Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In 1977, when I self-published the above book, I'd been working for the U.S. Government Department of Health and Human Services for three years. I was trying to figure out how to pursue a literary career on the side, while earning enough money to support my family. I was also uncertain about how my life, the workaday world, and the aesthetic choices (alternatives) I perceived, could possibly fit together.  

Putting together a book of poems then seemed like a good way to define what it was I had accomplished, and to present a "version" of myself that was a combination of who I thought I was (as a writer), and--pertinently--what kind of writer I thought I would like to be. I think I realized, even then, that art--writing--is to a large degree a self-fulfilling projection of an idealized identity (persona). Who you are and what you say (show) to the world is to some degree a promise, or a wish--of who you imagine yourself to be, and how you imagine that will be received. This is hardly ever addressed in discussions with writers, perhaps because it's an embarrassingly private matter, and perhaps because it may seem self-evidently obvious.  But it isn't, by any means.

Much literary ambition is expressed as a projected determination to succeed. It is assumed, I think, that the creation of a public persona, through one's poetry, happens naturally. Of the poetry which I admired in my early twenties, it seemed to me that the qualities I most enjoyed, and might emulate were: Rhapsodic thrall, stylistic economic precision, and a perspicacious curiosity in mystery.  

I was also interested--always have been, actually--in books, their feel, their qualities. Some writers pretend not to care much about how their work appears, as if the "container" was somehow irrelevant to the contents. I always knew that I would never be satisfied with someone else's "translation" of "me." Some writers only care about how much esteem they can garner through inclusion into a system of book production, i.e., winning the sweepstakes of acceptance by a major, or recognized, publishing house.  

In 1976, I was sending my work out to magazines, counting my rejection slips. I was confronting the inevitable fact that unless you have connections--people who know you and your work--or are very lucky, your work will seem irrelevant and invisible to anonymous readers. The kind of work that interested me, the kind I wanted to write, wasn't what editors of major periodical venues were looking for.  

During that same period, I was editing a little poetry magazine, titled simply L, and was also publishing, with the help of some grant money, books by other poets. Without perhaps realizing it, I was setting up as a sort of "anti-publishing" entity, along with dozens of other underground writers and publishers. This was a revolutionary period in the "little magazine" amply documented in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips [Granary Books, 1998]. I was isolated from most of the rest of this other activity, but I was aware of it, and was, perhaps involuntarily, becoming associated with its aims and intentions.  

Most of all, I liked books, and dreamed of becoming a part of the phenomenon of authorship. While attending the Writer's Workshop at Iowa in the early 70's, I'd come into contact with Harry Duncan and K.K. Merker at the University printing lab. The fine printing/letterpress tradition was very much alive and well there. I could see how the presentation of a work of literature was determinative of the significance of the work--the two weren't separable. Olson's admonition not to allow your work to simply be meubles, or furniture inside a pre-fab room, led me to the realization that a poet's relation to his/her audience is perhaps the first priority in addressing the enterprise of writing. It needs to be foremost in a writer's mind.  

Who is your audience? How does your work migrate from your desk to someone (the reader's, the listener's) else's attention? How do you "package" yourself? How do you package your work? Is a poem, a book of poems, a commodity, a product to be marketed? What is the difference between grafitti, and a page of typed lines? What is the difference between making a mimeographed pamphlet, and a hardcover book published by Alfred A. Knopf? Is there an "official verse culture" which represents the power center of the cultural empire? 

What I realized, in 1976, was that what you believe about yourself, as a writer, is largely a fantasy, built out of your imagination of what books and literature mean. Writing is an imaginative act; but so is publication, book design, readings, as well as the whole superstructure of teaching, foundations, grants, prizes and rewards. It's all an enormous projection devoted to defining and refining the canons of taste and "value." How any given writer responds to the imaginative challenge of being in this environment may perhaps be the crucial, decisive act of his/her life.  

I published Stanzas For an Evening Out [L Publications, 1977, 203pp] because I had a clear vision of what I wanted myself to be, as a writer. Its limitation as a piece of writing, derived from my own immaturity as a writer; its meaning, as a piece of book design and layout, was my preferred version of what I loved as a consumer of (poetry) books as things. I could not have been happy with an editor's or publisher's version of my work, or myself. If I had been offered the opportunity by a major publisher to publish a book of poems, I would certainly have accepted. In the intervening years, having abandoned the possibility of an active identity as a writer in the "real" world, I came to realize that my frustration as a would-be writer had its roots, first, in the nature of my personality, and, second, in my resistance to being defined by an external agency of the cultural marketplace. 

While at Iowa, I could see how my peers would succeed, through a single-minded determination to adapt themselves to the demands of the literary marketplace. For them, in many instances, accommodating oneself, in one's work, to the expectations and priorities of the prevailing modes and cliches of form and social relationships, was the main task. In this respect, it bore almost a complete resemblance to the careerist model of any other middle-class job-track, securing degrees of competence, competing for honors and rewards, currying favor, leveraging advantage. 

In retrospect, I'm happy that things turned out the way they did. Publishing my own book taught me much more than I would ever have learned by trying to fit myself into the mold of an ambitious young poet meekly shopping around for a willing publisher. My attempt to imagine myself into the role of poet was a more honest approach to the process of learning what it might mean to write deliberately, as Thoreau said, than of passively adapting my work to another definition of writing, in obedience to a false necessity.



Kirby Olson said...

The utilitarian model is how we Americans view ourselves, and anything outside of this mercantilization of oneself tends to not be honored.

The French civilization still stands outside of that.

Even when I watch American children's programming like Dora the Explorer I'm stunned at how utilitarian it is. They teach something, and that's it.

The programs don't have a soul.

In Finland, the children's programming (for instance, the Moomie family) is made by artists, and philosophers, not be educational utilitarian twits.

Philosophers and poets are honored in those countries, and even appear on the money. Sibelius is a national hero.

In this country it is utilitarian twits like Obama and George Washington on the money.

(I rather like Lincoln, and believe that he was one of our few politicians who was actually a poet, with a soul, so I won't say anything against him, or against W., who I think also had a soul, yearning to be free.)

This whole attempt to transform oneself into living money, exchangeable at the highest price, is something that I think even our most important artists rarely escape from. Warhol more or less embodies that framework, and illustrates it, even to the extent of calling his studio his Factory.

Against this trend are the outsiders like Poe and Dickinson.

I think Christianity, true Christianity, also stands against the utilitarian trend.

Marxism is the worst of utilitarianism. It turns everyone and everything into a tool of the all-reaching and omniscient state. Poets suffer more under Marxist regimes than under any other.

Because in Marxism even the personal is political.

I honor your attempt to go outside the norms, and to find a beauty that is peculiar to yourself, a beauty that only you can see. That's what poetry should be, instead of this utilitarian going along to get along, turning oneself into a commodity via a CV, and via some conduit to renown.

You still haven't explained any of your poems. Take one or two of them, and show me what you were after.

Andy Gricevich said...

I didn't know you were doing this, Curtis; I look forward to reading more.


Andy G.

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Curtis Faville said...

The business of persona in Yeats is complex, but I tend to think he kept a clear line between his literary and his "real" self. The construction of a "mask" seems to have been a convenience--not uncommon in Irish Lit--to permit the use of "voices" or dramatic personae with which to express various styles of utterance. It is, though, uncommon, for American poets to want to discuss the separation between their literary personae and their daily lives. Several very carefully constructed identities are reluctant to disturb the illusions they've created. Frost was a good example. Sandburg was another. It can be like money in the bank.

These artificial masks often are perpetuated for careerist purposes, or to maintain false fronts. Post-Modernism wants them stripped away.

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"Post-Modernism wants them stripped away."

I think Yeats' feeling was that there is no possible way to "strip away" at least some form of false persona; i.e. he wasn't just very "into" being false. And, given that you cannot "strip away" the ego completely (which manifests the necessity for the "masking"), Yeats advocates the conscious artificing of a more beautiful mask (or: Wilde and the man at the supermarket both had masks but the former's was made "his own" through conscious fabrication). This seems to me one of the "neuroses" of the post-Pound poetry, attempting to "get rid" of the persona, and the inability to do so. But these are obvious points.

"The business of persona in Yeats is complex, but I tend to think he kept a clear line between his literary and his "real" self. The construction of a "mask" seems to have been a convenience--not uncommon in Irish Lit--to permit the use of "voices" or dramatic personae with which to express various styles of utterance."

Have you read "Per Amica Silentiae Lunae"? I think he kept a clearer line than many of his contemporaries (his "A Coat" poem example). I'm not so sure the mask is specific to Irish literature--the Noh, the Greek, etc., were all models Yeats looked at. It is very complex though--you have to get into his mythology and so on, spinning of wheels, "dreaming back" etc. Much of that (the "anti-self," "daimon") goes back to Shelley's poetry, where a person lives on earth and "under" earth, and the mask resultant is stripped away (Shelley says "unified" I think) only by death.

Curtis Faville said...

"This seems to me one of the "neuroses" of the post-Pound poetry, attempting to "get rid" of the persona, and the inability to do so."


"It is very complex though--you have to get into his mythology...."

Yes. A very intricate matter with Yeats. I'm often astounded at how much he seemed to have agonized (maybe too strong a word) over the pathways to straightforward utterance. Rather like "earning" the right to speak in another's voice (Crazy Jane, etc.). It had to be the "right" voice(s). Huge preoccupation with Irish history and myth.