—is another way to put it. So, in my case, you’re asking if I “calibrated” the audience (which is a fair question) to the writing of the poems of In Range. Well, as anybody who encounters the work might readily see, the poems are not exactly mainly career-enhancing masterpieces. They evince nothing of what is fashionable these days (i.e., turbocharging one’s identities—as against other identities—as that’s the way that works), they also don’t carry water for established vanguard traditions. The work is decidedly non-triumphant. It’s frankly vulgar work. I meant it to be that way. If anybody anywhere were to liken it—even a micron’s worth, to Nicanor Parra’s “antipoems,” that would make me very happy. De-calibration of audience might be a way of describing In Range. I felt like truly rolling the dice in that way. Alright. But, is this a crafty way of “calibrating” an audience? Well—hell, I suppose so! It’s for “an audience to come,” a post-mortem event, actually. It felt appropriately fucked up doing it.

Munro: Well, hell, if you want a vulgar audience, type those poems on a typewriter, snap a funky filtered pic on an iPhone, post it to Instagram, and call it “Visual Poetry.” You’d have more likes than an egg. At the same time, the audience seems ironically vulgar—in that the vulgar reader may never know they’re the audience and that a non-vulgar reader may be alienated if they don’t ascertain an intended vulgar audience—and there’s some acknowledgement of that in your poem “avant-garde hemlock.” The speaker identifies who the audience isn’t: “Nor are you my target audience.” You—the somewhat presumably non-vulgar reader of In Range—are not the intended reader. This self-awareness that most readers of In Range are not vulgar is comic irony on par with Parra. In “The Technique of Antipoetry,” Edith Grossman notices that “in [Parra’s] antipoetry the most common objects . . . become the hostile furniture of quotidian existence that stands in the way of the protagonists and prevents them from making any heroic gestures because their environment, habits and background render such gestures ludicrous.” This seems like an apt description of the project of In Range.

However, intent is what separates you from the vulgar masses posting and phone-scrolling for double taps on Instagram. The weakness of many IG “poets”—who I’m bringing up because they seem to have the vulgar audience rapt—is that their poems are mostly abstract, imageless, music-less poems that attempt “heroic gestures” without irony. The IG world celebrates that objective schlock, but does objectivity—when judging a poems quality—really exist when we consider the rhetorical foundation of communication: that there must be a speaker and an audience, and that both these nodes are contained in subjective minds?

Toscano: Well, let me spring this on you: I’ve never thought of “audience” (I believe “spectatorship” is a stouter concept than “audience”) as being made up of singular unitary temporalities. I mean, a person is corporally a One, yes, but the noggin is split. So that a single person, say, you, at a poetry reading, is already a split audience. There are different parts of your brain that have agendas quite at odds with other parts. You might be, say, a Lit Prof (which you “are”), but also, some random dude (which you “are”) off the street that happened to saunter into a poetry reading. Both spectatorships (and plenty of others!) are operative. You see, there are readerly technologies that work to suppress an awareness of one being a split audience. This is the crux of my tension with both identity poetry and “universal consciousness”-based poetry. They’re both monisms. They both guard borders. But to be clear, I don’t mean split audience as some form of intersectionality, I mean it as a set of largely unknowable stances that we find ourselves in, outside of any memory of us having agreed to such stances. A split audience exists quite before the spectatorship and quite after it. It’s not a “position” in the present. What stands in for the present is a void, mega-charged with potential for social meaning. What else makes for an exciting a poetry reading?

But I want to say something about “IG poetry,” which I just binged on in the last twenty-four hours. The whole phenomenon might significantly change poetry as we know it. IG’s inadvertent collapsing of object and subject (whether intentional or not), after repeated rounds of us experiencing it, alters us. It suppresses our need to overcome, well, poetry itself. In this way, IG poetry imbeds a monism of its own, one that walls off the possibility of something speaking back to it. The quandary then for us is either to submit to the boundaries of that monism, or not. This predicament I think highlights how an in-person reading, one that risks the possibilities of a split audience, can cast a critical light on IG-poetics. And that view might afford us just the right amount of vantage point from which to grasp the essence of many related, emergent aesthetic practices. Hm. I suppose I am proposing yet more anti-poetry poetries.

Munro: More anti-poetry poetries! Are you the fabled anti-poet that will reveal a poetry apocalypse? An anti-poetry poetics mirrors the “oscillations” of metamodernism; more specifically, “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.” I imagine you may balk at the neo-romanticism inherent in metamodernism; nevertheless, along with skepticism, apathy, and irony in a mildly masochistic anti-poetics, there are also affect, historicity, and sincerity in In Range. Whether in the poem, “Cockrago Fucksano,” that contains a reference to recent flooding in New Orleans amid absurdifying your name or “Doffing Gloves,” which addresses poetry labels—identities—that have attached to your corpus: “border poet,” “Mr. Labor,” “experimental,” there are sincere anxieties about identity and acceptance here. Earlier you mentioned “identity poetry” as a polarity that troubles you. Do you mean that specifically to aesthetic stances or something more broadly social?

Toscano: Both. Though in the labworks of aesthetics, the problem’s acute. Okay, I want to make something clear. I don’t mean lived cultural experience, an expression of that. Those kinds of revelations are very valuable, and many poets in the U.S. are firing on all cylinders bringing very pressing perspectives to us. Rather, I mean people that push themselves as themselves onto us. I recently witnessed a Latinx poet hammering an audience. On the one hand, this poet asserted in a myriad of ways that in no way could people relate to that poet (unless, presumably, we didn’t have the literal duplicate range of “identities” as that poet), while, at the same time, insisting that we must relate. In my workaday world (labor-environmental coalition building), such a ploy would be utterly absurd. But such ploys are, indeed, quite dominant. Legions of MFA program professors have now become prisoners to those poetics. Can’t say no, can’t even say maybe. The customer is always right.

As regards that metamodernism tract (thanks for sharing that), there’s much there to contemplate, especially the glide from modernist modes to postmodernist modes of thinking. Indeed, the oscillation therein, is much of what I experience. But true to form (oscillating here), I found the manifesto to be slathered with exclusively postmodern between-isms. Everything is between this, that, and the other. Polarities are fuzzy. Right now (early winter 2020) I’m inclined toward a Radical Uncertainty—flushed out—as much as possible, to be contrasted with a fully flushed out Radical Certainty. Let us see (show us!), as much as possible, what the phenomenological or cultural or ideological polarities indeed “are” or feign to be. Don’t fuzz out. Also, I found myself asking, where are the politics in that manifesto? “We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage” reads to me as: we want to do what we want to do when we want to. A Classical Liberal dreamscape.

Munro: Poetry’s engagement with paradox is one of its most pleasurable qualities as a genre, but the paradox that “we can’t relate yet must relate” seems to shoot itself in the foot. Radical Certainty pisses-into-the-wind in a political context as a basis to reject facts, but in the framework of a poem to interrogate logical principles of sufficient reason and non-contradiction is something I don’t see often, especially opposed to Radical Uncertainty. Are there any recent artists you’ve noticed that “don’t fuzz out”?

Toscano: Well, certainly the poetry of Juliana Spahr has rarely (that I’ve read at least) fuzzed to death the polarities of certainty and uncertainty. Rather, she often hard posits polarities of all kinds and toggles furiously between them. Like in her poem “Thrashing Seems Crazy,” which begins by jumping right into the fray of reportage itself, and never lets up: “this is true / a man in an alley grabbed my arm / this is true / someone called me and left the phone dangling at the post office / this is true / a man stalked me // someone tells a story // someone tells a story to another person / another person says I don’t believe this / someone tells the story again in an attempt to convince / someone tells…” The poem is a thoroughgoing interrogation of the storytelling moment of both the past and the present. I would also recommend the political poetries of Susan Briante, Farid Matuk, Anne Boyer, and Ryan Eckes. In those poetries, I don’t find strained hermeneutics of any kind either. It seems to me they’d all rather risk actual aesthetic failure than to wax preemptively morally victorious over a subject matter. There are many others I could cite. Ugh, I am so wary of lists because they’re always so damn partial. But it’s fair to ask for a shortlist (and I’m glad you did), and it’s fair to respond directly to a direct question.

But speaking of fairness. You know, there is, in my opinion, and increasing lack of fairness in the U.S. national poetry scene as regards the validation of difficult (non-identity guaranteeing, non-presumed audience expectation, non-topicality-dominant) poetics. When a poet gets a “winning” recognition by one of the Official Verse Institutions, other institutions literally fall like dominos in hailing that same poet within months. The confederated, consolidated, official verse cartel basically needs poetries that are completely safe to those institutions, people who are sure not to rock the boat in any way. And the appointed poets go on to act as aesthetic and political templates for literally thousands of young poets. The grift is thick, frothy, and thoroughly lethal to alternative poetries. I’m hoping that innovative young poets like the fabulously frank, gossipy, and cranky, Tommy Pico, who has recently had a fair amount of validation, will at some point punch back at those power structures.

Munro: Just like most hierarchical corporate systems, the verse cartel is nepotistic. I helped a few pals with their MFA applications this fall, and beyond prepping samples and writing convincing personal statements—which mostly say: “I have a life I can write about; can I have your job as teacher?”—the most useful advice I could give was to have the applicant get recommendation letters from someone who a professor in the program knows well. Do that and you’re in. This also happens when writers—and poets—meet one another. One of the primary questions is “Who were your teachers?” i.e., a quick analysis of one’s artistic provenance, an aesthetic triage to ensure time is not wasted. Wasted on what? Limited academic resources (jobs, funding, fellowships, etc.) for which we compete. This competition breeds a cruel, jealous scene (cue The O’Jays’s “Backstabbers”), one that infects plenty of writing communities, especially at MFA programs. This competition for resources is where the IG poets, whose aesthetics I ragged on earlier, have outplayed the academics. They are completely outside of academia and raking in cash. Cleo Wade, who is from New Orleans, earns more for a forty-five-minute engagement than most yearly university salaries. Will Sarah Broom or Robin Coste Lewis, notable New Orleanians, be paid similarly after winning National Book Awards? Unfortunately not. It seems like the IG poets have punched hard enough to capitalize on consumerism, but is that the kind of punch to the power structure we’re discussing?

Power structures need punching, and I mean this next question sincerely: if we’re to strategize how we punch the power structures of the official verse cartel, do we start with a list of prizes, publishers, fellowships, and residencies—those pearly gates into tenured academia, and the aesthetics therein? And then go where: create a mirrored system that validates and celebrates difficult poetics? I don’t hate the idea, but it seems churlish to start a new basketball league if a team can’t win the championship. I would prefer a new system that has communities of writers support each other in a horizontal network—that isn’t purely digital—and of course, I’m not sure what this would look like: a poetry commune; a paid reading circuit, a job placement program for unemployed poets?

Toscano: We’re talking here about the professionalization of poetry, how far it’s gotten, how totally its value system conditions nearly every nook and cranny of the poetry world. Nearly. And that’s the important thing to keep in mind. There are plenty of cultural spaces that are being carved out in the U.S. where poetry cartels don’t dominate. One big problem is people are not writing about that. It’d be great to hear, in real time (not as a memoir twenty-thirty years after the fact). how their small- to medium-sized city deals with, say, ten poets, poets who are dealing with both social and aesthetic challenges. Bigger cities might count on twenty poets, and so forth. It doesn’t matter, the number poets, or size of city, really. If there are two poets somewhere plying their trade well, and, especially, if they’re trying get their poetry out to readers/listeners that aren’t all poets, then that’s a different form of power that isn’t institutional. I can say this, because I’ve lived that experience to a large extant. I began in San Diego (early nineties), where there were about ten core practitioners of poetry in my age cohort. Everyone looked upon each other as a legitimate practitioner. The only question was, how many of us were going to move to other cities to join other In Real Life poetry scenes. And those scenes, in those transplant cities, grew and grew. And really the only “prize” to be had was surviving a reading of one’s new work and have that work fucking mean something to people right there and then.

Now, the internet is an invaluable tool in terms of exploring people’s work that one would otherwise never meet in person. The downside is that people more easily fall into celebrity-think. I mean, just look at all the grandstanders we have these days. Much of the time, it’s personality before poetic works. Another downside is that it encourages people to more often fall in line with “national” judgement of much ballyhooed poets. Folks seem to be getting weaker by the moment. Instead of keeping one’s ears to the ground, say, for ten or twenty or thirty, current, vital, African American poets (like from the Cave Canem fellows), people choose one, at most two to cite and write about. Same goes for the Latinx, Canto Mundo fellowship. People give up! They just give up at really studying the writers that are meticulously peer-reviewed in those alternative spaces. I am not saying, in any way, that some of those much-cited writers don’t deserve a serious look (of course they do), but the reduction of the field by Poetry Cartels, fucks it all up. Let’s Fix This. I hope that somebody reading this exchange we’re having here, can pony up and tell us something about poets and poetics in their immediate environment. Here in New Orleans, among many other efforts to forge community, there is the website No Good Poetry (“making the world safe for poetry”). On that site, you’ll find a labor of love that aims to cover the scene here, pretty much wall to wall. Visitors to the city are also treated royally. That site has nothing whatsoever to do with the professionalization we’re talking about, and everything to do with the live, right here/right now reality of poet’s lived conditions. I think that’s a strategy, for sure. People need to gather up their non-institutional prowess, and write and talk about it, forthrightly, proudly.

I also want to touch on what you said about toxic competition for scraps at the college level. That predicament is not the MFA student’s fault, and, at the end of the day, it’s also not the teacher’s fault. This has to do with the reign of the logic of capitalist scarcity in general. But more than that. It has to do with the absolutely broken higher education system here in the U.S. Students are being reduced to vassals of debt; tenured teachers are being anesthetized with endless administration work; adjuncts are—from the minute they step into the system—reduced to mere serfs of some “vision” that the school promotes to cover up its corporate bottom line. But I also want to toss a little something else into all this. Poets that are living in the U.S.’s premier neoliberal regions (The Bay Area and New York City, for example) ought to seriously consider abandoning those factories of extortion, and head out to regions and towns that really need and appreciate their talents. What’s the point of being surplus seven days a week, every week?

Munro: A while back, Claudia Rankine advised that poems should be written for today, our present moment, instead of striving after some eternal poem that lasts forever. She’s right and you’re right: the notion of operating within one’s immediate community tends to be underappreciated in the globo-social internet era. Years ago, on Frenchmen Street at four a.m., I was told “fifty percent of art is making the hang,” by Brent Rose, a local saxophone player and my jazz appreciation professor, and he’s absolutely right, too. One has to be there, but there’s still that fifty percent left looming large. The other half is for making, even if it’s not that simple: make a poem, an essay, an interview, make a reading series, a podcast, a lit mag, a press, a website, a radio program, a parade, make pizza and serve poems on the box, make a festival, make workshops, make whatever as long as it’s not hurting anyone. What are you making next, Rodrigo?

Toscano: In terms of poetry, as usual, I have no clue. I mean none. And it’s likely to get worse. Even the question of Now What, will drop off. And when I am good and empty, dejected and disoriented, then something might grab me. Might. Who said it? Oh, Nietzsche. “If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss will stare back.” To lend a few words to that stare back is a thing. To then engage that thing—is another thing. And so forth. Till, “Behold—a poem!”

As to “operating within one’s immediate community,” I think the term “Cultural Workers” that people were using some twenty years ago, hits the mark, despite the retro-Marxist tone of it. Better yet, as my poet friend, Rob Fitterman, used to say to me, “Hey, we’re Culture Makers first, before ‘poets’” (something like that). I still agree with that. And it’s friggin’ hard to live up to that. But the key is, we don’t do it alone! We do it together. Poets are proof of the fabric of poetic communities, and those communities are proof of culture, and culture is proof of human aspirations on the move.

 

Sean F. Munro is an Assistant Professor in New Orleans, who teaches creative writing, lit, and comp. He co-curates Open Floor, a reading series in the French Quarter, and co-directs the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards for Southeast Louisiana. Recently, he was a runner-up for the Tennessee Williams Poetry Prize and one of his collaborative poems was nominated for Best of the Net. He received an MFA from University of Arizona and is calibrating his first book of poems.

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